Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 8, 2009

The Optimism in “Optimistic Conservative”

The first questions to be answered here are:  Why start yet another conservative blog?  And why call it “The Optimistic Conservative”?

                 Why, ultimately, invite you to spend your valuable time here?  What do we need another conservative blog for?

                 The answers to these questions are easy, but only because it has taken a lifetime – so far — to get to them.  The reason for this blog is that conservatism has lost its way:  in my view, is inadequately represented, on too many topics, by many of those best-known pundits and politicians who speak for it.  This problem is even more fundamental than the issue of political incompetence (an issue California-dwelling Republicans are all too familiar with).  The problem is that conservatives, Republicans, and right-wingers no longer have clarity – either unifying or boundary-setting — about who they are, and what they believe.        

                This problem was thrown into strong relief by Senator McCain’s nomination of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska to be his running mate in last year’s election.  Palin got a tremendous response from Republicans across the country who admired her political characteristics and identified with her personal ones.  On the other hand, a sizable number of nationally-syndicated conservative commentators found themselves alarmed and repelled by Palin, as much because of the simplicity of her background and the regional twang of her speech as for any other reason.  The telling aspect of these dichotomous reactions was precisely that different “conservatives” reacted in an opposite manner to the same characteristics.  Voters across the nation admired Palin’s small-town origins, her working-class family, her energy, optimism, common sense, and lack of any affectation, or patina of clubbish metropolitanism.    For a number of pundits, however, these traits disqualified her from high public office; to their ears, rural accents, bluntness, optimism, and the time-worn aphorisms of the middle class sound simplistic and even uneducated.

          I think many of us were surprised by the reactions of conservative pundits like Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan, and David Frum.   Whatever the basis of the fundamental differences they have with what is usually called “the base” – and I will no doubt be exploring that basis at this blog – what became important was that these opposite reactions were so significant to both sides.  Both sides felt startled and even betrayed by what they saw in the other.

Yet an argument can be made that none of us should have been so surprised by this polarizing reaction.  We on the right have always been hard to unite under a big tent:  always divided into “social conservatives” and “economic conservatives,” libertarians – even “anarcho-capitalists” — and traditionalists, absolutists and incrementalists, defensive isolationists and preemptive interventionists, the post-industrial polo-shirted of Newport Beach and the blue collar of Newport News .  Whether under Taft or Eisenhower, Goldwater or Nixon, Reagan or Gingrich, McCain or Bush, conservatives under the Republican banner have long been ideologically, as well as politically and socially, diverse – and often irreconcilable.

 

However, one key – absolutely fundamental – factor of our environment is that our political opponents, while they do subsume some measure of social and political diversity, labor under no such ideological schisms.  They have one basic posture about which there is no debate, and that is that the force of government should be used to pursue permanent, transformative changes in the state of mankind.  Thomas Sowell, the economic and social historian (well-known to most conservatives), calls this posture the seeking of “cosmic justice,” and correctly observes that its objectives are what I call transformative outcomes:  outcomes that are projected to undo the whole condition of man’s reality, from the persistence of self-interest, and the unequal power of individual motivation, to the intransigence of sex roles in procreation and societal formation.

 What unites the ideological left is not so much agreement on any one set of conditions that need amelioration in the interest of cosmic justice.  (Although there is, in fact, large agreement on that.) Rather, it is the foundational faith in the use of government force to bring the transformative outcomes about.  A short-hand way of describing the desired phenomenon, especially as it plays out in Western polities, is to say that “we,” collectively, can make anything – anything — our business, and by agreeing to use the force of law and punishment, “fix” it.

 

Unfortunately for the self-concept of the political right, as well as for the general public debate, “conservatism” is too often simply defined as opposition to this basic position of the political left about government force and the cosmos.  Whether old-guard curmudgeons are barking out proclamations of doom because there is an income tax, or “establishment” conservatives are remonstrating with their “establishment liberal” counterparts mainly for proposing more of what the conservatives prefer less of, the essential impression is of conservatives as reflexive nay-sayers and foot-draggers.  The left, from this perspective, has the positive momentum, the energy of the active posture, the intention to “do something.”  The conservative right is merely milling around in a discouraged, muttering congregation, hoping that its passive position athwart history will induce the forces of progress and transformation to “Stop!”

 But that, it turns out, is why I am starting this blog.  Because I do not see conservatism this way.  I do not see it as merely the antithesis of whatever the left wants to do with government today.  I believe, in fact, that this very characterization cedes an ideological centrality to government that breaks down quickly on critical investigation.  I am certain that believing in government, as an agent for transforming man and his estate, is a triumph of hope and ignorance over knowledge and experience – but I believe more than that.  I believe that there is a transformative agent for mankind’s estate:  and that in political terms – as well as economic and religious ones — it is liberty.

 There will be plenty of time, and plenty of ways, to make the point that government encroachment is bad.  My concern is to inaugurate this blog with the idea that liberty is good.  Man does best, both on his own and in societies, when punishments and obstacles are the least for exercising freedom of religious and political choice; for living in self-reliance in the natural family unit; for achieving greater personal affluence through hard work — and through good ideas that benefit many;  and for challenging consensus in science and the arts.

