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Energy and Freedom The Politics of the Social Safety Net

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"Obama Doesn't Really Think This Way"

by Christopher Chantrill
August 01, 2008 at 10:00 pm


THIS LAST week conservatives spent a lot of time in the vomitorium. Everything that Candidate Barack Obama has done has seemed like an invitation to upchuck.

We are talking about the kumbaya speech at the Siegess√§ule in Berlin, the culmination of Barack’s Excellent Adventure, where we learned that Germany and the United States came together in partnership to solve the problem of the Soviet isolation of Berlin 50 years ago.

Don’t worry, writes David Brooks, “Obama doesn’t really think this way.”

When he gets down to specific cases, he can be hard-headed. Last year, he spoke about his affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr, and their shared awareness that history is tragic and ironic and every political choice is tainted in some way.

Sorry, David old chum, but I don’t feel reassured when some liberal quotes Niebuhr. Indeed, the conservative experience of the last seven years is that while liberals talk a good line about irony and political choice when it comes to walking the walk they hate President Bush precisely because he insists on taking the tragic view, and accepting that tough decisions must be made, taint or no taint.

We understand why that should be so. It’s because President Bush’s tough choices and obstinate record of actually fighting global Islamic extremism instead of talking about negotiations is an unwelcome challenge to every twentysomething cultural creative sipping a latte in the metrosexual neighborhood of some fashionable ideopolis.

With Barack Obama it’s more like the Nietzschean notion of Zarathustra coming down the mountain to bring his creative √úbermenschlichkeit to the world.

Even if Sen. Obama is just as hard-headed as Brooks says, there remains the problem of what we might call the Democratic executive-appointee community, the folks in the Obama campaign presently hammering out policy positions who will end up as White House staffers and deputy and assistant secretaries of federal agencies.

Our elite liberal friends are people who have grown up in the assumptions of the liberal elite culture. Liberals are the most educated, most evolved people on the planet, they know. As the most educated, most evolved, most qualified people they understand what the world needs now, and what it needs is people like them who can negotiate with people like them in other countries to resolve our differences.

As for domestic policy, it is evident that Michelle Obama has sat in on enough planning sessions to understand that domestically the Obama presidency will be rather different. “Lexington” reports in the London Economist:

“Barack Obama will require you to work,” she says. “He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation…Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.”

We conservatives understand what this is all about. Our conservative thinkers have written all about it. Writes Danny Kruger, in his book Fraternity:

[Elite liberal politics] is the philosophy of the state. Its ethic is equality and its characteristic is coercion — the power, in the last resort, to exert force over individuals and groups. It says ’you must…’.

Isn’t that exactly what Michelle Obama was trying to communicate to her audience?

A few weeks ago, I brilliantly explained how the apparently incompatible combination of liberal politics of international kumbaya and domestic compulsion can be understood. It is the notion of “The Moral Equivalent of War,” an essay by philosopher William James adapted from a speech he delivered at Stanford University in 1906. Given that we all agree that war is permissible “only when forced upon one,” how will we motivate people for political and civic purposes? His answer is to do it with the moral equivalent of war.

This explains why the first impulse of liberals is to negotiate with thug dictators abroad but to demonize their domestic opponents at home as mean-spirited sexists and racists. When you are waging the moral equivalent of war in domestic politics you need an enemy just as much as when you are the head of the military-industrial complex ginning up the nation for a real shooting war.

Conservatives don’t believe in the moral equivalent of war. That’s because, like Danny Kruger, we believe that all Americans are in this together.

Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ’we should…’.

Minette Marrin says it more succinctly. “Conservatism is compassion and community without compulsion.”

The reason I quote these Brit thinkers all the time is that I think that they are the conservatives doing the serious thinking. You’d expect that. British conservatives have just spent eleven years in the political wilderness, and that helps to concentrate the mind.

It is not clear that Sen. Obama has ever sojourned in the political wilderness.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust

Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity

Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

Drang nach Osten

There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion


“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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