Arnold Kling  

Two Strains of Conservatism

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Speaking of the Fed...... Deficit Reduction Politics...

I found this Jonah Goldberg interview worthwhile. It's three hours!

This is from a show where listeners could call in. Goldberg's adversaries strike me as petty. I don't think they raise issues with his views of the relationship between progressivism and fascism.

I think that there are issues worth raising. One can argue that fascism is more than just a religion of the state. It included a celebration of violence in politics. One can argue that progressivism generally does not celebrate political violence, and one can argue that this is a key distinction.

Overall, I enjoy listening to him. His voice and his thought process are enjoyable to hear.

One point he makes relatively early is that there is a longstanding tension between conservatives who are focused on limiting government power and conservatives who are focused on wielding government power. I would put it this way: some of us are focused on keeping government small, and we are not particularly concerned with who has power. Other conservatives are focused on having conservatives in power, and they are not particularly concerned with whether government is small.

To those of us in the libertarian camp, the "neocons" come across as corrupted by liberal statism. To those in the conservative camp, the "libertarians" come across as corrupted by liberal nihilism.

Part of my challenge in reaching this audience was that I was a small-government guy talking to an audience of folks who are focused on having conservatives in power.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (21 to date)
StrangeLoop writes:

One comment I especially liked was a quote Goldberg repeated about two versions of conservatism: one group is anti-left while the other group is anti-state.

That demarcation explains much of the Glenn Beck v. Ron Paul rift, I think.

StrangeLoop writes:

One comment I especially liked was a quote Goldberg repeated about two versions of conservatism: one group is anti-left while the other group is anti-state.

That demarcation explains much of the Glenn Beck v. Ron Paul rift, I think.

JP98 writes:

Big-government conservatism has always struck me as a contradiction in terms. It seems to ignore one of building blocks of conservatism, individual responsibility.

Les writes:

JP98 has it exactly right: big-government is not conservatism, because conservatives stress individual responsibility, not collectivism.

I might add that conservatives believe in markets, not a command economy, and conservatives understand agency theory and moral hazard.

Miguel Madeira writes:

JP98 and Les - are you sure that you are not confusing "conservatism" with "classical liberalism"?

ajb writes:

Can't there be conservatives who prefer smaller govt as a practical matter but who care about who wields power? In that sense they are willing to accept a somewhat bigger state if the alternative is a more leftist one at the margin. Unlike libertarians they do not see individual liberty as the be all and end all value but they agree that on average, greater individual liberty is usually consistent -- but not always -- with conservative values.

Jeff writes:
One point he makes relatively early is that there is a longstanding tension between conservatives who are focused on limiting government power and conservatives who are focused on wielding government power.

That's interesting, because I had pretty much considered Goldberg (and National Review, more generally) to be more the latter than the former.

Mercer writes:

"One can argue that fascism is more than just a religion of the state. It included a celebration of violence in politics. One can argue that progressivism generally does not celebrate political violence,"

What is the ultimate act of political violence? War. I think it is clear today which party in America celebrates war more. Their former leader just released a book that supports using torture.

I would not call American conservatives fascists because the term is so vague. It is clear that when it comes to their love of war and contempt for diplomacy neocons are closer to Hitler then liberals.

What liberals are most passionate about today is their love multiculturalism and diversity. Who thinks Hitler would like diversity? This is what makes Goldberg's argument so destructive for conservatives. When normal people see demonstrators calling Obama Hitler they know it is absurd to say a black man has the same ideology as Hitler.

The man Goldberg supported for president is considered a failure in office by most people. Goldberg does not write a book about why his party failed in office and how they can do better the next time they are in power. Instead he writes a book that tries to link Obama and Clinton with Hitler and leads to some demonstrators calling Obama a new Hitler. Do you really think this helps conservatives?


Hyena writes:

I don't think any of the distinctions he draws are particularly useful. There is no clear lineage between today's political coalitions and a particular philosopher, much less one two centuries dead. Every major debate in the Western world is amongst points within liberalism.

Revolutionary ideologies are what you get when you abandon the liberal consensus around individual human dignity and the concept of rational autonomy.

Fascism is what happens when populism, raw public whim, takes over and invests its power in one man, a pater patria who embodies the spirit of the nation. It is not about "state worship", is about the nation and the promise of the dictator to restore the state to unity with it.

Jayson Virissimo writes:
Fascism is what happens when populism, raw public whim, takes over and invests its power in one man, a pater patria who embodies the spirit of the nation.

Can you provide me with the name of a self-described fascist (living or dead) that would agree with your description? If not, you are simply using the word as a pejorative and not in the sense it was historically used by its proponents.

