Here's a joke you've almost certainly heard: Two hikers, one has a new pair
of running shoes. The other asks why; he says it's in case they meet up
with a grizzly bear. The partner laughs and says, "You can't run faster
than a grizzly." The other replies, "I don't have to; I just have to run
faster than you."
So that's kind of how I feel after reading Austin Bramwell's "Defining
Conservatism Down", the cover story in the latest issue of
The American Conservative.
[The cover tease, by the way, is "How the Right Got Bigger &
Dumber". That seems much more inflammatory than the actual article.]
It's a densely argued piece, probably way over my head. I keep thinking
I'm missing something, anyway.
From the beginning:
Had conservatism a Cassandra, she might, amidst
the current mood of triumph, point out that whereas 50 years ago the
American Right boasted several political theorists destined to exert a
lasting influence, today it has not one to its credit. In the 1950s and
'60s, James Burnham, Richard Weaver, Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, Russell
Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, and Willmoore Kendall (among others) were all at
the apex of their powers. No figure of similar stature remains.
And from the end:
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.
The thesis is, apparently, that there used to be a lot more excitement
in conservative political philosophy than there is today. Fine. I'm not
sure why that's important, even after reading the article. See above
joke: conservative political philosophy doesn't have to hit
some Platonic ideal of "exciting"; it just has to be more exciting than
its competitors. And I don't see where Bramwell considers things
on this level at all.
Here's another thing I found a little puzzling. Discussing the
"somewhat occult genre" of "libertarian apologetics":
To put it bluntly, the genre is a failure. No economic model
can prove that government interference in the economy by nature tends
to do harm. While economics can show that some government programs will
fail—rent control, say, or confiscatory tax rates—it cannot
show that all government programs will fail.
An obvious strawman. Most libertarians aren't anarchists; it
then should go without saying that they do not believe "all government
programs will fail." And (generally speaking) most libertarian-leaning
people think that when the state "interferes" in the economy
by providing defense and law enforcement (including protection
of property rights and contract), it's a net win. [I know that all those
things can, in theory, be provided privately as well. Not the issue.]
The entire essay is kind of like that: Bramwell knows the names, and
occasionally offers insight, but the occasional blockheadedness, as
above, causes me to doubt his seriousness.
I keep saying: so what?;
and not finding the answers in the essay.
It's probably worth reading though, so go do so.
UPDATE: Arnold Kling has a more high-minded discussion of Bramwell's
article at Tech Central Station. Very much worth reading.