28 April 2008

An American Conservative?

After fighting my way through Terror and Consent I was left with a stack of back issues of magazines, including a recent issue of The American Conservative in which Andrew J. Bacevich offers a six-party definition of his own conservative principles. Bacevich is a persistent critic of both the Iraq war and a larger trend, dating back to Clinton times, toward increased interventionism and a "new American militarism." His articles are published as often in The Nation as in the Conservative. His definition of conservatism should be interesting. Here it goes, in his own words.

1. "A commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that genuine freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint."

This is so unobjectionable as to be inadequate for defining conservatism except in opposition to anarchy. But for now let's emphasize the unobjectionability of it.

2. "A belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law."

Again, this is so broadly stated as to be insignificant, since the issue between conservatives and their opponents is how limited government shall be. If it's to be limited simply by the imperatives of fiscal responsibility and the rule of law, that still leaves plenty of room for debate. The proper scope of government is exactly where ideologies clash, and where citizens must reach consensus.

3. "Veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation."

Here Bacevich makes some room for environmentalism, which isn't welcome for many self-styled conservatives. Conservationism, to use an older term, shouldn't be inimical to conservatism, except that too many so-called U.S. conservatives are committed to the "creative destruction" of entrepreneurial capitalism to be comfortable with a principle that limits their freedom for no good reason that the Market can discover. As for cultural inheritances, where does one draw the line? Those who call our country a "Christian nation" make their position clear. Bacevich's position is less clear, perhaps intentionally so.

4. "A reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements."

Well, this wouldn't be conservatism without something like the above. To be fair, let's note that he says "reluctance," not "refusal."

5. "Respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market's corrosive impact on human values."

This gets right to the ambivalent heart of American conservatism, which wants to eat its cake and have it, too. Many seem to believe that "creative destruction" will only destroy the insufficiently creative or insufficiently competitive, but most will affirm that there's also a cultural competition in progress that their side might not win. However they define their own culture, which they tend to identify as the American culture, they know that it's vulnerable to competition. Some frankly want to abolish cultural competition and give the monopoly to tradition or theocracy, but they're just a fringe right now. Others are unwilling to do without the benefits of "creative destruction," but find themselves questioning the consequences. Maybe they could clear their heads if they thought of labor, not the market, as the generator of wealth.

6. "A deep suspicion of Utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the sinfulness of man and the recalcitrance of history."

For people like Bacevich, Bush's ideology is not conservatism because it has a Utopian commitment to ending tyranny and imposing "freedom" everywhere. You don't have to believe in "original sin" to disparage such a scheme. Man is fallible, not "fallen." Maybe "the recalcitrance of history" is the secular version of "the sinfulness of man." On the other hand, it remains debatable what humanity can or can't accomplish, or what they should or shouldn't try. Disputes with conservatives often become bitter because their opponents, sometimes rightly, suspect that conservatism declares impossible some things that they simply don't want to do.

To sum up, Bacevich's conservatism still isn't anything I'd sign up for, but he seems, at first glance, like someone with whom it'd be more possible to have a civilized debate than it would be with many other self-styled conservatives.

1 comment:

crhymethinc said...

Capitalists will never admit that labor, not "the market" is the generator of wealth. I don't think I need to explain why that is.