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Up From Conservatism

Up From Conservatism

By Robert James Bidinotto

March 2007 --“There is no commonly-acknowledged conservative position today, and any claim to the contrary is easy to make sport of.”   —William F. Buckley, Jr.

The preceding confession is noteworthy because its author has been a seminal spokesman for American conservatism. But more significant is the fact that by “today” he did not mean a day in 2007. No, William F. Buckley was referring to the day in May 1959 when he penned those words for the “Introduction” to his conservative manifesto, Up from Liberalism.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Indeed, nothing of philosophic substance has changed for the American right since the late Eisenhower years, when Buckley first acknowledged that conservatism was “disordered and confused.” That state of intellectual chaos persists to this day.

The seeds of this chaos can be found in the evolution of modern conservatism. In the aftermath of the New Deal and World War II, conservatism arose as an anti-statist intellectual movement incorporating two elements: anticommunism and opposition to the burgeoning welfare state. That intellectual movement transformed itself into a political coalition with the 1964 presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. It achieved its political ascendancy with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Why should this factional warfare on the political right matter to any of us?

But as an anti-statist coalition, conservatism always defined itself in negative terms—and remained united in terms of what it opposed. Members of that coalition did not share a single, overarching, philosophical frame of reference or agenda. There were a number of competing intellectual forces within that coalition, and as long as they confronted common enemies, they could remain in an uneasy alliance.

However, with the 1989 collapse of communism and the 1994 Democratic electoral debacle, conservatives found themselves in the political driver’s seat—and suddenly in need of a positive agenda on economic and cultural issues. But which competing set of views and values within the coalition would define that agenda?

Ironically, then, at the conservatives’ very moment of political triumph, the unstable fault lines beneath its “big tent” began to crack apart. By 1996, U. S. News & World Report would note that the primary race within the GOP had become “a slugfest over the ideas and identity of the Republican Party,” a battle that “exposed a network of fissures and fault lines that is dividing the party and encouraging Democratic hopes of retaining the White House in November.” A prescient analysis in New York magazine even predicted “The Coming Republican Crack-up.”

And so it came to pass. Today, the American right no longer consists of just “conservatives.” There are “social conservatives,” “traditional conservatives,” “economic conservatives,” “religious conservatives,” “neoconservatives,” “paleoconservatives,” “compassionate conservatives,” and, more recently, “South Park conservatives,” “crunchy conservatives” (see the book review in this issue), even “big-government conservatives”—all battling each other for the “conservative” mantle. And in the wake of the 2006 Republican election defeat, the intramural bloodletting has only gotten more ferocious.

Why should this factional warfare on the political right matter to any of us?

It matters because these battles are being waged among those who proclaim themselves to be the champions of America’s moral, intellectual, cultural, and political legacy. The combatants all declare themselves to be the keepers of the American flame, its guardians against the anti-American ideologues who seek to snuff it out. The outcome of their conflicts will either uphold or undermine the very meaning of that legacy.

It matters critically if America’s moral heritage is seen as standing for the primacy of the individual—or the supremacy of society over the individual. It matters critically if America’s intellectual heritage is interpreted as being rooted in reason—or in religious faith. It matters critically if America’s cultural heritage is regarded as the product of individual creativity—or of social tradition. It matters critically if America’s political heritage is viewed as founded upon the principles of individual rights and limited government—or upon pragmatic expediency and unconstrained statism.

These issues are of no concern to the postmodern relativists of the left, who are doing their utmost to obliterate what remains of the American Enlightenment legacy. Today, only on the political right are these matters seriously addressed and debated. Therefore, who wins these arguments will decisively shape our future as a nation and culture.

So who are today’s conservatives, and what do they believe?

“Principled Unprincipledness”

On his first page in Up from Liberalism, Buckley (pictured below right) warned of the danger that “comes when a distrust of doctrinaire social systems eases over into a dissolute disregard for principle.” Well, then, what principle do all the various conservative factions share? What single idea would distinguish them, as a group, from non-conservatives?

