The National Conservatism Movement is trying to continue Trumpism long after Trump is out of the White House. Recently, they held a conference in D.C. in order to streamline their message. The keynote speakers were Tucker Carlson, John Bolton, Josh Hawley, Peter Thiel, and Yoram Hazony, whose speech announced that “today is our independence day”. In this episode, Aaron Ross Powell, Paul Matzko, Jason Kuznicki, & Matthew Feeney analyze Josh Hawley’s America’s Epicurean Liberalism by defining what it means to be an American.
What is the religious angle to national conservatism? What civic virtues does Joshua Hawley value? What does it mean to be American? Should society have a purpose?
America’s Epicurean Liberalism, written by Joshua D. Hawley
The Man Behind National Conservatism, written by Daniel Luban
Social Media’s Moral Panic (with Milton Mueller), Free Thoughts Podcast
What Senator Hawley Gets Wrong about American Identity, written by Aaron Ross Powell
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell. Today, I’m joined by my colleagues Paul Matzko.
00:13 Paul Matzko: Glad to be here.
00:13 Aaron Ross Powell: Jason Kuznicki.
00:14 Jason Kuznicki: Hello.
00:15 Aaron Ross Powell: And Matthew Feeney.
00:16 Matthew Feeney: Hi, there.
00:17 Aaron Ross Powell: July saw the inaugural National conservatism conference when conservative intellectuals, politicians, and media personalities got together to articulate a vision for carrying Trumpism past Trump, for establishing a worldview and an ideology that they think can take the basics of the Trump movement and turn them into an ongoing movement after Trump has departed from the scene. And it was a fascinating conference. The speakers often disagreed with each other, came from different perspectives, but the underlying ideas articulated are a value for libertarians to understand and to wrestle with because they present a way of seeing the world that is in many ways 180 degrees from ours. So, that’s what we wanna discuss today on Free Thoughts and we’re gonna do it by way of talking about Senator Josh Hawley. He was the only elected official to speak at this conference and he’s one of the rising stars of this new, although it may not be actually all that new, mode of conservatism. And so to talk about this, we’re gonna frame our conversation around an essay he wrote for National Affairs called America’s Epicurean Liberalism.
01:37 Aaron Ross Powell: We’ll put a link to it in the show notes. But this essay is probably the clearest version of what I think is the underlying attitudes and ideology that form the core of national conservatism. And so the core of Hawley’s beef with modern America that he wants to return America to an alternate way of being, the core of this is that we’ve embraced Epicureanism, the ancient Greek philosophy that often gets seen as a form of hedonism but probably isn’t. So, he writes in the essay, “Self-fulfillment is our great national ambition. The quest for individual self-discovery defines our ethics and our notions of justice, it motivates our work, our play, and our relationships. In virtually every quarter of our national life, individual happiness as defined by each person for himself, is the order of the day.” And Hawley somehow thinks this is bad but it sounds pretty good to me.
02:40 Jason Kuznicki: Yeah. I mean, we are a nation that was founded with the idea that the pursuit of happiness was something good or at least presumptively good and that it is something that individuals ought to have, that it’s a right that we have.
02:58 Matthew Feeney: I was struck by a few pages in. I don’t know how much we want to jump ahead, but Hawley is very good at pointing out that he views this as a product of what historians called the progressive error, where he says that like so much else that influences our contemporary politics, Epicurean liberalism emerged in the progressive period. And like Jason said, I think a lot of people reading this might find that somewhat confusing because he seems to be describing the kind of liberalism that motivated many of the founding fathers or the American Revolution. Quite what to make of that, I’m not sure, but we do have a historian here.
03:32 Paul Matzko: I’ll toss in real briefly.
03:33 S?: Two. Two, sorry. My apologies. Yes.
03:37 Paul Matzko: Two PhDs. I was struck reading the piece by the kind of imagined history going on early on in the essay. So, he juxtaposes, like there’s the progressive year and after, when things went wrong, and then there was the vision of America that came before that, the Jeffersonian vision, this vision of yeomen farmers, small holders, who were full of virtue and knew what it meant to be American, and built a country on the frontier. And the difficulty is, as a historian, actually what that reminded me of, I don’t know if you’ve read the Market Revolution by Sellers, Charles Sellers. He was a Marxist. And Sellers, he has this similar kind of vision of this early colonial period where there was idyllic farm life on the frontier and everything was good until the market revolution came along. So, the timing doesn’t quite fit but what’s striking about Hawley’s vision is that he is dealing with a period that was always a myth. So, Jefferson’s vision of the yeomen farmer was aspirational.
