by Rob Schwarzwalder
June 15, 2015
In 2003, Bill Kristol wrote in The Weekly Standard that “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy … Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on ‘the road to serfdom.’ Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable.”
A few years earlier, Marvin Olasky articulated a vision of “compassionate conservatism” thusly: “The major flaw of the modern welfare state is not that it is extravagant, but that it is too stingy. It gives the needy bread and tells them to be content with that alone. It gives the rest of us the opportunity to be stingy also, and to salve our consciences even as we scrimp on what many of the destitute need most — love, time, and a challenge to be ‘little lower than the angels’ rather than one thumb up from monkeys.”
Now we read a good deal about reform conservatism, whose proponents advance a quite sophisticated and wide-ranging program articulated elegantly by Yuval Levin. “American conservatives need to offer our vision as a genuine alternative to the status quo,” he writes. “Doing so requires us to make an appeal to the broader public grounded in both a practical and a theoretical case, and therefore to engage simultaneously with the mundane realities of American government and the principles and philosophy that underlie our idea of the proper character of society and politics. It requires, in other words, a political program that draws on a conservative anthropology, sociology, and epistemology, and expresses itself in terms of both political philosophy and public administration. This means that today’s Right needs both a firmer grounding in the foundations of the conservative tradition in American politics and more practical policy proposals that can speak to the public’s needs and wants.”
All of these qualified visions of conservatism and conservative governance have much to commend them in philosophy, analysis, and substantive proposals. However, the modifiers noted seem to imply some deficiency in the philosophy they claim essentially to endorse. That’s worrisome.
Conservatism, properly understood, is compassionate inherently. Much of what the “reform conservatives” want is what all conservatives want. Neoconservatism largely has integrated with its non-neo philosophical kin.
Soon I plan to write a longer and, I hope, both sympathetic and unifying piece about all of this. Suffice it for now to say that conservatives need simply to be conservatives in the truest sense of the term. That means confidence in our philosophy, winsomeness in tone, surefootedness in articulation, and undauntedness in the face of skepticism. Unmodified, unqualified, unapologetic in self-description, too.