Huh. Not what I expected. On Friday, I ridiculed the use and abuse of Big Brother. It wasn’t the greatest column I’ve ever written, but I certainly didn’t anticipate — given my readership — that it would divide people so sharply. In near-equal portions readers agreed with the column or believed that I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue. The e-mails in agreement were generally short — “good column,” “nice job,” “here’s another example of what you’re talking about…” — but the e-mails in disagreement were lengthy disquisitions on my misreading of Orwell, the omnipresent threat of totalitarianism, and, of course, the true extent of my cranial-posterior impaction.
It occurred to me this morning — while watching my dog dispense rough justice in the park — why the column elicited such divergent opinions. I stumbled on a major fault line on the Right. I’ve talked about this before here, but this seems like a good opportunity to revisit the subject.
There are any number of faults and fissures running through the granite foundations of conservatism. But perhaps the most-significant split is between those who are anti-state versus anti-Left. This is not, simply, a split between libertarians and conservatives — though that argument does help highlight the issue.
Conservatism as a political movement was once largely defined by its opposition to the state, particularly the federal government. Back then, limited-government libertarianism and cultural conservatism worked in tandem. For a nation founded by anti-tax entrepreneurs and religious dissenters, it only makes sense that Americans, let alone American conservatives, would believe that the state should do very little. As the paleoconservatives are fond of pointing out, many early American communities came to the New World en masse. These folks came here not so much to be individualists, but to be able to live and worship as an intact community. For these conservatives, “freedom” was defined by the ability to live according to ones customs and what Russell Kirk would call the “ordered freedom” of tradition.
I know I’ve used this example before, but the movie Braveheart offers a good illustration (which is why so many conservatives loved it). In that film Mel Gibson, as the Scottish freedom-fighter William Wallace, barely utters a single sentence without demanding “freedom” for his countrymen. But this isn’t the Left’s “freedom” to do whatever floats your boat. For instance, when Wallace tells the English, “Go back to England and tell them there that Scotland’s daughters and sons are yours no more. Tell them Scotland is free,” he’s not saying that the Scots are now adopting a new no-fault divorce law or a judgment-free attitude toward buggery.
Obviously, Wallace’s freedom still leaves room for arranged marriages, primogeniture, harsh justice, mandatory consumption of haggis, and all sorts of things which fall under the rubric of “authority and prescription.” The point is that Wallace’s Scottish freedom is the freedom to be Scottish — even if that means living according to rules which are just as authoritarian as England’s.
Many of the classic conservative arguments are over this conception of freedom. The states-rights arguments over slavery and segregation are only the most famous. The religious Right joined the conservative movement in the 1970s largely because the federal government seemed to be at war with their way of life. When religious conservatives were talking about freedom, they certainly weren’t talking about Peter Singer’s conception of freedom (i.e., you’re “free” to sell your gonads, kill your mother, and screw your dog — assuming, presumably, you haven’t sold your gonads yet). What they meant by freedom was the ability to live according to well-established conceptions of authority and tradition, without the meddling of the federal government.
This is all relevant because it illustrates that conservatism has always distrusted the power of the state even though it firmly believed in the importance of authority. What changed was the mission of the Left.
THE LEFT TAKES OVER
“From its beginning,” writes Russell Kirk in his essay “Prescription, Authority and Ordered Freedom”:
the liberal movement of the nineteenth century had within it the fatuous yearning for the destruction of all authority…. The early liberals were convinced that once they should overthrow established governments and churches, supplanting them by rational and egalitarian and purely secular institutions, the principal problem problems of the human condition would be near solution….One had only to fight clear of the Bad Old Days and the dead weight of superstition. Abolish the old Authorities, and sweetness and light will reign.
The problem, as Kirk puts it, was that “…Liberals came to accept a new authority, that of the omnicompetent welfare state; they continued to repudiate authority only in the sphere of private life.” In other words, when the Left took over the state it became a vehicle for the destruction, or reordering, of private custom.