04:43 Paul Matzko: He wanted an America that looked like that, and he saw some evidence of it, but it never actually was as true as he wanted it to be. So, he pretends as if this is what America once was, this land of small yeomen farmers, and kind of skates over the fact that, well, a lot of these farmers weren’t yeomen farmers. They were plantation masters. Skates over the existence of slavery and really, or downplays it. It skates over the fact that you do have early signs of the industrial revolution, water mills, factory towns starting to grow in places like Lynn, Massachusetts and others very early on. So, he jumps from kind of an imagined myth that Jefferson is promoting for political reasons and cultural reasons in the early 19th century and late 18th century, to the progressive area, and then he actually is telling history. So, he’s juxtaposing an imagined ideal vision of what America should be like with, “”Well, then things went bad.” Well, they didn’t go bad. It was always more like that than you like to think, Senator Hawley.
05:50 Jason Kuznicki: Absolutely. That was one of the things I absolutely wanted to get to in this essay. The figure of the yeomen farmer plays this very strange role. There’s this normative ideal that we’re supposed to live up to and yet fewer than 2% of Americans nowadays work in agriculture. There is no reasonable prospect of greatly increasing that number. It’s not obvious why we should want to. We have a manufacturing sector and the services sector. They’re both much much larger and it’s been that way for a very long time. This is a long-term trend. And even in Jefferson’s day, people were tending to move more toward the cities. It was a thing that Jefferson himself was worried about. And in the years since then, we have come up with ways of dealing with the fact that we’re not all yeomen farmers and accepting that culturally and accepting that as a part of how to run a democratic society. We no longer think of it as a terrible problem that we have a representative democracy with big cities in it as might have been conceived as a problem in the early days.
07:00 Aaron Ross Powell: I think though too, to be fair to Hawley and to the broader national conservatism project, he’s not calling for, and they’re not calling for, a return to an era of farming. That’s not quite what they want. What they see is that era and the yeomen farmer and the person who’s out there working the land and then participating in the community, and they really play up a religious angle to all of this. So one of their real concerns about modern America is that students aren’t getting religious education, that then it’s that kind of attitude of our relationship to each other and our relationship to the government. The government exists to facilitate this kind of lifestyle, whether it’s farming, or using your hands or manufacturing, those kinds of were the kind of work that he imagines the heartland of America does, as opposed to the elite.
07:55 Aaron Ross Powell: So he’s probably not a fan of Silicon Valley, but I just wanna dig. So the core of it is is less about the specifics of the farming and more about that the modern world is a rejection of a notion of liberty that existed back then. So he says… I’m gonna just have a couple of quotes, because I think they really get to the heart of this. And I recommend this essay strongly to our listeners, because it’s a fascinating essay. And Hawley is clearly a very smart guy, and he’s a good writer and he makes… I mean, it’s ultimately a case that I don’t agree with, but he makes an interesting case for this position. So he begins by criticizing, he says, “The best statement of the world view that he’s rejecting.” So we need to understand what he’s rejecting before we can get to what he wants to replace it with, which is this backward looking thing, is from the opinion in the Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey and written by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter wrote this opinion.
08:54 Aaron Ross Powell: And so, there’s a line in that where they say, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they be formed under the compulsion of the state.” So this is abortion decisions. That’s why they’re talking about about personhood. And so, Hawley says that what this means in our modern world view, which is both… This isn’t just a leftist thing for him. He says the modern right has embraced this as well. He says, “Liberty in short for them is fundamentally a matter of personal choice. It’s the right to choose one’s own life’s ends, but more than that, it is the right to total self-definition and self-discovery.” And then, he blames this, the problems with America, namely, one of them is that he thinks that this creed, as he calls it, and he says, “This creed has virtually no ability to offer any coherent account of what democratic life is for.” And so, I think what he’s getting at is that it’s a wrong conception of identity.
10:00 Aaron Ross Powell: So what the yeomen farmer has is the yeomen farmer is embedded in a culture, in a kind of job in relations to other people. He has his faith giving him meaning and a direction in his life and in his values. He’s articulating those values in a society that shares them and reinforces them, and that he’s living in a state that is reinforcing all of that, or enabling it, or establishing it.
