"National Greatness" or Conservative Malaise?


The first International Conservative Congress gathers this weekend in Washington, and gloom and doom dominate the agenda. From an opening session on "Why Conservatism Is Failing" to discussions of "Diagnoses of Defeat" and "Examining Our Crises," the assembled intellectuals, office holders, and policy wonks appear dedicated to the proposition that life in America and around the world is bad and getting worse.

As Tom Wolfe sputtered in 1965 to leftists portraying the country as a place of misery and repression, "My God, what are you talking about? We're in the middle of a…Happiness Explosion!" Consider: Asked how well they think things are going in the country, about two-thirds of people in Time/CNN polls say very or fairly well–the highest such figures since the Persian Gulf War. Consumer confidence is at similarly high levels. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed by the Los Angeles Times say the economy is doing well and, of those optimists, 63% attribute its success to the "natural forces of a free-market economy."

Even from a purely political perspective, conservative pessimism seems strange: The Republicans still control both houses of Congress. Bill Clinton is still stealing large slabs of their agenda. ClintonCare is still a distant memory. The recent budget compromise, though deeply flawed, still reflects the consensus that fiscal responsibility means balancing the budget while cutting taxes–an "irresponsible" idea as recently as the Bush administration. Welfare reform is still a reality. Crime rates are still falling. The Cold War is still over, and the good guys still won.

Indeed, the free world won not only the Cold War but the battle of ideals: Socialism is no longer fashionable; today's cutting-edge ideas involve dthe institutions of freedom:property rights, contracts, the rule of law, and freedom of conscience and expression.

And therein lies the rub. How you feel about the state of "conservatism," and of the world, depends on what you want to conserve. Simply conserving free institutions–which define the neutral rules of the game–is not enough for many conservatives, who confuse small government with no government, and neutral government with vice.

Freedom makes them very nervous. "Wishing to be left alone is not a governing doctrine," wrote William Kristol and David Brooks on this page two weeks ago. They offer their own governing doctrine, "the appeal to American greatness"–a kind of wistful nationalism in search of a big project.

Unfortunately, for them the Cold War is over. So what's a national-greatness government to do? It could go looking for the next war, hope for another Great Depression, or sponsor a trip to Neptune. Or, as we would prefer, it could step back and let the inventiveness, passion, imagination, and technological genius of Americans produce American greatness. Toward that end, government could start exercising some self-restraint: cutting taxes, regulating and spending less, treating its citizens as equals before the law.

Is this the dreaded non-doctrine of "wishing to be left alone"? We would call it something else–putting government back in its place.

What ails conservatism these days is that many conservatives, especially in Washington, are deeply alienated from American life. The pages of conservative publications have become a collection of complaints: about electronic technology and biotechnology, high culture and popular culture, intellectual life and family life.

Are businesses experimenting with new office designs and management practices? It's the French Revolution all over again, cries Mr. Brooks in The Weekly Standard. Have libraries installed computers offering Internet access? It's the end of research, warns Mr. Kristol's mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in The American Scholar. Ms. Himmelfarb suggests that while in theory one could put Paradise Lost on the Net, "more likely is that something like a Cliffs Notes version is on line." But a Yahoo! search locates at least four full-text versions of Milton's epic, two of them indexed. Mr. Brooks mocks Dee Ward Hock as a "management guru," apparently ignorant of Hock's remarkable accomplishments as the father of the Visa bankcard system.

These conservatives view America's very creativity and exuberance a cause for dismay. Conserving free institutions doesn't satisfy their desire to discipline a rambunctuously productive country. Freedom makes them uncomfortable, because it entails a dynamic, open-ended future rather than prescribing a static, politically determined one.

Of course, not every new idea, practice, product, or enterprise will be a good one. But the trial-and-error process of learning is essential to the progress and plenitude of American life. Whether in science, technology, business, or popular culture, we cannot know in advance which experiments will succeed. For a political class dedicated to technocratic planning, that is a scary idea.

As F.A. Hayek wrote in 1960, "conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about."

Hayek was, of course, using the term "liberal" in its classical sense–one who believes in liberty. He thus described the philosophy of the two of us–and that of many others who backed the Reagan revolution. We now worry that the conservative movement has abandoned the ideal of conserving simple rules in favor of a governing doctrine indistinguishable from the manipulative statism of its opponents.

Indeed, the pessimism of this weekend's international congress reflects the fear that Hayek attributed to conservatives. So does Messrs. Kristol and Brooks's proposed governing doctrine, which is best understood as William James's "moral equivalent of war"–a desire to engineer a purpose for Americans who seem too dangerously decadent to be left to their own devices.

But it's one thing to pursue genuine national interests through foreign policy, quite another to cook up schemes just to give government something to do and the American people somethingto rally around. Harking back to the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and New Republic co-founder Herbert Croly, Messrs. Kristol and Brooks seek the promise of American life in collective pursuits directed from Washington according to their own cultural prejudices. They have embraced Croly's claim that it is not enough to allow America's future to emerge "merely by virtue of maintaining intact a set of political institutions and by the vigorous individual pursuit of private ends." Or, as Mr. Brooks put it in the Standard, if Americans "think of nothing but their narrow self-interest, of their commercial activities, they lose a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose."

Yet when Americans express grand aspiration and noble purpose in their commercial activities he ridicules them as "cosmic capitalists" or calls for "restricting the use of technologies" that "violate American decency."

Without the high stakes of U.S.-Soviet conflict, national-greatness conservatives are desperately seeking the moral equivalent of the Cold War. Their pursuit is in vain, for Americans go to war reluctantly and are happy to be at peace. At this point in our history, American nationalism is a secure ideal. Its meaning evolves, certainly, but no one who has ever been abroad–or spent much time outside the Beltway–can doubt its vigor. It is absurd to think we require central direction to feel American.

Americans don't need to concoct grand national struggles merely to prove their mettle. They prove it every day, in their own private pursuits.

This article was published in the September 25, 1997 Wall Street Journal.