It is an enduring indictment of the movement that nearly a half-century since Buckley acknowledged conservatism’s intellectual drift, no one has yet provided a clear answer. Those on the right who have tried to get a grip on the defining principle of conservatism have approached the subject warily, only to retreat empty-handed.

 “So what is a conservative?” asked Jonah Goldberg, an editor at National Review Online (NRO), in his May 11, 2005 column. “I’ve been wrestling with this for a long  time and I don’t pretend to have a perfect or definitive answer. . . From the beginning, American conservatives have been trying to answer this question definitively to almost no one’s satisfaction.”

Who are today’s conservatives, and what do they believe?

One would think that the godfather of modern conservatism himself might shed some light here. John Dean, former White House counsel during the Nixon years, recalls a segment with Buckley on Chris Matthews’s Hardball television show. According to Dean, Matthews asked for a definition, and Mr. Conservative uncharacteristically stammered, “The, the, it’s very hard to define, define conservatism.” Buckley then retreated to his more characteristic linguistic impenetrability, quoting a University of Chicago professor: “Conservatism is a paradigm of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.”

Yes. Of course. That helps.

A survey of conservative literature does not offer illumination, either. In fact, conservative thinkers are much more forthcoming about what their “ism” is not than what it is. This is no accident, for many of them seem to take pride in their hostility to coherent, systematic philosophical thinking.

Writing in The Conservative Tradition (1950), scholar R.J. White described conservatism as “less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living.” Similarly, conservative organizer Paul Weyrich, in an August 15, 2005 column, echoes the anti-ideological rhetoric of Buckley, White, and others:

    If there is one clear lesson from the 20th century, it is that all ideologies are dangerous. As Russell Kirk wrote, conservatism is not an ideology, it is the negation of ideology. Conservatism values what has grown up over time, over many generations, in the form of traditions, customs and habits. Ideology, in contrast, says that on the basis of such-and-such a philosophy, certain things must be true. When reality contradicts that deduction, reality must be suppressed.

Leaving aside the falsehood that systematic philosophy must necessarily try to impose itself on reality—a claim that would have raised the hackles of Aristotle and all those in his system-building tradition—Weyrich nails it when he describes conservatism as “the negation of ideology.” Humanities professor Wilfred M. McClay, writing in January 2007 on Commentary magazine’s website, affirms that…

    …conservatism in American politics is less an ideology than a coalition. It has many different flavors and strands, and there is no sense in pretending that they do not occasionally conflict with one another, or tug at the fabric of the whole. As in any coalition, not all of the pieces fit together coherently.


    This is always frustrating to those who want their ideology neat and pure. But show me a political movement that has a clear, crisp, unambiguous, and systematic philosophy and I will show you a movement that will lose, and will deserve to lose.

 McClay goes on to cite the views of another conservative, prominent blogger and author Andrew Sullivan:

    “The defining characteristic of the conservative,” Sullivan asserts [in The Conservative Soul], “is that he knows what he doesn’t know.” This stance of systematic modesty, or principled unprincipledness, undergirds the way Sullivan himself, an avowed if unorthodox Catholic, proposes to understand politics, culture, society, and religion itself.

“The negation of ideology.” “Principled unprincipledness.” Surely, no one can seriously accuse contemporary conservative leaders of valuing philosophic consistency and integration; what is astonishing, however, is how many of them tout their quest for intellectual incoherence as a virtue.

Conservatism may be incoherent, but it is not entirely vacuous. The stew that is today’s conservatism does contain a number of ingredients: a lumpy, indigestible assortment of premises, attitudes, and values meant to satisfy the diverse tastes of those who bear the movement’s label. Among these ingredients: traditionalism, irrationalism, pragmatism, altruism, tribalism, and—clashing with all the rest—individualism.

The factionalism on the right can be understood by the differing emphases that various conservatives place on these elements.

Traditionalism

For “cultural,” “social,” “paleo-,” and “religious” conservatives, preserving “traditional values” lies at the heart of their concerns and interests. Traditionalists lean heavily on the presumed “authority” of what was said and done by others in the past.

