Neoconservatism Taken Down
[Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea • By C. Bradley Thompson with Yaron Brook • Paradigm Publishers, 2010 • Xii + 305 pages]
C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism stands in fundamental opposition to individual rights and a free economy.
To most of us, neoconservatism is inevitably associated with the Iraq War. A group of neoconservatives, including Robert Kagan and David Frum, played with consummate folly a major role in urging the Bush administration toward initiating that conflict. The movement, on that ground alone, has little to recommend it; but can one nevertheless make a case on its behalf?
After all, neoconservatism was not always associated with reckless foreign-policy initiatives. To the contrary, in its early days in the 1960s, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Moynihan offered in the neoconservative journal The Public Interest cogent criticisms of many aspects of the welfare state. If Kristol could only muster Two Cheers for Capitalism, is this not better than most fashionable intellectuals can do? Perhaps the good elements in neoconservatism can be detached from the recent foreign-policy madness. C. Bradley Thompson emphatically disagrees. He argues that neoconservatism stands in fundamental opposition to individual rights and a free economy.
Although neoconservatives have indeed challenged certain aspects of the welfare state, they have no quarrel with it in principle.
In what may be Irving Kristol's most shocking statement in defense of collectivist redistribution and statism, he has suggested that "the idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy — as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago." (p. 29)
If this accurately describes their position, why do the neoconservatives criticize the welfare state at all? Aside from the technical deficiencies of particular programs, what concerns them is the way that some welfare programs encourage unvirtuous behavior. Welfare that rewards giving birth out of wedlock, e.g., arouses their protests.
This sort of criticism reveals a key fact about the neoconservatives. They have a very definite sense of the proper conduct that the state, or as they are likely to term it, the regime, ought to promote. Not for them is the libertarian view that each person, so long as he does not initiate force against others, is free to lead his life as he wishes. To the contrary, the leaders of the state have as one of their prime duties the development of the citizens' characters. Accordingly, freedom of speech most decidedly does not extend to pornography. Further, the government must inculcate patriotic sentiment among the people.
More generally, neoconservatives do not believe in individual rights at all, in the robust sense with which readers of the Mises Daily will be familiar.
On a deeper level, the problem with the [American] Founders' liberalism, according to Kristol, is that it begins with the individual, and a philosophy that begins with the "self" must necessarily promote selfishness, choice, and the pursuit of personal happiness.… A free society grounded on the protection of individual rights leads inexorably to an amiable philistinism, an easygoing nihilism, and, ultimately, to "infinite emptiness." (pp. 28–9)
Thompson mordantly remarks, "Thus the great political lesson that the neocons have successfully taught other conservatives … is to stop worrying and love the State" (p. 29).
Thompson is not content with this devastating verdict. He maintains that existing studies of neoconservatism do not penetrate to the essence: they have not discovered the philosophical roots of the movement. He locates this essence in the thought of Leo Strauss, and much of the book is devoted to a careful exposition and criticism of his views.1 (Even if one dissents from Thompson's intellectual genealogy of neoconservatism, the discussion of Strauss is of great value for its own sake.)
Thompson appears to have set himself a difficult task. Neoconservatism according to many of its proponents is a tendency rather than a developed body of doctrine.
Those who are willing to call themselves neoconservatives (and not all are) typically describe neoconservatism as an "impulse," a "style of thought," or a "mode of thinking." Its proponents have described neoconservatism as a way of seeing the world, as a state of mind and not as a systematic political philosophy. (p. 4)
If this is right, how can Thompson proceed with his plan to unearth the philosophical foundations of neoconservatism? Will not a view that repudiates system prove impervious to analysis?
Thompson neatly turns this difficulty to his advantage. The rejection of system manifests in this instance a related view that provides the key to understanding neoconservatism. A system is composed of principles that inhere in an ordered structure; but neoconservatives oppose fixed principles of politics.
For all their supposed concern for ideas and philosophy, there is something profoundly antiphilosophical about the neoconservatives. They eschew moral first principles in favor of a technique or a mode of thinking, and they scorn absolute, certain moral principles for what "works." (p. 32)
But in this very rejection of systematic morality lies concealed a philosophical doctrine.
But what has all this to do with Leo Strauss? To make good his case that Strauss's thought lies behind neoconservatism, Thompson must first establish that the neocons knew and studied Strauss. He does so by showing that the acknowledged godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, took Strauss as his philosophical master. Thompson places particular emphasis on a review by Kristol in Commentary (October 1952) of Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing.
