Friday, August 30, 2019

The Trojan Horse of George Will’s Conservatism

Foolish painting by John McNaughton
Philosophy, the obsession with discovering the general truth even to the point of sacrificing your happiness is inherently revolutionary in that this obsession is a defining feature of our species, which revolts from the animal kingdom. To be sure, many of us aren’t personally so philosophical, but all of us collectively defer to the conventional wisdom which has accumulated from the cogitations of the great philosophers from history. All people, therefore, are more philosophical than animals, of course, since the human brain naturally reflects on or at least understands matters not directly related to our narrow life cycle. That meta-knowledge is progressive in that it liberated us from the biological order, opening up the psychological and the moral and existential (spiritual) niches; in other words, the type of knowledge which only people have in abundance is largely that which distinguishes us from animals. But this knowledge is also transgressive or accursed (figuratively speaking), since much of the natural truth—of our certain death, of the relative smallness of all our concerns, of the world’s godlessness, pointlessness, and accidental development—spoils our creaturely innocence, preventing us from being at peace with natural conditions.

In so far as we’re wise apes in that respect, then, the notion of “conservative philosophy” ends up being oxymoronic. Liberalism, the opposite of conservatism, is equivalent to humanism, to the celebration of those cognitive and behavioural capacities that make possible that progressive/transgressive knowledge. Conservatism becomes the regression to animalism, the favouring of social arrangements in which philosophy has no place, and an apology for the dominance hierarchies that reestablish nature’s hold over us. Such is the key to seeing past the partisan obfuscations that can make it seem as though there were two great opposing political philosophies. Instead, there’s just humanism, broadly speaking, and the antihumanistic (animalist) con.

American Conservatism as Classical Liberalism

George Will
You can tell how barren is the prospect of a conservative philosophy, from the sad pretenses of George Will’s tome, The Conservative Sensibility. (Due to possible confusion caused by his surname’s being also a word, I’ll refer to that author as GW.) GW himself concedes in his introduction that his project is only to lay bare the philosophy of American conservatism, rejecting the European variety and identifying American conservatism with classical liberalism, with the Lockean political philosophy that guided the founders of the American republic. That so-called conservatism is better known today as libertarianism. To GW’s credit, he’s clear about the potential for linguistic confusion on this point:
My effort is to explain three things: the Founders’ philosophy, the philosophy that the progressives formulated explicitly as a refutation of the Founders, and the superiority of the former…Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and-soil nostalgia, irrationality, and tribalism. American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking. The price of accuracy might be confusion, but this point must be made: American conservatives are the custodians of the classical liberal tradition. (my emphasis)
You know there’s not actually any such thing as conservatism, no such thing as a conservative ideology when, according to a conservative intellectual, the only defensible kind of “conservatism” —the “throne-and-altar, blood-and-soil” propaganda for monarchies notwithstanding—is instead a classical expression of liberalism! As Roger Scruton says in The Meaning of Conservatism,
the concept of freedom—and in particular, such constitutionally derived freedoms as the freedoms of speech, assembly, and ‘conscience’—this concept has until recently been the only one that has been presented by contemporary Conservatism as a contribution to the ideological battle which it has assumed to be raging. While freedom meant ‘freedom from communist oppression’ conservatives could advocate freedom and know that they were more or less in line with what they had always believed. But with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the emergence of a left-liberal consensus, the old battle-cry does nothing to distinguish conservatism from its rivals. (my emphasis)
American conservatism is thus to conservatism what American “football” is to real football. How do you know what football really is? When watching the sport, take careful note of whether only the players’ feet are permitted to touch the ball. If you’re allowed to carry the ball in your hands, that’s not football by definition. But the United States tried to rebrand the global sport of football (known in North America as “soccer”), by applying the same name to an altogether different, American-created sport that’s popular only in the United States. In the same way, the Catholic Church coopted rival religious holidays and doctrines by merging them with Christian ones. And that’s also how GW proceeds, by carving out an American variety of “conservatism” from the heart of liberalism, of all things, and by casting “progressivism,” socialism, or trust in government—a mere development of liberalism—as the true foe of conservatism.

