Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Where Oh Where Are the Smart Conservatives?

Let us start with John Stuart Mill's prayer:

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Fair and Balanced Almost Every Day: We Are Live at Salon, with an Obituary for Milton Friedman: "Lord, enlighten thou our enemies," prayed nineteenth-century British economist and moral philosopher John http://olldownload.libertyfund.org/Texts/MillJS0172/Works/Vol10/PDFs/Mill_1277.pdf. "Sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength..."

Or, in Michael Berube's version:

Michael Berube: These days, I often think my field is so pervasively liberal/left that smart young conservatives will shun it altogether. I know there are still some conservatives out there who truly love the arts and humanities-—“old school” arts and humanities, usually, more Augustan than modern, or more Chaucerian than Kafkaesque, but I’ll settle for what I can get, and besides, some of those old schools were pretty good. They may be a dying breed, as “conservatism” in America becomes more and more associated with the know-nothing, Tom DeLay wing.... But when they disappear from the earth altogether, along with conservative American economists who believe in honest budgets and honest business practices (an endangered species) and conservative American environmentalists who respect scientific evidence (already extinct), I know that I will miss them terribly. Or, to put this another way, I often wish I had more conservative colleagues in literary study.... I don’t mind in the least having substantial political disagreements with colleagues, just so long as they’re smart colleagues who hit the rhetorical ball back over the net with gusto and topspin. I already have plenty of these on the left.... But when all the substantial intellectual disagreements in a discipline are arguments among leftists and liberals, the premises of argument are inevitably skewed–- especially in those lefter-than-thou circles in which the most “oppositional” position claims for itself the greatest moral authority. And when an entire department or an entire field of inquiry produces a uniform moral mist, it’s no wonder that after a while, it will attract only those aspirants who like breathing the air...

In economics, John Stuart Mill's prayer have been answered. We neoliberal types are, I think, a bare plurality, but the Chicago School is powerful, articulate, brilliant, and energetic. On our left thing are less healthy, but improving: the left has escaped its destructive embrace of Marxism. And there are signs of a fundamental rethinking of economics in embryo as the borderland between economics, sociology, and psychology becomes more active.

Outside economics, however, things are much less healthy. John Stuart Mill's prayer has not been answered. Witness Mark Bauerline in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which leads me to beg: Can we please ask the Chronicle of Higher Education to print the works of a smarter class of conservatives? Calls for a diversified intellectual portfolio fall flat when the conservative assets on offer are intellectual shell corporatilns. The benefits of a Millian clash of views to stimulate and deepen our thoughts are nonexistent when one side in the battle of wits is unarmed.

I mean, what can one make of Mark Bauerlein's charge that liberals--like The Baffler's Thomas Frank--are biased against Friedrich Hayek because they talk about what Hayek actually said in his 1956 preface to The Road to Serfdom?

The Chronicle: 12/15/2006: How Academe Shortchanges Conservative Thinking: Public intellectuals are less parochial, and even some of those on the left do acknowledge Hayek's eminence -- but too often with just a dismissive tack.... Thomas Frank, the editor of The Baffler, briefly summarizes Hayek's legacy with a run of high-handed jibes. He mentions Hayek's seminal The Road to Serfdom, but only to disparage it for equating "British-style socialism with the Nazi obscenity."...

But, Mark, Thomas Frank is right. I am a Hayek fan, or at least somebody who thinks it is important to wrestle with Hayek at least once once a month. Nevertheless, here is Hayek, in the 1956 preface to The Road to Serfdom:

Of course, six years of socialist government in England have not produced anything resembling a totalitarian state. But those who argue that this has disproved the thesis of The Road to Serfdom have really missed one of its main points: that "the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people." This is necessarily a slow affair... attitude[s] toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of... political institutions under which it lives.... [T]he change undergone... not merely under its Labour government but in the course of the much longer period during which it has been enjoying the blessings of a paternalistic welfare state, can hardly be mistaken.... Certainly [Weimar Germany's] Social Democrats... never approached as closely to totalitarian planning as the British Labour government has done.... The most serious development is the growth of a measure of arbitrary administrative coercion and the progressive destruction of the cherished foundation of British liberty, the Rule of Law... [E]conomic planning under the Labour government [has] carried it to a point which makes it doubtful whether it can be said that the Rule of Law still prevails in Britain...

