Friday, April 11, 2003

I would like to talk about optimism and conservatism.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, which is not to say that I'm any more enlightened on the topic than when I began, but I can say I'll sound nicer when I talk about it.

It is a fundamental premise of conservatism that someone, somewhere, is making the same mistake millions of others have made hundreds of times before -- and he won't be the last. Conservatism sees men, to borrow a line of Orrin Judd's thinking, as inherently comic -- fallible, fallacious, and always falling on their faces. Conservatism is to some extent premised on the notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Hence, I'd argue that conservatives were better prepared for the events of the last year -- the uselessness of debates in the U.N. Security Council, the machinations of the French and Germans (and to a lesser extent the Russians and ChiComs), the way America became a villain apparently overnight -- than our liberal friends, all because this is the way things always work. States are amoral actors. Men are selfish and self-serving. No true conservative should be shocked by most of the events of the last year -- including Bush's eventual "Aw, To Hell With 'Em," and its timing.

To put it succinctly, conservatives are the great pessimists of the world; we're never surprised when things turn out the way they inevitably do.

On the other hand, American conservatism is in some ways, and in some quarters, different from traditional conservatism. American conservatism was once called liberalism, and implicit in it was this: While men are Fallen, and deprived of God, they are not inherently depraved; they can better themselves, and their world, even though they will never come close in any real sense to perfection. It's the difference between Bill Buckley and Pat Buchanan; between Jonah Goldberg and Robert Novak; between, yes, Rush Limbaugh and (at an extreme) Father Charles E. Coughlin: The former in each pairing is a man who knows that men screw up, early and often, but has hope for them nonetheless; the latter is a man who is without doubt that men chart a direct path for Hell by waking up in the morning.

I'm caricaturing, but I'm trying to make a point. For all of the (ample) doom and gloom in The Federalist Papers, for all of Alex Hamilton's warnings, for the inherent suspicion of the masses implicit in our government's structure, consider this: Our Revolution was truly revolutionary. It posited that, for all of men's faults -- for which we needed checks, and countervailing governments, and limitations on the popular will -- there was a strong case to be made for freedom. The right to a jury trial, descended from the mother country, was enshrined in our Constitution. The freedom to agitate, to gather, to worship God free from the Federal government's over sight; the freedom in our homes from troops or lawmen of that same government; indeed, the very federal system, which posits paradoxically that men can be most free when there are two governments fighting to regulate them -- all of these are announcements, intimations, proclamations that when men are set loose upon the world, their work is frequently good. That freedom is a good thing because men are inherently capable of using it correctly is a profoundly optimistic assumption -- and one well outside of the spirit of the times.

I stress that this should not be confused with modern liberalism, or libertarianism, or progressivism, or what have you, for they all posit, at some level, that men are inherently good, or at least can be made so. It is the difference between believing that a coin tossed in the air may come up heads or tails, and having an ontological (if not epistemiological) certainty that it will come up tails. The former is hope; the latter is foolishness. The former is the American revolution; the latter is the French revolution, at best.

I'm walking down this road because I'm a Reagan conservative. Ronald Reagan was many things, among them a former liberal Democrat. In a sense, he was one of the first neoconservatives. And yet he was never that, and much more. Reagan made people believe in America again. Now admittedly, I missed the chunkiest parts of stagflation, and the Ford administration, and I was blissfully unaware of Jimmy Carter's existence until I was three. But looking back, to some of my earliest political memories, I can remember feeling good to be an American during Reagan's terms. Oh, and wanting to go to war with the Soviet Union over that Korean airliner. The first time I ever felt my skin tingle, that I can remember, is watching an American flag unfurl on television, in I think 1981.

Reagan believed in people's good side, along with their bad. He was convinced that men could get past the bad part, at least a little. He believed in the Shining City on the Hill. He wasn't resigned to the existence of the Soviet Union; he saw it for the evil it was, and like a good, pre-1960s American, rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He made America, in a sense, America again, by reminding us that we were Americans, dammit, and we're the last, best hope of humankind.

I'm not offering a paean to Reagan here (well, not just that); I'm fully aware of Reagan's limitations. But what I mean to say is, aside from some of the loonies over at and The American Conservative (but I repeat myself), no one doubts Reagan's conservatism. On the other hand, no one doubts his constant, sunny optimism. And implicit therein, to many minds, is a contradiction: For if men are always taking two steps back for every one forward, why hope that they can ever get ahead?

