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Conservative Humility, Liberal Irony

Monday, August 1, 2011

Three books on American conservatism were published last year by prominent university presses, and taken together they raise an intriguing question.

It’s not that the books themselves say anything deeply novel. In fact each devotes itself to crafting its own variation on a well-worn theme: that in both domestic and foreign policy, American conservatism is a camp divided against itself. In domestic affairs, the intramural conservative conflict pits libertarians (or “economic conservatives”) against traditionalists (a.k.a. “social” or “religious” conservatives). As David Courtwright, for example, tells it in No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, American conservatism exhibits a “sociological disunity” between “libertarians” who believe in the “free market,” with its assumption that the pursuit of individual self-interest leads to maximal social well being, and “Christian conservatives,” who worry that “capitalism create[s] . . . temptations, intrusions, and distractions at odds with conservative religious values and moral self-discipline.” In The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History, David Farber gives the same point a historic spin: In the 1960s, “William Buckley worried that some economic conservatives failed to pay obeisance to the Christian verities, whereas Barry Goldwater was uncomfortable mixing religion and politics.” The upshot is that while libertarians are noninterventionists when it comes to government, believing that each individual knows best how to pursue his own interests, social conservatives are interventionists. They see a role for government in “soulcraft” — in the molding of character through aid to parochial schools, for example, or measures to strengthen the traditional family.

Warnings of a conservative crack-up in either foreign or domestic policy have of course long been sounded.

When it comes to foreign policy, as the books recount it, conservatives are equally riven. In Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement, Justin Vaisse explores at length the tension between what he terms the neoconservative “moralism” of Robert Kagan and William Kristol, with its overriding goal of spreading global democracy, and the realism of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, with its supreme doctrinal principle that America should act beyond its borders only to the extent that its interests dictate. David Farber chimes in on this point as well: “Phyllis Schlafly and other prominent conservatives,” he writes, “were sometimes mortified by President George Bush’s vigorous use of state power . . . abroad.” While realists thus lean heavily toward noninterventionism in almost all cases, neoconservatives are much more open to intervention on the international stage.

Each book, not surprisingly, concludes on a pessimistic note about the prospects for conservatism in America. For Farber, these twin tensions suggest that American conservatism may have “outlasted its historic purpose.” According to Vaisse, although neoconservatism may have a long-term “future,” “its fortunes now seem on the decline.” Courtwright, though disclaiming any explicit predictions, concludes that the conservatism of the last 40 years was a “messy failure.”

Warnings of a conservative crack-up in either foreign or domestic policy have of course long been sounded, and conservatives themselves frankly acknowledge and debate the libertarian/social conservative and realist/neoconservative tensions. But in coming out at the same time, and in so fully exploring both conservatism’s domestic-policy and foreign-policy fault lines, these books raise questions without answering a deeper issue: Is there, perhaps, an intellectual connection between conservatism’s two tensions, the libertarian/social-conservative conflict in domestic affairs, and the neoconservative/realist divide in foreign policy? And if so, does such a connection actually point to a deeper coherence within contemporary American conservatism?

Interest and restraint, values and freedom

Here is one way of identifying a pattern — a kind of symmetry — between the two tensions. Consider realists, for whom the keynote of U.S. foreign policy should be the pursuit of American interests. This is a goal that America most reliably promotes when it acts, as Vaisse describes the realist position, in a “restrained manner,” resisting the temptation to rush off to police far corners of the globe in the name of American ideals, such as freedom and human rights. Owen Harries, a conservative foreign-policy intellectual of the realist school, emphasizes the same key word in his writings: restraint. For Harries, America can conserve its global power — its dominance in human, military, and financial resources — only if it “restrains” itself from expending that power unless U.S. interests are directly threatened.

If “interest” and “restraint” are the watchwords of foreign-policy realism, “values” and “freedom” occupy analogous roles in the foreign-policy doctrine that has come to be known as neoconservatism. For neoconservatives, as Vaisse shows, America should be animated on the global stage by the promotion of its values, not simply its interests, and central among those values is the ideal of freedom, along with allied concerns such as democracy and human rights. In recognizing a moral imperative in America’s acting abroad to promote the value of human freedom, instead of restraining itself to matters of direct national self-interest, neoconservatism offers a comparatively interventionist foreign policy.