Libertarianism and Social Darwinism

But there are more shenanigans to uncover in GW’s presentation of pseudoconservatism. Notice what’s central to classical liberalism, according to GW:
Liberalism acquired its name, and became conscious of itself, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when liberty was threatened by the forces of order—by institutions and instruments of the state, often operating in conjunction with ecclesiastical authorities. Liberalism championed individualism and the rights of the individual against those forces of enforced order. The label “liberal” was minted to identify those whose primary concern was not the protection of community solidarity or traditional hierarchies, but rather was the expansion and protection of individual liberty. Liberals were then those who considered the state the primary threat to this. Liberals espoused the exercise of natural rights within a spacious zone of personal sovereignty guaranteed by governments instituted to serve as guarantors of those rights.
The essence of American conservatism for GW, then, is individualism as opposed to collectivism. When classical liberals stood up against the monarchical, oppressive state, they were holding out this abstraction of “the individual” as the true bearer of human rights. But who were these individuals that deserve to be freed from oppression? Or to use GW’s terms, exactly how far was that “spacious zone” of liberty meant to be expanded? A great embarrassment for classical liberals or for individualists is that the founders of that philosophy had in practice a narrow conception of personhood; indeed, theirs was similar to that of the ancient Greeks who coined the word “democracy.” Women didn’t count as persons, nor did foreign “savages” whose lands the Europeans conquered. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he personally owned 600 African-American slaves, freeing only seven of them in his lifetime.

In being forced by that embarrassment to answer this question of the scope of human rights under classical liberalism, a libertarian like GW is caught in a dilemma. If he agrees with the early-modern liberals and says that some people should be freer than others, because not everyone is sufficiently personal (rational, responsible, masculine, etc.) in the first place, this liberalism begins to look like European conservatism, with its entrenchment of prejudices, social hierarchies, castes, and division between “races.” That way would lead to full-blown social Darwinism or to what I’m calling “animalism.” If, instead, GW says that all humans are personal and deserve to be free enough to pursue their happiness, he should side with the progressive who wants to empower the state to provide for the welfare of those individuals who fail in their pursuits. This second option amounts to embracing humanism and to rejecting the conservative implications that all or at least most humans should be subject mainly to animal standards and conditions. Remember when the retired libertarian Senator Ron Paul was asked by Wolf Blitzer whether the state should allow someone to die who can’t afford their own medical care, Paul was encouraged by some zealous libertarian audience members to say “Yes!” but he demurred? Well, in avoiding the second option, GW, too, is committed to social Darwinism, although he’s hardly willing to flaunt the implications.

Watch, then, how GW lets slip the Darwinian implication of his libertarianism:
Conservatism’s celebration and protection of individual autonomy does not, as many critics now charge, condemn the individual to a desiccated life of shriveled social attachments or to the joyless pursuit of material enjoyments. Conservatism neither advocates nor causes individuals to be severed from familial, communal, or religious affiliations. Rather, it demarcates a large zone of individual sovereignty in which such affiliations can be nurtured. By pruning the state’s pretentions and functions, conservatism prevents the emergence of an enveloping state, in the shade of which other institutions cannot thrive, and often wither…Conservatism’s great gift is preservation of the social space for the personal pursuit of higher aspirations. If people fail to use this space well, that is their failure, not conservatism’s. (my emphasis)
That latter, dismissive attitude towards the rights of losers assumes that the playing field is even. Indeed, in a fair race, some will do better than others and there would be no honour in pretending that everyone’s the winner if some racers had worked harder than others to excel. The libertarian’s blind spot here, however, is large enough to fly a jumbo jet through it. GW wants to say the state is the source of all curtailments of individual liberty. If only we free up the marketplace, says the libertarian, allowing everyone to compete on their merits, everyone will receive what they deserve, as in a fair race. But as we know from the Great Depression, the 2008 bursting of the American real estate bubble, and the rise of giant monopolies such as Walmart, Amazon, Facebook, and Google—monopolies that are more powerful than most countries—there’s no such thing as economic fairness; the playing field is never even, if only because of natural differences between people’s strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, in an unregulated market, monopolies and oligopolies form, become too big to fail, gain oligarchic control over parts of the government, and write laws to benefit their executives at the expense of innovation and competition rather than sharing the wealth with the workers (to support mass consumption, as the liberal economist Keynes would have recommended). Antitrust law is needed to correct the sociopathic tendencies of the libertarian or anarcho-capitalist economy.

