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October Political Reality Check Watching Joe Biden Play Willy Loman

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Pundits Worry About Conservatism. Again

by Christopher Chantrill
October 02, 2012 at 12:00 am


APART FROM the chorus of people telling Mitt Romney how to run his campaign, this week has spawned a lot of “What is Conservatism” musings.

There is David Brooks mourning the good old days of his youth when conservatism included not just economic but traditional conservatives. There is Jonah Goldberg celebrating our modern voluntary tribalism against the old non-voluntary tribalism and its neo- versions in Communism and fascism. And then there is Mark Lilla in The New York Times Book Review chopping up Charles R. Kesler’s philippic on Obama: I am The Change.

I don’t know where Brooks gets his idea that traditional conservatism had been driven out of the movement. Not when people like Ken Blackwell are parsing the movement into social conservatives, Christian conservatives, Second Amendment conservatives, economic conservatives, philosophical conservatives, and national security conservatives.

As for Lilla, who accuses modern conservatives of hyper-ventilation, there is only one thing to say. Government, Mr. Lilla, is force. So how much government force did you have in mind before you’d agree to start hyperventilating along with us crazies? Forty percent of GDP? Fifty percent? Sixty percent? Compared to 20 percent in 1936 at the height of the New Deal.

If conservatism is concentrating upon economics right now and hyper-ventilating about liberals, maybe that’s because liberals have so completely screwed up the economy, from their mortgage mania to their green energy delusion to their morbidly obese entitlement programs. Oh, and don’t forget their higher-education bubble.

Maybe this really is an emergency, Mr. Lilla. And maybe, Mr. Brooks, the other stuff can wait.

Meanwhile, a few weeks before the election, let’s talk about the real difference between conservatives and liberals.

Let’s take the question of the “on your own.” Liberals insist that unless government manages everyone’s health care, education, and savings, they are left on their own, victims of exploitation and oppression. Says Lilla: the “New Deal did convince Americans that citizens are not road kill and that government can legitimately protect public welfare and basic human dignity.” Road kill? I’d say that nothing makes Americans into road kill more thoroughly than a central bank that doesn’t know its business--as in 1929 and 2008--and a political elite that conjures up wonders like Fannie and Freddie.

In between our hyperventilations, conservatives puzzle that the only liberal solution to oppression and victimization is always another government program. Did I mention that government is force?

Modern conservatism, economic and otherwise, has an alternative to force. It is the responsible self.

Conservatives believe in the “responsible self,” invented in the religions that came out of the Axial Age two millennia ago. Liberals believe in lots of selves, depending on the context. They invented the creative ego to exempt themselves from other peoples’ rules and the victim ego to rile up their political supporters to give liberals the power to make the rules.

Conservatives believe in a philosophy of trust, because responsible selves are trustworthy. Liberals believe in a philosophy of suspicion (h/t: Luc Ferry). They are always looking for the guilty one that’s hammering the victims: the callous employer, the racist, the religious bigot, the robber baron, the greedy banker, the price gouger, the One Percent.

These philosophies work their way down into politics and culture. Conservatives believe in a politics of responsibility and a culture of individualism, because we think you can usually trust responsible individuals in their little platoons to do the right thing. But liberals and their philosophy of suspicion go a different way. They have built a politics of resentment and a culture of compulsion, as in welfare state and political correctness. If you don’t trust people to be responsible, then you have to force them to do the right thing.

It’s lucky we have an educated elite that can be trusted to apply the force of trillions of big government revenue with the precision of a brain surgeon!

There is another way. It is the way of the responsible self, that celebrates mankind’s inherent social instincts. It wants to make the world safe for responsibility and strew it with obstacles to trip up the myrmidons of force.

The philosophy of trust also suggests that those that believe in suspicion may think themselves noble reformers, but they always turn out to be brutes and bullies.

Mark Lilla writes that, since the Supreme Court has ruled that Obamacare is constitutional, the argument is over on health care. Conservatives beg to differ. It’s a mere philosophical point. If we believe that Americans are responsible selves, then we think they ought to have the right to choose their own health care, whatever the Supreme Court says.

Government is force, but conservatives believe that America is better than that.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.

Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050

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

What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican

Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State

Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self

US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008

Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006

Never Trust Experts

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Lord Salisbury, “Letter to Lord Lytton”

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

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”

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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