So conceived, conservatism’s foreign-policy tension is related to its domestic-policy tension as a kind of mirror image. For in the conservative domestic-policy tension, it is freedom that becomes a matter of self-interest, and restraint a question of moral values. So, for example, domestic-policy libertarians champion freedom. But being by nature relatively unmoralistic, libertarians advance freedom not as a moral value — as do neoconservatives in foreign policy — but simply because it is the most effective mechanism for advancing the interests of individuals, especially their interests in the marketplace. The market, as George Will says in describing this position, is an “expedient,” not an “ultimate value,” much less the “ultimate arbiter of all values.” Conversely, social conservative domestic-policy intellectuals advance restraint. But since they focus much more on morality — David Courtwright calls them “moral conservatives” — they advance restraint not merely as a matter of self-interest, as foreign-policy realists do when they advocate restraint in the national interest, but as a personal moral value, or virtue. The “virtues of self-reliance and self-restraint,” as Will says, underpin the traditional structures of family, neighborhood, and church.

As a first cut, then, when we look in tandem at conservatism’s twin policy tensions, foreign and domestic — when we search for a set of concepts through which each of the four conservatisms can be related to the others — a pattern seems to emerge. The four dovetail, with realism treating restraint as the best means of advancing national self-interest, neoconservatives viewing freedom as a moral value, libertarians vaunting freedom as the best means of advancing personal self-interest, and social conservatives advocating restraint as a moral value.


Even at this level, although the four dovetail, the tensions that Courtwright, Farber, and Vaisse identify of course do not disappear. But the fact that the two tensions at least show a relationship raises the possibility that, if we burrow down further, we might be able to identify a deeper principle that all four conservative doctrines hold in common. And in fact there is such a principle. Each in its own way — realism and neoconservatism in foreign policy, libertarianism and social conservatism in domestic policy — exhibits a kind of humility about human abilities.

That doesn’t mean that all conservative thinkers advance their views with humility, nor that humility is the only principle to be found in each of the four doctrines. Far from it. It’s simply that if we lend the four conservative doctrines what the legal scholar Ronald Dworkin calls a “constructive interpretation” — a constructive interpretation looks for the best, most appealing norm that a set of doctrines can be “taken to serve or express or exemplify” — then that norm is humility in the case of American conservatism. Or, put another way, each of the conservative doctrines carries within itself the notion that it’s very difficult for human beings, when they act as political creatures, to get matters right.

This is perhaps most evident with realism in foreign policy. Its principal nostrum — that restraint is almost always in the nation’s interests — stems from a fear of foreign entanglements or quagmires. It originates, in other words, in a worry that even a carefully delimited sacrifice of those interests, say a modest expenditure of treasure or manpower in the name of humanitarianism (e.g., Rwanda), or an initially circumscribed military campaign in the name of democratization (e.g., Iraq), will inevitably snowball out of the control of officials and strategists, imperfect mortals that they are, into ever larger sacrifices at ever increasing cost. Above all, then, humility about what we can manage abroad is to be counseled.

There is a parallel between this central concern of realism in foreign policy, and that of libertarianism in domestic policy. Libertarianism’s key principle — that individual interests are always served by policies that maximize freedom — stems from a fear that even an initially circumscribed sacrifice of freedom, say a modest state intervention in the name of equity (rent controls, for example, or limiting the deductibility of ceo salaries) risks embarking government on a slippery slope. Events can easily slip out of the control of officials and regulators, with the result that ever greater amounts of market freedom get sacrificed. Rent controls, for example, cause apartment shortages which create pressure for government-subsidized housing; limitation of ceo salary deductibility leads corporations to reward their executives through other mechanisms which themselves provoke calls for additional regulation.

