Friday, August 15, 2003

A Persuasion, not a Movement

Once having written an obituary to his own enterprise in which he declared no difference between a neoconservative and a plain conservative, Irving Kristol now takes it back by arguing that neoconservatism is enjoying a kind of second life. Actually, he argues that neoconservatism is not so much a "movement" as what the historian, Marvin Meyers, might call a "persuasion". It is an intellectual undercurrent that surfaces intermittently and manifests itself over time. Now is one of those times in which it is making itself felt.

Kristol is at his best discussing demogoguery and tax-cuts. Having no counterpart on the European right, neoconservatism is hopeful, forward-looking, and generally cheerful. Therefore, it prefers Ronald Reagan to Barry Goldwater. A centerpiece of neoconservatism is cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth, ameliorating the classic tension between the "haves" and "have-nots" and giving modern democracies legitimacy and durability. The risk-taking of budget deficits in the hope of stimulating widespread growth is preferable to excessive tension between rich and poor and the rise of demagogues, to which democracy is especially prone.

Demagoguery is not feared enough in a democracy, and Kristol is correct to draw our attention to it and search for ways to mitigate it. Too few pundits, themselves dependent on the people or an audience, are sensitive to its dangers. The very principle on which democracy rests, popular consent, is the most likely candidate to be the cause of the regime's ultimate undoing, and Kristol's excellence is on display when he leads with this problem. Although Kristol seems to be referring to the Left's attempts to foment class warfare (see any of Paul Krugman's pieces), other conservatives such as traditional conservatives and market-worshiping libertarians are not always as sensitive to demagoguery as they should be.

Neoconservatives are willing to put up with a stronger state than traditional conservatives are, but they are as concerned as traditional conservatives are with cultural decay. This distinguishes them from libertarians. Neoconservatives also respect religion; and the absence of neoconservatism in Europe has something to do with religion's feebleness in Europe.

In foreign affairs, neoconservatives favor healthy patriotism and are suspicious of ideas of world government and international institutions. Kristol mentions that neoconservatives always feel obliged to help liberal democracies when they are attacked by illiberal regimes, but doesn't delve too deeply into why that is the case. It may be that there is something distinctly American about that, as Francis Fukuyama argues, rather than simply neoconservative. To put it another way, it may be that neoconservatism has tapped into the American ethos more directly than other forms of conservatism.

Finally, the military buildup necessitated by the Cold War and other wars this century caused America's defense spending to dwarf that of other nations; "and it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you." cover

One might have wished for more on all of these topics from the "godfather" of the persuasion, but one can always return to his books for that. It is up to others now to continue the internecine battles with more traditional or European conservatives and libertarians. Indeed it will be interesting to see not only how more Kirkian conservatives respond to this piece, but how more Hayekian or libertarian conservatives respond, for they seem to be a little more robust these days. This piece shows why neoconservatism is simply American conservatism now which is precisely what Kristol argued when he originally declared the movement over.

America is, of course, the liberal regime par excellence, and neoconservatism has manged to reconcile some of the prudence of conservatism (perhaps not enough for traditional- or paleo-cons and too much for libertarians) to liberalism without undermining the regime. That's no small feat.


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