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Politics & Policy

‘You Don’t Care, You Don’t Understand . . .’

William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan in 1978

At Law & Liberty, Kai Weiss has written a piece called “National Conservatism’s Fatal Conceit.” You recognize the title: a phrase from Hayek, building on Adam Smith (who wrote that “the man of the system” is “apt to be very wise in his own conceit”). A few points come to mind — well, more than a few, but I will make a few. All of them controversial, possibly insulting.

(WFB, during a lull in a conversation, once turned to someone and said, “Say something controversial.”)

The nationalists, and populists, are pulling off a neat trick: They are calling their opponents “libertarians,” whether they are libertarian or not. Some of their opponents are libertarian, sure. Most are people who until two seconds ago were called “conservatives.” The nationalists — and, again, populists — reserve the word “conservative” for themselves.

At their recent conference in Washington, D.C. — held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (!) — the nationalists denounced the libertarians, or “libertarians.” Kai Weiss quotes a characterization of a “libertarian” attitude: “If people are choosing not to have children, if they’re choosing to spend their money on vacations, or nicer cars, or nicer apartments, then we should be okay with that.”

I wonder what the opposite of “okay” is. Forcing people to have children — or less nice apartments? A five-year plan to those ends? The Chinese Communist Party enacted a one-child policy. The Party, if it saw fit, could enact a multiple-child policy, I suppose.

(Back, for a minute, to the Ritz. I grin at the thought of the nationalists — horny-handed sons of toil, or tribunes of the woikin’ man — hammering out their industrial policy under the chandeliers of the Ritz-Carlton. We used to have fun with “champagne socialists.” “Ritz-Carlton nationalists”?)

Talk about a nationalist conference. Viktor Orbán and his people held one of their own in Budapest. A chief Orbánite, László Kövér, said that “having children is a public matter, not a private one.” (For a news report, go here.)

The demographic problem is a formidable one indeed. In Italy — once a byword for the large family — everyone’s tubes are tied, it seems. The big family dinner can be held at a small kitchen table. No cugini. But the conservative nose, as well as the libertarian nose, is sensitive to coercion. It can smell coercion from a mile off. And, on sensing statements such as Mr. Kövér’s, the conservative or libertarian nose should twitch.

Not many years ago — in the mid-1990s — we on the right went nuts when the First Lady of the United States published a book called “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.” Bob Dole, accepting the Republican nomination, took a shot at it. We thought that Hillary and her crowd — Marian Wright Edelman et al. — were intruding on private territory.

Oh, take me back to that night in San Diego, in August 1996! Dole said, “With all due respect, I am here to tell you that it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child.” The delegates exploded with “Dole-Kemp! Dole-Kemp!”

(I will confess what I have confessed before: I have always thought that the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” makes a certain sense. Every conservative knows it. Parents are crucial and paramount, obviously. But children are not islands, for better or worse. They are influenced by teachers, coaches, neighbors, shopkeepers, church leaders, television, music, movies, social media . . .)

Turn, now, to the charge of not caring. As a conservative, I have heard it all my life, from the Left: You don’t care, you don’t understand, you don’t have a heart, you want people to suffer and die under bridges. In the last few years, I have heard the very same from the nationalist-populist Right.

(Make no mistake, it is a lie either way.)

In his article, Kai Weiss quotes another characterization of the “libertarian” attitude, from the Ritz-Carlton: “So what if working-class Americans can’t find jobs? So what if people are crossing the border illegally and endangering themselves — sometimes dying, in the process? So what if flyover countries are plagued by drugs, health problems, even a drop in life expectancy?”

I think of a moment on Firing Line, when Charlie Peters was a guest. In fact, I have searched it out on YouTube, here. The whole hour is magnificent — with Kinsley, as well as Bill — but this particular moment begins about 8:26.

Peters says, “There is one hopeful step with the Republicans. I can hardly believe it, but there is the provision in the president’s tax-reform proposal to be kind and give the poor a break. This is an incredible step for a Republican.”

Bill says that Reagan “must have been out to lunch when they put that in, right? . . . Because Reagan hates poor people.”

We have grave social, economic, and other problems (always have, actually). (You could pick a worse time and place in which to live than present-day America.) But conservatives have learned, through the hard, hard experience of the world, that government intervention and social engineering often make things much worse, quite aside from the limits on personal freedom.

On the stump, Reagan used to say, “The ten scariest words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’” It was a big applause line. Is ol’ Reagan now to be read out of conservatism?

People on the right — those who regard themselves as “true conservatives” — reacted strongly when Candidate George W. Bush, in 2000, spoke of “compassionate conservatism.” We repeated the term with contempt, spitting it out. It was an insult to the previous conservatism: our conservatism. I love what Phil Gramm said: “Freedom is compassionate.”

Then, in 2003, President Bush said, “We have a responsibility that, when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” Oh, did we howl! Many of us quoted it contemptuously for years.

But now, W. is held out as a heartless, dog-eat-dog Friedmanite by the “true conservative” Right. (We used to love Milton Friedman — “Uncle Miltie” — and some of us still do.)

In fact, one of the weirdest things about the present political conversation is the contention by nationalists and populists that the country must wean itself from the free market and individual autonomy and embrace a more collectivist way. When were we addicted to the free market and individual autonomy? The government has gotten ever bigger and more “responsible” (or irresponsible). The Trump Right is always telling me, gleefully, “Your day is over!” I think, “I had a day? When? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

I myself am not a libertarian. I am a national-security hawk, a social conservative, a “drug warrior,” and other bad things (in the libertarian book). At my most peeved and bombastic, I said, “What, pray tell, is the libertarian plan for Iranian nukes? Disable them with marijuana smoke? Divert them — in more ways than one — by having sex with them?” And yet I have always valued libertarians and learned from them, and the current period makes me defensive of them, as they are defamed by various and sundry (including me, sometimes).

WFB once subtitled a collection of his “Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist.” He cared a lot about right and wrong. He did not want the whole country to be Vegas. Neither did Michael Novak — far from it! And remember something about Adam Smith: He was a moral philosopher. Classical liberals believe that their principles accord with the highest good — the most justice — obtainable here below.

I hope that Reagan conservatives, classical liberals, and others of that broad disposition will stand up for their beliefs and not be cowed by the usual, tiresome cries that they don’t understand, don’t care, blah blah blah. It is not true. Maybe we can meet sometime at the Ritz-Carlton and say so.


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