Hyena writes:

Mr. Virissimo,

Benito Mussolini's The Doctrine of Fascism discusses most of this quite explicitly.

The only real deviation is that Mussolini is talking about fascism and its rule while I am talking about fascism and its ascent. That is, the only difference is one of tense.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

One great thing about the Tea Party is that it is really giving small government more focus and support. Might be too late, however.

Pava Renat writes:

I don't believe the tri-partite division into neo-cons, liberals, and libertarians is really useful. I think a better one is constitutional originalists v. constitutional progressives.

The US Constitution is clearly a libertarian concept, based on the natural rights enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. It embraces individual liberties, both in economic terms and in personal life choices. It created a structure that was intended to provide strong States and a very limited central government, i.e., fundamental federalism.

Over time, esp. since the progressive era in the Supreme Court in the 1930s, the modern constitution has been so changed that the original ideas have been more or less completely eviscerated. We now have a strong central government that thinks its role is to provide welfare for everyone, and a Commerce Clause that is so stretched that Congress thinks it can force individuals to buy private services (yes, that's Obamacare).

This sorry state of affairs sets up a division between what I think of as originalists v. progressives. Unfortunately, there aren't that many originalists left. Libertarians are probably the closest ones. Most Republicans are no longer true originalists. Social conservatives clearly are not originalists but have bought into the progressive ideals of using the central government for social engineering, just not the kind of social engineering that the left wants. Hence, the unholy alliance inside the Republican party. It's not an alliance of originalists at all, and the only reason to call them conservatives is that they don't vote Democratic, but non-Democratic does not necessarily mean originalist.

As for true constitutional originalists, there aren't that many left. But, to me, that is the fight that should be fought. The Tea Parties, bless their souls, seem to grasp this intuitively -- which is why I've enjoyed demonstrating with them off and on. They aren't really Republicans, only vote that way for lack of alternatives, since the Democrats are hell-bent on further rewriting the Constitution in their image of social justice.

But the fight is not really against government per se, and that is why the label "conservative" is so misleading. It's for a return to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, and for a depoliticized judiciary that should stop supporting growth of central government. Most issues that are now fought in Congress should be left up the States -- and there will be some that will be large and intrusive, like California, and others that will be more respectful of individualism and enterprise, like Texas. Obviously, I'd include welfare programs and health insurance and labor regulations and natural resources policies in that. That would be a healthy state of affairs, as far as I'm concerned, with States the workshops of the nation. I'm not fighting statism in individual States, and whatever degree of centralism they decide to employ within their own boundaries, as long as I have a choice of where to live.

As an originalist, I oppose the centralization and thwarting of original intent that social conservatives, neo-cons, and modern liberal progressives all support. As far as I'm concerned, they're all bent on destroying American exceptionalism -- which I interpret to be that the Federal Government should be limited to the smallest possible, and the rest belongs to States and individuals.

I want resurrection: of the 9th and 10th Amendments and of a strict interpretation of the Commerce Clause that only addresses interstate flow of goods and services and not the phantom legal fictions it now covers. That does not make me a conservative, because I have very little in common with "conservative" Republicans, whether social or neo. I also don't like the label libertarian because of the kooky connotations of that word, and because I'm not fighting State-level statism. But I want the *Federal Government* out of the markets and out of the bedrooms -- leave that to States, if they care to go there. To me, that's the America that the Founders dreamed of, and I think that's still a beautiful vision.

Joe Cushing writes:

While liberals may not celebrate the use of violence, their agenda relies on the threat of violence. The threat is so powerful that it is almost never used. People just submit to the state because not doing so would lead to certain capture or death. Most people would not pay the IRS if they didn't have such power.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Hyena, thanks for the reply. The Doctrine of Fascism has entered my queue.

Dale Moses writes:

Liberalism is in no way connected to fascism. Liberalism is the descendant of two traditions, one, the liberal tradition of the enlightenment and two, the attempt to answer the questions brought about by the upheavals of the industrial revolution. Liberalism holds that maximum individual liberty for society does not come from no government, but that as liberty includes both "what you can do" and "what you are not restricted from doing", reasonable restrictions on either can create net increases in total for the whole.

libertarianism is a descendant of the conclusions of the liberal tradition(not of the tradition itself) at the time prior to the industrial revolution. Libertarianism holds that liberty is only what one is not restricted in doing, not what one has resources to attain.

Fascism was a political philosophy separate from either of these(and from communism, socialism, etc etc). It has no root in the liberal tradition nor does it have a root in attempting to answer the questions brought about by the industrial revolution. Rather, fascism is a much more personal political philosophy. It holds that the state defines the people (rather than the people make up the state) and that the leader of the state defines the spirit of the state.

