Libertarians and some conservatives often argue that Western political thought is divided into two camps, the heirs of Hobbes and the heirs of Locke. One camp wants to impose their vision of society on the people, while the other camp wants to let the people figure it out on their own. There’s really no third choice, so it is not a terrible way of looking at political philosophy. Democratic political systems would fall into the latter group and everything else would end up in the former group.
That’s fine but not useful beyond labeling the bad guys as authoritarians, which is probably the point. Both Locke and Hobbes started from a premise that we now know is ridiculous. Early man was not in a state of perpetual war or perpetual cooperation. Early man, before settlement, lived in small bands of no more than 150 members. Within the group, there was most likely little violence and communal property. Between groups, violence was common and brutal at times.
Putting that aside, the better way of looking at the great divide is between those who think there is a perfect social arrangement and those who do not. The former imagine there is a perfect way to order human affairs to achieve maximum happiness. That perfect way is both discoverable and achievable. Morality dictates that anything and everything be done in order to reach this state of social perfection. The Rousseau camp is focused on the end and prepared to use any means necessary to achieve it.
The other mode of thought rejects the human perfectibility. The best we can do is incrementally improve the material state of society by adding a few grains of sand, each generation, to the foundations of society. That necessitates preserving the traditional institutions, while adding to them as they are the storehouse of knowledge, built up over countless generations through trial and error. The Burke camp focuses entirely on the means knowing the ends are beyond the ability of man to perfect.
Obviously, that’s a very simple way of looking at things. Since the French Revolution, the Team Rousseau and Team Burke have been battling over the shape of western society. One side trying to create the perfect society, whatever it takes, and the other side trying to stop them from pulling the roof down on everyone. It’s a one way fight, of course, as the Team Rousseau attack and the Team Burke defends, but it takes a long time to pull down 2,000 years of cultural institutions.
This is supposed to be reflected in the American political system. The Democrats are Rousseau-ist fanatics and the Republicans are the Burkean Conservatives, defending America from the rage zombies of the Left. A lot of people believe that is how things work. Sensible people are convinced that if the GOP can get control, they will roll back the welfare state, chase the sodomites from the Temple and bring America back in line with her constitutional past.
At the same time, liberals are sure the other guys are going to roll back the welfare state, chase the sodomites from the Temple and bring America back in line with her constitutional past. They toss and turn at night over the prospect of another Bush siting on the throne. They think Sarah Palin is hiding under their bed, ready to stuff their uterus with Bibles and sew their legs shut. It’s why they never quit, no matter how disastrous their schemes.
Kevin Williamson goes goes down this road in his piece on the authoritarian impulses of the Left.
The Right is finally coming around to the understanding that what mainly distinguishes it from the Left is not its general preference for muscular foreign policy, its not always convincing defense of the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even its relatively faithful reading of the Constitution, as important as those things are. Rather, the fight between Right and Left is about coercion.
One side is willing to use any means necessary to reach the promised land. The other side is restrained by the means they will tolerate and they are willing to accept less than optimal results. If the people prefer high tariffs, for example, that’s fine as long as it is debated and enacted in a constitutional process. The Right can argue for something on rational grounds, but accept less knowing that people are seldom rational. That’s the claim, least ways.
That would be great, if it were true, but it has not been the case for a long time now, at least in American politics. In fact, what we call “conservative” is pretty much just the same stuff we call “liberal” but with slightly different ends. This thread on NRO is a good example of what I mean.
Abby McCloskey supports a universal maternity benefit on conservative grounds. Some women, including many high-wage workers employed by large firms, already have access to paid leave through their employers. The women who’d benefit most from a universal maternity benefit are low-wage workers employed by small firms, for whom paid leave is virtually unheard of. These women tend not to have the savings or the family support they’d need to ride out a long spell without paid work. When they fall out of paid work to care for a newborn, it can be difficult for them to find their way back in. Moreover, lengthy interruptions in work experience can lower one’s wages considerably over time. That’s why McCloskey, writing in Forbes, has suggested that a modest universal maternity benefit is best understood as a way to keep working mothers from falling into hardship without punishing employers. Because the benefit she proposes is fairly small, to help ensure that it doesn’t crowd out more generous paid leave policies currently offered by employers, McCloskey estimates that it would cost only $2.5 billion to provide six weeks of paid leave to workers without other paid leave options, an amount she believes can be raised by eliminating waste from the $93 billion spent on unemployment benefits in 2012 and the $200 billion spent on disability insurance each year.
Those ruling class women have all sorts of privileges that come from their status. They have private trainers and dieticians so they can remain slim and attractive, even into late middle-age. Maybe we should mandate that too. What you see here is a fight between green eye-shade types over which Utopian fantasy is more cost effective. Abby McCloskey, I’m sure, considers herself a conservative firebrand, yet she accepts every key premise of the Rouuseau-ists. Namely, the perfect arrangements are discoverable, achievable and we have an obligation to pursue them – no matter what.
The typical Republican and most so-called conservatives accept this without question. Bush the Minor famously said that “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, Government has got to move.” This is the very definition of the custodial state, the dreamed of end result of every Rousseau-ist cult since 1789. It is simply impossible to believe that and think they can be any limit on state coercion of the citizens. Those are the words of the police state. Yet, he was applauded by his party and most of the professional Right.
Young people can be forgiven for thinking a Ted Cruz is a far right conservative. It’s what they know and what they have been sold. Reality is a different thing. Our political culture now functions within a broom closet of the main room of western political thought. Within that small intellectual space, everyone agrees on the big stuff and most of the small stuff. The big fights over who gets to parade around in purple while the semi-permanent custodial state keeps a lid on things, like game wardens at an animal preserve.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of some readers, the Roman Republic came to an end in no small part because the ruling elite of Rome was unable to think critically about their dominant paradigm. The French Revolution was as much about the calcified ruling elite’s inability to understand the threat, much less respond to it. As the American political culture narrows and the factions close ranks, their ability to reform and respond to new threats diminishes. Correspondingly, the people’s ability to make their demands know through democratic processes also diminishes.