If there is a common temperament to both forms of conservative noninterventionism, foreign-policy realism, and domestic-policy libertarianism, it is a basic humility about our hobbled abilities, as fallible beings, to bend the world to our will. Each doctrine originates in a sense that human affairs can quickly ramify beyond the ability of policy makers to control. Even small deviations from restraint in foreign policy, or from personal freedom in domestic policy, lie beyond our capacity to safely manage. The most initially modest tinkering is almost always a fool’s errand of hubris.

Both social conservatism and neoconservatism fundamentally display a temperament of humility.

Though it is perhaps less obvious, conservatism’s two interventionisms, foreign-policy neoconservatism and domestic-policy social conservatism, also fundamentally display a temperament of humility. The neoconservative doctrine that foreign policy should promote freedom as a moral value rests, at least in its current iteration, on the view that there are limits to what America can do on its own to shape world events. It “is unclear,” as Robert Kagan writes, “whether the United States can operate effectively over time without the moral support or approval of the democratic world.” In order to attain that approval, the U.S., contra realism, “can neither appear to be acting, nor in fact act, as if only its self-interest mattered. It must act in ways that benefit all humanity or, at the very least, the part of humanity that shares its liberal principles.”

One can thus discern a nonhubristic view of America’s capacity to go it alone, as opposed to a hubristic view that America can remake the world in its own image, within neoconservative arguments for interventions abroad to promote the moral value of freedom. Of course, neoconservatives may ultimately be wrong to think that promoting the values of freedom that other democracies share, and not simply restraining itself to acts that further its own national interests, is going to win for America the hearts and minds of the world’s free nations, getting them to put their shoulder to the wheel. The point is simply that, for neoconservatives, those nations will be more willing to do so if America shows that it is prepared to subordinate its own interests to its value of freedom — that it is willing to sacrifice men and treasure to vigorously promote freedom abroad — than if it restrains its international forays only to those that advance its own interests. The ultimate orientation, though, is one of humility: America needs the help of other nations, and treating the promotion of global freedom as a key moral value is the best way of winning that support.

In a kind of echo of foreign-policy neoconservatism, domestic social-policy conservatism — which sees personal restraint as a key moral virtue — rests, too, on an orientation of humility. Individuals need the help of government in cultivating the personal virtue of restraint; they cannot do it on their own. Government intervention to promote sobriety, chastity, prudence, reverence, moral fiber, and respect for persons and property are all vital ingredients, social conservatives believe, in the soulcraft that instills the virtue of restraint. That is because our own individual capacities are limited. In the absence of government policies that encourage restraint, social conservatives fear, too many of us would be incapable of properly handling personal freedom on our own, instead indulging it to the point where we would no longer remain capable of either exercising or defending it. Intervention by the state to cultivate the virtue of restraint, whether through the support of religious education, the encouragement of family values in popular culture, or the promotion of abstinence in the schools, becomes necessary.

Both variants of conservative interventionism, neoconservative foreign policy and social-conservative domestic policy, thus rely on a kind of humility too. Neoconservatism stems from the awareness that it lies beyond the nation’s capacity to act boundlessly and alone, and that it must therefore attract international support by promoting the value of freedom. Social conservatism stems from an awareness that it lies beyond the capacity of individuals to act properly when they are left alone without boundaries, and that they thus must rely on government to bolster within them the virtues of restraint.

More broadly, if there is a conceptual level at which all four conservative doctrines exhibit the same principle — at which their tensions, the two domestic and the two foreign, melt away — it is in the underlying temperament of humility that they all exhibit. It may be a humility about government’s capacities to manage even small deviations from restraint in foreign policy (realism) or from freedom in domestic policy (libertarianism). Or it may be a humility about human capacities to pursue freedom internationally unassisted by other democracies (neoconservatism) or to display restraint in personal life unassisted by our own government (social conservatism).