Conservatism may be incoherent, but it is not entirely vacuous.

In his influential little book The American Cause, traditionalist conservative author Russell Kirk stressed the “Christian principles which sustain American society,” behind which “is a great weight of authority and tradition and practice.” According to the online Wikipedia, the late paleoconservative writer Samuel Francis “defined authentic conservatism as ‘the survival and enhancement of a particular people and its institutionalized cultural expressions.’ Roger Scruton calls it ‘maintenance of the social ecology’ and ‘the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.’”

For such traditionalist conservatives, this means yearning nostalgically for past ways of doing things. Paul Weyrich writes:

    I know America has always been a future-focused country. But that may be changing. . . . Even fifteen years ago, most people said the past was better than the present and the future would be worse than the present. I think millions of Americans might rally to a call to return to the ways we used to live, in many (obviously not all) aspects of our lives…. I really think that a next conservatism that included a movement to recover our old ways of thinking and living could win the culture war, which so far we have lost. . . . Bill Lind [director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation] calls it Retroculture. What it means is that, in our own lives and the lives of our families, and eventually our communities, we would deliberately revive old ways of doing things.

But why is “old” synonymous with “good”? A withering assessment of traditionalist conservatism came from philosopher Ayn Rand in her famous essay “Conservatism: An Obituary”:

    It is certainly irrational to use the “new” as a standard of value. . . .But it is much more preposterously irrational to use the “old” as a standard of value, to claim that an idea or a policy is good merely because it is ancient. . . . The argument that we must respect “tradition” as such, respect it merely because it is a “tradition,” means that we must accept the values other men have chosen, merely because other men have chosen them—with the necessary implication of: who are we to change them? The affront to a man’s self-esteem, in such an argument, and the profound contempt for man’s nature are obvious.

Cultural conservatives reply that their own traditions are grounded in “timeless values” and “permanent truths.” In fact, though, their hand-me-down values, attitudes, and practices are actually rooted (if that’s the word) in cultural relativism.

Whose “old ways of thinking” are to be chosen as true and valuable? By what standard is “a particular people and its institutionalized cultural expressions” to be considered superior to all others? To simply assert, without reason, the superiority of one’s own cultural traditions to those of any other society is the height of arbitrariness. Yet that cultural relativism lies at the heart of the traditionalist outlook.

In his book Right from the Beginning, well-known conservative spokesman Patrick Buchanan provides a perfect example of his own cultural relativism. Note in the following his employment of the words “our” and “ours”:

    Traditionalists and conservatives have as much right as secularists to see our values written into law, to have our beliefs serve as the basis for federal legislation. . . .[We must not stop fighting] until we have re-created a government and an America that conforms, as close as possible, to our image of the Good Society, if you will, a Godly country. . . .Someone’s values are going to prevail. Why not ours? Whose country is it, anyway?

This is not a rational voice demonstrating the validity of “permanent truths.” It is a thuggish voice whose only argument for his views is “Sez me!”—and whose only defense of his values is “…because they’re mine.

None Dare Call It Reason

The gleeful rejection by many conservatives of integrated, coherent philosophical thinking has been noted and quoted. But that is only one symptom of their broader contempt for reason as such, for the products of human creativity, and for those eras in human history—such as the Enlightenment—when reason flourished.

For diehard religious traditionalists, the basic institutions of a free society have their basis and justification not in reason and reality, but in faith and the supernatural. The religious conservative worldview was given voice by Russell Kirk (pictured at right) in The American Cause.

“Civilization grows out of religion,” Kirk declared. “The ideas of freedom, private rights, charity, love, duty, and honesty, for instance, are all beliefs religious in origin [emphasis added]. These ideals also are discussed and advanced by philosophers, of course,” Kirk concedes, “but the original impulse behind them is religious.”

In other words, there is little reason to be honest, or to love, or to require personal liberty; the ultimate rationale for such things can only be otherworldly.