10:30 Paul Matzko: To put a finer point on I think the point Jason and I were making. It’s not that they want to return to the farm in a literal sense, it’s to an imagined community where small holders live in dense social networks. They’re working on the same farm that their ancestors worked on before them, on the same land, the same rituals, processes, going to church, exchanging with the same merchants. It’s this very dense, stable, socially embedded lifestyle that he’s nostalgic for. And the point I would like to make is that that has always been more imaginary than he thinks. That even in Jefferson’s time, people who are historians of the period will emphasize how disruptive this period is. People are constantly moving. They’re shifting farms along with the frontier, which at one point in time, the frontier is Western Massachusetts. But the frontier’s constantly moving. People are trying to find land of their own. People are rapidly changing religion. The Burned-over District in Western Newark people are making marketplace of religion type switches between faiths and denominations constantly.
11:42 Paul Matzko: Chaos, upheaval, change, people seeking self-definition is a kind of a constant in American history. Whereas they have this imagined past where things were stable, and people were socially embedded and going to church and working in the same place, in the same farm, and then progressivism and industrialization came along and changed all that for the worse. They’re just… It’s bad history, is the point I would like to make.
12:07 Jason Kuznicki: Yeah, yeah, I don’t accuse them of trying to revive yeomen farmer-ism, but I do think they’re romanticizing it in a way that obscures exactly what you’re talking about, that even before the Civil War, there is massive upheaval going on, not just on the frontier, but people moving to the cities in ever greater numbers, no longer being land owners, but instead being wage laborers. And what do we do with these people? And this was a concern among social conservatives even in those days. And it, to some extent, remains a concern among social conservatives today, when people are forming new social connections online, which are in many ways quite different from what one might form in either a rural setting or an urban setting before the rise of the internet.
13:01 Matthew Feeney: I suppose this is a question for the the historians, but Aaron, of course, you probably have thoughts on this too, is I think it’s worth emphasizing that at the time this was written in 2010, Josh Hawley… The byline for this is he’s a former clerk for the Chief Justice. So this is before he’s the Attorney General of Missouri, before he’s a senator, this is something… But more importantly says that he’s the author of Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. And Theodore Roosevelt’s clearly a bit of an obsession of Hawley and gets a good deal of attention in this essay, is dedicated to him. But to Paul’s point, Hawley writes that Roosevelt wanted to use government to restore the independence and self mastery at the core of the yeomen ideal. Which suggests that this is a mistake that Roosevelt himself, was making. Is that an accurate way to read? Just put it this way, Hawley is not the first, nor will he be the last politician to have nostalgic or romantic visions of the past.
13:57 Jason Kuznicki: But yeah, the Jeffersonian ideal was, you have a certain amount of integrity because you own your own land. And so even if everything around you goes to hell and is corrupted, you can always return to your farm and be sufficient, and that way you personally won’t be corrupted. And the anxiety came in when it was realized that there’s going to be this permanent mass of urban dwellers who don’t own their own land and don’t have that kind of self sufficiency. The thing that that your world view misses though is that increasingly the urban dwellers have human capital. They have skills that they can take from one city to another, as needed. And that is what gives them the kind of independence that the yeomen farmer had in previous ways of interacting with others. And the idea that government is needed to come in and give these people self sufficiency misses the fact that they have jobs and they are self sufficient because of their human capital.
14:56 Paul Matzko: Basically, every generation… And this is the time between this Jeffersonian anxiety and the Wilsonian and then Roosevelt’s, Teddy’s anxiety, is that this concern keeps resurfacing which is that people are moving to cities, they are mobile and will this lead them into civic virtuous degradation? They’re gonna lose their personal integrity and virtue. So for… During 1850s and ’60s, the Republicans are very worried about wage slavery and… Well, actually it’s the Democrat… Well, it’s a complicated story. But there’s concerns about wage slaves. You no longer on your own land, you’re a little different than a slave yourself, ‘cause you take wages from the man, working in a factory in the city. But… So these concerns keep bubbling up every generation and by FDR’s time, he’s also coming off of a wave of what we call muscular Christianity. That the urbanization, the rise, the boom and the white collar classes… Now there’s all these clerks, and accountants and lawyers, scurrying about.
16:05 Paul Matzko: Fewer people who work the land, so they’ve lost their vigor they’ve lost their physical vigor. And one you think of how important that is to TR who’s like, “It’s important you go out and work on the ranch, and rustle cattle so you build up strong bodies.”But not just physical vigor but also spiritual, mental, civic vigor too. That there’s a generation of young mens, they’re most concerned about, who have lost the attributes that makes good citizens ‘cause they’ve gone to cities, they take a wage, they’re no longer connected in almost the spiritual or mystical sense to the land, to physical labor, and so they’ve lost the virtues that make them good American citizens. So you need to… This is… Partially motivates TR’s… The national park system. We need to get people out of the cities to go out and experience the land. It motivates a variety of different measures during Roosevelts administration as he’s trying to combat this imagined really loss of vitality in our civic society. And I don’t think it’s something that… I think we should just reject the idea, that a society of people who are mobile, who are moving from city to city, that urbanize… This does not remove civic virtue in a meaningful sense.
