“If you ever read a sentence that starts with ‘Neocons believe,’ there is a 99.44 percent chance that everything else in that sentence will be untrue.” So wrote the neoconservative columnist David Brooks in a New York Times op-ed (January 2004).
Many “neoconservatives” – a label coined in 1973 by the socialist Michael Harrington to express his displeasure with supposed liberals who were defending conservative ideas and policies – insist that neoconservatism is not a monolithic system of thought, and they point out that neoconservatives disagree among themselves on significant issues.
According to James Q. Wilson, neoconservatism “is neither an ideology nor a movement.” An ideology is systematic worldview, and there “is nothing systematic about neoconservatism.” Neoconservatism is more accurately described as an intellectual orientation, impulse, perspective, or mood. Similarly, Irving Kristol (the “godfather” of neoconservatism) dubbed neoconservatism a “persuasion.”
Even these assertions, vague as they are, have not received unanimous assent among prominent neoconservatives. Mark Gerson, author of The Neoconservative Vision (the best overview of neoconservative thought) and editor of The Essential Neoconservative Reader, claimed that neoconservatism is “a comprehensive outlook on economics, politics, culture, and society linked by common principles and a distinctive vision.” Although it may not signify a set of doctrines and so not qualify as an ideology in the strict sense, “the term neoconservative does in fact capture a genuine political grouping with a coherent and distinctive ideological orientation.”
If prominent spokespersons for this orientation, impulse, or persuasion (or whatever we care to call it) cannot agree on what neoconservatism is – or, in some cases, even if it is – an outsider, especially a libertarian who comes to criticize rather than to praise, may perhaps be forgiven for indulging in generalizations with which some neoconservatives may disagree. The best he can hope for is to capture the essence of this elusive creature.
It is customary in a survey of neoconservatism to mention that some first-generation neocons were Trotskyists in their early years – a fact that does not merit the attention that some critics have given it – after which they became New Deal liberals with a fiercely anti-communist bent. These founders moved gradually to the political right, especially in reaction to the student rebellion and counterculture of the Vietnam era. By the early 1970s neocons were giving what Irving Kristol called “two cheers for capitalism.” As he put it in an oft-quoted remark, “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”
What is the political philosophy of neoconservatism?
One way to approach this issue is to contrast neoconservatism with libertarianism. Some neocons have used this comparative method as well, but more often than not their characterizations of libertarianism are mere caricatures. Time and again we are told that libertarians are “economic determinists” who are oblivious to the crucial role of ideas in social and political change, that they ignore the moral and cultural foundations of a free society, that they favor an “anything goes” type of moral libertinism, that they regard the outcome of every voluntary market transaction as indiscriminately praiseworthy, that they are “social atomists” with no appreciation for the importance of families and communities, and so forth.
These misrepresentations are so egregious and systematic that one must question the reading and comprehension skills of neocons, or their intellectual honesty. (A notable exception is the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and other works.)
Neoconservatives typically dismiss advocates of laissez-faire as “utopian” (i.e., unworthy of serious consideration). It is “idle,” wrote Irving Kristol, “to talk about returning to a ‘free enterprise’ system in which government will play the modest role it used to. The idea of such a counterrevolution is utopian.” The welfare state “is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago.” (Leave it to a neoconservative to offer Bismarck’s authoritarian welfare-warfare state as a positive example.) Americans need and demand governmental assistance, so the “only interesting political question is: How will they get it?”
In their quest for a conservative welfare state, neocons often employ the “Law of Unintended Consequences” to criticize specific programs not to their liking. “A liberal and compassionate social policy,” according to Kristol, “has bred all sorts of unanticipated and perverse consequences.” This does not mean that neoconservatives oppose welfare programs as such; rather, in the words of James Q. Wilson, if something ought to be done by government, “it is necessary to do that something cautiously, experimentally, and with a minimum of bureaucratic authority.”
The rub, of course, comes in deciding what a government ought and ought not to do. For libertarians, a key factor in resolving this problem is the fact that governments use coercive means to attain their goals, in contrast to the voluntary cooperation that we find in social interaction. The question of the proper role and limits of government therefore reduces to the question of when it is morally proper to coerce others.
This emphasis on the moral difference between coercion and persuasion has typified the libertarian approach to political philosophy for centuries. John Milton, writing in 1644, declared that the “great art” of political philosophy is “to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.” John Locke expressed a similar idea several decades later when he noted that “it is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties.”
This distinction, which is fraught with profound moral implications, lies at the heart of libertarian theory; yet, according to many neocons, libertarians have ignored the moral foundations of a free society. A curious soul might therefore ask: What is the neoconservative position on when coercion may legitimately be used in human relationships?
Neocons, for all their moral posturing, rarely if ever address this problem in a straightforward manner. It seems this question is too ideological for their tastes, so their answer is buried beneath verbiage – sufficiently vague so as to tax the patience of even sympathetic readers – about democratic institutions, community, and “bourgeois” values.
According to Mark Gerson: “Freedom is an essential good, but it must serve the larger end of societal virtue. Freedom in not an end in itself; it is a means to serve virtue, which is nurtured and developed through communities.”
Although few libertarians would claim that freedom is an end in itself (whatever that is supposed to mean), they do insist that individual freedom is the highest political value, and that governments should be assessed as good or bad to the degree they protect and preserve this value.
