Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Not THAT neoliberalism 

I got fooled completely by the title of Richard Cohen's editorial. I thought he meant this neoliberalism. (Or, better, this.) That neoliberalism barely survived three months in Iraq postwar; while the Bush Administration continues to pay lip service to it, it still has a long way to go (take for example this piece by Austin Bay.)

I agree with Captain Ed that I would call Bush more liberal than most GOP front-liners. There has not been a veto of a spending bill, and the Dept. of Education grows larger and more powerful by the day. But I'd dissent from Ed here:
Iraq, as I have noted, is not an exercise in conservatism either. It is an expressly Wilsonian project, attempting to make the world safe for democracy by transforming the Middle East. The conservative strategy would have been to topple Saddam and leave the Iraqis to figure out the rest -- but that would have left vast oil resources in the hands of the strongest factions able to grasp power in the vacuum left behind. Instead, Bush and his team decided to attack terror by kicking out the struts that prop it up -- the oppression and despair in the Muslim world created by kleptocracies and mullahcracies in the region.
As Peter Berkowitz notes in his op-ed in today's WSJ, there's more than one strand of conservatism, and one of them is the neoliberal impulse I linked in that first paragraph. Applied to Iraq, it would have meant pension reform, privatization, reducing tariffs, and the promotion of private property rights in the country. Recognizing that markets are needed to efficiently allocated goods and services, the need for individual freedom and the constraints of imperfect information have all at various times been part of the Bush strategy, and those are conservative or, more correct, classical liberal principles. Berkowitz notes one type of split...
The split among conservatives has widened since Saddam was toppled in the spring of 2003. Traditional realists continue to put their trust in containment, and reject nation-building on the grounds that we lack both a moral obligation and the requisite knowledge of Arabic, Iraqi culture and politics, and Islam. Supporters of the war still argue that, in an age of mega-terror, planting the seeds of liberty and democracy in the Muslim Middle East is a reasonable response to the poverty, illiteracy, authoritarianism, violence and religious fanaticism that plagues the region.
...but there are others, which he blames on a lack of education about the conservative movement.
[I]n America ... conservatism has always revolved around the preservation of individual liberty. Of course modern conservatism generally admires virtues embodied in religious faith and the aristocratic devotion to excellence. It also tends to emphasize the weaknesses of human nature, the ironies and tragedies of history, and the limitations of reason and politics. At the same time, it wishes to put these virtues and this knowledge in liberty's service.

Balancing the claims of liberty and tradition, or showing how liberty depends on tradition, is the very essence of modern conservatism, ... The divisions within contemporary American conservatism--social conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives--arise from differences over which goods most urgently need to be preserved, to what extent, and with what role for government.

The varieties of conservatism are poorly understood today not only because of the bitterness of current political battles but also because the books that have played a key role in forming the several schools go largely untaught at our universities and largely unread by our professors. Indeed, perhaps one cause of the polarization that afflicts our political and intellectual class is the failure of our universities to teach, and in many cases to note the existence of, the conservative dimensions of American political thought.

Cohen, from a previous generation, may have read Hayek, Kirk and Strauss, but most of the left today -- and, sadly, much of the right -- have never been given a chance to grapple with the meaning of these texts. What would a course in democratic citizenship look like if they had?

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