Monday, January 12, 2009
Dan and I had the following debate after I wrote my last editorial in the Claremont Independent. The editorial was on the future of conservatism and the Republican Party. In the spirit of debate, and in the spirit of the upcoming inauguration, we decided to reprint the discussion in full. If you haven’t read it, feel free to check out my original article here. Join us in the comment section!
I don't agree with one of the driving themes of your recent editorial: that what liberals and conservatives aim at are the same ends, just different means.
If you had considered how liberals and conservatives think about their goals, I think you would have been able to stitch together the divided halves of your editorial. You would have been able to show how conservatism can be "inspiring" by drawing from our roots. But instead your comments about the founding amount to an appraisal of some smart institutional designs.
I would have approached the question as the founders did: What is government for? Why does it help make men good? Why is liberty part of goodness? How do we secure liberty?
And the basic answer, as you correctly indicate is that it sets up a limited government to enshrine natural rights. But from there you have to ask whether modern liberalism is also about protecting natural rights. I don't think so. Modern liberalism is primarily about progress, or improving human nature. But the improvement turns out to be making men substantively equal. This is different from
For the most part, progress means alleviating suffering. This means creating new rights and entitlements that happen to restrict the genuine liberties the Founding meant to protect. (And conservatives of course knew that some suffering wasn't necessarily bad. Men are made more virtuous by learning to have to take responsibility for themselves. And on the other hand, indulging the desire to vote yourself benefits from the state helps make men more infantile, dependent, and greedy.)
You could argue that liberals aim to expand the sea of liberty by tearing down every moral law against "victimless" crimes. But this is merely the flip side of the new equality of progress. Here, we are forced to pretend that there is no rational behavior that government can recognize as superior and thus promote. The liberty of the people to govern themselves--to make laws and institutions that educate their fellow citizens in moral decency--is infringed. In the name of liberty, people are compelled to recognize the newly invented rights of recognition for every lifestyle--no matter how empty and destructive they may be.
So while conservatives and liberals both aim for the good life through liberty, what they mean by liberty is radically different. Liberalism grounds it in will, which means it ultimately has no ground. It stands for willed equality, willed recognition, and willed freedom. For conservatives, liberty is grounded in nature.
If conservatism is to ever inspire, it must show itself to aim for morally superior ends. It must show how it is more just. It can't merely say it "works better," whatever that means. And surely it doesn't work better in a lot of areas. That's usually because the divide is principled, not functional.
I disagree. Or at least, only partially. Your problem, Dan, is that not every conservative and liberal think this philosophically about why they believe in what they believe--in fact, most do not. My aim was more political in my editorial. Liberals do believe human nature is "perfectable," and conservatives do believe otherwise--but isn't that just two different "approaches" or "means" to the same end, Justice?
We define justice a little differently, because we do have some differences, as I acknowledged in the article: we do value individualism more (part of the idea of striving for individual excellence), but ultimately as you yourself say, we all want some version of the good life. The fact is, as I was trying to get across, our version of the good life--individualism, striving for excellence--can be squared with equality, social justice, and all the things the liberals want, because our version does encourage equality (of opportunity), racial equality (justice is blind), and social justice (helping people help themselves).
If you stopped thinking in terms of the "clash of ideologies," in which liberalism and conservatism--as understood by most people who subscribe to either camp--are entirely different and incompatible visions for politics and the good life, then perhaps you would see how much common ground there really is and perhaps more people would in fact be persuaded to join us.
What is more, you know that the people will never respect and recognize the philosopher-king even when they see him: that is why they are ultimately more inspired by Obama's kind of rhetoric, and the kinds of arguments I was making in my editorial. If you expect your kinds of arguments, which I believe are mostly correct, to inspire the minds of men, then I think you might be expecting too much of your fellow man.
I would be quick to say that my fancy discussion is not how you'd appeal to people. But on some level you would have to address the substantive disagreements between liberals and conservatives, between those who believe in the administrative/welfare state and those who believe in self-government. This means showing how the liberal vision diminishes our freedom, our moral character, and our humanity.
In other words, how you define "justice" and "the good life" matters quite a bit. And no, conservatives need not get all theoretical, but they should not be afraid of trying to persuade the people with arguments. We should treat them as if they are worthy of self-government!
I agree that in several areas you are right. Our policies are more effective at expanding the general welfare. (This is in part because we don't have any grand hopes that the state can do away with our deficiencies as we progress into the future. Our policies recognize human nature as it is). We would be smart to make good on this point and show how we accomplish liberal goals better than liberals can.
But we'll never be able to show how we soak the rich the way liberals want. The vast majority of people may be way healthier under our healthcare policies, but at the end of the day health under us will never be as egalitarian as liberals want.
I think this is because liberals have a serious argument about equality--though ultimately I think this boils down to providing equality of comfort and ease. Conservatives should not adopt that standard, because we'll never be able to outbid Democrats. Instead, to inspire, we'll have to promise something more meaningful. That's why we have to make the case that liberty itself is good.
So does this capture the debate between CRB conservatives and Weekly Standard conservatives?