Whose “old ways of thinking” are to be chosen as true and valuable?

Among the specific ideas supposedly at the foundation of American freedom—ideas that we must accept on faith, according to Kirk—are “original sin”; the view that “the world is a place of moral suffering, a place of trial”; that “perfect happiness never can be attained upon this earth, in time and space as we know them, or in our perishing physical bodies,” for “this little worldly existence of ours … is not our be-all and end-all.”

Given this lowly view of human nature, it of course follows that there could be no natural source for a conception of human dignity and worth: “The dignity of man,” says Kirk, “exists only through our relationship with God,” and from that relationship only “there has grown up a recognition of what are called ‘natural rights.’”

In short, without religious faith—specifically, Christianity, and more narrowly still, a dour, Calvinist brand of it—there would be absolutely no good reason for men to value themselves, to respect each other’s rights, or to desire liberty.

Is there any rational alternative to this malignant view of man and his potential? Conflating faith and reason, neoconservative intellectual Irving Kristol dismissed “faith in the ability of reason to solve all of our moral problems, including our human need for moral guidance.” Reason, he declared in a 1992 essay, “is a faith that has failed”:

    Secular rationalism has been unable to produce a compelling, self-justifying moral code. Philosophy can analyze moral codes in interesting ways, but it cannot create them. And with this failure, the whole enterprise of secular humanism—the idea that man can define his humanity and shape the human future by reason and will alone—begins to lose its legitimacy.

The logical implication is clear. Our American way of life—its freedoms, its values, its opportunities, its achievements—cannot be rationally justified. There is no reason that these values can be labeled “good” or “right,” no rational method by which they can be validated as superior to the slavery, butchery, and destruction that occurs elsewhere in the world. Reason can’t sort out the good from the bad in any of this; we must simply resign ourselves to accepting these things on blind faith.

Pragmatism

Neoconservatives are pragmatists who dismiss moral principle—on principle

Because their source of morality is otherworldly, and because they therefore do not believe that morality can be consistently practiced in this world, many conservatives have thrown in the towel, embracing inconsistency and compromise as “necessary evils.” Pragmatists are the conservatives who preach “the negation of ideology” and “principled unprincipledness.”

Neoconservatives, particularly, are pragmatists who dismiss moral principle—on principle. In a cynical Wall Street Journal essay (“When It’s Wrong to Be Right,” March 24, 1993), neocon guru Irving Kristol (pictured below) presented to fellow conservatives what he called his first law of politics: that “there are moments when it is wrong to do the right thing.” He explained: “There are occasions where circumstances trump principles. Statesmanship consists not in being loyal to one’s avowed principles (that’s easy), but in recognizing the occasions when one’s principles are being trumped by circumstances. . . .”

Of course, there’s a problem with this claim. By what principle could Kristol determine when to abandon his principles? In reality, there is no such principle. The governing consideration of when to exercise expediency would be … expediency.

And, indeed, pragmatic expediency has governed most choices made by the Bush administration—no surprise, since it has been heavily influenced by neoconservatives. President George W. Bush often pays lip service to “principles” in the abstract, but rarely specifies exactly what those principles are. They certainly have not been the principles of individual rights, limited government, and free-market capitalism. On the day of President Bush’s State of the Union address, author David Frum—a conservative more sympathetic to those principles, observed:

    The most important thing to understand about George W. Bush’s domestic policy is that he is not and never has been an economic individualist in the Reagan/Thatcher model. He cut taxes yes, but for essentially political coalition-building reasons. Beyond that, his instincts have always been statist and centralizing. That’s why he emphasized standards rather than choice in his education proposals—and why subsidy, not markets, has always been central to his hopes for new energy sourcing. . . .


    The day will come, and probably soon, when American liberals and the American left will wake up to the fact that . . . on domestic issues Bush was “one of us.” Much as they disliked Bush’s foreign policies, cultural style, and political methods, he actually had more in common with them on domestic issues than he did with his own political base. It will someday be very hard to explain why liberals so hated Bush.