Seriously, the argument that today's liberals are anything like fascists or derived from fascists is just plain retarded and makes you seem retarded and ignorant. An argument towards conservatives in general would be much more cogent if we defined conservatives as "take back our nation" tea partyers and not the traditional "slow pragmatist" definition or a libertarian definition. However, the more I see the true inclinations of policy by those last two groups the more i end up believing that the people who espouse to be in those groups do not qualify.

[Comment edited--Econlib ed.]

josh writes:

The progressives celebrate WWII, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, and various "freedom fighters" so long as the regime they are fighting against is considered right-wing. Likewise, they are very tolerant of violence by "oppressed" peoples, even in the United States. Progressives are certainly enablers of the Bloods, Crips, MS-13 and, of course, were enablers of and empathized with the Black Panthers, Weathermen, and other groups that started riots and tookover college administration buildings in the 60s and 70s. I don't think a celebration of violence is a key distinction.

A possible distinction may be that fascists support violence in the name of order while progressives support violence in the name of rebellion. Though the difference is in some ways cosmetic.

Finally, one reason that progressives don't support war very often today is that such a large part of the world is composed of dictators installed by the progressive "international community."

fundamentalist writes:

There is no reason to distinguish between fascism and socialism. Fascists were socialists who remained faithful to socialism. As Hayek wrote in "Road to Serfdom" violence is always required to achieve the ultimate goals of socialism. If some socialists rejected violence, they did so because the chose to limit the progress of socialism and not take it to its final solution. After all, Russia was pretty violent, as has been every socialist nation. Look at Cuba and Venezuela. Violence is integral to socialism.

Anonymous writes:

"Fascism is what happens when populism, raw public whim, takes over and invests its power in one man, a pater patria who embodies the spirit of the nation. It is not about "state worship", is about the nation and the promise of the dictator to restore the state to unity with it."

Yes, yes. Perhaps one individual is lifted up by the media as someone who will be post-partisan, who will unify us all, someone who will cause the earth to heal, the oceans to recede...We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Seriously, dude, Obama's idolizers displayed many of these fascist symptoms during 2008. No, he is not a fascist, but that impulse for some sort of unity exists in all politics.

Left-wing / "liberal" politics is not exception. Huey Long is an obvious example.

James A. Donald writes:

Mercer writes:

What liberals are most passionate about today is their love multiculturalism and diversity.

What liberals mean by "diversity" is people
of both sexes, every skin color, and every sexual
orientation speak with one voice, their master's voice.

Which sounds mighty like fascism to me.

Chris Koresko writes:

@Arnold: C-SPAN is TV worth watching. Thanks for pointing out this interesting program. I found Goldberg's argument in the first hour (as far as I've gotten so far) that fascism and American Progressivism share a lot of common intellectual ancestry fairly convincing.

I was particularly impressed by Goldberg's response to a caller's question on American exceptionalism: he started by answering reflexively, but partly retracted his answer and gave a more complicated but probably more correct one on-the-fly.

It seems to me that our discussion of the merits of various political philosophies are being hampered by the incompatible sets of definitions we use to identify them. The Conservatism FAQ has a worthwhile section which describes the author's view of the relationships between the various streams of conservative thought. It was developed through discussions held on Usenet newsgroups... think paleo blogs if you don't know what that means. The author sums up his definition of conservatism like this:

1.1 What is distinctive about conservatism as a political view?

Its emphasis on what has been passed down as a source of wisdom that goes beyond what can be demonstrated or even explicitly stated.


Of particular interest here may be this section:

6.1 How do libertarians differ from conservatives?

In general, libertarians emphasize limited government more than conservatives and believe the sole legitimate purpose of government is the protection of property rights against force and fraud. Thus, they usually consider legal restrictions on such things as immigration, drug use, and prostitution to be illegitimate violations of personal liberty. Many but not all libertarians hold a position that might be described as economically Right (anti-socialist) and culturally Left (opposed to what are called cultural repressiveness, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on), and tend to attribute to state intervention the survival of things the cultural Left dislikes.

Speaking more abstractly, the libertarian perspective assigns to the market the position conservatives assign to tradition as the great accumulator and integrator of the implicit knowledge of society. Some writers, such as F.A. Hayek, attempt to bridge the two perspectives on that issue. In addition, libertarians tend to believe in strict methodological individualism and absolute and universally valid human rights, while conservatives are less likely to have the former commitment and tend to understand rights by reference to the forms they take in particular societies.

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