The Corner

Piereson: Tanenhaus’s Report of Conservatism’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated

At The New Criterion, James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute methodically takes apart The Death of Conservatism, a much heralded obituary authored by Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times (who is currently working on a biography of WFB). For Tanenhaus, the only worthy conservatism is one that –under the rubric preserving order – consolidates statist encroachments on liberty. Conservatives who wish to roll back and reverse the Left’s gains are radical revanchists. To the contrary, Piereson contends:

The argument that contemporary conservatives are reactionaries or revanchists is wrong on its face. The market school of economics cannot be dismissed because it is critical of the New Deal or of Keynesian policies, nor are free-market thinkers reactionary in any sense of that term. Tanenhaus does not inquire seriously into the reasons why conservatives are uneasy with the welfare state, why some see in it a threat to liberty and others an encouragement to the breakdown of the family and self-government. The market revolution of the last thirty years, moreover, contributed greatly to world prosperity over that period, to the fall of Communism, and to much else that was beneficial besides. It may be true that the current economic crisis presents a challenge to market thinking, but it certainly does not vindicate central planning or the welfare state, and there is nothing about that challenge that justifies the conclusion that market economics is dead. As we shall shortly learn, the path back to prosperity will lead through free and flexible markets.

Nor does the intervention in Iraq, whatever its ultimate outcome, support Tanenhaus’s case. That intervention, after all, was endorsed not only by conservatives and neo-conservatives, but also by every Democratic candidate for president in last year’s election, save for Barack Obama (who was a member of the Illinois legislature when the war began). President Bush, in addition, justified the war on liberal or Wilsonian grounds, so that if the war discredited anything, it was the liberal ideal of achieving collective security through the promotion of democracy. One may argue that such an approach is misguided or impractical, or even that it is inconsistent with conservative principles, but it is not possible to say that it is revanchist. As for the culture war—well, most conservatives would be glad to have it over with, if only cultural liberals and radicals would call a halt to their provocations. The historical record is clear that the first shots fired in every engagement of the culture war came from the left in the form of school busing, the abortion decision of the Supreme Court, the Mapplethorpe exhibition, political correctness on the campus, and (now) gay marriage. Indeed, what many call the “religious right” came into existence in the late 1970s in response to the Carter administration’s effort to deny tax exemption to religious schools on the grounds that they were segregated. Absent liberal provocations, there would have been no culture war and probably no “religious right” to wage it.

Read the whole thing, here. Very much worth the time.


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