Neoconservatism and liberalism

For years I have argued that neoconservatism is a variant of liberalism, specifically of right-liberalism, the belief in the equal rights and the fundamental sameness of all human individuals, based on a single universal truth embodied in a democratic world order led by America. This right-liberalism—a term first developed by Australian blogger Mark Richardson—is distinguished from left-liberalism, the belief in individual expressive and sexual freedom and substantive group equality embodied in a transnational world order led by the UN and other transnational bodies. Yet when I conveyed the idea that “neoconservatism is a type of liberalism” recently to an intelligent anti-Bush, anti-neocon, anti-Iraq war left-liberal, though he didn’t dismiss it out of hand, it didn’t make sense to him.

And I realized why. Neocons believe in the vigorous assertion of American ideals and interests, which is, of course, the very thing that today’s left-liberals most oppose. A left-liberal might support the invasion of Afghanistan, as undeniably justified under even a purely legalistic view of national interests. But any assertion of American power that goes beyond responding to an actual attack on America or that goes beyond strictly legalistic conduct, meaning not only the invasion of Iraq and Bush’s strategy to spread democracy among Muslim countries, but any strong assertion of America on the world stage, will be opposed by most left-liberals. They do not see American self-assertion as liberal, even when it is for the sake of spreading democracy, since for them the defining principle of liberalism is an egalitarianism which says that power and dominance (or rather American power and dominance) are bad. The main idea for liberals is that we should not impose ourselves or our ideas on others, whether abroad, in pushing democracy on Muslims, or at home, in expecting immigrants to assimilate to our culture or in preventing unassimilable people from immigrating in the first place. From the point of view of left-liberals, America’s legitimate task is to serve others, not to advance itself or its ideology—or, for that matter, even to seek to preserve its own existence.

I disagree with the left-liberals on what constitutes liberalism. I believe that on the level of first principles it is correct to describe neoconservatism—and indeed most of today’s mainstream conservatism—as right-liberalism. Yet at the same time, for the reasons given above, I recognize that this terminology will never be broadly accepted. We therefore must continue, as we’ve done in the past, to speak simultaneously in two languages, that of political science (meaning the attempt to describe political reality accurately), which tells us that neoconservatism is a form of liberalism; and that of conventional understanding, which sees neoconservatism as a form of conservatism.

This does not mean yielding to the conventional view. The belief that neoconservatism is conservatism—indeed that it is an “extreme, right-wing” conservatism—is highly damaging, since it banishes all genuine conservatism as beyond extreme. We must continue to point out the liberal nature of neoconservatism and assert true conservatism or traditionalism against it. At the same time, in ordinary political speech, we have no choice but to adapt ourselves to existing usages.

- end of initial entry -

Jim Kalb writes:

It’s important to take control of political language, and in any event you don’t need to accommodate your way of speaking to the immediate responses of left liberals. So it seems a bad idea to call neoconservatism a form of conservatism. There are plenty of lefties who go on and on about how present-day American conservatism, meaning neoconservatism, isn’t really conservative, by which they mean that present-day American conservatism is at odds with American tradition, it’s a type of radicalism that tries to wrap itself in national symbols etc. Why not take the point and repeat it? One might try to popularize some new expression. For example, you could call neocons neo-Jacobins, right-liberal nationalists, right-liberal imperialists, or radical Wilsonians.

LA replies:

Mr. Kalb makes an excellent point. Indeed, I’ve already gone somewhat further than he suggests. The other day, I said that if Bush is a hyper-Wilsonian, the neocons are Hyper-Bushians. However, since our concern is to come up with terms that are not only zccurate in themselves but practicable in ordinary political discourse, I’m not sure that Hyper-Bushians, as much as I like it, will make the cut.

Spencer Warren writes:

I think it is a very bad idea to refer to neconservatives as conservatives. I call them right-liberals or conservative liberals: “con-libs.”