17:26 Jason Kuznicki: Yeah, we had a bit of a cultural panic a few years ago when someone did a study that showed that grip strength among young American men has declined. And, “Oh, no what does this mean about who we are as people and are we still strong like our ancestors were?” And I’m just not phased by this sort of thing. I don’t know how to ride a horse very well, either. I think I’ve done it once in my life and, okay, I can live without that. And that’s how times change. It’s not some essence of virtue to be able to grip to a certain amount of strength, and it doesn’t mean that.
18:08 Matthew Feeney: There’s an interesting historical point which I think Paul’s done a good job of outlining, which is this concern ebbs and flows throughout American history. But it raises, I think, a question about today, which is namely what’s the government’s role in this. And Roosevelt certainly thought, look, the government does have a role in this project to ensure that there’s a certain kind of American standard, that’s achieved. And Hawley although he’s a member of the Republican party, which has at least tried to brand itself in the last decade or so as the one of… Particularly during the Obama years as, “We’re the limited government guys where we cut spending. We don’t like Uncle Sam in your business.” And Hawley is technically in that group and that tribe. But from the essay and I think it’s fair to say that his recent comments have shown that he hasn’t deviated much from what this essay lays out. He’s certainly a bit of a maverick at least in Congress. He certainly seems to have friends in the executive branch and with the President, and all those guys.
19:13 Matthew Feeney: And the question, I think, for us as a policy think tank in DC, is well, what does Hawley want to get us back to this and what does it mean for the Republican party going forward? As Aaron said, he’s one of the youngest members of the Senate if not the youngest, he’s gonna be around for a while.
19:27 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, this brings up, he makes a distinction and maybe we can try to tease this out ‘cause I think it’s an important one, between what he calls this ethic of self-development, which is what he says grows out of Epicurean liberalism, as he calls our modern way of looking at the world. So there’s that, there’s self-development on the one hand, but he rejects that in favor of what he calls self-governance. And so, we don’t want self-development, because and this is…
19:56 Aaron Ross Powell: He makes this other rather odd claim, he says the ethic of self-development leads to a conception of liberty, that is radically solipsistic, even anti-social. It suggests that freedom is best pursued alone as if the freest person on earth were Robinson Crusoe stranded on his island, which is a critique that Libertarians hear a fair amount like you… They kind of…
20:17 Jason Kuznicki: And usually from left though. Usually that’s a leftist saying that to us, “You wanna be alone on your island.”
20:23 Aaron Ross Powell: And of course, it’s completely wrong. Like libertarians, we don’t reject community at all. In fact, the very first episode of Free Thoughts is about evaluating community from a libertarian perspective, but it’s that your community there should be an element of choice in that, your involvement within the community should feel to a degree voluntary to you. We acknowledge you’re born into a community and you don’t have a choice about being in it initially, and then there can be reasons it’s very hard to leave it or change your social networks, your social ties. But that it still should be about you and what you want and if you decide it’s not right for you, you should have an opportunity to shift elsewhere but that’s not the same thing as this rather silly idea that liberals think the best possible human is one who never has any interactions with anyone else so as to not in any way be influenced by them, because of course we’re all influenced in all sorts of ways, by everyone in our society and everything we consume and all of that and that’s perfectly fine and okay.
21:26 Matthew Feeney: I wonder what the implications are for Hawley and his allies. Thinking about what Jason said earlier about human capital being very important now. And fortunately, we live in a country the size of a continent where people are free to move around and people seem to be voting with their feet in so far as the kind of environment they want to work in or live in. I was looking up recently that there are only about 9 or 10 states that have a population, higher than LA County. This is an increasingly urban country. And I don’t know what the answer to this is, if we’re bemoaning the loss of population in the heartland, and people increasingly moving to places like LA and New York and Miami, and all these places, is it… Do we… We don’t presumably, if you’re Hawley, want a Silicon Valley of Nebraska or Missouri, it’s not quite clear what he really wants.