Remarkably, this document has never been brought to the attention of the general public until now. Kristol's confrontation with Strauss came as an epiphany. It was, as Kristol has intimated on several occasions, the most important intellectual event of his life. (p. 59)2
From Persecution and the Art of Writing, Kristol absorbed the message that philosophers needed to conceal their dangerous doctrines from the masses. Philosophy undermines religious belief and shows also that morality lacks a rational foundation. But without religion and an accepted morality, the social order would be overthrown. Further, if the masses were to become aware of what the philosophers really taught, would they not suppress these dangerous thinkers? Philosophers form an intellectual elite, and they rank far superior to those lacking their wisdom.
The ancient philosophers, mindful of the fate of Socrates, kept always in mind the need to maintain their distance from the masses. The Enlightenment abandoned this antique wisdom.
Whereas Socrates-Plato recognized a wide and unbridgeable chasm between philosophers and nonphilosophers, the engineers of the modern world — men such as Bacon, Newton, Locke, and Jefferson — thought it possible to make all men reasonable, to bring light to a dark world through reason and science.… The Enlightenment therefore represented for Strauss the democratization and thus the degradation of the Western mind. (pp. 66–7)
Strauss rejected capitalism and individualism, which as he saw them rested on a low view of man. Instead of philosophical wisdom, confined to an elite, as the highest end of the regime, happiness and wealth for the masses became the order of the day.3
Strauss argued that the modern liberalism of Locke and Jefferson had distorted the fundamental structure of human existence, that without a summum bonum to guide his life, modern man lacked "completely a star and compass for his life" and was therefore wrenched away from the natural ordering of society. (p. 115)
The Enlightenment taught a further false doctrine: universal human rights. Instead, Strauss believed, there are no unalterably fixed moral standards. The statesman, taught by philosophers, must be guided by prudential judgment about the particular situation he faces. Here precisely is a key point at which Straussian teaching serves to explain neoconservatism. As earlier mentioned, the neocons resolutely reject fixed moral rules and rights.4
If Strauss rejected the Enlightenment, he by no means demanded the abolition of individualism and capitalism. To the contrary, the ancient arrangements of the polis could not in our day be restored; and the regime of the American Founding Fathers offered the best available bulwark against relativism and nihilism — if this regime was suitably controlled behind the scenes by philosophers instructed in Straussian wisdom.
What form would this philosophical guidance take? It is essential that the inferior masses develop virtuous habits, lest their unbridled appetites lead to undue disorder. To inculcate virtue and to weaken the base tendency of people to put their individual well-being ahead of the common good, what better means than a properly conducted war? War teaches self-sacrifice.
The moral component of this is straightforward. As we have seen, the neoconservatives' ethical prescription for ordinary citizens consists in a life of selfless sacrifice to others, in which the individual puts the needs and well-being of others above his own. (p. 180)
Thompson finds in this argument a principal motive for the neocons' support for the Iraq War. The neocons aimed not only to spread democracy as they conceived it to the benighted Iraqis: even more important, they saw the war as a means to discipline and educate the American people.
Thompson and Yaron Brook, the coauthor of the chapter on foreign policy, resolutely reject this approach to foreign policy. To them, wars are justifiable only as a means to avert a genuine threat, and "a real post–September 11 risk assessment of the threat posed by Iraq would not have resulted in finding that Iraq was at the top of the list of potential targets." (p. 179).
Thompson's interpretation of neoconservatism must confront two fundamental challenges. First, does he show that Strauss's view really stand at the base of neoconservatism? A critic might object that what holds true of Irving Kristol might not apply to others in the neoconservative movement. Further, has Thompson correctly interpreted Strauss? Was Strauss an advocate of a particular philosophy in his own right rather than a historian of political thought; and if he did wish to convey a philosophical message, is it the one Thompson attributes to him? I strongly suspect that Thompson can successfully meet these tests. Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea is essential reading for anyone interested in either the neoconservatives or Leo Strauss.
- 1. Thompson is an Objectivist, and accordingly believes as a general thesis that ideas determine history. Readers will not fail to recall Leonard Peikoff's endeavor in Ominous Parallels to trace the roots of Nazism to Kant's philosophy. I do not think this effort was entirely successful.
- 2. Thompson mentions that Kristol's wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, also wrote about Strauss. One might also note that his brother-in-law, Milton Himmelfarb, had studied Strauss's works carefully and wrote about Strauss on several occasions. See, e.g., "On Leo Strauss", Commentary (August 1974).
- 3. Strauss was influenced in his opposition to capitalism by his friend and academic patron R.H. Tawney, the eminent English socialist. Like Strauss, Tawney deplored what he called the "acquisitive society." See Simon Green, "The Tawney-Strauss Connection: On Historicism and Values in the History of Political Ideas", Journal of Modern History, June 1995.
- 4. Ironically, in view of the Objectivist portrayal of Kant as the fons et origo of modern philosophical evil, Straussians such as Harry Jaffa denounce fixed moral rules as Kantian.