Monday, July 05, 2010

The Republican Gramsci, and the Libertarians

Trying to sort out something to say re: this morning's reading. The topic is "conservatism" and the quotation marks are essential. That reading includes:

My point, I think, is that there is an utter disconnect here that nobody seems to notice, or at least not to trouble to take seriously. That's the hugely problematic intersection between "conservatism" and its scarier, perhaps smarter and crazier, brother, "libertarianism."

I doubt that there is any "conservative" in America these days (and not many "liberals") who can go more than five minutes into a conversation without saying "of course I'm a libertarian." It's like one one of the conservative stations-of-the-cross, like the one adjacent to Rush Limbaugh's backside. Well, maybe there is one who does not say it: David Brooks, not least as filtered by Christopher Beam. Unless my "find" function is taking a holiday, Beam got through six pages without surfacing any such confession. Indeed Beam only glancingly labels Brooks a "conservative;" the preferred label seems to be "Burkean:" in this case, a kind of soft dirigeism, but not as ambitious as you would get from the left.

A conservative, then, whom you could introduce to your mother. Indeed that's a riff on a remark I first heard about the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, and maybe that's the point: David Brooks as the Republican Gramsci.

Contrast Mitch Daniels, the wonky, budget-hawkish governor of Indiana. I admit to a soft spot for wonky budget hawks and so I willing to accept Daniels as one of the more--or one of the few--attractive "conservatives" in American politics. Daniels makes no bones about the fact that he sees himself as a "libertarian," in the sense of "one who is put on the planet to cut the government down to size. His booklist is mostlly pretty routine, but he does give a shoutout to one truly underappreciated modern social thinker--Mancur Olson, the author, inter alia, of Daniels' choice here, The Rise and Decline of Nations. As Rauch parses:

Olson’s thesis is that the gradual accumulation of perks carved out for special interests gradually saps the dynamism of economies and societies, leading to their decline if you don’t work very, very hard and constantly to try and counter those effects

It's an excellent point and one that isolates just what it is that proves so distinctive in Olson, as distinct from so many other more shallow "libertarians." The demon in this quotation is not "the government" but rather "the gradual accumulation of perks for special interests." As Olson understands (and so many others miss) this could be any perks--government, market, whatever.

I never cease to marvel at how well libertarians get away with it--I mean equating "constraint on freedom" with "government," as if not to notice that constrains on freedom can come from almost anywhere, and that removing "the government" (everybody supports that) may do nothing than introduce some other leviathan in its place.

I suspect one reason is that there are so many different species of "libertarian" that their implicit agendas tend to cancel each other. Thus the Wall Street trading floors are jam packed with hustlers who are perfectly content to let the rest of the world go to hell as long as they make enough money to hire their own security guards, etc--"Republicans who want to smoke dope," as it is said. There is a much larger crowd who want the government out of the way so they can impose the much more severe constraint of the theocracy. I will give this crowd at least part credit for naïveté--some really do believe that removing the mote from their own eye will ram the beam from somebody else's; they just can't seem to get their mind round the that the loving embrace of the faith can be itself a form of oppression.

You'd think that maybe Daniels, schooled by Olson, would grasp this kind of subtlety. Maybe he does; it was a short interview, and anyway he has a constituency to please. One person who does understand some of the subtleties is the ghost at the table Friedrich Hayek. I'll set aside as silly any suggestion that there has been a “rediscovery” of anyone who has proven so influential for so long (the sale of a few books is a distraction). I'll dismiss as frivolous the yapping from the running dogs of the populist fringe.

I have mixed feelings about Hayek. On the issue before the house, I suspect he is a more subtle and penetrating figure than the more popular Milton Friedman (Friedman gets the medal in the banking division, however). In the long run, though, I suspect he is not as durable a thinker as Olson.

I will give him credit, however, for seeing a lot further and more deeply than a lot of his drum-beating advocates. Example, I've always thought that Hayek has the best single (though not the only) argument against state plannng: that you can't do it because the state just doesn't know enough, and never will. He is also, be it remembered, one of the most therapeutic essays in the history of 20th Century libertarian thought. I mean the one in which he tries to explain why market institutions are by their very nature disruptive of settled relationships, both government and private. The title of the essay is, of course, “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”

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