22:16 Aaron Ross Powell: I think, and this was a theme in a lot of the talks at the national conservatism conference as well, is that the reason that we’re getting that, the reason that say we’re getting people being pulled to the coast and pulled to urban stuff, urban areas and the kind of jobs that exist there is because we’ve let this market fundamentalism or neo-liberalism or whatever you wanna call it, globalization, run rampant. That this is the only way you can compete in the modern economy is to work these kinds of jobs. And so people are… People are drawn to it for those sorts of reasons, and what we need, and then they’re losing out, like they’re losing out on these connections, this community building, this like purpose in life, and they’re descending into this ethical hedonism that he rejects. And… And so what we need is government, we need a robust government to enter into that and correct those incentives or to enable people who want to maintain this maybe mythological view of life to maintain that style of life with the support of the government.
23:21 Jason Kuznicki: Yeah, there’s a lot that’s wrong with that story, though, just as a matter of history. So, when demographers look at records from the 18th and the 17th centuries. What they find in Europe is that people are desperate to get to the cities, they really wanna go there. And when they get to the cities, these are places that don’t yet have sanitation. And so generally the person who lives in a city, the typical person who lives in a city is someone who moved there and then dies there.
23:49 Jason Kuznicki: And they do not have children. And so cities are like these gigantic death traps but people still want to live there anyway, even before they have sanitation. Why? Because their human capital goes further, they can do more there, because there are lots more opportunities, because being around more people tends to be agreeable to most people apparently, and so they are constantly moving to places like Paris or London, even though it’s not necessarily the healthiest choice for them. Nowadays we’ve solved the sanitation problems. They’re not all that difficult. Once you understand the germ theory of disease. And so we can build gigantic cities where all of the people in them can get the benefits of living in large urban areas. It’s not something to be afraid of.
24:35 Matthew Feeney: It raises though, I think this was a problem for Hawley going back to Aaron’s point of… Well, if we don’t like this, what’s the… You could have had something to have prevented it from happening in the first place, which is we should have limited competition with rest of the world to protect domestic industries, that really embodied the kind of ideal people liked, namely farming, agriculture. But because absent some sort of government program, it turns out people voted with their feet and moved to cities in huge numbers to take up new jobs. Or it’s to actively prevent the growth of certain companies that are here already. And I’m not sure what the… What the Hawley solution there is.
25:13 Paul Matzko: It’s not obvious to me that if you do those things, if you erect some protectionist order to keep American domestic industry vivacious, that if you do those things you get the results you want. It’s not obvious to me that you would prevent urbanization through protectionism. Let’s say you prevented the import of Toyota and Honda in the 70s, and 80s when they loosened the tariff restrictions on imported cars.
25:39 Paul Matzko: You actually by importing cars, spread out the car industry more across more states, and across more towns and smaller towns than the car industry had previously been true. It used to be Detroit. It was all Detroit. The free market fundamentalism spread out, decentralized, de-urbanized an entire industry. So even if he’s correct I’m not sure his measures will do the thing he wants it to do.
26:08 Aaron Ross Powell: I think there’s also a degree of what I’ll call the politics of taste at play here. So there certainly are Americans who long for the kind of lifestyle that Hawley imagines or there are Americans who live in small towns in America and remember what things were like when they were kids. And when you would live comfortably on dad working at the factory and mom home supporting the family. And they want to return to that lifestyle of the small town where you know everyone, and everyone goes to the same church on Sunday, and reads their bible, and has Sunday dinner and that sort of thing. But it turns out most Americans don’t actually want that. We’re a pluralistic society, right? Just in this room, we’ve got one non-religious dude, two Buddhists, and a Protestant, right? What’s the emerging… What should we be reading? It’s… And I was looking at… There were stats on… There was a recent study or survey from Phi Delta Kappa that our colleague Neal McCluskey blogged about on the Cato blog that asked Americans, “What do you think the main goal of public education would be?” And so for Hawley, the main goal of public education is two-fold.
27:27 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s… One is to promote the civic virtues to help us become good citizens, so we can then participate in the self-governance, which is not, “I should govern myself,” but that “I should, we should govern ourselves together through the mechanisms of the state.” He thinks it’s that, and that it should teach values, namely biblical values. That’s the core of the National Conservatism Project. But when asked what the main goal of public education should be, only 25% of respondents said to prepare students to be a good citizen. 21% said to prepare them for work, and 53% said to prepare them academically, and only 6% thought Bible study should be required, and 36% thought it shouldn’t even be offered as an elective. This just isn’t… The lifestyle that he imagines America wants, and the lifestyle… When he says, “We should be governing ourselves, we should be instituting the kind of values that we want,” it turns out these are the tastes and values of a very small and shrinking portion of America.