Today, pragmatists like President Bush are the most prevalent group among Republican officeholders. The reason is simple: The other feuding conservative factions tend to cancel each other out, forcing the GOP to resign itself to candidates preaching compromise and consensus.

But pragmatists have no ideas or agenda of their own: the other philosophical camps provide the ideas and pressures to which pragmatists respond. Like dry sponges, they soak up whatever notions flow forth from their more ideological competitors. It’s the latter who define the debates and thus shape the future.

Altruism

One of the most toxic influences in our political life is the moral view that equates “virtue” with “self-sacrifice.” No other single factor has been as responsible for eroding America’s individualist heritage and capitalist system than the view that self-sacrifice to others constitutes our highest moral duty and virtue. Yet, it is a “virtue” that conservatives have never rejected.

 “It is useless to argue, as some libertarians do, that we do not need redistribution at all,” wrote conservative former senator Jack Kemp in his 1979 book, An American Renaissance. “The people, as a people, rightly insist that the whole look after the weakest of its parts.” “Democracy works only so long as a sufficient proportion of the people are willing to place the common good above self-interest,” said Paul Weyrich in 1990. Among the “major weaknesses in a market economy,” declared Irving Kristol in 1992, “the first is the self-interested nature of commercial activity.”

The potency of the toxin of self-sacrifice was demonstrated clearly and dramatically in the mid-1990s during the budget battle to enact the Republican “Contract with America.” President Bill Clinton successfully exploited charges of “selfishness” against congressional Republicans in order to neutralize support for their economic and political reforms. By the time the fight was over, conservative Republicans were retreating in full gallop from the principles of individual liberty and limited government.

“The budget battle,” said conservative strategist and writer William Kristol, “played into the two great Republican vulnerabilities: that we are the party of the rich and meanspirited.” Vulnerabilities? Only because the Republicans have never dared to fully embrace individualism. They never have argued, unequivocally, that individuals have the moral right to exist for their own sakes—and that this is the moral reason to limit government and slash the spending that plunders some individuals to benefit others.

What followed the failure of the “Republican Revolution”—and what has continued ever since—is a desperate competition among conservatives to demonstrate that they have just as much “compassion” as do liberal Democrats.

And how do they demonstrate that “compassion”?

By using the coercive power of government to seize the earnings of some people and to transfer it to others who did not earn it but who claim to “need” it.

Religious conservative Marvin Olasky (pictured at left), author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, became “the godfather of compassionate conservatism.”  In July 2000, he  told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation: “More people are understanding that the problem with the welfare state is not its cost but its stinginess in providing help that is patient; help that is kind; help that protects, trusts, and perseveres; help that goes beyond good intentions into gritty, street-level reality.”

In reality, the problem with the welfare state is neither its cost nor its “stinginess,” but its underlying ethical premise: that the needs of some constitute valid moral claims upon the earnings and property of others.  

Olasky became an advisor to George W. Bush, who adopted the “compassionate conservative” cause as his own during his 2000 campaign for the White House. “It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need,” President Bush later declared. “It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results.”

 “The President rejects the old argument of ‘big government’ vs. ‘indifferent government,’” explains a White House Web page on “compassionate conservatism.” “We do not believe in a sink-or-swim society [emphasis in original]. The policies of our government must heed the universal call of all faiths to love our neighbors as we would want to be loved ourselves. We are using an active government to promote self-government.”

Translated, “indifferent government” actually means constitutionally limited government. A “sink-or-swim society” means a society based on self-responsibility. And the call for an “active government” to help us “love our neighbors” means governmental redistribution of the wealth. What the White House statement means, then, is this: “We are abandoning America’s founding principles of limited government and individual self-responsibility and instead adopting a policy of legalized plunder.”

And so they have.

Tribalism

The continuing controversy over immigration underscores yet another ugly premise within cultural conservative circles: tribalism.

Tribalists draw their personal identities from group affiliations. They believe that there are inherent conflicts of interests among men that pit their group against all others in a battle for social supremacy. This prompts them to see themselves as victims of powerful elites, group favoritism, and dark conspiracies—a paranoid view that fuels envy and hostility.

