Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative, a magazine which “features much Toryism, anarchism, paleolibertarianism, and left conservatism, as well as many other mold-breaking ideas” as well as a number of very good blogs by folks like Daniel Larison. I’m sure many of you are regular readers of the magazine, but if not you can subscribe here. I had the chance to ask Daniel a few questions about liberalism, traditionalism and anarchy and he was gracious enough to provide some really great responses. The whole interview is just beneath the fold…
Kain. So you blog at The American Conservative at your blog “Tory Anarchist”. To a lot of people, I think that might sound a little contradictory. Anarchism often calls to mind hooded protesters at G8 summits. Tory calls to mind Margaret Thatcher. What exactly is a Tory Anarchist?
McCarthy. It’s very contradictory, but they’re two dispositions that aren’t liberalism. That’s important because even most forms of conservatism and libertarianism are just mutant liberalisms. Thatcherism included. “Tory” means something more than Conservative or conservative, it’s about loyalty to persons and institutions rather than abstract ideas. Anarchism has a right-wing as well as a left-wing pedigree: think Burke’s “natural society” and Coleridge’s pantisocracy. Tory anarchism isn’t really an idea at all, just a intuition, but it’s meant to hint that tradition and authority are different from state power, and being right-wing doesn’t have to mean — and shouldn’t mean — being pious and meddlesome. It’s liberalism that’s damn near synonymous with the worst kind of piety and meddling.
There’s not a Tory anarchist tradition exactly, but the label has been applied, with good reason, to writers like Albert Jay Nock, Evelyn and Auberon Waugh, Mencken, Florence King, Dwight Macdonald, even Orwell and Max Beerbohm, though Orwell is too much of an egalitarian and Cold War liberal for my tastes.
Lately I find myself more sympathetic to Toryism than to anarchism, probably because the GOP is now dragging the notion of freedom through the mud just as it dragged the word conservatism through the mud in the Bush years. It’s nice to have a choice of poisons.
Kain. In American politics, our choice of poisons seems rather limited at times – at least in terms of party affiliation. In the blogosphere a number of attempts at fusionism have sprung up. Tory Anarchism is a sort of fusionism even if, as you say, it’s more of an intuition than an idea. It reminds me a bit of this piece by David Hart at First Things on Tolkien’s “Anarcho-Monarchism”. He writes that “there are those whose political dreams are only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.” I wonder if something as foreign to Americans as a traditionalist conservatism can ever catch hold here?
Also, a number of other fusionist political philosophies have crept into our discourse the past few years. What is your take, for instance, on liberal-tarianism, an idea spearheaded by Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsay?
McCarthy. Hart’s article reads like a parody. Tolkien is not “gently ironic” when he writes of “dynamiting factories and power stations.” As for the writers I mentioned, there was nothing gentle or ironic about Auberon Waugh’s criticism of British behavior toward Biafra or in Dwight Macdonald’s essays about Allied atrocities during World War II.
The choice of poisons I have in mind is in political perspective, with the awareness that any perspective is limited. There are choices enough in political affiliation. The problem there isn’t numerical but qualitative. Adding a bad Socialist Party and a bad Farmers Party and a bad Extropian Party wouldn’t fix any of the ills wrought by the bad Republican Party and bad Democratic Party. Adding a good party might seem like a step in the right direction, but it’s specious to imagine that new parties will be any better than old ones. Why would they be?
You’re right that traditionalism has difficulty finding a foothold in the United States. American traditionalists try to make up for the absence of fixed institutions by emphasizing the supposedly conservative qualities of the Puritans or the continuities between British traditions and America. But the Puritans themselves possessed some profoundly un-conservative characteristics — they really did want to start a new and pure settlement from which they could eventually recreate the world in a holier image. Even if that were a good idea, it has nothing to do with conserving. Vaunted Anglo-American traditions, meanwhile, are largely Whig myths. There’s a conservative side to Whiggery, but the American revolution was a radical Whig event — it created a republic.
American traditionalists are often caught between denying the religious and republican radicalism of the country’s origins — and when they do that, their claims about tradition ring false in their countrymen’s ears — and repudiating the country itself for having un-conservative origins. The best traditionalist makes the most of the traditions he has, even if their origins embarrass him. No one gets to pick his parents, after all.
I don’t see that liberaltarianism is much different from simple liberalism. Contrary to the polemics of Republicans, American liberalism has always understood that markets are necessary and can help promote liberal goals. But liberals know better than liberaltarians that markets do not always promote the things they like, and while markets may be necessary, they are not always the means that ought to be preferred. To say, for example, that Great Society anti-poverty measures are counterproductive is fine, but that takes for granted that productivity is what counts — and that it’s countable. If a liberal thinks that a government program can accomplish something, what reason can a liberaltarian give for not trying it?
They might resort to claims that some programs impinge on individual autonomy, but here too liberaltarianism seems like a watered-down version of liberalism, which has a much more robust understanding of autonomy, one that doesn’t observe the strict distinctions between society and state that libertarians cherish. For advanced liberals, Rousseau trumps Rawlsek.