As Patrick Deneen quotes in his devastating review of The Conservative Sensibility, GW himself argued in his 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, ‘that a “mixture of free trade and protection and subsidies and entitlements should be discussed as expedients” toward ends of “equality of opportunity, neighborliness, equitable material allocation, happiness, social cohesion, justice.”' In other words, “The younger Will knew that if one wishes to avoid the rise of socialism, one would need the assistance of government to restrain the destructive aspects of market economies upon social institutions prized by conservatives.” Deneen goes on to say that GW
refuses to consider that classical philosophy finally proves unbearable in practice to actual human beings, and that it was abandoned early in the republic not because of the corruptions of Germanic philosophy but because of a social and economic order that had become too costly for too many people. Someone with a conservative sensibility would be sufficiently Burkean to recognize in that abandonment not a condemnation of his countrymen but a genuine response from real people unwilling to live under a philosophy that does not work.
The younger GW sounded like a progressive, effectively landing on one side of that question of whether to admit that conservatism reduces to social Darwinism and animalism (in opposition to humanism, or to the pursuit of our potential to transcend animalistic behavioural norms). But the elder GW explicitly takes on the Darwinian mantle:
Darwin believed that the existence of order in nature does not require us to postulate a divine Orderer. Similarly, the existence of a social order does not presuppose a government giving comprehensive and minute direction to the social order. Granted, government is necessary for maintaining society. So, government cannot be expelled from our understanding of society in the way that Darwin expelled God from our understanding of nature. But Darwinism opened minds to the fecundity of undirected, organic social cooperation of the sort that does most of the creating and allocating of wealth and opportunity in open societies. This is the largely spontaneous order celebrated by various thinkers from Edmund Burke to Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek, the order produced by lightly governed individuals consenting to arrangements of their devising. (my emphasis)
Lest there be any confusion, GW adds,
As Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things.” There is, however, a conservative sensibility that finds flux exhilarating, that is delighted rather than depressed by the idea that there is no beyond and that everything is contingent. A secular conservative sensibility, even a secular conservative aesthetic, finds beauty in the Darwinian view of the world, a beauty that is a close analogue to the conservative vision of a just society respectful of, and dependent on, spontaneous order. (my emphasis)
This turns out to be crucial to the difference between European and American conservatism, for GW:
European conservatism has generally sought to conserve institutions and practices, such as social hierarchies and established churches, that were produced by the slow working of historical processes spanning many centuries. American conservatism seeks…to conserve or establish institutions and practices conducive to a social dynamism that dissolves impediments to social mobility and fluidity. So American conservatism is not only different from, it is at bottom antagonistic to British and continental European conservatism. The latter emphasizes the traditional and dutiful, with duties defined by obligations to a settled collectivity, the community. Because American conservatism is about individual liberty, it cultivates spontaneous social order and hence encourages novelty. (my emphasis)
“Novelty” here is a euphemism for inequality, and to say that a free market is Darwinian in allowing individuals to compete and innovate for their survival, with no godly handouts from the government is to beat around yet another bush. As Isaiah Berlin explained, there are two kinds of freedom, negative and positive. Classical liberalism promotes only the negative kind, the freedom from being forced to do what you don’t want to do. As for the positive freedom of being in a position to achieve your goals, the classical liberal leaves that up to nature and to the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace, to that “zone of sovereignty” in which you’re supposed to succeed or fail on your merits. Only the most basic negative freedoms are preserved for everyone by the government in a libertarian society, though, since in practice the losers in a free market are inflicted with much that they’d rather not have, such as with having to go into debt or be otherwise subject to the rigging of the economy by the sociopathic winners of the economic competition for selfish gain. So in a free market, you’re free as long as you’re not one of the losers—and most “individuals” in a free market necessarily lose, relative to the sky-high gains of the winners, just as most runners in a foot race necessarily lose in comparison with the fastest individual to cross the finish line.

