Daniel Foster, in a most worthwhile post at NRO, gets at something we have circled around often in sundry discussions at Hot Air, of the conservative right, epistemic closure, Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg, Progressivism/progressivism/”progressivism,” Woodrow Wilson, and other related topics. We have circled, but never really focused on it, and I believe it’s central. In a sense, it’s like the interface between alternate (or parallel) right-wing universes: in one universe, you see everything one way, and on the other side you see them the opposite way.
Here is what Daniel Foster said that cued this meditation:
[Matthew] Continetti finds much else to admire and respect in Beck. Where he parts ways is on the question of the affinities Beck sees between totalitarianism and progressivism.
Foster then goes on to quote Continetti at length; key passages here:
When he refers to progressivism, Beck is not only highlighting the liberals’ latest name for liberalism. He is referring to the ideas of John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann…
Beck believes progressive ideas infect both parties and threaten to destroy America as it was originally conceived…
… the difference between communism and progressivism, Beck argued at CPAC, is “revolution” or “evolution.” In other words, the difference between communism and progressivism is one of means not ends. “There is no difference,” he said, “except one requires a gun and the other does it slowly.”
As Foster concludes, Continetti’s point is that “Beck’s likening of progressivism to totalitarianism is paranoid.” Foster himself doesn’t go that far; he avowedly finds himself between Beck and Continetti. But it’s this concept – this one right here – that has become, to invoke a Star Trek image, the corridor between alternate universes in which the conservative soul is locked in an eternal battle.
Is prophylactic government inevitably and uncontrollably a road to serfdom? Glenn Beck would say yes. (So would Hayek, if with more precision and analytical care.) Buy into the concept of government needing to intervene to prevent or foster (or guarantee) outcomes, and you have bought the totalitarian premise hook, line, and sinker. There is no moral or logical brake on the government’s charter to order the people around, if you agree that it should behave prophylactically, in everything from averting the formation of monopolies to averting the formation of cholesterol in your arteries.
Beck’s opponents would say, by contrast, that it’s not inherently inevitable that ceding government one prophylactic power will encourage it to assume others. Their argument would point out that commercial monopolies aren’t the same problem as high cholesterol, and quite obviously don’t entail the exact same implications about individual liberty when government proposes to do something about them. Whether they can be analogized to each other is another question, of course, but one Beck’s philosophical opponents would answer, by and large, in the negative.
Each side of the argument regards its conclusion as settled. Progressivism does envision using government the same way totalitarianism does – say those who agree with Beck. His opponents say that’s not the case, basically making the argument that prophylactic uses of government can be managed without sliding down a slippery slope into comprehensive totalitarianism.
Discussion of this disparity in analysis and expectations is rarely illuminating. It is, frankly, unhelpfully tautological to say, as Continetti does, “Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin.” Well, of course not. Naturally, Continetti implies more here than merely that these men’s DNA did not exactly overlap – but he assumes and does not address what is not self-evident: that the political philosophies of the men in question were meaningfully different, in the context in which Beck and others have compared them. He elides the whole topic. Just saying, “Duh, dude, Wilson wasn’t Stalin” isn’t an argument, it’s the statement of a conclusion after avoiding the argument.
Beck, for his part, muddies the waters with his off-putting “I hate Wilson” mantra and his often overheated language. He elides topics too, making analytical leaps that sometimes could have rational connections – if he’d go ahead and make them – but that furrow the brow and evoke a dismissibly conspiracist outlook when sprinkled about at random. (Since, as Foster and Continetti point out, Beck does have more than a passing association with some Bircher-type conspiracy theorists, this can’t help denting his credibility.)
But how you see all of these things hinges on where you come down on the prophylactic government question. Both sides of it assume their opposite conclusions as axiomatic, and instead of discussing it in terms of premises and substance, tend to just show distaste for and impatience with each other.
Yet this is exactly the question on which conservatism will stand or fall. American leftists know where they stand on it. They can generally be grouped as follows: those who think you can indeed have prophylactic government without endangering liberty and control of government’s power (mainstream Democratic voters), and those who think some level of totalitarianism is what we need anyway, so the more prophylaxis, the better (“Sixties radicals”).
The conservative side is where the question still lives, whether government can be entrusted with prophylaxis in the people’s lives. It’s worth noting that over the last century, every prediction of those who say it can’t has come true. But that’s an opening salvo in the argument we badly need to have; in good faith, with explanations about our assumptions, and – please, please – without reflexive vilification and accusations of bad faith.
So, conservatives, which universe do we belong in?
Cross-posted at Hot Air.