28:30 Matthew Feeney: This gets to one of his complaints about powerful industries, namely those you see in Silicon Valley. Hawley has made himself one of Silicon Valley, or, big tech’s main adversaries where he… At many opportunities, Hawley will take efforts to point out that he views these companies in odd ways as unpatriotic. That they’re doing business with China, and that they’re not really that concerned about, let’s call it civic virtue. And that’s somewhat concerning to Hawley also. Not only because he doesn’t seem to like the fact that they are dealing with China, but also because these are very influential industries, and they’re changing the minds of children, they’re changing the minds of adults as well. And that’s certainly something that concerns him greatly.
29:15 Jason Kuznicki: Well, to be clear, I have some qualms about dealing with China. They have a terrible human rights record. They are…
29:21 Matthew Feeney: Oh no doubt.
29:21 Jason Kuznicki: Suppressing protests in Hong Kong, they are operating a massive system of reeducation camps to suppress the Muslim minority in the West. There’s a lot that’s going on that I’m troubled by over there.
29:34 Matthew Feeney: Hey, I have said publicly and criticized China numerous times, right? I’m not… This isn’t a defense of China point. It’s, I think, Hawley would have an issue with this even if China had the civil or human rights record of France or something.
29:51 Jason Kuznicki: Sure, sure.
29:51 Matthew Feeney: I think the problem is that he doesn’t like the fact that a lot of these America’s best known companies seem, as he might put it, I haven’t heard him put it exactly this way, but seem more concerned about the business with foreigners than with the domestic polity.
30:07 Jason Kuznicki: Sure, yeah. In the 1980s, protectionists were making a lot of the same claims about Japan, which at that time was absolutely not a society which had any kind of massive human rights violations of that type. It was a decent liberal democracy, but it was a threat to American prosperity.
30:23 Matthew Feeney: And this is a challenge to mock at liberals, which is to tell people in small-town Missouri or Indiana that, “Well, we know you might have lost your job in the factory where your father worked and your grandfather worked. But did you know that GDP per capita in India and China has risen quite a bit over the last couple of years thanks to trade?” That’s not a great political selling point and I understand that.
30:46 Aaron Ross Powell: Or that it’s risen in the United States, right? That’s the other thing, is that you can say incomes have risen here, people are living longer, they’re healthier, they’re making more money, they have more choices than they ever did. But to the person who is sitting in a small town where the factory has gone under or has moved to another country, or looking forward, to the truck driver who is looking at self-driving trucks just eviscerating his industry, that makes it… It’s not necessarily a convincing case. And I think that’s the underlying thing when I’m reading the National Conservatism stuff, when I’m reading Hawley is, the people that he is trying to help, that he imagines he’s speaking for, are genuinely hurting. And the stories that we often tell about why things are going well, I think, are justifiably, if not rejected, at least looked on with skepticism by these people. And we as market liberals, say, or as liberaltarians, or as the elites, the cosmopolitans that Hawley is so not a fan of, we frequently don’t take that into account in the way that we ought to.
32:14 Aaron Ross Powell: Or we, sometimes in our rhetoric, seem to brush that aside with our arguments of just like, “Well, the GDP is going up.” The problem is that the National Conservatism Project has articulated it in the form of this return to a particular vision of America. The industrial policy that they want or government gets heavily involved in the economy, and then the form of nationalism in order to maintain a certain kind of America, and keep people they see as threats to that out, won’t help the people who are hurting now and runs the risk of doing severe long-term damage and runs counter to the predominant values of the country but that’s not the same thing as saying we shouldn’t take these people’s views not seriously.
33:06 Jason Kuznicki: Well, I have a great deal of sympathy to the view that says that the American system has been tilted toward elites in a lot of ways, I absolutely agree with that. I think there is more concentration of wealth today in the United States than we would see under my own understanding of an idealized free market economy. I think that our banking regulation tends to produce concentration in the industry, it tends to reward that in everything from regulatory compliance costs to bail-outs when you get too big to fail. I think that intellectual property skews the wealth distribution in this country to a degree that is not generally appreciated but is very considerable and I think that if we were to tackle those problems we would see a much wider distribution of wealth.
33:58 Matthew Feeney: Yeah, it is, I always say to people that I like this job and I like working at Cato, but on my commute from Northern Virginia into DC it’s amazing, you just pass this exhibit of nepotism and cronyism with these defense contractors owning entire huge buildings and you just going into a city that’s run by elites and concentrated interest and I think it is a legitimate complaint that the elites have involved themselves in government far too much and are influencing things beyond what they should.