In reality, what happens in the libertarian’s dream society, again, is that large corporations occupy the power vacuum produced by the governments minimization; a handful of ruthless, greedy, and lucky individuals become billionaires while the majority have to borrow money and go into debt because the short-sighted corporations dole out slave wages even as productivity and corporate profits increase. Wouldn’t you know it: the free market is self-destructive precisely because of its Darwinian attributes, since what’s happened to the vast majority of species, too, is that they’ve gone extinct! The environment preserves only those species that can survive and reproduce under the prevailing conditions, and since the conditions change over time, all species eventually are extinguished. Nature as a whole is rigged against the continuation of life, since life’s emergence was unplanned and undesired; there have been numerous mass extinction events that almost snuffed out all life on this planet. Similarly, there can be no guarantee that a free market could sustain itself without any intelligent guidance or adequate central planning. Just as natural accidents can build up against a particular species or even against organisms in general, the power dynamics that predominate in a selfish, “individualistic” society (e.g. the sociopathy of the top one percent and the infantilization of the mass of “consumers”) lead not just to the boom and bust cycle, but to the destruction of all life via this society’s destruction of the ecosystems.

The older GW understands, as he says, that “American progressivism developed as an intended corrective to traditional liberalism. Progressives aimed to redress what they perceived as a dangerous imbalance. Their goal was to strengthen the powers of order—of the state—which had supposedly become anemic relative to the surging powers of entities and autonomous forces in America’s industrial society—banks, corporations, railroads, trusts, business cycles.” But the libertarian blind spot causes GW to add that, “The progressives’ indictment is that the Founders’ politics is cramped and uninspiring because it neither aspires to, nor allows for, the integration of the individual’s spiritual needs and yearnings with the individual’s political identity and activities. To this indictment the American conservative’s proper response is a cheerful, proud plea of guilty. The world has suffered much, and still suffers, from politics freighted with the grand ambition of unifying the individual’s social and moral lives” (my emphasis).

Here’s GW’s blind spot: it’s not as if there are no private coercive powers to step into the mix, when government gets out of the business of unifying our social and moral lives, that is, of supplying us all especially with greater positive freedom, including the resources to help us when we fail, and of unrigging the playing field. Again, when government gets out of the way of business, transnational behemoths don the crown and ram a materialistic, short-sighted, infantilizing ideology down our throats with their culture of shallow advertisements, captured regulators, and inhuman power dynamics. GW writes as if we have utopia as soon as government stops trying to build a nanny state. No, what happens without that nanny state is that the individualistic society is held hostage to private monopolists who take over much of the government, as has happened, for example, to both parties of the US Congress whose decisions flow not so much from the efforts of particular powerful lobbyists but from the libertarian’s egoistic culture. Suppose you eliminate politics freighted with its grand ambitions, as GW says. Will no other grand ambitions rush in to occupy the stage? It’s not as if we weren’t all addicted to fictions. If government were to favour us by silencing its civil religious platitudes, there would still be a grand narrative holding the unreflective citizens in thrall, except that that narrative would belong to the private sphere and would be determined especially by the minority of economic winners.

John Locke and the Wildness of Natural Rights

John Locke
There is, however, a paradox you might have noticed: How can classical liberalism, which was the founding philosophy of the United States, have such conservative or libertarian and Darwinian consequences? GW makes much of John Locke’s influence on Thomas Jefferson, but taking Locke’s political philosophy at face value is foolishly naïve. Matthew Stewart lays out the relevant context, in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. In short, what lay behind the European Enlightenment was Epicureanism, a type of ancient Greek naturalism. Some early-modern philosophers were up-front and heroic in understanding and adapting that philosophy to the modern period, even at the cost of their safety in theocratic Europe. Hobbes, Hume, and Spinoza fall into that category, whereas Locke was famously duplicitous in popularizing the deistic implications of the ancient Greek assumptions.

