No Substitute for Virtue
J. Peter Nixon February 2, 2008 - 11:18am
Random thoughts on the Republican primary this morning...Observers of the Republican primary have noted how many self-described conservatives within the party are struggling with the idea of John McCain being the party's standard bearer. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Benjamin and Jenna Storey suggest that the problem is that the modern conservative movement has become too beholden to libertarian ideology:
Conservatives need to defend free markets not as an ideology but as an aspect of policy that serves the purpose of allowing individual excellence to flourish. A defense of free markets as a means to a good society, rather than as an end in itself, has served us well in the past. The struggle against communism, for example, was not only, or even primarily, about free markets. It was about human dignity and the worth of a political order that allows individuals to live decent and virtuous lives. Freedom of enterprise is a part--but only a part--of that decent political order. The problem with absolute faith in any ideology, including that of the free market, becomes evident with a glance at the flagship publication of the libertarians, Reason magazine. It is no coincidence that Reason publishes hagiographies of Milton Freedman as well as pleas for drug legalization and appreciations of cartoon pornography: economic libertarianism, elevated to the status of inviolable first principle, leads to moral libertarianism.The moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism is poisonous to public life. By teaching that 'greed is good,' strict free-market ideology holds out the promise that private vices can be public virtues. Recent congressional history has laid bare the fallacy of this argument. Republicans who proclaimed from the stump that greed was good turned out to believe it when they got into office, amassing earmarks and bridges to nowhere by means of their newfound powers. Why should we be surprised? To expect them to do otherwise would be to expect that men sometimes risk their self-interest for the sake of the public good, which our economist friends tell us is impossible. Conservatives who forget that the free market is properly a piece of policy rather than an ideological end-in-itself not only obscure the importance of individual virtue, they undermine it.
I tend to agree with the Storeys about libertarianism, whether of the economic or cultural variety. But I'm not sure this explains all of the opposition to McCain. After all, one of the counts in the conservative indictment against him is that he is soft on immigration. Libertarians, however, tend to be more skeptical of efforts to reduce immigration.While we're on the subject of McCain, David Brooks (who has clearly been in the tank for Obama for some time now) has an interesting column up about how McCain must retool his campaign for November:
First, the tone of the campaign will have to change. In 2000, McCain was a joyful warrior. He was the guy rollicking through rallies waving a light saber and launching playful verbal assaults on the Bush empire. He was the guy filling his speeches with New Frontier rhetoric and glimpses of hopeful vistas. I believe we are an unfinished nation, he used to say.But the Obama campaign feels more like McCain in 2000 than the current McCain campaign does. Barack Obama outshines McCain right now as the hopeful warrior. Obama is the one insistently calling on audiences to serve a cause greater than self-interest. Hes the one transcending partisanship and telling young people that politics can be the means to a meaningful, purpose-driven life....Second, McCain will have to clarify his vision for the future. He talks about the struggle with Islamic extremists as the transcendent foreign policy challenge of our time. But theres a transcendent domestic challenge as well. America is segmenting. The country is dividing along the lines of education, income, religion, lifestyle and giving way to cynicism and mistrust. Government is distanced from the people and growing more corrupt.In the past, McCain has said that repairing these divisions constitutes a new patriotic challenge for a new century. He has hinted at a philosophy that amounts to an American version of One Nation Conservatism. It emphasizes reforming federal institutions, calling on young people to perform national service, promoting economic competitiveness and enhancing social mobility. It is a mixture of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. This governing philosophy has lurked in the background this year, but McCain will have to make it explicit to move a nation.
I think that columns like this reveal why the conventional analysis of Brooks as a "liberal" conservative ultimately doesn't cut it. When I lived in Canada, I knew a fair number of people like Brooks. We sometimes called them "red tories." They were heirs to an older , more European tradition of conservatism that was worried about the potential of market forces to disrupt traditional patterns of life and undermine a thick understanding of the virtues.In the years leading up to the 2000 election, an interesting debate emerged within the Republican Party about "national greatness conservatism," for which The Weekly Standard and John McCain were the standard bearers. The foreign policy challenges of the last eight years largely submerged that debate. I wonder if it will reemerge now.