In other circumstances, I might cavil at Thomas Frank--I would say that Hayek draws a line connecting Britain's Labour Party and Germany's Nazi Party, but that he does not quite equate them: In Hayek's view, the Labour Party has not established Nazi-like serfdom, but only placed Britain on the road to Nazi-like serfdom. However, not hear: the Road to Serfdom that the Labour Party placed Britain on leads, in Hayek's estimation, to serfdom and nowhere else. And I cannot read Bauerlein's complaint as anything other than saying that it is rude and biased for Thomas Frank to, you know, talk about things Hayek actually believed and cite things Hayek actually wrote.

Bauerline is similarly irate at Michael Berube for "bias." What is the bias? It is pointing out that George Will, Michelle Malkin, and David Horowitz self-identify as conservatives. An unbiased writer, Bauerline claims, would pretend that Will, Malkin, and Horowitz do not exist at all. To note their existence is "stigmatizing" and unfair to conservatives:

In What's Liberal... ?, conservatism suffers similarly from stigmatizing references. [Michael] Bérubé focuses on the anti-academic conservatives and fills his descriptions with diagnostic asides. Gay-rights debates "transform otherwise reasonable cultural conservatives into fumbling, conspiracy-mongering fanatics." The columnist George Will is "furious," and the columnist Michelle Malkin writes "shameful" books pressing "'interpretations' that no sane person countenances," while Horowitz exaggerates "hysterically." Such psychic wants explain why, according to Bérubé, "we just don't trust cultural conservatives' track record over the long term, to be honest. We think they're the heirs of the people who spent decades dehumanizing African-Americans and immigrants, arguing chapter and verse that the Bible endorses slavery and the subjection of women"...

Note the lineage: Not a line of reasoning, but a swell of mad wrath. Not Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, T.S. Eliot, and Leo Strauss, but slaveholders, nativists, and sexists. Nothing from Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, E.D. Hirsch Jr., Harvey C. Mansfield, and the late Philip Rieff, to cite more-recent writers who may be termed "educational conservatives." The scholarly conservative case against higher education is overlooked, while Bérubé devotes too many words to the claims of discrimination by a conservative student on television's Hannity & Colmes, to a worry by a state legislator about "leftist totalitarianism," and so on...

I truly don't get Bauerlein here. First, by what warrant does Bauerline call Alexis de Tocqueville a "conservative"? Why not call John Maynard Keynes, Max Weber, and Oliver Cromwell "conservatives" as well? Burke, too, has conservative moods but is only a conservative thinker in a modern American sense if you take a chainsaw and reduce him to selected passages from Reflections on the Revolution in France. In Reflections Burke does make the argument that we should respect the traditions and institutions we have inherited because they incorporate the Wisdom of the Ancestors, but he only makes that argument because he thinks that in this case the Ancestors--not his personal ancestors, note--were wise. The argument that it was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that they would conquer, torture, and rob wogs cut no ice with Edmund Burke when he was trying to prosecute Warren Hastings. The argument that it was one of the traditions and institutions of England that power flowed to Westminster cut no ice with Burke when he was arguing for conciliation with and a devolution of power to the American colonists. To Burke, conservative arguments based on respect for the Wisdom of the Ancestors are to be deployed in support of traditions, institutions, and practices that he approves of--they are not trumps. Burke is no more a conservative than Adam Smith is a Thatcherite. And anyone who classifies Burke as a conservative has not read much beyond scattered selections from Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Second, does Bauerline really think that Berube's take on Leo "The Text Means What I Say It Means" Strauss or Harvey C. Mansfield--a man who regards the admission of Blacks to Harvard as the cause of the baneful curse of grade inflation--would be significantly different than his take on Will, Malkin, Horowitz? I agree that we should get Michael to write on Mansfield as soon as possible. But I guarantee you that it won't lead to a more favorable view of modern American conservatism.

And I truly don't get what Bauerlein means when he says "the scholarly conservative case against higher education is overlooked." Does he mean that Michael Berube overlooks the scholarly conservative case against higher education? If so, then why not say so: what is Bauerlein's purpose in removing the active subject from his sentence by placing it in the passive voice? And what is "the scholarly conservative case against higher education" anyway? Is it that people shouldn't learn about science because it will undermine their trust in throne and altar? Is it that only a small, narrow elite should go to college because the masses will get bad ideas if they read Voltaire? Bauerline never says.

Lord, enlighten thou our enemies. Sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength...

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