As Stewart demonstrates, at many ‘critical junctures in his work, he [Locke] writes in such a slippery way that no two lawyers could ever reach agreement on who “Locke” is and what he “really” believes. It is this kind of writing that prompted Hume to sneer that his illustrious predecessor was a master of “ambiguity and circumlocution.” ’ Elsewhere, Stewart elaborates: “As in theology, the philosophy of mind, and ethics, Locke’s signal contribution to human history and to the American Revolution in particular has to do not with his originality but with his success in packaging the radical position to this point in a language that makes it seem more agreeable to orthodox convictions and that serves to emphasize the impulse toward true piety which it shares with all religion.”

On the key question of natural rights (and of a legitimate government’s need to protect them), Stewart points out that, ‘In their pursuit of the foundations of justice and power, however, the heirs of Epicurus arrived at the insight that “right” is indeed nothing but “might” perspicuously understood. They wrapped this insight in a respectable language of “natural rights” and “laws of nature” purportedly ordained by God above. But in fact they found a way of explaining rights that reduces God to nothing more than the very principle that all rights may be explained in terms of power’ (my emphasis). As we’ll see, this reductionist standpoint is what makes classical liberalism a Trojan horse: social Darwinism, the primitive “blood-and-soil” impulses of old “European” conservatism flow through the backdoor of classical liberalism, because that early-modern political philosophy was deistic, at best, and proto-Nietzschean.

The idea was that natural rights, as in those which are inherent and unalienable as opposed to being artificial or conventional, can be read off of natural laws by our capacity for reason. We can know, then, that “individuals”—including women and slaves?—have the rights to life and to private property. Libertarians like George Will take this, then, as the basis for American conservatism, in opposition to the progressive’s insistence on the obligation to redistribute income through taxes, to prevent unjust or self-destructive inequalities between individuals. In reality, Locke himself was progressive in that respect, as Stewart shows, since Locke meant that we have a natural right only to “property” in the sense of our very body and personal identity. “Every man has a Property in his own Person,” wrote Locke. When we mix our labour with resources in the environment, we acquire rights over the products of that labour, but those rights are obviously not unalienable, since otherwise there could be no legitimate taxation at all and thus no functioning government or civil society. Locke fixes limits to property rights: “As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labour fix a Property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others” (my emphasis). So if a billionaire were to have more clothes, jewelry, cars, mansions, and other properties than he knows what to do with and they’re going to waste, those properties would be forfeit, meaning they’d become free for public use. Thanks, Mr. Locke!

Likewise, Locke laid restrictions on the ownership of land:
Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the as yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less for others because of his inclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. No body could consider himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left to quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough, is perfectly the same. (my emphasis)
Assuming late-modern industry threatens the natural environment, progressive regulation of that industry follows swiftly from this Lockean restriction, to preserve natural resources for everyone’s use. Thanks, again, for the progressive environmentalism, Mr. Locke!

Of course, American conservatives leap from cherry-picked sections of Locke to the conclusion that all possible types of private property are sacrosanct, and the reason is that this type of conservatism represents the interests only of the minority of extreme economic winners in the US, the GOP of today being an outgrowth of the late-twentieth century corruption of much of the United States. There’s no need to show in detail that that corruption has occurred, since Donald Trump’s presidency demonstrates it beyond any reasonable doubt. The Republican Party is a branch of the plutocratic pinnacle of American society; owing to the malignant narcissism—the selfishness, short-sightedness, and lack of empathy—of that ruling class, the winners look for any rhetorical advantage they can find to rationalize the palpable injustice of the Gilded Age-style inequality that nourishes their deranged self-image.

