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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea

It has always been hard to pin down just what “conservatism” stands for, what with people of such widely divergent views as Barry Goldwater, Jerry Falwell, and both George Bushes described by that term. The relatively recent addition to the political lexicon of “neoconservatism” complicates matters further. What do “neocons” believe? Where do their ideas come from? If they obtain political power, what can we expect?

To find answers to those questions, I strongly recommend Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea. In it, authors C. Bradley Thompson of Clemson University and Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute dig through the words of neocon politicians like John McCain, the writings of neocon strategists like Irving Kristol, William Kristol, and David Brooks, and ultimately to the wellspring of the neoconservative movement, University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss. What readers discover is that neoconservatism is a strikingly authoritarian movement with scant regard for individual rights. Neoconservatives aren’t concerned with individuals, the authors contend, but want to build cohesion—even if it requires great Machiavellian deception of the people—in pursuit of “national greatness.” Life, liberty, and property are all at the mercy of whatever politicians the neocon intelligentsia manages to elect.

“The neocons,” the authors write, “might be best described as cautious or pragmatic liberals in that they think reform should be modest, slow, and experimental, and that it should be devised in such a way that it relies more on traditional social values . . . than on bureaucratic authority and ideological dogmas.” But while neocons are thus tactically at odds with the headlong statism that dominates the Democratic Party, they are strategically at odds with Americans who want to downsize the State. In one of the book’s most memorable phrases, we learn that neocons believe that “leave us alone is not a governing philosophy.” That is, they want to use governmental power, not dismantle it. They abhor the idea of people telling government officials, “You have no moral or constitutional right to dictate my life.” Neocons, Thompson and Brook contend, are sharply opposed to the philosophy of the American founding, a fact they obscure behind rhetorical smokescreens.

So if the neocons are against Obama-style statism but also against libertarianism, what are these supposedly pragmatic people for? And why? Much of the book is devoted to teasing out those surprisingly difficult answers. The authors trace the movement back to Strauss, a political philosopher who was captivated by the ancient Greek idea that individuals fulfill their purpose by working and sacrificing for the good of the city-state. Strauss took Plato to heart, arguing that the people should be subservient to the greater collective, and while the connections to Strauss aren’t always perfectly clear, present-day neocons adopt that same belief. Instead of worrying about governmental intrusions against individual liberty, neocons are animated by a desire to grasp power for malleable, big-government Republicans such as McCain, then use the levers of power for what they think are “good” national goals.

What kinds of goals? That is left vague because, lacking true principles, neoconservatism leaves it up to political leaders under the sway of neocon thinkers to decide what our national goals should be. “Nation building” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan certainly qualifies. The neocons realized that the 9/11 attacks provided the ideal excuse to tear Americans away from their petty personal lives and dragoon them into a crusade against international terrorism. In that, the neocons show their allegiance to expansionist presidents of the past, like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who gloried in the use of military power abroad.

Since they lack a core philosophy, however, how can the neocons argue with those who wish to use government power for different kinds of “national greatness” projects? They can’t have any principled objection to a party that pledges national greatness through deep environmentalism, for example. (The neocons have so far opposed the wild-eyed environmentalists but it’s not clear why “green” central planning is necessarily inconsistent with their belief system.) They might scheme to keep such a party out of power, but what if they fail? It seems not to worry the neocons that the power they covet and seek to expand will certainly fall into “bad” hands at some point.

All in all, neoconservatism turns out to be another of those foolish movements that seek to commandeer the liberty, property, and even the lives of ordinary people so that “great men” might use them in pursuit of their dreams. Obviously it doesn’t bother the neocons that when they exert their will over the rest of us, millions of individual, peaceful plans and projects are wiped out. When the State sucks in resources for “national greatness,” less is left for business growth, charitable operations, and other voluntary activities. The neocons seem to care about that just as much as, oh, Napoleon did.

Let’s hope that this book really is neoconservatism’s obituary.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

  • Yaron Brook is the chairman of the Board of the Ayn Rand Institute and serves on the boards of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism and CEHE (Center for Excellence in Higher Education). He is also a member of the Association of Private Enterprise Education and the Mont Pelerin Society. Dr. Brook is the host of nationally syndicated Yaron Brook Show, a live radio show and YouTube podcast. He is an internationally sought-after speaker and debater and tackles the topics of capitalism, inequality, and free speech. He is co-author with Don Watkins, of the national best-seller Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government, Equal Is Unfair: America's Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality and In Pursuit of Wealth: The Moral Case for Finance.
  • C. Bradley Thompson is a Professor of Political Science at Clemson University and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.