34:34 Matthew Feeney: And if you look at the post ‘07 ‘08 recovery, we had this horrific economic crisis and for people like us sitting here, for people with college degrees, actually the recovery has been doing alright, if you look at at wage growth. But for people who don’t have college degrees actually it hasn’t been that great, the so-called recovery, it hasn’t been realized by many people and I can understand the frustration that all these years later you haven’t had much of a pay rise and your kids school still sucks and you’re being told that you’re slightly backwards, I get the frustration that must encourage.
35:12 Paul Matzko: There’s a couple of ways you can respond to something like this. One is to say things aren’t as bad as you say they are, Senator Hawley, which is like, look this is the GDP has gone up, prosperity is increasing etcetera that’s one approach, the other is to say, you’re right about the problem but your solution will make it worse, our solution will make it better. If we actually had a free market things the elites wouldn’t have so much power and wealth.
35:40 Paul Matzko: As far as a third kind of rhetorical approach or third response is to point out the things that the very people he’s criticizing, these cosmopolitans both in his article here but especially at the National conservatism conference, the people who get lambasted time and again are cosmopolitans, cosmopolitan elites, people like us, people like Josh Hawley who went to elite law schools and clerked for the Supreme Court, he’s not some proletariat down on the farm Josh Hawley, he’s a cosmopolitan just like us who plays at not being a cosmopolitan but you don’t write an article about epicurean liberalism unless you’re a cosmopolitan. But the things that the cosmopolitans have actually done, liberals have done to improve America and the thing that comes to my mind that you mentioned Aaron this call to return to Christian values. At the National conservatism conference, there were lots of calls we need to have a vision of America that is founded on Judeo-Christian values. What does it mean to be American?
36:50 Paul Matzko: And this is always the problem with nationalism is that in other countries nationalism and nationalism is a myth, it’s an imagined community to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, it’s predicated on a set of stories, myths, that we tell about the past, but in other countries nationality is ethnicity, anyone can theoretically become a French citizen but they can’t actually become French, they’re not really part of the French nation unless they’re ethnically French which is always a problem with waves of immigrants who might become French citizens and be there for three generations but other French people don’t really consider them fully French ‘cause they’re not ethnically French. But in America Americanism is not an ethnicity it’s a set of ideas. So these nationalists at the national conservatism convention are saying, what are those ideas that make one American if not ethnicity, or race, or whatever, it’s ideas, ideas like Judeo-Christianity. So I thought I’d just unpack the idea a little bit.
37:48 Paul Matzko: Cosmopolitans invented Judeo-Christianity, the thing that these conservatives are now wielding was invented by cosmopolitan liberals in the 1930s and ’40s, that phrase itself was coined in the 1930s by liberal mostly Protestant and Jewish clergy because they’re concerned about the rising wave of anti-semitism. Basically conservatives in the 1920s and ’30s are playing footsies or are themselves proto-fascist or just fascists, people like G. Gerald Smith and I won’t go into all the details there, but conservatives playing footsies with Nazis in the ’20s and ’30s are basically blaming all the world’s ills on… When they say cosmopolitans then they mean Jews, Jewish conspiracy, right. So they’re using… They’re riding a wave of anti-immigrant, anti-semitic sentiment, that’s global in nature and along come a bunch of cosmopolitan liberals who say, you know what, despite centuries of hatred between Catholics, Protestants and Jews, like riots, riots over do you use the Catholic or Protestant version of the Bible in the public schools? Burning down nunneries and monasteries, excluding…
39:09 Paul Matzko: Having quotas on how many Jewish students can be allowed in elites schools. A long history of exclusion, hatred, you know what, we got more in common than you might think. So a bunch of liberal clergyman in the 1930s, said we’re gonna call that Judeo-Christian and if you’re a conservative you thought this was just guff, unimaginable liberal idiocy. Now, that becomes useful during World War II because it’s a unifying concept. Let’s unite against Totalitarianism, against the Nazis. There was this… I went to Temple for my masters and there was a chapel on campus, it was derelict by the time I was there, but it was a chapel of the four chaplains. There was a US troopship that got sunk by a Nazi U-boat that had a Rabbi, a priest and and Evangelical mainline protestant pastors on board and they gave their life jackets to soldiers to save… They drowned themselves, praying all the way down, kind of thing. And anyways, that idea of Judeo-Christian becomes useful during the war to promote national unity, it’s a vision, it’s a liberal vision of American nationalism.
