I’m a big fan of Scott’s post the other day on neo-conservatism, which I take to be a terrific defense of the original insights provided by neo-conservatism even as it seeks to distance itself from the “overzealous and dangerous manner” in which those insights have been applied. I was particularly smitten with this sentence:
Ironically, my own estimation is that it is neoconservatism’s emphasis on moral clarity, the hubris that has spelled its intermediate doom, that offer the greatest strength we might cull from its many wolves (and perhaps not ultimately very ironic at all as circumstances have shown us often enough that an ideology’s Mjöllnir seems ever destined to become its Achilles heel).
As Scott suggests, it is very often the strength of an ideology’s wisdom and/or moral clarity that ultimately becomes its undoing. I’d go further and say that the wisdom and/or moral clarity are also what gives an ideology the opportunity to gain popular relevance in the first place. Typically, this moral clarity is also fundamentally correct or at the very least serves to remind us of the importance of a particular moral virtue. Naturally, the ideology’s proponent’s put forth some fairly specific proposals about how that virtue ought to relate to the problems of the day.
This ability to remind us of a particular virtue can make the ideology extremely appealing, and eventually allows it to gain adherents outside of the particular group of intellectuals who first begin to emphasize it. In many instances, it can even gain enough of a following to become an influential player in one or both of the primary political coalitions, resulting in many (though almost never all) of its original policy prescriptions getting implemented.
The trouble is that in the process of gaining adherents, the ideology loses much of the nuance and intellectual rigor that was involved in its creation in the first place. Simply put, you can’t expect every voter to have read their preferred movement’s version of FA Hayek, John Rawls, or Russell Kirk. Take my preferred ideology, for example. As relatively small as libertarianism may be, there are still millions of small “l” libertarians; and yet, how many of them have actually read Hayek’s masterwork Road To Serfdom, which despite its legendary reputation has only managed to sell half a million copies in its 65 years of existence? And yes, that doesn’t account for people who have read the book in libraries or perhaps purchased a used copy. But even accounting for that, I find it highly unlikely that more than 20% of libertarians have actually read Road To Serfdom. And it’s safe to say that the number who have done so who also had the historical knowledge to fully understand what Hayek was writing about are just a fraction of that number (hell, I’m not even sure that I fit in that latter category).
The result is that the moral clarity that gave rise to the ideology gets mixed up with the prescriptions and diagnoses that resulted therefrom. In other words, the specific prescriptions and diagnoses that originated from the ideology’s moral clarity wind up becoming proxies for that moral clarity. To continue with the example of libertarianism, Hayek’s arguments against very specific types of government intervention wind up being interpreted and/or promoted as arguments that just about any government intervention is an irreversible step on the Road To Serfdom; any government intervention at all gets hit with the “socialism!” cry.*
At first, there’s really not much wrong with this response. In order for the intellectual ideology to have any opportunity at seeing its prescriptions and diagnoses have any impact on policy, the ideology needs popular support, after all.
The problem occurs, though, when the ideology achieves some measure of success or when circumstances change. While the intellectuals that gave rise to the movement may have different ideas, their movement’s newfound size means that they no longer have much control over the movement’s direction. Because the initial prescriptions and diagnoses of the movement have become proxies for the moral clarity that was the original basis for those prescriptions and diagnoses, this means that the movement’s answer to just about all problems is some version of those original prescriptions and diagnoses – never mind that they were created for a particular time and situation that no longer exists.
And that is the big problem – in assuming that the original set of prescriptions and diagnoses are always and everywhere the only way to act on the original moral clarity that underlay the movement, the movement actually winds up losing sight of that moral clarity. To be sure, it will still pay lip service to its moral vision; but it will refuse to even consider whether alternatives exist that better serve that moral vision. Worse, it may even wind up so over-emphasizing those particular prescriptions that it will utterly disregard evidence and arguments that the enactment of those prescriptions in a given situation may actually wind up undermining the moral vision for which the movement purports to stand.
In the case to which Scott cites, i.e., neoconservatism, I think this is precisely what has happened. To be sure, there are shockingly few people who have ever self-identified as neo-conservative, especially since the term has become a catch-all perjorative for just about any form of conservatism that one does not like. But that doesn’t mean that neo-conservatism has lacked for influence (it was virtually impossible, for instance, to go to college in the mid-to-late ’90s and avoid contact with Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man).
The problem was that the high-brow neo-conservative intellectual thought became perverted when it took the form of actual political influence. What had begun as essentially an intellectual counterweight to nihilism and moral relativism and a defense of the right of nations to promote their vision of morality, when it became translated into political rhetoric, became an argument that liberal democracies had a moral right to promote their sense of morality and defend themselves by whatever means they saw fit. The idea that liberal democracies needed to attempt to do so in the least intrusive manner possible got thrown out the window. In other words, when the neoconservative critique was translated into the public mind, it became an argument that the promotion and defense of liberal democracy was such an important moral virtue that all other moral virtue became irrelevant as long as actions were being taken to promote or defend liberal democracy. In a sad way, the popular incarnation of neo-conservatism became the very nihilism and moral relativism that it claimed to oppose (and that many/most intellectual neo-conservatives actually DID oppose). Out went just war doctrine and proportionality; in came waterboarding and Guantanamo Bay.
Alas, this was far from the position of many intellectuals who self-identified as neo-conservatives, including Francis Fukuyama himself, who had a far more nuanced view of what actions were appropriate at what time. Unfortunately, nuance doesn’t win votes.
*I’m aware that Mises and Rothbard would likely have agreed with this conclusion. However, the fact is that outside of die-hard movement libertarianism, these two are even less known than Hayek.