Kain. Going back to Burke’s ‘natural society’, Rothbard wrote that Burke’s Vindidcations has been glossed over by conservatives because a “less conservative work could hardly be imagined; in fact, Burke’s Vindication was perhaps the first modern expression of rationalistic and individualistic anarchism.”
You’re suggesting that conservatism and anarchy can in fact be complimentary, that the younger Burke of Vindications and the older Burke with whom people are more familiar are in fact two sides of the same coin. If this is the case, then there seems to be a certain strain of libertarianism in there as well. Is the end result of Tory-anarchism perhaps something more along the lines of a ‘night-watchman state’ as envisioned by libertarians such as Robert Nozick? In that sense, is there some natural unity between classical liberals and anarcho-capitalists such as Rothbard and traditionalists such as yourself? Or is there something in the Tory DNA that doesn’t quite fit with the minarchist critique?
McCarthy. Conservatism and anarchism share some historical background, as reactions against liberalism, and they share some critiques of liberalism. It’s not that liberalism — broadly construed to include the “classical” variety in practice as well as the modern version — is the worst socio-political system imaginable. The various totalitarianisms of the 20th century were far worse, and anarchists and conservatives alike have to be careful that in making a deep critique of liberalism they’re not opening the door to something far deadlier.
But liberalism is not the end of history, and it’s not the final picture of justice. Under the guise of democracy and markets, and human rights, various kinds of powers and interests are able to run quite unchecked. This was what Tories who opposed the fiscal revolution realized — they opposed the financialization of power as much as they opposed, for self-interested reasons, the transfer of power from landed and established interests to commercial ones.
The Vindication is a very interesting document. On the one hand, it’s generally assumed to be a scathing parody of Bolingbroke. But a few people, including Rothbard and Felix Morley, have taken it seriously. Neither of them was a Burke scholar, but Isaac Kramnick also has suggested that it’s not just a parody since Burke used arguments and language very similar to that of the Vindication in certain other circumstances where it was quite clear that he was serious.
Bolingbroke himself is a parodoxical figure, an inspiration (sometimes indirectly) both to radical Whigs and to “country” Tories — basically to both sides of the opposition against the British “fiscal-military state” under establishment Whigs. Burke on the one hand was a philosophical defender of the establishment and the Whig settlement of the Glorious Revolution. But he also agreed with some of Bolingbroke’s critiques, and he foresaw the worst elements of the Whig establishment and the radical Whigs combining — that is, Burke was very keenly aware of how the outcome of a revolution on the French model would not be greater freedom, but savage expressions of power now exercised in the name of freedom. There are a lot of threads that come together and diverge in Burke, and the Vindication, even though it is a satire, is not unserious or insignificant as a result. Quite the contrary.
With Rothbard and Nozick, we get the problem of to what extent anarcho-capitalists can distinguish themselves from liberals. The problem with liberalism is not just that it disguises power as freedom, but also that it blinds its exponents to the very existence of power. Its methodologies and assumptions tend to be blandly rationalistic and unreal. I can’t really launch into a critique of Nozick in these remarks, but his approach to political philosophy is liberalism par excellence, and unsurprisingly it leads him to dismiss anarchism and endorse a minimal state (or ultra-minimal state), the very thing that has always been the stated ideal of liberalism.
Is Nozick right that Rothbard’s own principles should lead him to the same conclusions? It’s significant that Rothbard didn’t think so. I would almost go so far as to say that while Rothbard treasured the liberal tradition and thought of himself as a right-wing liberal, his methodology and instincts were not liberal in the way that Nozick’s were. Deep down there might be more of Bolingbroke, or the pseudo-Bolingbroke of the Vindication, than of Mill in Rothbard. Even before he had any arguments, Rothbard hated the state at a visceral level, and his philosophy was always straining against the limits of liberalism — which is part of the significance of attempt to bridge Locke and St. Thomas and his search for the roots of Austrian economics in Spanish Catholic scholasticism. A lot of Rothbard’s critics on the Catholic Right say that he was really just a plain-vanilla Lockean who tried to conscript St. Thomas and the Salamanca school into the service of liberalism. I suspect the opposite is true: Rothbard may have been more immersed in Lockean liberalism, but his strongest affinities lay outside of the liberal tradition. Some daring young Austro-anarchist should write a paper distancing Rothbard from Locke and showing that he was *really* a Thomist, albeit a heterodox one. I know how unlikely that sounds, but I think there’s something to it.
Kain. You critique liberalism as something which blinds people to power – I think the financialization of power is an apt example. But I think that liberalism itself rose up as a response to what many viewed as unchecked and unjust power. As you noted, the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century had a much more brutal and devastating power. But liberalism was not a rejection of 20th century totalitarianism, but of much older traditions. If, as you say, liberalism is not the end of history or the final picture of justice, then what is? Or rather, what do you see as a more perfect vision of justice? If Toryism is about loyalty to persons and institutions, then what persons and institutions remain or can be salvaged (or reincarnated?) to achieve that vision?
