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An Inquiry into Neoconservatism (Updated)

James Atlas in the New York Times compares today’s liberal hawks to yesterdays neoconservatives – liberals and leftists who became Republicans after the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and 70s.

He surveys some of the most prominent among us; Michael Ignatieff, Michael Walzer, Paul Berman, and Christopher Hitchens. He ends with a summary and a question:

In the early stages of their ideological development, neoconservatives saw themselves more as reformed liberals than as true conservatives. Mr. Bell, who predicted “the end of ideology,” identified himself as a socialist; Mr. Kristol identified himself — in a famous formulation — as a liberal who has been “mugged by reality.”

Yet in the end, all were liberals who, by the 1970′s and the midpoint in their careers, were proud to identify themselves as neoconservatives, who were not the heirs of classical conservatism but rather had discovered the limitations of liberalism. A neoconservative, it might be postulated, is one who read and repudiated Marx; a conservative, one who read and embraced Hume, Locke and Hobbes.

This generation of liberal intellectuals, like its precursors, prefers to see itself less as a political coalition than as an assemblage of writers with diverse views — which of course it is. Ideological labels are always provisional. Yet however much their attitudes toward the war in Iraq differ from those of such contemporary neoconservatives as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, they are heirs of the same intellectual tradition. Given this, can they still be classified as liberals? Or could it be that they’ve become . . . neoconservatives?

My answer is, no. We are not neoconservatives. At least I am not. Michael Walzer, who edits the leftist Dissent magazine, definitely is not, nor will he likely ever be. Hitchens is independent. Berman is still very much a Bush-hating leftist, though he is at least as hawkish as I am, if not even more so.

It’s an interesting question, though. Am I becoming a neoconservative? It’s not the sort of question, given the neocon history, that I can’t bat away with a wave of my hand.

It helps to understand what neoconservatism actually is. Irving Kristol, supposedly its godfather, is a good person to check with. He wrote a rather lengthy piece about it a few months ago for The Weekly Standard.

[O]ne can say that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.

I have to say this makes me chuckle. Neocons aren’t reactionaries, and they know the right-wingers are.

Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the “American grain.” It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan.

So far, so good, except for the Ronald Reagan bit. The Roosevelts were liberals, after all, so far be it from me to complain when Republicans decide they like liberals.

About Reagan: Look. I don’t hate Reagan, and I understand why others like him. His famous words at Brandenburg Gate, “Open this gate” and “Tear down this wall,” give me a lump in my throat to this day. But for every good thing there was a very bad thing, such as his support and praise of the genocidal Guatemalan dictator Efra“n Rios Montt.

Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked.

I’ve no time for any of those figures either. And I’ll overlook Coolidge and Hoover a little less politely.

One of these policies, most visible and controversial, is cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth.

Now I do have a problem with this. I also have a problem with people who only want to raise taxes. So it’s not that I’m against cutting taxes, per se. But how long are we going to keep banging away at this? No one likes paying taxes. I hate it. But we need to be realistic. Sometimes taxes should be increased, and sometimes taxes should be decreased. I don’t like writing or arguing about this, but suffice it to say that I can only be convinced cutting taxes is wise 50 percent of the time. We can’t cut taxes down to zero, and at some point Republicans are going to have to acknowledge that taxes have been cut as much as they can be cut and find something else to do.

Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on “the road to serfdom.”

In other words, neocons are moderates on this question. Fine. So am I. I have tremendous respect for the New Deal, and I also appreciate small-l libertarianism. If “libertarian socialist” were not a contradiction in terms, that’s what I’d be.

The steady decline in our democratic culture, sinking to new levels of vulgarity, does unite neocons with traditional conservatives–though not with those libertarian conservatives who are conservative in economics but unmindful of the culture.

I definitely part ways with the neocons here. I’m a left-libertarian and have been my entire adult life. It’s a personality thing more than an intellectual thing. I love Amsterdam and similarly liberal places. I find conservative towns, like Salem Oregon where I grew up, to be suffocating and culturally comatose. Give me the dope legalizers over the morality police. Please.

The upshot is a quite unexpected alliance between neocons, who include a fair proportion of secular intellectuals, and religious traditionalists. They are united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government’s attention.

I am not religious at all. I am a completely secular ex-Christian agnostic, raised by a liberal Christian mother and a conservative atheist father. Traditional Christianity has no place in my life, and it never has. I don’t mind at all that other people are religious, but I will not have my personal life regulated by scipture or by people who would impose holy writ on me. I’ve no beef with pornography, and I want an extra layer of mortar on that wall between the church and the state.

AND THEN, of course, there is foreign policy, the area of American politics where neoconservatism has recently been the focus of media attention… First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment.

Agreed.

Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion.

I am opposed to a single world government, but I am not oposed to loose and provisional world governance, so long as dictatorships have absolutely zero influence within it. An International Criminal Court, if it is administered responsibly by democracies, has the same merits going for it as regime-change in Iraq.

Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.

I agree with that completely.

Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.

Here, too, I agree.

So it seems that when it comes to foreign policy, I do agree with most aspects of neoconservatism, which, to my mind, is hardly different from 1990s neoliberalism. And I appreciate that the neocons are moderates on many other questions. They can keep the rest of it, though. And no one should expect me to sign on. There is no reason I should suddenly have warm feelings for Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly just because I want democracy to replace fascism in Iraq. One thing has nothing to do with the other.

So when James Atlas at the New York Times says we liberal hawks are turning into conservatives, I have to say sorry, but no. Foreign policy is one subject among many. I may have a neocon wrench in my toolbox, but my liberal and libertarian tools are awfully useful, too. Neoconservatism may have its virtues, but Independence is better.

UPDATE: British lefty Oliver Kamm has more on the exact same question.

UPDATE: Josh Cherniss also has more.

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