“A liberal,” quipped Irving Kristol, “is one who says that it’s all right for an 18-year-old girl to perform in a pornographic movie as long as she gets paid the minimum wage.” When the state passes “hate-crime” laws, for example, it is establishing a new hierarchy in the private sphere in which there is in effect a new cultural hierarchy. Murdering anyone is bad, sure, but murdering a black guy is really bad. When the state tells every community it must accept gay marriage, a certain drinking age, subsidizes out-of-wedlock births, whatever, it is imposing its values — a la the English in Scotland — on communities which would prefer to remain “free” to determine their own rules.
Irving Kristol claims that it was the neoconservatives who introduced into the conservative movement the notion that the real enemy is the Left and not the state. “Who cares if you hate the state? The state doesn’t care,” I’ve heard him say. I’m not so sure the neocons actually introduced the idea, but they certainly expanded it into a broad assault. As former Communists, Leftists, and academics, these guys understood the language of the Left better than the more Aristotelian members of the traditional Right.
Anyway, today these tendencies are still very strong within the conservative movement. In fact, it is appearing more and more that the Bush administration represents both sides of the conservative coin. His new welfare plan to encourage women to get married as a condition of receiving government aid is a perfect example of big-government conservatism. This is social engineering, pure and simple. But it is social engineering toward a conservative end. You could defend it further by saying that it is social engineering aimed at restoring the natural order before the Left screwed things up with its own social engineering.
Think about it: There are lots of equally “conservative” responses to this sort of thing. You might think, as I do, that the federal government shouldn’t be giving out welfare to able-bodied young people at all. You might also say that since that’s an unwinnable fight, the government might as well do the “right thing” and do no harm with the money it sends out. Some libertarian conservatives see this as surrender. Others see it as pragmatism. I guess I’m with the pragmatists too.
BIG BROTHER IS BACK
I know I’m pretty far afield at this point so I’ll bring it back to Big Brother. There are lots of conservatives — good, smart, serious folks — who think Big Brother is a very real threat (and therefore they believe I am a “dangerous fool” — in the words of many — for having written otherwise). These are, for the most part, the same conservatives who look on the war on terrorism with a great deal of distrust. Early on, they denounced the military commissions intended for terrorists. They ridicule the new secrecy of this already secretive White House. These conservative civil libertarians distrust an expansion of federal power by liberals or conservatives. “We’ve witnessed a fire sale of American liberties at bargain basement prices in return for the false promise of more security,” declared Wayne LaPierre of the NRA recently. For these anti-state conservatives Big Brother is very real and around the corner.
I don’t see it that way. Intent matters. To say, for example, that Big Brother lurks in the hearts of those who would put up cameras at traffic stops is silly. When the Soviets or East Germans did such things, they did it in order to oppress people, to crush freedom and civil society. When the District of Columbia does it, it’s in order to curb red-light running and make some extra dough. I may not like the policy, or the D.C. DMV, but I think it is a form of ideological knee-jerkery to caterwaul about totalitarianism and Big Brother in response. It reminds me of the Lefties who would compare U.S. incarceration rates to the Soviet Union’s, as if there was a moral equivalence.
And, it’s worth noting, technology is the enemy of Big Brother, contrary to what the fetishists say. Technological developments have not empowered the state — in the West — to oppress its citizens. Technology has empowered citizens to avoid dealing with the State.
Of course, I do not believe that government — conservative or otherwise — is immune from abuse. I am very sympathetic to many anti-state arguments. But let’s remember: Democracies self-correct. And despite the syllogistic faith that the Road to Serfdom doesn’t allow U-turns, Big Brother is often simply a convenient bogeyman. The Freedom of Information Act, welfare reform, the repeal of rent control in some cities, President Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security: These are things that would not be possible if the slippery slope were an iron law of history. I would prefer as small a government as most anti-state conservatives, but it seems to me the first order of business in a demolition job is to clear out the occupants, and that means kicking the Left to the curb. Once they’re gone, we can turn the lights off.