I'm not sure I know the answer to the alleged contradiction I've posited, traditional conservatism v. American conservatism. But I will say this: I don't see a Gordian knot at all. I'd argue that it's possible to have hope for mankind -- that's implicit in our being such a hope -- and that is a profoundly American, and conservative, sentiment. Having hope doesn't mean closing your eyes to reality, or ignoring the fact that men can be evil, as well as good; it just means that you know what you have to overcome, to make things better.

NB: On Lew and the American "Conservative" above: Note the lack of links. I don't make nice with folks who've turned on their own country, especially folks who should know better.

UPDATE: The ever-reliable Paul Cella correctly takes me to task for painting with too broad a brush where and The American Conservative are concerned. I should clarify: It is the editorial positions of the two publications -- especially Lew and Friends -- with which I take umbrage. In the same way that my much-beloved National Review publishes articles which strike me as wrong, or at least out of synch with a better understanding of the world, it must be said that Pat Buchanan's publication has been broadly willing to accept pieces from writers with whom they have profound ideological differences. Lew and kids... well, I have not been able to stomach that site for some time, so I'll just work with my last impressions and say that I think I was, for the most part, correct where Lew et al. are concerned, even if I was too broad with Pat and the Paleocons. And I should add that Pat Buchanan had the good grace, and moral correctness, to write this (which I originally read on Townhall).

Actually, this calls for a bit of a post in its own right; I'll get to that later. The very short of it is, I don't think conservatism was "hijacked" (could we please start using a better word than this? or at least a less visually evocative one?); my only beef with the much-dreaded neocons is that they actually supported John McCain; and a great deal of my respect for Pat Buchanan, and indeed most paleocons, has vanished in the last year, due in large part to their willingness to make common cause with the very hardest of the Left.

FURTHER UPDATE: Paul Jaminet, The Brother By Another Mother of the Brothers Judd, expands and offers a more eloquent version of what I was trying:

Now, Reagan's optimism, like that of many other American conservatives, was the result of his religious faith. If a good God rules the universe, we can trust and hope that things, in the end, will go well.

But I think there are two powerful non-religious reasons for conservative optimism. Both reasons have to do with the evolution of the economy. Together, they give us cause to be far more optimistic than conservatives of 50 years ago.

The first is the increasing rate of real, per capita economic growth in free societies. As a general rule, unfree societies are stagnant, whereas free societies grow. But in the past, the rate of growth in even the freest countries was small. In the history of the world, there was never a year when real economic growth exceeded 0.5% before 1800. Yet as technology has advanced, growth rates have steadily increased -- to 1% annually 1820-1920, 2% 1920-1980, and 3% since 1980. I won't be surprised if the U.S. economy soon grows at 4% annually.

The second reason for optimism is cultural. The economy provides everyone with a cultural training. The ideas and character traits which help us earn our living, we adopt, and transfer to other areas of life including politics. The modern world, I believe, has experienced three major cultural eras...
It's quite good. Read the whole thing.

Sorry I'm so late on this, but last week was ... an Elton John Marathon.

Double, final UPDATE: Paul Cella takes on the question with his usual flair and aplomb, and I'm tempted to say he has the better of the argument. Tempted.

Some guy I've never heard of before takes issue with Reagan and, incidentally, me. (Only incidentally; he's quite clear on that.) Permalink probably won't work, so scroll around.

SO-I-LIED-AND-THIS-IS-THE-FINAL-UPDATE: Paul Cella has more cogent thoughts on the matter, and quite adroitly points out that one may expect things to go to Hell, without being certain that they will. I'm pretty well with him on this: As he puts it:

If a man were to awake from a long and torturous fever-induced nightmare, and discover with a start that he is rushing wildly toward a precipice, all he need do is stop; having committed his will to simple survival, his vista opens wide from there. He need not thoughtlessly turn, almost as if beguiled by a new fever, and march precisely backward in his own wild steps. To his left may extend a daunting though ultimately navigable path along the mountainous crags back to his home; to his right may open a broad and primordial forest, imposing but by no means malicious, through which he can arrive at the home of his fathers. He may even find it necessary and desirable, after careful deliberation, to attempt a risky descent off the cliff before him, anticipating that below, perhaps, there is a solid road around the mountains or the forest; and for this he will need sturdy and reliable equipment, which upon consideration is readily available all about him, though most of it was dreadfully concealed by shadows and monsters in his nightmare. The point is that what he must not do, what in fact only a man of terrible insanity would do, is commit to a fatalism about his rush toward oblivion, or fancy somehow that oblivion is desirable, and plunge headlong in silence.
Like I've implied before, if you're looking for eloquence, you're in the wrong place; head over and check out Paul's work instead. (If I'd spent a year at it, I doubt I would have come up with such a nicely-phrased metaphor, or a more compelling image.)

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