 

Liberty has not been the natural or average condition of mankind, over the centuries.  For the vast majority of people who have lived in our era of written records, the average condition has been economic and political servitude to a sovereign or local overlord, and his favorites; some level of enforced public fealty to a generally-accepted religion (or to an official idea about religion, as in Marxist dictatorships); and little – or more often, no – choice of occupation or dwelling place.  There have been lots and lots of government coercion and rulership throughout man’s history on earth:  far, far more of it than of the liberty enjoyed today by Americans, and to a lesser extent by Europeans and some other Westernized nations.  Government, law, and state coercion have a very long and varied history, from Hammurabi to the constitutions of modern states — and they encompass religious as well as secular rule, from the ancient Israelites under the Law of Moses to the unique church-state partnerships of Europe in the Middle Ages, from the god-emperors of the ancient Americas to the Islamic shari’a law imposed on parts of the Eastern Hemisphere today.

 Of temporal law and government, there has been no end; and the same may be said of taxes.  If law, government, and taxes could “fix” mankind, there should really be no accounting for why we are not FIXED, already, after 5000 years of recorded history under law, government, and taxes.

 The point for conservatives is that under no other conditions of law and government have people thrived as they do under the concept of political, religious, and economic liberty.  Pharaohs, emperors, kings; autocrats, theocrats, plutocrats; philosophers of political economy, professional bureaucrats throughout the ages, radical activists in all their guises, and General Secretaries of Communist Parties — all have seized and directed the power of government in the name of great objectives, cosmic and parochial.  Yet not one of them has achieved what one individual, or one family, or one voluntary association of free men and women, can achieve when government respects them, keeps its hands off them, and guarantees them the right to keep and use what they earn, create, and accumulate.  Wealth creation, invention, technological progress, the expansion of social and economic options for millions – civilizations of plenty — all of these things are the product of individual initiative, and the motivations of family, faith, and personal aspirations.  They thrive in inverse proportion to the ideological activism of government, and its reach into the daily lives of its citizens.

 I am an optimistic conservative because I believe in the power of liberty:  political, religious, and economic.  Liberty does better by men and women than any government program that promises to coerce some and provide benefits to others.  If you want to improve the condition of man, look not to government force, programs, or law, but to liberty.  In opposing the never-ending stream of government programs concocted by the left – and unfortunately, too often, by people who claim political affiliation with the right – I affirm that what I am opposing are the obstacles to liberty, and the punishments of it, inherent in statist interventionism.  My objective is to leave the world a better place, with more people in it doing well:  by cultivating and expanding liberty.

 

I am also an optimistic conservative because I believe that the reason liberty is so powerful is that man’s nature predisposes him to want to use it well.  There are, of course, many temptations with liberty, and everyone has his laundry list of the ones he considers the most destructive.  But government coercion has no history of averting those temptations, or inducing people to make different decisions about them.  Coercion by the state merely rechannels and distorts the same old temptations.  The best that organized humanity can do is punish certain choices about temptation; and this never makes anyone else better off.  On the other hand, allow models of prosperity to flourish, and free men and women to see them as, in good part, the product of self-discipline in the face of temptation, and those men and women are naturally equipped to learn from the lesson before them, and to act on it.

 

I must state here that my view of man in this regard is substantially informed by my being a Christian.  But I also think that a simple review of history affirms the Christian understanding that men and women naturally have a concept of using liberty for positive, constructive purposes, and that we yearn to.  When we fall short in that regard – when our wishes for the use of liberty are not positive and constructive — human government cannot improve our state of mind.  Government does not have that power.  Its function, regardless of what its practitioners hope for, is to punish and deter evil.  Government can neither elicit good from the people, nor instill it in us;  we, as private individuals, are the source of good, when good is done.  And history shows that when we have liberty, good does come out of us.

 

For others who may be Christians, I note here that I attribute any good that comes out of us to the Spirit of God living in us – not to our own natures.  The non-Christian and non-religious may have another view.  But for the purposes of this discussion, what is important is that in the leftist vision that I repudiate, government operates in the place of God, organizing and directing us to produce “good.”  I reject categorically the notion that human government can have this effect.  Human organization is only up to punishment of the behavior we desire to deter.  For the inspiration to charity, to mercy , compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, largeness of mind, teachability, and superhuman sacrifice, we must look elsewhere than to government.  But again, a survey of history shows that we do find these qualities being manifested, when men and women are at liberty to undertake them with their own means and property, and for their own goals.

 

Contrary, then, to what too many thinkers have said – even conservative ones – an invitation to conservatism is not an invitation to pessimism about man or his condition.  It is, rather, an invitation to optimism about the potential of liberty.   That optimism is united by the sensible with a necessary, empirically realistic pessimism about the efficacy of government for producing even a reasonably good society, much less a cosmically just one.  Optimistic conservatism affirms that more government, and hence less liberty, means less good for everyone – because it is liberty that brings out the best in us.