You might object that American libertarianism isn’t based on a misreading, since the upshot of the founders’ Enlightenment philosophy is naturalism—and there’s gross inequality in the animal kingdoms, between alphas, betas, and omegas, for example. However, all natural creatures, from the fearsome predators to the scraggly social outcasts, are united by their animality. Thus, if you look to nature to justify your human rights, as Locke and Thomas Jefferson did, according to George Will, you’ve got to conclude not just that economic inequality is justified and to be expected, but that even the winning plutocrats are thereby mere animals! The plutocrat’s right to life is on the very same plane as the pig’s right to life, which the plutocrat violates when he enjoys barbecue ribs, and it’s on the same level as the squirrel’s, which the plutocrat trashes when he flattens that critter beneath his Lamborghini.

If you’re educated enough to be reading Locke in the first place, you’re supposed to realize that the talk of “natural rights implanted by God” is euphemistic. The right extends as far as the power to sustain it, and no further. The animals on the plutocrat’s dinner table lose their “right” to live at the very moment those creatures are overpowered. Obviously, humans don’t have the unalienable right to life, since nature allows for the act of murder. Once you dispense with the classical liberal’s theological niceties, as you must to avoid being contaminated with religious absurdity, you’re left without any prescriptive interpretation of the capacities in question. We have the capacity or some power to sustain our life, just like all animals have, and our capacities may overcome those of other species, which is why we currently dominate the planet in certain respects. For the exact same reason, powerful human individuals can overpower weaker ones, by robbing or killing. So much for a libertarian utopia on the basis of the “natural rights” discourse of classical liberalism.

The Aesthetic Side of Humanism

None of this, however, gets at the issue of what exactly is humanistic in classical liberalism. Locke and the founders of the American republic, after all, do extend rights beyond what seems naturally prevalent. The most natural/animalistic societies are the “European” or Old World conservative ones, namely the tyrannies that boasted the most inequality, between the royals and the peasants. Classical liberals opposed those monarchies and sought to extend the “zone of sovereignty” by appealing to certain natural rights shared by all persons/citizens (if not necessarily by all humans). That recognition of some equality (universal potential) that’s not credited in a monarchy is the seed of humanism, and what it entails is anomalous and antinatural. What’s universal in human nature is the potential to be godlike in our creation of an unnatural, artificial world that goes as far as to replace the natural wilderness. Far from reading off our rights from the animal world, we ought to be looking to aesthetic standards to make sense of our creative capacities. In any case, Enlightenment individualism is humanistic or liberal/progressive to the extent that the individual is something godlike rather than bestial. Abusing the wonder at the virtual miracles of human knowledge and creativity, to provide an excuse for bringing nature and animality back into our societies through the backdoor is the mark of conservatism, since that duplicity is in line with the sort that gave us the chief propaganda for tyrannies, namely the organized religions such as Christianity.

To be sure, the exuberant naturalism of the early-modern expressions of humanism invites that misunderstanding. Hobbes and Spinoza, Hume and Adam Smith mean to be rational in explaining how complex societies can emerge spontaneously from simpler conditions. The social contract arises, they say, not from divine fiat but from selfishness and fear. Locke’s writings, too, are based on that mode of explanation, once his theological overlay and salesmanship are ignored. But all such reductive accounts leave out the irrational and aesthetic aspects of our creativity. We don’t form societies just because we’re afraid of living in a chaotic state of nature. Were that fear decisive, we wouldn’t have been nomadic hunter-gatherers for the vast majority of our time on earth. Nor do we enter into a social contract just because we want to protect the fruits of our selfish enterprises, since not everyone is psychotically ambitious. Society seems motivated also by an artistic urge to create for its own sake, irrespective of any interest in profit. After all, if you follow philosophy past those early-modern thinkers to Nietzsche, the existentialists, and the postmodern cynics, you find that the economist’s perspective, whereby we should be busying ourselves with self-interested calculations of utility, is undermined by the awareness that everything that happens in nature is ultimately futile. Rather than pretending we’re just animals, programmed for selfishness and self-destruction, we can act on the basis of what we might call naturalistic mysticism. Indeed, some of the great modern philosophers, such as Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, suggest as much.