There is, though, another way to look at all of this. Why focus on the tension between interventionists and noninterventionists in either domestic- or foreign-policy conservatism, one might ask, when American liberalism, in both its foreign and domestic policy variants, is cloven in much the same way? After all, in foreign policy, liberal noninterventionists have long sought to end what they view as American interference with the self-determination of other nations, while interventionists have consistently urged America to work assiduously, even if it’s not a priority as far as the nation’s interests are concerned, to promote humanitarian goals — environmentalism, public health, labor standards, and civil rights — abroad. Likewise, when it comes to domestic policy, there have always been liberal noninterventionists who call upon government to retreat in almost every arena having to do with moral values — religious education, the definition of marriage, abortion, sex on tv — while liberal interventionists have repeatedly sought government’s active presence in areas having to do with economic matters: taxation, redistribution, regulation. Whatever the cracks in conservatism may be, surely they are met one for one by those in liberalism.

Are liberalism’s various tensions reconcilable in some or another fundamental stance?

Again, though, this is old news. At this stage, it might be more revealing to ask not whether conservatism’s various tensions are simply matched by liberalism’s, but whether — if conservatism’s various interventionisms and noninterventionisms are reconcilable in a basic temperament of humility — liberalism’s, too, are reconcilable in some fundamental stance or another. And in fact they are: in a basic temperament not of humility but of irony.

Each of American liberalism’s two noninterventionisms, its foreign-policy stance that shrinks from “imperialistic” interference in the self-determination of other nations and its domestic-policy stance that recoils from imposing moral strictures on the lives of individuals, is driven to accept the irony that other nations, or other individuals, may well use the resulting freedom to in fact undermine freedom. A belief that other nations should be free to determine their own regimes according to their own norms and cultures, the linchpin of liberal foreign-policy noninterventionism, entails their being free to adopt the despotism of a Chavez, or the theocracy of a Khameini. Similarly, a belief that other individuals should be free to pursue their own lifestyles according to their own beliefs and values, the keystone of liberal domestic-policy noninterventionism, necessarily implies their being free to pursue “multicultural” values that may be at odds with America’s creedal freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association, physical well-being, choice of mate, the determination of one’s occupation, and even the selection of one’s clothing.

It is not that these ironies are figments of the liberal imagination. It’s just that conservatives by and large do not get hamstrung by them, believing that pursuing freedom internationally means bringing other nations closer to an American understanding of freedom and democracy, thus implacably opposing foreign despotism or theocracy, and that pursuing freedom at home means integrating groups into a shared American understanding of freedom, thus resolutely contesting domestic groups that would freely opt for a conflicting value system.

Liberalism’s noninterventionist strands, both foreign and domestic, thus require an acceptance of the irony that to promote freedom for other nations and individuals involves allowing for and accepting that they might well choose to undermine those freedoms. By the same token, liberalism’s interventionist strands, both foreign and domestic, are fixated on the ironic possibility that when nations and individuals pursue their own interests they might actually act to undermine those interests.

For liberal interventionists, America should pursue the interests of other nations and not just its own interests.

In foreign policy, liberal interventionism rests on the idea that whenever America allows itself to act self-interestedly on the world stage, it risks tainting its conduct in the eyes of other nations. Norman Podhoretz captures this liberal foreign-policy irony well when he writes that for liberal interventionism, “selflessness” is critical. Because (for example) the “Gulf War had been fought to secure a major source of our supply of oil, it had been tainted by self-interest in the eyes of liberals. But to those same liberal eyes, no clear national interest or material advantage was visible in the Bosnian or Kosovo interventions: both were undertaken, or so it was thought, purely for humanitarian reasons, and for the sake of protecting people whose human rights were being violated by Milosevic. Hence they were permissible, even mandatory.”

Ironically, the best way of commanding the international legitimacy that will ultimately conduce to the national interest is, then, to adopt a foreign policy that often is explicitly not aimed to achieve the nation’s interests. The difference here with neoconservative interventionism is worth noting. For neoconservatives, foreign policy should also frequently depart from America’s self-interest, but the accent lies in departing from the “interest,” not the “self.” In other words, for neoconservative interventionists, America should promote its own values — values of freedom, democracy, and civil society — and not just its own interests. For liberal interventionists, America should pursue the interests of other nations — in peacekeeping, environmental protection, fair trade — and not just its own interests. For neoconservative foreign-policy interventionists, the stress is on principle as opposed to interest; for liberal foreign-policy interventionists, it is on altruism as opposed to selfishness. These may often lead to the same specific foreign-policy stance, such as intervention in Kosovo, but the underlying animus differs. Whatever their comparative merits on other scores might be, there is less irony to the neoconservative idea that pursuing the nation’s principles is compatible with the nation’s long-run interests than there is to the liberal idea that pursuing other nations’ interests is compatible with the nation’s long-run interests.