 I hope – I believe – that this blog will be an interesting journey, one that people will join me on.  I feel the necessity here of clarifying, just a little, the kind of conservative I am not, in the expectation that doing so will help others determine whether this is a congenial environment.  I am not an “American Conservative” conservative, in the sense of believing that there can ever be a “Fortress America,” as a concept for national security; or of thinking that Pat Buchanan is right about the “avertibility” of World War II, or the fell influence of “the Jewish lobby” on American politics.  I do not buy into conspiracy theories of any kind:  recurring human patterns need no assistance from conspiracy.  Neither do I buy into the pessimism of many older-style conservatives today that says we have lost too many freedoms and constitutional guarantees already, and our slide into mob rule and totalitarianism is now inevitable.

 

If the worst outcomes were inevitable, there would be no United States of America.  I do buy into the idea of “American exceptionalism,” because our very existence is evidence that not all pessimistic predictions about the fate of mankind inevitably come true.  I believe we absorb and are strengthened by ethnic diversity, in a way many people, both conservative and left-liberal, do not.  I affirm that America’s founding political ideas came, most proximately, from northwestern Europe – from English and Scotsmen, with a few Irish, French, and Dutch in the mix – but I do not think that only people of European ancestry can appreciate and embrace those ideas, or exemplify them in admirable,  thoroughly American ways.  Indeed, I fault the leftist-“progressive” Americans of largely European ancestry, who actively discourage new immigrants and the poor from adopting traditional American ideas and values, for most of the difficulty these groups have had in assimilating into our society, over the past thirty to forty years.  You will not find me regretting that there are “Hispanics” coming into America, but rather that we in America are neither enforcing the rule of law in immigration and border security, nor encouraging and promoting the assimilation of new immigrants.

 What I will affirm, partly from experience living, working, and visiting overseas during my military career, and partly from self-education, is that America is unique in her ability to embrace people from all races and ethnic backgrounds.  Where in Europe and Asia, ethnic immigrants are segregated in their own neighborhoods to the third and fourth generation, in America they intermarry by the second.  We have no idea, here in the USA, how unusual this is.  In many parts of the globe, older generations inculcate in the younger persistent suspicion about and sequestration from local subgroups, groups that don’t, to the eyes of the outsider, even have any distinguishing characteristics.  Yet in America, our children don’t just attend school together, play sports together, and work side by side in industry:  they marry each other, and have racially and ethnically mixed children of their own.  This highest of social barriers has fallen to a far greater extent in America than it has anywhere else in the world, largely as a result of the hortatory efforts of private individuals, religious groups, and the artistic and academic communities – very little, if at all, due to any initiative of government.

 

I find this to be a source of encouragement, about the benefits of liberty, and constitutionally limited government.  We would be a poorer nation in every way without this heritage of the acculturated immigrant – the (now often-maligned) idea of the “melting pot.”  It will take many kinds of Americans affirming this to overcome the loud choruses from right and left bewailing both immigration and “white imperialism”; I say it as a person of white, European descent – Irish, Scots, and German – yeoman middle-class as far back as we can trace, whose most recent immigrant ancestor came over during the Civil Wat, and whose first was recorded entering North Carolina nearly four centuries ago.

 

For the rest, I hate the word “ilk,” and promise that this blog shall remain, as regards my entries on it, an “ilk-free zone.”  I tend to despise neologisms, except for the ones I create myself, which I will endeavor to place in quotation marks.  I am likely to write more often about national security, strategic, intelligence, and defense issues than about others, as my professional experience is in these areas.  That won’t stop me from drawing on my undergraduate degrees in economics and political science to opine on those topics as well.  In all my writing, I hope that my love of America, and of our shared, exceptional national project, comes through.

 Let freedom ring.


Responses

  1. I saw the link from Gordon Chang’s article on the Somali piracy issue and came right over. I’ll be happy to read your writings without having to hunt for them in comment threads on Commentary.

    – Pete

  2. Pete — thanks for the comment, and I hope to see a lot of you here at Optimism Central.

  3. “In all my writing, I hope that my love of America, and of our shared, exceptional national project, comes through.”

    It does and I find it to be deeply moving and inspiring, especially since it is so well expressed and based on the right things( liberty).

    I hope you choose to write widely rather than narrowly.

  4. As a long time consumer of your contributions on Commentary, I wish you good luck and trust that your common sense approach and topical insight will be enjoyed and appreciated by an ever growing readership.

  5. I like the optimistic emphasis on liberty, rather than freedom. There is a difference, and it matters.

  6. Elephant’s Child — I agree! The difference between “liberty” and “freedom” is an important one. I expect to explore it further at this blog. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Publius, thanks for your encouragement. I hope you’ll be back.

  8. […] call it “Optimistic Conservatism.”  It’s a belief, based on historical evidence, that when government is limited, and when it […]

  9. […] call it “Optimistic Conservatism.”  It’s a belief, based on historical evidence, that when government is limited, and when it […]

  10. […] call it “Optimistic Conservatism.”  It’s a belief, based on historical evidence, that when government is limited, and when it […]

  11. […] a valid and advantageous perspective.  For my previous posts on optimistic conservatism, see here and […]


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