An unsettled dogma
Jonah Goldberg has a very smart response to Jim Manzi’s reflections on “liberty-as-means” libertarians vs. “liberty-as-goal” libertarians. I want to focus on Jonah’s post here, but you should read Manzi as well. Jonah writes:
My own view is that the Right is intellectually healthier and more creative because its dogma remains unsettled (yes, I’ve written about this a zillion times). The Right is divided between those who are (in Irving Kristol’s formulation) anti-left and those who are anti-State. Those who believe that the government is bad because it’s working from leftist assumptions, and those who believe that the government is bad because it is the government. (Most conservatives share both outlooks to one extent or another, but usually fit more into one camp than the other. If you’re wholly in the government-is-bad camp you’re more properly a libertarian, but still on the right). There are those who believe that liberty is an end and those who believe that liberty is a means. For more than a half century now, modern conservatives have been debating and redebating the question of where to the draw the lines between freedom and order, liberty and virtue. And because that line continually needs to be redrawn given the evolution of attitudes, changes in technology, etc, conservative intellectuals (though not necessarily conservative activists, politicians and the like) are constantly revisiting first principles and philosophical assumptions or are at least capable of acknowledging the good faith of their philosophical opponents). I do not think you can say the same thing about liberals (again, as a wild generalization). What unites most, if not all, factions of the Left, from socialists to DLC moderates is a dogmatic acceptance that the government should do good when it can and where it can. Hence the debates on the left tend to be procedural, wonkish, and technical or rankly political. The Right has such arguments as well, of course. But they do not define and dominate political discussions the way they do on the left. And that’s because our dogma is still unsettled.
I think this strikes upon a number of smart observations. Certainly the continual re-drawing of the many lines between liberty and virtue, freedom and order, etc. is exactly the reason I enjoy reading (intellectual) conservative blogs so much more than I enjoy reading liberal blogs. On the flip side, I think the best wonkish blogs and writers are found in the liberal corner.
Perhaps this reveals not only the strengths on both sides of the political aisle, but also the weaknesses.
I like thinking of conservatism in these terms – as an “unsettled ideology.” This gets at the bohemian conservatism I was talking about last week. Russell Kirk was a self-described “bohemian Tory” and I think the intellectual wing of the conservative movement, with its distrust of centralized power and so forth fits that term nicely, if the red-meat activist wing does not. The “unsettled dogma” concept seems so far removed from the conservative movement’s attempts at purity tests and activism that it’s a bit hard to reconcile the two. And of course I’ve always been more attracted to the intellectual struggles within the ideology than with the political processes themselves, healthcare blogging notwithstanding. But I think this can also be a trap for conservative intellectuals, or at least for bloggers with an intellectual streak (I am not really an intellectual as far as I know). More conservatives need to focus on policy and wonkishness if only to provide their ideas with a tangible foundation, but also because the effort to dismantle or reinvent the welfare state – to really limit big government – requires if anything even more policy and wonkishness than the other side.
Addendum: I’d like to point out that I in no way endorse some of the more caricatured views Goldberg expresses here vis-a-vis liberals. Gross generalizations are not really my cup of tea, whether they can be applied to certain people within the larger group or not. I will, however, note that so far the conservative and liberal response here has been hostile. That means I’m doing something right. Re: purity tests and so forth, it’s not so much that ideological groups shouldn’t set out some standards for membership, but that the standards become awfully silly and rigid in a political climate like the one we now have.