McCarthy. What we’ve seen over the course of U.S. political history is the reduction of all of our political institutions to a single standard. During the Founding era, there was a great deal of debate about how the U.S. could succeed without the kind of institutional divisions that Bolingbroke and Montiquieu described, where different institutions represented different interests in society. I’m impressed by Willmoore Kendall’s answer to the question, which is that Madison devised a means for having all of our political institutions based on popular sovereignty — hence, no king, no lords, and no established church — but different institutions would be based on different kinds and phases of popular sovereignty. Hence the different terms for House, Senate, and President, and the different modes of election, by direct election, appointment by state governments, and by the Electoral College. Madison seems to have picked up the idea from Hume’s essay on the perfect commonwealth.
That was a brilliant answer to a classic political problem, but even in the early republic things didn’t go as planned. The Electoral College never took on much life, for one thing. But over time we’ve moved further away from the Madisonian answers — now the Senate as well as the House is directly elected, and the states, while not quite being reduced to administrative districts of the federal government, don’t have much power or will to compel Washington to limit its ambitions. You occasionally get some noise about nullification, as in the case of Obamacare, and sometimes the states even win a few court battles. But that doesn’t change the balance of power. What the Madisonian scheme at its best provided was not just a means for the states to resist Washington, but a way for the states to make sure Washington didn’t go too far off the rails in the first place.
Getting back a bit of the Madisonian vision and reinvigorating federalism would be one thing that might be done to check Washington’s imperial liberalism. There’s no short-term proposal that I think is likely to move us in that direction, though. Ending direct election of senators is a nonstarter. The best bet might be to expand the number of representatives in the House and shrink congressional districts back to a size where they can actually represent some human community and culture, not just economic interests and advertising dollars. Another remote possibility that would greatly help is getting the Supreme Court to overturn the idea that corporations are federal persons with constitutional rights. That would make the states more important than the federal government once more in economic decision-making — or at least it would go a long way toward redressing the balance.
That would be just a start toward reining in liberalism. On the cultural front, I think there’s something to be said for Bill Kauffman’s work in uncovering regional literature in the U.S.; there’s a spiritual federalism involved in that. But federalism requires a center as well as a periphery, and I don’t know what can be done to revive a cultural center in the country, one worthy of the name, that is. A renaissance in that regard is the kind of thing only artistic visionaries can pull off, not political thinkers or journalists.
Kain. One last question: In my own political ecology I constantly wrestle with my distaste for the excesses of the modern world, the big-boxing of America, the soul-sucking sameness of it all, strip mall after strip mall, and the fact that no matter how ugly and lifeless many of these aspects of our modern, consumerist, liberal era are, this is how people become employed. Those strip malls and massive, godless corporations nevertheless lead to employment and prosperity. We may be losing many of the things that Bill Kauffman and other critics of modernity (including myself) hold dear – a sense of place, of history, family, and so forth – but what is the alternative, and how is it achieved, and can it even be achieved through politics? What is the economic vision that runs alongside the ‘spiritual federalism’ you spoke about earlier?
McCarthy. At this point it’s an open question whether the strip malls and godless corporations lead to employment and prosperity. The strip malls certainly aren’t looking very healthy nowadays, and neither are the enclosed variety. I’m pretty far from the post-consumerist apocalypticism of, say, James Howard Kunstler, but the Great Recession has called into question whether the economy of the past 20 years hasn’t largely been an illusion. The meltdown has revealed just how proletarianized Americans have become — in the sense of being factory workers, but proletarians in the original sense that a lot of our people own nothing but their children. Nobody is starving, but the quality of life is well below that of Switzerland, Japan (despite it’s exaggerated difficulties), and much of Western Europe. Even to the extent that nominal income holds up, infrastructure and social capital in America often seems exhausted. No doubt there are economists, though, who will tell us that everything is wonderful — maybe James Glassman will predict another “Dow 36,000.”
For a variety of reasons, starting with temperament, America can’t emulate any other country’s economy, though we might take a few notes. We can at least lose our illusions: Americans continue to think, and to be told by economists, that our economy is spontaneous and natural and free, while Japan is mired in mercantilism and Europe is socialist. Our economy is just as artificial as theirs are, and there’s plenty of planning involved here too, not only on the part of the federal government and the Fed but by financial firms and classes of managers, speculators, and publicists. There’s genuine entrepreneurial spontaneity; there’s also a great deal of entrepreneurial fraud — con artists are by nature entrepreneurial, they always have new ideas to sell. We have a very mixed system with some good and plenty of bad.
The advantage of economic decentralization is that it would allow a lot more variety — what’s best for Iowa might not be best for New York or Hawaii. And the way to bring about economic decentralization is through political decentralization; otherwise you’re just going to have some D.C. or Wall Street mastermind’s grand plan for what economic pluralism should look like. Politics and economics are tangential categories, and each can have a destructive influence on the other. I suppose what I would argue for as a big picture is to reduce the influence of concentrated economic and political power and thereby increase the relative sway of cultural, non-utilitarian, and non-coercive institutions. Ultimately, I’m enough of a free marketeer that I think much freer markets are compatible with a much richer culture, but even apart from the way I’d like things to work out, simply getting some variety back into America’s political economy — or political economies — would be a great thing.
Kain. Thanks so much for doing this interview, Daniel. I had a lot of fun.