Finally, liberal domestic-policy interventionism — interventionism in the marketplace — rests as well on the irony that, as the philosopher Norman Bowie puts it, the “collective pursuit of self-interest by all members of a society has the collective result of undermining the interests of all.” When we each merely pursue our own economic interests — working harder, driving costs down, and buying more — we at the same time undermine our own interests in personal well-being, job satisfaction, and the environment. Government intervention is thus required to provide safety nets, mandate decent working conditions, and prohibit environmental degradation. As with liberal foreign-policy interventionism, so with liberal domestic-policy interventionism: Both are shaped around an ironic awareness that the pursuit of self-interest, whether national or personal, often actually undermines those interests. But of course, to go too far in barring the pursuit of self-interest, whether national or personal, can be counterproductive too.

The Enlightenment

My goal here lies not in vindicating conservatism over liberalism, but in considering whether, because of its foreign and domestic policy tensions, American conservatism has, as David Farber says, “outlasted its historical purpose.” I have suggested that its tensions are resolvable at a certain level, but to fully examine Farber’s proposition, we need a historic perspective as well. And from a historic perspective, the first thing to note is that it’s strange that American conservatism’s various strands find reconciliation in a basic temperament of humility, as liberalism’s do in a series of ironies. After all, as Michael Oakeshott and Lionel Trilling in their different ways noted, it is conservatism that has historically been associated with irony. As for liberalism, it was certainly once deeply linked to a sense of humility: or, in John Stuart Mill’s usage, a sense of fallibility. Since no one can claim a monopoly on truth, Mill argued — since we should all be humble with respect to our own beliefs — we must cultivate a climate of liberal pluralism in which ideas can clash, with the stronger arguments driving out the weaker.

These images of conservatism and liberalism — in which conservatism is linked with irony and liberalism with humility — are rooted in a particular time and place, the era of the European Enlightenment and its aftermath. Conservative writers from Maistre to Tocqueville had to rely on irony because, however nostalgic they may have been for the age-old aristocratic or clerical order, with its claims to pride or infallibility, they understood that it was dying. The better rhetorical strategy, then, was not to try to defend that old order — a lost cause — but to call attention to the contradictions, the ironies, in the rising thought of Enlightenment liberalism.

Albert O. Hirschman, whose 1991 book The Rhetoric of Reaction analyzed this phenomenon, put it this way: “Because of the stubbornly progressive temper of the [Enlightenment] era,” conservatives were “up against an intellectual climate in which a positive value attached to whatever lofty objective [was] placed on the social agenda by self-proclaimed ‘progressives.’” Conservatives were thus “not likely to launch an all-out attack on that objective” but rather would understandably “attempt to demonstrate that the action proposed [to reach it would] produce . . . the exact contrary of the objective proclaimed . . . Attempts to reach for liberty [would] make society sink into slavery, the quest for democracy [would] produce oligarchy and tyranny,” and so forth. For everything pursued in the name of a given liberal value, conservatives found reason to argue that it would backfire, causing a setback by the lights of that same value — or another closely aligned. Enlightenment-era conservatives thus used liberal values to challenge and impeach liberalism itself, searching, as outsiders, for ironies within liberalism.

Enlightenment liberals, of course, had no converse need to appeal to the conservative values of hierarchy and tradition in order to challenge conservatives: no need, that is, to find ironies internal to conservatism. Instead, since it was their own liberal value system that was rising, they used it to attack conservative values of prescription and authority from the outside. No longer willing to accept prescribed ideas simply because they were laid down by self-professedly infallible ecclesiastical or political authorities, Enlightenment liberals placed stress on the idea that no one is infallible. No one has an a priori claim to the truth; and religious, political, and intellectual life can proceed only on the basis of a personal and institutional awareness of the universality of human fallibility. Proponents of any given ideology — aristocratic, democratic, socialist, theological, atheistic — would all have to display sufficient humility about their own access to the highest truth and wisdom to allow their mettle to be tested in the marketplace of ideas, where only the most rationally argued and empirically valid would prevail.

