“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Retrospective on Irving Kristol's Neo-Conservatism

I recently came across James Q. Wilson's review, in the Wall Street Journal, of The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009 by the late Irving Kristol, edited by his widow, Gertrude Himmelfarb (Basic, 390 pages, $29.95). Wilson provides a nice overview of Kristol's contribution with these passages,

"Neoconservatism, as the title of this collection suggests, is a "persuasion," not an ideology. The word comes from Marvin Meyers's book "The Jacksonian Persuasion" (1957), in which Meyers defines a persuasion as a "half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment." Kristol liked "tendency," "impulse" and "cast of mind" as well. As a long-time contributor to the Public Interest, I think any of these words is right. How else can you bring together into a happy working relationship, as Kristol did, Daniel Bell (a democratic socialist), Pat Moynihan (a lifelong Democrat), Martin Feldstein (a conservative economist) and Robert Solow (a liberal one)?

What such figures had in common was a belief that it is a good idea to know more about proposed or enacted policies than can be inferred from an ideology or extracted from journalism. Such a belief amounted to an argument for social science, or at least for the kind of social science that tries to understand the facts that seem to demand action, the alternatives to government action, and the chances that a policy will have benefits that exceed its costs."

Put that way, it hardly even seems that the movement has a partisan component, so much as a rigorous analytical one. Wilson continued with these passages,

"Perhaps the best place to start reading "The Neoconservative Persuasion" is one of its last articles, "An Autobiographical Memoir." Published in 1995, it is Kristol's summary of the people and events that shaped him. Two in particular stand out: the literary critic Lionel Trilling (whom Kristol calls a skeptical liberal) and the political philosopher and legendary teacher Leo Strauss (whom he calls a skeptical conservative). Trilling explained in "The Liberal Imagination" (1950) that the great modern writers (T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner) portrayed human behavior in ways that refuted the claims of socialists that we could all become brothers. Strauss restored the importance of ancient thinkers as a way of understanding ourselves.

Trilling thought that great novelists and poets understood people better than social scientists, while Strauss refused to accept the Enlightenment view that "the truth will make you free." Strauss believed, Kristol emphasizes, that the truth would make some people free but enslave others if that truth were not anchored in prudence and natural law. As Kristol reminds us, Strauss, contrary to the caricature that has emerged in recent years, was not a right-wing ideologue. As a student in two of his classes, I can attest that Strauss never uttered a word in support of or in opposition to any public policy."

I liked the reference to Trilling and his thoughts about novelists, as well as Strauss' that allowing truth to be a fluid concept can leave it abused in the hands of tyrants, enslaving others.

Wilson made this interesting observation on Kristol's departure from what was a narrower base of conservative thinking prior to his conversion,

"Kristol decided that the success of neoconservatism arose from its having enlarged "the conservative vision to include moral philosophy, political philosophy, and even religious thought," thereby making this persuasion "more politically sensible as well as politically appealing." Perhaps, he added, this has helped make the Republican Party more interested "in the pursuit of happiness by ordinary folk" rather than just in the success of the business community."

This last passage reminds me of something Glenn Beck says repeatedly which I believe his detractors confuse as mere religiosity. Beck notes that American Progressives talk and act as if our rights come from government. Thus, when they establish new 'rights,' such as FDR's prospective additional 'bill of rights,' or health care, these Progressives attempt to make the source of the rights to be the federal government.

Beck notes that the fundamental belief of our Founders was that rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" were "endowed by our Creator." Specifically, the Declaration of Independence states,

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...."

Kristol, too, before Beck, seemed to realize instinctively that a sterile, economic brand of conservatism wasn't ever going to fire the passions and imagination of the broad American political middle. Instead, arousing passions by appealing to concerns that other men will style themselves the creators of rights and, thus, the arbiters of how those rights are granted, and to whom, has made the conservative movement far more accessible.

For example, the Tea Party movement is at least as much about protecting individual liberties as it is about the federal- and state and local- government spending within its means, and restraining itself from excessive taxation. Something Kristol would not doubt have understood.

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