Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Douthatism

Left-wing blogger Whiskey Fire calls me a "douchebag," but my magnanimous rule is: Call me what you want, just link me. So I don't harbor a grudge, and when I noticed he'd linked me again today -- once more, to call me a "douchebag" -- I spent a bit of time reading his blog and found we had something in common: We don't much care for Ross Douthat.

Douthat recently attempted a definition of conservatism:
A commitment to the defense of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them, and those political movements (generally on the left, but sometimes on the right) that seek to change them radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals.
As is Douthat's wont, this definition is nebulously philosophical, and Whiskey Fire is not impressed:
There is not much in Douthat's post to make me reconsider my contention that it's a mug's game to try to distinguish between Pure Conservatism and Conservatism as it has been actually practiced by actual people, especially since the rise of Movement Conservatism. . . .
Douthat wants to tell us that the end state of conservatism is some sort of post-ideological zen-like condition where "There are no final victories" and "'elegant, short-term' resolutions are often all that we should aim for." Hooray!
Such mockery is deserved. Douthat's conservatism is that of a bright young intellectual sitting around reading Russell Kirk, rather than of someone wading into the political fray to smite his enemies hip and thigh.

American conservatism, I would suggest, begins with the Calvinist insight that we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world and that human perfection is not an option. We cannot retreat to Eden, nor can we advance to Utopia. Ergo, the liberal (or as they would now have it, "progressive") project of legislating our way to "social justice" is a fool's errand.

The progressive project

William F. Buckley Jr. was once asked by the Oxford Union to debate a feminist -- I think it was Germaine Greer -- but he and his antagonist were unable to agree on the wording of the proposition to be debated. After a good deal of back-and-forth, a frustrated Buckley finally offered: "Resolved: Give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile."

This jest contained the kernel of a great truth. The progressive quest is always the same: "More." There is never a final demand that, once granted, will cause the progressives to say, "Well, that's it. Disband the coalition. Dissolve the advocacy groups. Dispense the foundation endowments as direct charity to the downtrodden."

Every concession gained for the progressive project expands the constituency of Welfare State clientele, who can then be mobilized to demand more concessions. "Give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile," you see?

Having begun in the late 1800s with industrial labor's demands for wage-and-hour regulation, etc., the progressive coalition gradually has been swollen by programmatic measures to include, inter alia, farmers, senior citizens, schoolteachers, artists, women, racial minorities, environmentalists, gays, illegal immigrants -- each with its own special-interest advocacy groups, each with existing policies and programs to defend, each with demands for new policies and programs. And there is never an end to the agitation, never a shortage of grievances whose redress requires new legislation, new expenditures, new regulation and new penalties for those who refuse to cooperate with the progressive agenda.

Order: Natural vs. artificial

Every time a meddlesome government tinkers with the fine-tuned machinery of an organic society -- every time a new bit of social engineering is implemented, a new tax imposed, new regulations promulgated -- there are unintended consequences. Government action preempting the ordinary processes of the private sphere is an artificial intrusion that has ramifications beyond the direct objectives of the action.

This is why, when liberals urge some new governmental program "for the children," conservatives risk the accusation of being "anti-child" in order to warn that any real gains obtained by such a program will likely be offset by losses elsewhere, for such has been the experience of decades. (If there is one thing that distinguishes liberalism from conservatism, it is that liberals seem incapable of learning from experience.)

One need only look at the socio-economic implosion of America's great cities in the half-century after World World as proof of how unintended consequences operate. (Fred Siegel's The Future Once Happened Here is an eye-opening chronicle of the failure of urban liberalism.) Not everything that contributed to the downward spiral of America's cities was the result of progressive policy, but over and over, the policies that progressives proposed as solutions turned out to aggravate the problems. Go to Detroit, see block after block of vacant lots where homes and businesses once stood, and behold the enlightened future to which progressivism promises to lead us.

By the repeated attempt to substitute governmental action for private initiative, imposing an artificial blueprint on the natural chaos of a free society, the progressive project steadily destroys those organic institutions which serve the necessary functions that an expanding government progressively preempts. Each new intervention then tends to entail further intervention. This slow-motion slide toward the Total State was what Friedrich Hayek warned against in The Road to Serfdom, and Hayek's warning is as true today -- nay, it is more true -- than it was some six decades ago, before the accretion of layers of progressivism unimagined by Hayek in 1944.

Douthat vs. Burke

Ross Douthat's attempt to distill conservatism into a philosophical statement fails because it is at once too ambitious and too timid. Douthat timidly refuses to say simply that conservatism is the negation of liberalism, for fear that this is indefensible as philosophy.

Only a Harvard boy could be constrained by such fears. I certainly don't care to debate philosophy, when I can see all around me the real-life failures of liberal policies. Conservatives always prefer real life over philosophical abstraction, a point made clear by Edmund Burke in his magnificent Reflections on the Revolution in France. If Burke was omitted from Douthat's syllabus at Harvard, or else he failed to comprehend on the first reading what Burke was saying, he ought to amend the deficiency.

Burke specifically derided the French philosophes, at a time when their prestige was near its zenith. He saw the French Revolution for what it was, an attempt to conform society to a philosophical plan, and saw likewise that this effort was doomed to become a nihilistic work of destruction. That Burke foresaw this at the very beginning of the Revolution, before the triumph of the Jacobins and the onset of the Terror, should encourage conservatives to emulate his skeptical stance toward philosophy, so-called.

To the extent that conservatism is a philosophy, it is a philosophy of opposition -- as Buckley said, standing athwart history crying "Stop!" Whatever ridicule conservatives absorb on account of this stance, we at least absolve ourselves of responsibility for the failures of the progressive project.

Whiskey Fire is correct to chastise Douthat for attempting to "distinguish between Pure Conservatism anf Conservatism as it has been actually practiced by actual people." Douthat's distinction reminds me of those leftist apologists for communism, who have always insisted that real communism is something different than the practices of actual communists like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Castro.

If political projects endorsed by conservatives have failed, it is incumbent upon conservatives to admit and explain the failures, rather than attempting to elude responsibility by intellectual abstraction. If there are fake conservatives who have advanced unconservative projects under a false flag, then Douthat should name names, expose these impostors, and be specific about who and what he is abjuring, rather than retreating from politics into the false sanctuary of philosophical verities unconnected to any real-world policy.

Oh, and Whiskey Fire and I agree on something else: $12.50 for using five words of AP copy on a blog? "Bite me."

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