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.