LA replies:

If you’re writing an article for a mainstream publication about the neoconservatives, say, about the Iraq war or immigration and the neoconservatives’ position on it, how are you going to refer to them in the article? As “con-libs”? My point is simply that in communicating with people in conventional settings we have no choice but to use the language that is conventionally used. That doesn’t mean we can’t introduce our own preferred terms, and explain why they are better. But we can’t simply do away with conventional usage.

Dimitri K. writes:

You write that the left-liberal would oppose “any assertion of America that goes beyond responding to an actual attack on America.” In other words, left-liberals would oppose any application of power. But power really is dangerous. My opinion is that liberalism became possible only because modern people have too much power. They started thinking that they can do virtually everything, like gods. If they better understood their limitations, they would probably think less about helping others and more about helping themselves.

Regarding the left, I believe their problem is not that they sometimes oppose using power, which may be even good. Their problem is that they oppose using power even when it is necessary, and simultaneously they are willing to submit to any foreign power. So the point here, which you probably understand but have not articulated in your post, is not the power itself, but which power. But at the same time, I believe, we should argue that using our power must be limited to the situations when it is absolutely necessary.

LA replies:

I think Dimitri’s point is simply that there are legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. The problem with the left is that it opposes legitimate power and authority, at least when it comes to America, the West, traditional morality, white men, etc.

Scott B. writes:

Interesting discussion. I’d put it a little differently though and say that neoconservatives are conservatives who are deeply liberal in one key respect.

A fundamental tenet of conservatism is that human nature is deeply flawed, whether that’s interpreted in terms of original sin or simply of the biological make-up of man.

Conservatives do not share the naive belief of liberals in the open-ended transformability of man. Political arrangements, institutions, cultural traditions, etc. do indeed mould us to a great extent, but what is moulded into different shapes is always the same old stubborn clay.

It should follow from this insight that a) a civilized society is one in which the shaping forces upon the people are such as curtail the worst of human nature while promoting the potential for good in our natures, b) barbarian societies are those in which the shaping forces do pretty much the inverse, c) some societies involve a mixture: a civilized culture temporarily oppressed by barbaric political organization, or a culture with a civilized tradition which has briefly been abandoned in a spasm of mass ideological madness, etc.

There’s no philosophical reason why “mixed” cultures can’t be salvaged/put back on track through military intervention (not that it’s ever a piece of cake), but a conservative should be wary in the extreme of thinking he can make a blind bit of difference when it comes to backward or barbaric societies, because what requires correction here are the very shaping forces that define those one wishes to change, and people don’t readily give up that which defines them.

It is conservative to recognise this.

What makes the neoconservatives “liberal” is that they either won’t make discriminatory judgments as to inferior and superior cultures, only to political arrangements, or, insofar as they are willing to make such judgments (e.g. self-described “culturalist” Mark Steyn) they seem to take it as a given that it would be pure bigotry to go one (logical) step further and recognise that the forces which shape a barbarian culture cannot simply be shaken off by placing individuals from that culture into a different cultural context.

LA replies:

This is very good. I would only make one tiny quibble. Rather than saying that human nature is “deeply flawed,” I would say that it is “flawed,” “limited,” or something like that. The phrase “deeply flawed” would suggest that man is so defective that he not capable of goodness or of successful achievement at all.

Alan Roebuck writes:

It is to be expected that most people would be surprised to hear that neoconservatives are liberals, because most people think of “liberal” and “conservative” as teams: the liberals consist of certain politicians, public thinkers, and activists, and the conservatives are a different and analogous team. Therefore, when John Q. Public hears you call necons “liberals,” it is as if you had said that Derek Jeter plays for the Red Sox.

As a professor, I understand that sometimes we need to accommodate popular but inaccurate beliefs, especially when we are teaching. The whole point of teaching is gradually to improve the student’s currently inadequate understanding of a subject. Furthermore, there is a sense in which neocons are conservative: the existence of “teams” is a valid aspect of politics.

Most people, including the intellectual and the learned, do not understand that liberalism is fundamentally certain ideas, and that these ideas are completely dominant on all teams. So we have a job to do of teaching people that a liberal is anyone who affirms most of the premises of liberalism, no matter which jersey he wears.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 09, 2007 10:53 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):