Neoconservatives occasionally come close to saying the same thing, but they frequently go on to attack the libertarian view of “freedom.” Individual freedom, they claim, should be balanced with the “freedom” of communities to determine their own values. Several decades ago Richard Neuhaus and Peter Berger warned that “an unbalanced emphasis upon individual rights has seriously eroded the community’s power to sustain its democratically determined values in the public sphere.”
Of course, these “democratically determined values” include the prohibition of pornography, prostitution, gambling, and other victimless crimes that neocons might find personally offensive. Should a community decide to prohibit activities of which neocons approve, or should a community vote to legalize activities of which neocons disapprove, one can expect neocons to show considerably less enthusiasm for “democratically determined values.” Generally speaking, neocons favor freedom in the abstract; it is the exercise of freedom in particular cases that they have a problem with.
According to Adam Wolfson, “Neoconservatives object not only to the libertarian critique of Big Government but also to its cramped understanding of liberty.” Libertarians defend every conceivable type of freedom except that of self-government. And what, precisely, is the freedom of self-government? It is the “freedom” of a community to decide which values should be coercively imposed on members of that community.
Hence, according to Wolfson, in defending the individual’s right to choose, the libertarian seeks to forbid “individuals from acting together to determine what laws they shall live under.” Translated, this means that libertarians deny the “freedom” of some individuals, including a majority, to violate the equal freedom of others. John Locke and other classical liberals frequently referred to this kind of freedom as “license” and even as “tyranny,” but neocons prefer to call it democratic freedom.
This neoconservative notion of “freedom” is more congenial to the tradition of democratic totalitarianism, such as defended by J.J. Rousseau, than to the tradition of limited government, such as defended by Thomas Jefferson. Few neocons would agree with Jefferson’s call for “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
Neoconservatives sometimes speak of “the cultural contradictions of capitalism” – a phrase that comes from the title of a 1976 book by the sociologist Daniel Bell, who described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” The themes developed by Bell are complex; but, as boiled down for popular consumption by neoconservatives, they reduce to the claim that capitalism tends to generate a culture of hedonism by catering to the subjective wants of consumers. And this, it is further claimed, undercuts the values that are essential to the survival of capitalism itself.
In the ever-changing dynamics of a capitalistic society, people who no longer feel bound by the moral authority of tradition have both the freedom and leisure to rebel against the values of this society and participate in an “adversary culture.” Thus “the major question of our age,” argued Irving Kristol, is how we can prevent the moral and cultural values essential to capitalism from being eroded, and eventually destroyed, by the personal freedom which capitalism offers.
Mark Gerson tells us that capitalism can breed “degeneracy bred by affluence.” If a “healthy culture” is to be maintained, a democratic government must regulate or prohibit “some of the more unfortunate cultural outgrowths of capitalism. These might include pornography, prostitution, gangsta rap music, and other potential economic goods that often serve to undermine the bourgeois values upon which capitalism relies.” Capitalism cannot survive without a “traditional culture” that sustains bourgeois values.
What are these bourgeois values and virtues? The answer to this question depends on which neoconservative you happen to read. Here, in alphabetical order, is a list compiled from a handful of neoconservative writers: concern for family (called “familial socialism” by one neocon), deference towards traditional religions, delayed gratification, diligence, firm moral convictions, foresight (a reasonable concern for distant consequences), frugality, honest ambition, humility, industry (the willingness to work hard to improve one’s condition), justice (regard for the rights of others), lack of the expectation to receive something for nothing, nonutopian expectations, order, piety, probity, prudence, punctuality, rectitude, reliability, resolution, respect for law, self-discipline, self-reliance, silence, sobriety, and temperance.
This list, which reads like an unabridged version of the Boy Scout credo, raises an obvious question: Which of these values and virtues should be enforced by the coercive arm of government, and which should be left to the voluntary interaction of individuals?
The libertarian answers this question by distinguishing between crimes and vices. A “crime” is a violation of the rules of justice, an action that violates the rights of another person; whereas a “vice” is a personal failing that, though it may affect others adversely, does not involve coercion. This is essentially what Adam Smith had in mind when he referred to “that remarkable distinction between justice and all the other social virtues” and insisted that virtues other than justice “cannot, among equals, be extorted by force.” Justice is the “main pillar that upholds the whole edifice” of social order. The other virtues, in contrast, are ornaments that embellish the building and which are therefore “sufficient to recommend, but by no means necessary to impose.”
Neocons take exception to this approach. Indeed, Irving Kristol claimed that Adam Smith was unduly complacent about the moral virtues needed to sustain a free society, believing that the self-interested actions of individuals would somehow produce desirable outcomes automatically. Never mind that Smith believed no such thing. Kristol, in an ideological tour de force, proclaimed that libertarians in general are “unmindful of culture” and simply don’t understand the connection between morality and a free society.
Many libertarian writers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Herbert Spencer, addressed the relationship between freedom and culture in considerable detail. Moreover, Ayn Rand, one of the most influential figures in modern libertarian thought, wrote extensively on the moral and cultural foundations of capitalism, but she is rarely mentioned in the literature of neoconservatism, except to be ridiculed and curtly dismissed as the founder of a “cult.”
It apparently takes a good neoconservative to understand that some immoral actions and tendencies, even those that don’t violate the rights of other people, are social “diseases” that only governmental coercion can cure. So much for the bourgeois virtue of personal responsibility.
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.