The two dominant tribalist factions within the conservative movement are nationalists and populists.

Nationalists focus on national, racial, and cultural conflicts of interest, seeing themselves as in a “culture war” to preserve our “national identity” from foreigners and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Thus, they oppose foreign trade, treaties, immigration, and racial/ethnic integration.

Populists define themselves not by nation or race, but by economic class. They believe that there is a fixed national economic “pie” to be divided, and so any gains by others must come at their expense. This prompts them to see themselves as “little guys” exploited by a privileged elite of bureaucrats, businessmen, and bankers.

Prominent tribalists within the conservative movement include writers associated with the magazine Chronicles, political figure Patrick Buchanan (pictured above, right), and radio talk show host Michael Savage.

Samuel Francis, the late firebrand writer for Chronicles, once wrote that “the concept of ‘America First’ implies a nationalist ethic that transcends the preferences and interest of the individual or the interest group and may often require government action.” For his part, Buchanan has spent much of the past decade pressing both nationalist and populist hot buttons, bashing immigrants, foreign trade, and international institutions. Meanwhile, Savage—the third-highest-rated radio talk show host in the nation, and a bestselling author—delivers nightly tirades “to take back our borders, our language, and our traditional culture from the liberal left corroding our great nation.”

Such are the major intellectual forces within the conservative movement that are working to undermine the commitment to our nation’s founding premises: reason, individualism, capitalism, and limited government.

Fortunately, they are not the only intellectual forces at work.

Individualism

Individualists constitute the most intellectual and principled elements on the right, upholding Enlightenment premises about man, his rights, his relationship to his fellow man and to the state. Though fewer in number, they wield disproportionate and growing influence, mainly via independent public-policy journals and think tanks.

Principled individualists must publicly challenge and repudiate the rising tribalism and irrationalism on the right.

Among individualist subgroups today are economic conservatives and political libertarians, as well as rational individualists. To the debates on the political right, they bring, respectively, market-based economic proposals, initiatives to limit government power, and a cohesive moral-philosophical vision.

Individualists differ over how to advance their shared ends and in their consistency. Indeed, some economic conservatives and libertarians uphold individualism only tacitly and harbor mixed premises—including some of the premises dissected above. Confused or even crippled morally and philosophically, they’ve only fought delaying actions for decades, slowing the growth of government regulation, spending, and taxation, but failing to reverse the trend.

Without more explicit philosophical moorings and guidance, it’s too much to expect economic conservatives and libertarians always to grasp—let alone publicly resist and repudiate—the many arguments and policies premised on altruism, pragmatism, tradition, and religion.

But that brings us to the final, and potentially most significant, subgroup on the right: rational individualists.

In her famous novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and in powerful nonfiction works such as Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand forged a systematic philosophy of reason and freedom.

Rand was a philosopher, a novelist, and a passionate individualist. Her stories are compelling hymns in praise of “the men of unborrowed vision” who live by the judgment of their own minds—people willing to stand alone against tradition, popular opinion, even the frightful power of the state. Meanwhile, her challenging new philosophy, Objectivism, upholds the power of reason and rejects the tribalist ethics of self-sacrifice.

Objectivism celebrates the power of man’s mind. It defends reason and science against every form of irrationalism. It provides an intellectual foundation for objective standards of truth and value. It upholds the use of reason to transform nature and create wealth. It honors the businessman and the banker, no less than the philosopher and artist, as creators and as benefactors of mankind.

Ayn Rand urged men to hold themselves and their lives as their highest values, and to live by the code of the free individual. She taught that we bring meaning to the world through the exercise of self-reliance, integrity, rationality, productive effort.

Politically, Rand was a great champion of individual rights, which is the concept that protects the sovereignty of the individual as an end in himself; of limited, constitutional government, which is the institution that guarantees those rights; and of capitalism, which is the social system that allows people to exercise those rights. Rand’s vision was of a society where people live together peaceably, by voluntary trade, as independent equals.

