It’s become fashionable in certain center-right circles to argue that small-government conservatism has gained too much power. Tea Party economics, the grievance goes, would seismically shift our social contract and cast everyone onto the choppy waves of the free market. It is, therefore, little better than radicalism.
David Frum usually leads this argument and, judging by his writings, you’d think he was practically alone, heroically steering his starship through a Delta Quadrant teeming with Tea Party marauders. If Frum is the captain, then New York Times columnist David Brooks is his number one. Brooks wrote a piece back in 2007 arguing that it was time for the Republican Party to jettison its limited government wing. Liberty arguments, Brooks declared, weren’t germane to the challenges faced by modern America.
Then the economy crashed, the stimulus failed, the national debt skyrocketed, the government helped pump up a student loan bubble, and the technocratic calculations made in Obamacare started to unravel. And yet Brooks is back with another column contending that economic conservatives have too much influence.
His thesis is that the fusion of traditional conservatism and libertarianism has lost its stick, with economic conservatives seizing all the power. He’s right to an extent. The right’s small-government strain is ascendant right now, expressed most lucidly by the Tea Party. But there’s a very good reason for that. Today’s political challenges are primarily fiscal in nature and the federal government is the biggest offender.
Russell Kirk rightly identified conservatism as a state of mind rather than an ideology or set of principles. But conservatism must also respond to the challenges of its day. Our most critical test is the skyrocketing national debt bloated by entitlement costs and a refusal to cut government spending. Conservatism must offer solutions and the Tea Party has.
Brooks cites Kirk in his piece (or, more specifically, cites Rod Dreher who cites Kirk) and outlines his version of traditional conservatism:
Because they were conservative, [traditionalists] tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.
He then contrasts this with modern conservatism in which “shrinking government” is “the organizing conservative principle.” “They have taken control,” he writes ominously.
Have they? Is Frank Meyer’s fusion of traditionalism and libertarianism really coming unglued?
Let’s take a look at the vanguard of today’s shrink-the-state movement: the Tea Party. While condensing government is the theme at any Tea Party rally, its members are social conservatives as well. Brooks pines for a conservatism in which individuals need “social custom and…God.” But research shows that Tea Partiers are more united by their common Christian conservatism than almost any other factor.
Like any movement, the Tea Party has its sharp edges and conspiracy theories. Its leaders occasionally quote the radical Thomas Paine. But the group has very little in common with the anarchic Jacobinism that characterizes many revolutions. Instead it’s closer to the Spirit of ’76, that rare energy that demands established liberty rather than upheaval. Tea Partiers aren’t trying to overthrow America’s government or desecrate its monuments. They’re driven by a deep respect for tradition which they believe is being trampled by an activist government. That was the foundation for the American Revolution, supported by Edmund Burke, the father of traditional conservatism.
Today’s economic conservatives don’t want to overthrow order, but devolve it back to local governments and voluntary institutions. Despite some objectivist hat-tipping, they’re much more Friedrich Hayek than Ayn Rand; more Calvin Coolidge than Gary Johnson.
Brooks’ mistake, I think, is to confuse economic conservatism with a type of pure-market libertarianism unmoored from any tradition or order. It’s a distinction recognized by none other than Russell Kirk in his lecture A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians:
[A] number of the men and women who accept the label “libertarian!’ are not actually ideological libertarians at all, but simply conservatives under another name. These are people who perceive in the growth of the monolithic state, especially during the past half century, a grim menace to ordered liberty; and of course they are quite right.
That describes today’s economic conservatives. The old bonds of fusionism have held pretty well after all.
There is, of course, some jostling within the conservative movement today. But it’s not between economic and social conservatives. Brooks inadvertently reveals this in a telling paragraph:
Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism. But that effort was doomed because in the ensuing years, conservatism changed. [Emphasis added.]
Bush’s neoconservatism made no attempt to recreate fusionism; instead it changed it. Suddenly conservatism was the ideology of a grand, impatient project in which evil was to be ended and democracy was to be grown in the Middle East like a plant viewed through time-lapse photography. Meanwhile spending increased, the government grew, and ordered liberty was disrupted as the federal government consolidated power over education, health care, surveillance, and much more. Economic conservatism was elbowed to the side as Republicans learned to stop worrying and love the feds.
This is the incompatible strain in conservative thought. It took control during the Bush years, relegating economic and traditional conservatism to window dressing. Its roots are not in Burke or Kirk, but in Leo Strauss and other anti-historical philosophers. Irving Kristol wrote that its mission was to forcibly convert traditional conservatism.
Neoconservatism… compassionate conservatism… whatever we’re calling it… was largely discredited when it failed to predict the post-liberation hardships in Iraq and the unintended consequences of its own social engineering. But now many neoconservatives — Brooks and Frum among them — have crawled back and are trying to crowbar off the economic wing of the movement. And they’re citing Burke and Kirk as they do it.
Ordered liberty is maintained through voluntary organizations like churches and community centers, as well as through a structured hierarchy of government power. Defending that against usurpation by the feds is as classically and traditionally conservative as it gets.
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