40:19 Jason Kuznicki: And it continues in the Cold War as well, because then we’re up against an ideologically godless opponent. And so, it made a lot of sense to deploy that. It does leave open the question, what about people who don’t have a religious faith, what about people who maybe don’t have a conventional religious faith? Where do they fit in and is America also a place for them or is it not so much a place for them?
40:47 Aaron Ross Powell: I wonder if that goes back to his rejection of the line from Planned Parenthood v. Casey, about the right to define one’s own concept of existence of meaning of the universe and the history of human life.
41:00 Jason Kuznicki: Oh gosh, I find that kind of wooly, I get what they’re saying but it is an unfortunate way to put it.
41:05 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure, sure. But the point is, I think that he, his critique of that is that, it’s almost nonsense to think that you, Jason Kuznicki, can define for yourself, like the meaning of your life and your understanding of the universe because that necessarily comes through religious faith.
41:28 Jason Kuznicki: Oh, well, it is a preposterous idea, that I’m going to get all of the answers right, that’s objectively crazy. The only thing that is crazier than that is to imagine that someone else will supply me with answers that work better for me, that’s worse. That is far worse because they do not have access to my interior life, they do not have access to my emotions, they do not have the same relationships with other people that I have. There’s no basis to expect that a nation-sized solution in this department is gonna work for everybody.
42:04 Aaron Ross Powell: I wanna close by looking at the question of purpose, because if you strip back all of the details and the differences between a lot of the people talking about national conservatism, one of the underlying core ideas of it seems to be that a society, that our society, that a nation, that a people need to have a purpose and that the Epicurean liberalism as Hawley calls it, this self-definition, self-development doesn’t enable us to have a purpose. It shifts the purpose-ness onto the individual. It’s your job to come up with your own and we, as a society need one, and because if we don’t have one, we can’t, the society won’t function, it will break down. We as individuals won’t thrive in the way that we ought to, and so, we as a people ought to define this purpose, and then government should enforce and/or support or subsidize the ongoing development and achievement of that purpose. So we take that, okay, but does that argument even get off the ground? Like should a society even have a purpose, and if a society should have a purpose, how would we even figure out what that is?
43:28 Jason Kuznicki: Well, [43:29] ____ answer to that was the idea of a societal purpose as a category or individuals have purposes and the function of a government, which is one institution among many in a society, is to arrange things so that those purposes may be pursued independently and in peace. Society as a whole does not aim at any one thing, except perhaps the very limited goal of ensuring peaceful relations among people while they independently pursue goals through means that do not im-permissively harm others.
44:05 Paul Matzko: Hawley should know better because every time we’ve had this choice, a choice between uh-oh either someone needs to impose order and meaning on a group of individuals, on a society, on a community, and letting them make that choice for themselves, letting them make a choice for themselves has led to good, fascinating, interesting things. He’s a Presbyterian like me. We both… We go to the churches in the same denomination, Avondale Presbyterian church. Once upon a time in the United States, in the colonies, there were established churches and the fear was that if you gave people full religious freedom to pick whatever church they wanted to go to, well, that’ll be chaos, disorder, irreligion. It’ll be a nightmare. People, you need to impose some kind of religious order, basic religious order on societies. So the Massachusetts Bay Colony, that society, that unit is going to be… Well, initially it’s puritanic congregationalist, et cetera, Virginia, it’s gonna be Anglican eventually, Presbyterian by law, by force, by order, we are going to impose a certain vision of society on these people for their own good, how else will they flourish? How else will they know what the good life is like?
45:17 Paul Matzko: Disestablishment, giving people freedom of choice, it makes it possible for the ancestors, the religious ancestors of people like Josh Hawley himself to be Presbyterians. Presbyterians were anti-establishmentarian, deeply so and that… So it’s bizarre, everytime he goes to the church on a Sunday, he should think, “Thank goodness, people who thought like me didn’t win in the 18th century.”
45:40 Jason Kuznicki: Yeah, it sets up winners and losers. You have some people whose purposes are vindicated by the government and carried out by the government and enforced by the government and other people whose purposes are the losers. They are on the outs. They’re not going to have the same kinds of privileges. It ultimately points at a society of a politically-privileged class that rules over everyone else, that he complains a great deal about elites but ultimately I think this is a bid to supplant to the elites and become the elites and that’s why it’s ultimately a non-starter for me.
46:26 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening, if you enjoy Free Thoughts, rate and review us on Apple Podcast, or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and, Landry Airs. To learn more visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.