Conservatism: Not dead yet

When writers link irony to conservatism, or make claims for the centrality of humility to liberalism, they are thus thinking of bodies of argument that unfolded in the wake of the European Enlightenment and its aftermath. They are thinking of a rising liberalism besieging a declining authority-based aristocratic and clerical order, in which both sides made recourse to those ascending liberal values. In America today, however, the situation is different. Enlightenment liberalism is no longer new, its meaning and implications having been most fully adumbrated and explored for 200 years in the American creed. Enlightenment liberalism, though, faces challenges from new authoritarian opponents: opponents, that is, who draw their authority from their dominance of either secular society (e.g., China) or theocratic apparatuses (e.g., Iran). This has consequences for both American liberalism and American conservatism — and for humility and irony.

American liberals, who have for two centuries been elaborating the principles of a liberal order in which individuals are free to pursue their own interests, have for some time been bumping up against the ways in which those principles can fall into conflict as each is pursued more fully. Think of how the quest for “positive liberty” can erode “negative liberty,” for example, or how guaranteeing “equality of result” can diminish “equality of opportunity.” Hence, what characterizes American liberalism’s various strands, at the most basic level, is a continuing confrontation with a series of ironies, among them how the promotion of freedom abroad (understood as self-determination) can lead to a flowering of unfree regimes; how the promotion of freedom at home (understood as diversity) can lead to the flourishing of unfree cultural enclaves; how the promotion of the nation’s interests abroad can undermine them, as when America is seen to be motivated by the desire to accumulate its own wealth and power; and how allowing free rein for the pursuit of individual interests at home can undermine them, as when the market generates perverse social externalities such as environmental pollution or financial collapse. What’s key is that unlike conservatives of the Enlightenment era, who exploited the ironies of liberalism as outsiders, for liberals today, who confront them as insiders, they pose vexing, perplexing, and even paralyzing tradeoffs.

American conservatives, for their part, are less hamstrung by conflicts within America’s creedal liberal values than they are animated by the conflict between those values and their authoritarian opponents. But unlike Enlightenment liberals, who demanded that their authoritarian opponents — aristocrats, clerics, and their defenders — admit their own fallibility, for contemporary conservatives it is not so much the hubris of America’s opponents, but the hazards of America’s own overreaching in a dangerous world, that calls for constant monitoring and reflection. Thus realists worry about the capacity of government to properly manage even small deviations from the pursuit of American self-interest abroad, while libertarians worry about the capacity of government to manage even small deviations from the unfettered pursuit of individual interest in the marketplace at home. Neoconservatives worry that advances in freedom abroad cannot be attained by America without the help of other free nations in providing political, economic, and moral support, while social conservatives worry that advances in personal freedom at home cannot be managed by individuals without the help of government in buttressing family, church, and community. A sense of humility about human capacity has thus become the temperament that the major branches of American conservatism hold in common.

Not all American conservatives are paragons of humility, certainly, nor are all liberals caught in a thicket of irony. My observation is simply that if one goes looking for a temperament that the various strands of American conservatism all share, a good candidate is humility, just as irony is for liberalism. This temperamental level is of course only one of many from which to examine these two sprawling, vaguely bordered bodies of thought and opinion. But, when we do view the two from this underlying plane, Farber’s claim that American conservatism has become a superannuated, dead ideology seems problematic — certainly to the extent that history is a guide. After all, in the Enlightenment, it was a sense of humility that animated the rising ideology and a fixation on irony that characterized the one in stasis. If that principle still holds, then American conservatism has a vital role to play.

Or put it this way, in thinking about America today: Has there ever before been both such a need to strategically defend basic Enlightenment principles from external assault, coupled with such an awareness of the difficult internal tradeoffs involved in further refining and developing those principles? If not, then it’s hard to believe that American conservatism has “outlasted its historic purpose.”