Regardless, George’s Will’s lengthy, erudite defense of American conservatism doesn’t reckon with the absurdity of calling classical liberalism “conservative” and then drawing on those early naturalistic formulations to invite the dreaded European conservatism to return through the backdoor via late-capitalistic oligarchy (dominance hierarchy), the libertarian’s and economist’s apologies for the sociopathy of power elites, and the positing of “natural rights” (i.e. short-sighted powers as opposed to moral commandments or aesthetic considerations) as socially primary. American conservatism is conservative only to the extent that this political stance has no philosophical basis; that is, American libertarianism is genuinely conservative only in so far as it’s effectively the same as “European” conservatism, so that the former supplies only a different brand of propaganda for the kind of tyranny that’s endemic in the wild. Libertarianism would be philosophical only were that ideology to stem from an insight into the anomalousness of our species, and in that case libertarianism would be humanistic and progressive since the libertarian would have to exchange the savage conservative abandonment of economic losers, for an enlightened respect for the sacredness of our universal capacity to be godlike creators—of stories, worldviews, artifacts, cities, nations, careers, and personality-driven lives.   


  1. Thanks for the article. Though I was aware of Locke's ideas, I haven't yet got around to reading him. It seems that conservatives have a tendency to do this cherry-picking quite a lot. I was surprised to learn just how skeptical Adam Smith was of unrestrained capitalism, since Libertarians just love to cite his work. Conservation Christians do the same with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington whenever the separation between church and state comes up. And then of course there's the Bible...

    I personally believe that the term 'conservative', in the American context, is Orwellian doublespeak, since many of the values American conservatives wish to 'return' the country to don't reflect the real history of the U.S. The most egregious example would be the religious right's continued efforts to insinuate their morality into our laws, but I think the neo-liberal economic agenda is another fine example. The post-war era, which conservatives so idealize, was in fact more removed from neo-con values than the present. People were less religious back then and the economy was far more regulated than it is today. The only things truly 'conservative' about neo-con values are their attitudes towards homosexuality and abortion.

    1. It is indeed Orwellian. That was the goal of my "Capitalism and Conservative Christianity: the Biblical Roots of the Fraud," to lay out a source of the grotesque hypocrisy or misunderstanding on the part of American "conservatives." If they can misread the NT so badly, their character has been impeached, as far as I'm concerned, so you can't trust them at all.

      I'm planning another in this series on the antiphilosophical nature of conservatism. This one will be on Roger Scruton's The Meaning of Conservatism.

      I'm not sure if neoconservatives, in particular, are religious. I think of them more as secular, disaffected liberals because their hawkishness on foreign policy didn't fit with the growing femininity of the Democrats since the '60s. The neocons came to power especially under Bush Jr, and they were all about spreading democracy by force. The neocons were chastened when the Iraq War fell through, they went into hiding under Obama, and now they're in the background as the Never-Trumpers, as the more sane Republicans, compared to the Trump cult. But the neocons are still hypocritical, since they set the stage for the rise of Trump, by lying to the world about the severity of the threat posed by Saddam.

      The key to the neocons, I think, or at least what interests me most about them is their commitment to Leo Strauss's critique of modernity. They'd regard their propaganda as a noble lie in the platonic sense. Their elitism is more sinister than the kind I could support, since it has no spiritual or existential dimension. In short, they're not humble enough to be trusted in their contempt for the masses. To be sure, most people may not have deserved to know the truth about the weakness of Iraq (because most "people" are existentially inauthentic), but the neocons themselves were mentally weak, because they didn't know squat about the Middle East, as their failure to manage the war demonstrated. So it was a case of the blind leading the blind. You want more heroism in your elites, I should think, more self-awareness and humility in your use of overwhelming power. But as I explain in "Why Bosses become Loathsome," that's a tall order. Obviously, power corrupts those who excel and who happen to succeed, which is why the best art is done underground before success goes to the creator's head.