Millions of readers have been inspired by the vision of life in Ayn Rand's novels. Scholars are exploring the trails she blazed in philosophy and other fields. Her principled defense of capitalism has drawn new adherents to the cause of economic and political liberty.

Her ideas can now serve as the basis for a new intellectual force: a movement of rational individualists.

However, Rand observed that it’s still too early to expect consistently individualist candidates to win public office: the moral and philosophical groundwork has yet to be laid. But this suggests where individualists can best make their impact felt.

Completing the Revolution

First, principled individualists must publicly challenge and repudiate the rising tribalism and irrationalism on the right.

America is a big place of many competing forces and factions. There’s no immediate danger that America will fall prey to right-wing theocrats or nationalist mobs. The real danger is that the ideas of anti-individualist factions within the conservative movement will be picked up and “mainstreamed” by Republican Party pragmatists. That is exactly what happened during the Bush administration, and the results have been catastrophic for liberty.

Those factions and their ugly ideas must be fought by tearing away their deceptive “pro-American” packaging.

We must boldly champion a limited-government reform agenda—on the moral grounds of an individual’s right to exist for his own sake.

Unique among nations, America was constituted to advance not tribal interests but individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In that sense, nationalism and populism are fundamentally un-American. They are ideologically alien to America’s Enlightenment heritage of reason, individual rights, and capitalism.

Second, principled individualists must begin to defend capitalism on moral grounds.

Because of the cultural pervasiveness of the “self-sacrifice” ethic, capitalism has seldom had champions, only nervous apologists. But now there is undeniable empirical evidence of the intellectual bankruptcy pervading the conservative movement. As if the 1996 collapse of the “Republican Revolution” weren’t enough, the disastrous legacy of the Bush administration provides damning proof that no free-market economic or political reforms can take root in cultural soils poisoned by tradition-worship, irrationalism, altruism, tribalism, and pragmatism. A decade filled with glaring examples demonstrates the futility of an aphilosophical approach to political and social reform.

As we’ve seen, some conservative thinkers have long understood that their fundamental philosophical ideas are incompatible with capitalism and freedom. Some have even explicitly renounced their commitment to America’s founding ideals, forsaking any further pretense of defending capitalism or limiting government.

Those of us who have not abandoned this cause—those of us who are fully committed to the promise of America—must man the ramparts from which the traditionalists and pragmatists have retreated.

We must replace their tribal code of self-sacrifice with an inspiring new moral vision of principled self-interest, an ethics that will resonate within the American soul and reflect our nation’s highest rational traditions.

We must boldly champion a limited-government reform agenda—on the moral grounds of an individual’s right to exist for his own sake.

We must proudly uphold the social-economic system of laissez-faire capitalism: the system that has allowed hundreds of millions to realize their individual potential, while creating the greatest civilization in the history of the world.

We must remember that ours is not a battle against self-sacrifice, tradition, or tribalism; it’s a crusade for individualism. That battle can’t begin within the Republican Party, nor be led by political candidates dependent upon public favor. It is an intellectual battle, and it must start in the intellectual arena: in the journals, think tanks, and talk shows of the right.

We must understand that our path to political and cultural influence will be indirect, at first. It will lie not in politicking, but in the broader realm of ideas.

For well over two centuries, America has been home to the only social system in history fully compatible with human life on earth. Yet, from its beginnings, that system has been maligned by its sworn enemies and betrayed by its supposed friends.

Irving Kristol was right about one thing. The secular humanism of the Enlightenment era never did produce a compelling moral code. This failure stemmed from the inability of the thinkers of that era to fully repudiate the tribal morality of self-sacrifice, and to replace it with a new, individualist alternative.

Now it is time for us to complete the work begun with the American political revolution by launching the American moral revolution—for the legacy that America’s Founding Fathers bequeathed to us for safekeeping is a legacy that we truly must conserve.


 This article was the winner of the 2007 Folio gold award for editorial excellence.

 

 

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