July 28, 2005

"How the Right Got Bigger & Dumber"

by Austin Bramwell is the cover story on the August 29th issue of The American Conservative. Bramwell is the 26-year-old lawyer that Wm. F. Buckley appointed to the National Review Board of Trustees because he's that rare young man who can be relied upon to provide wise advice into the second half of the 21st Century.

Defining Conservatism Down
As the Right's popularity has grown, its intellectual challenge to the Left has diminished.

By Austin Bramwell

...Though every year the conservative movement raises thousands of aspiring intellectuals, they have no interest in creating a new intellectual synthesis. If they go into academia or the think-tank world, they contribute to research projects long under way; if they go into journalism, they defend an established editorial line. In the blogosphere parlance, they become "instapundits," not philosophers.

Meanwhile young conservatives -- in contrast to the anticommunists of the 1950s and the neoconservatives of the 1970s -- rarely come to right-wing ideas through any epiphany. Rather they inherit their conservatism from parents or grandparents. Through generously funded seminars and think-tank internships, they study the canon of conservative thought: The Road to Serfdom, Ideas Have Consequences, Capitalism and Freedom, The Conservative Mind, Witness, Atlas Shrugged, In Defense of Freedom, The Closing of the American Mind, and others. These works, almost all written in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, define the ideology they are charged with advancing...

Yet few worry that conservatism will go flabby. The tenets have already been settled, they think; all that is left is to promote them... Nonetheless, conservatives should not let the intellectual restlessness of their early years give way to decadent complacency. It has happened before in American political life -- to American liberalism -- with unhappy consequences both for liberalism and the nation...

Happily, however, original thinking on the Right can still be found. I can think of three examples.

On the libertarian side, a small group of academics affiliated with the journal Critical Review is quietly working a revolution. They forthrightly acknowledge that neither free-market economics nor moral philosophy have produced a comprehensive argument for libertarianism. Nonetheless, they argue, limited government is still preferable because it mitigate the problem of public ignorance.

The majority of voters in a mass democracy, they reason, are stunningly ignorant of even the most basic political information... Democratic politics thus presents a choice between the ideological rigidity of the elites and the sheer incompetence of the masses. We can escape this predicament only by reducing the role of government in our lives....

Second, a loose network of what John O’Sullivan has called “evolutionary” conservatives attempts to understand politics in light of genetic science. Unlike many conservatives, evolutionary conservatives remain undaunted by the apoplectic reaction of liberals to Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve and Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism. Steve Sailer, for example, the most talented evolutionary conservative, writes with rigor and imagination on such scabrous topics as race, IQ, voting patterns, and national identity. Though other writers treat these ideas as taboo, perhaps because they seem to undermine American ideals of equality and self-reliance, evolutionary conservatives pride themselves on preferring truth to wishful thinking.

This attitude enables them to understand affirmative action and identity politics in a way that others cannot. More timid conservatives believe that if only we embraced the American Creed with sufficient fervor, we would become a color-blind society at last. As Thomas Sowell observes, however, every country that has racial or ethnic groups of differing economic achievement has adopted a system of preferences. Race relations seem to have an irreducibly tragic dimension; identity politics may well be a permanent feature of all multi-ethnic societies, often, as in Bosnia, Rwanda or Sri Lanka (and, perhaps, Iraq) with calamitous results. Human biodiversity is important; we owe to ourselves to try to understand it.

Finally, techno-skeptic conservatives, such as those who write for the journal The New Atlantis, are rallying to the defense of human nature. In essence, they spin clever arguments against things that people want, such as greater longetivity and bodily health, on the grounds that they negate the nobler aspects of human life -- love, honor, and piety...

These three sources of fresh ideas on the Right have certain features in common. First, a preoccupation with modern science. Compare to them, the canonical works of postwar conservatism seem wooly and abstract. This is not surprising: the cold War gave conservatives an armed ideological enemy, which provoked an ideological response. Second, the three schools are all either forthrightly or implicitly elitist. Like conservatives of the '40s and '50s, they do not expect that their ideas will be popular.

This elitism, perhaps an electoral handicap, is an intellectual strength. Original thinking often flourishes under conditions of intellectual marginality. Unfortunately, the conservative movement, having discovered a mass audience, risks squandering the intellectual marginality that once made it so interesting and daring.

In future years, it may take a smaller, elite group of right-wingers to animate conservative ideas once more.

And don't forget: As part of my elitist crusade to animate conservative ideas once more, I'll be discussing "The Wedding Crashers" with Ron Reagan Jr. on MSNBC on Friday, July 29th at 5:30 EDT, 2:30 PDT!

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

No comments: