Philosophical Cage Match


Matt Yglesias links to a righteous smackdown of David Frum by John Holbo, who went in search of a coherent philosophy for modern conservatism and came up empty.


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  1. That was fucking brilliant. 🙂

  2. Outstanding. Conservatism is clearly an utterly bankrupt philosophy, and I’m glad we’ve defeated it.

    Now the path is clear for our coherent libertarianism, as it’s practiced around here, to take over the world.


  3. Pardon my ignorance, but could I get a brief definition and maybe the etymology of the “spoon” epithet.

  4. Regarding spoon.


    Okay then.

    It comes from the cartoon (also comic book and live action series) The Tick, which was a short-lived but brilliant show. The protaginist (The Tick), is a somewhat dim-witted superhero. One day, he decides he needs a battle cry, and he settles on “SPOOOOOON!”. I can’t remember why.

  5. The Tick

    in a way, frum has a lot in common with a certain sstrain of eco-mystic – the feeling that somewhere, somehow, suffering created the garden of eden and suffering can bring it back.

    rather disgusting notion, it is.

  6. “Holbo, who went in search of a coherent philosophy for modern conservatism…”

    Or “went in search of having some fun with a willful misreading of Frum’s book,” you know, whichever.

  7. Yeah, Conservatism sure is “dead”. Pass the magic mushrooms and purple microdots libertarian dude, I wanna’ see the world through imbecelic eyes just as you do.

    While Liberalism is in its death throes, and Libertarianism is never going to be taken seriously, it seems intellectual giants such as Al Franken and some on this site have taken to delusional flights of fancy in predicting Conservatism’s downfall.

    Read the writing on the wall my Woodstock friends, Conservatism is at its zenith, with no end in sight.

  8. Conservatism is at its zenith, with no end in sight.

    Is there any phrase less conservative than “no end in sight”?

    (Well, yes. There’s “hermaphrodite orgy at the cloning collective tonight.” Sorry; carry on.)

  9. See what I mean

  10. JDM,

    Can you entertain us with the correct reading ?

  11. Thanks for the link. I can’t believe I read that whole thing on my employer’s time.

  12. What do you mean ?

  13. Conservatism is at its zenith, Mike E, because the Republicans have taken control of the government and they are using the power of the government to buy votes. If that is a victory for conservatism, then please tell me how you would define a loss. Would that be having the liberals in charge giving away the goodies?

    However, I want to compliment you on your observation that libertarians are a bunch of drug-addled weirdos. You’re so very original.

  14. JDM,

    You don’t have to give us the correct reading, just some evidence to your claim that this is a willfull misreading. Holbo admits that Frum doesn’t *intend* to say the things Holbo finds in his book, but because Frum is a sloppy thinker and sloppy writer, those are the implications.

  15. Jesse,


  16. Brendan, son of Attila, did Howard Dean send you over his talking points for the day, or are you really regurgitating the tired old lines from Election 2000?

    The Internet and talk radio have given Conservative views their first true hearing in the American public, and the people like what they hear.

  17. American conservatism is a mish mash of policy preferences, not a philosophy. Half of its elements are at odds with the rest, and it can’t seem to come to grips with the dynamic nature of the institutions it loves. I guess you could predict that last bit would be a problem just based on the name.

    I have always thought that an intelligent conservatism would have to express its value of institutions in terms of near universally desirable functions that they perform. Libertarians analyze outputs of systems in terms of their effects on individual liberty, for example. Tell me what is the value of family, not just that I need family values.

  18. Mike E – I think you’re confusing one political party (the Republicans) temporarily being on top at the moment (much like the Democrats were earlier) with the triumph of conservativsm.

    Could you please explain what is particularly conservative about the Republicans at this moment? You could start with Bush. He makes Clinton look like a fiscal conservative. Government is growning faster than ever. He’s passing out tarrifs and subsidies like an old-school democrat. Fun military adventures abroad? Is that conservative?

  19. Yup, he really said it . . “what is the value of family?” . . .tell the pigs all is clear for takeoff and warm up the Zamboni in Hell, I’ve heard it all now

  20. Government has grown, and until we ween ourselves from the Leviathan created by 40 years of Democratic rule, Conservatives will have to measure their succeses on how slowly governmnet grows for the time being. Maybe once common sense prevails then we can talk about shrinking government again. That is not an abandonment of principles, but simply facing reality.

    This War we are in seems to have been started by someone else, has it not? Is it fun? No. Is it a reasonable response to a world no longer governed by the principles of Westphalia? Yes.

  21. yeah, the new deal was keepin’ me down, maaan! conservatives whine as much as liberals do, if not moreso. must be some judeo-christian holdover of being threatened by the material world (and satan) at every step.

    regardless of the misreading quotient, frum’s fixation on personal choices like clothing and hairstyles is enough to toss him into the dustbin.

  22. dhex, if you’re old enough to have been affected by the New Deal, then you should be in the dustbin with Davey

  23. i apologize in advance – that should read “some conservatives” and “some liberals.”

  24. Mike,

    Hokey though it was (and it was, ugh), the point is that if you are going to prattle on about the Family, you had better be in a position to argue why it is central to your political philosophy. You need to be able to say that institutions that do thus and so are desirable. Once you do this, you have to argue against any given ‘attack’ on the family institution based on its disruption of the desirable outputs of the family and not based on its changing of the form of the traditional family.

    Why, Mr. Conservative, are the Clevers the preferred family model?

    Another way of saying this is that conservatives get caught up in the name and appearance of things they like, but never seem to address why they are important.

  25. Hell, today’s “conservatives” (and I use the term loosely) are just yesterday’s liberals. And I guess today’s liberals are just tomorrow’s conservatives

  26. i agree, mike e. i agree.

  27. Steve in CA,

    I suppose I could just cut and paste the entire thing, but it’s already linked. I’m not disagreeing with the idea that conservtism is not a consistent philosophy, just that this is any kind of reasonable fair-minded critique, or any sort of useful thinking about conservatism or it’s flaws.

    In other words, Holbos analysis (at least the first several paragraphs, which is all I bothered to read) is far sloppier than its target.

    If Frum writes a book which assumes some reasonable common presumptions between himself and the reader, you cannot simply take them away and then say his position is only consistent if he wants to turn society into the Donner party, ad claim you have performed any useful thinking yourself.

  28. John Kekes, a philosopher from SUNY Albany, has given a philosophical defense of conservatism and an attack on liberalism in two volumes:

    He’s probably a more worthy philosophical opponent than David Frum.

  29. Holbo makes a good point about these conservative reactions having an aesthetic basis. The Bennett quote underscores this nicely: yes, they were poor, but damn they could write!

    I had the same reaction to the letters read in the PBS show about the Civil War. Suffering can be enobling.

    But if conservatives want this “golden age” to return, they could at least be honest enough to be first in line for some of that good ‘ol suffering. They’re welcome to my share of it.

  30. Mike E,

    I am not and never have been a Howard Dean supporter. When I said the Republicans used the government to buy votes I was refering to: 1)prescription drugs 2)steel tariffs 3)education spending 4)overall massive increases in spending on everything. Please name one thing the Republican government has cut.

    I don’t think you really understand the difference between a libertarian and a liberal.

    My only problem with the tax cuts is that they were too small.

    I wouldn’t think I would have to explain all this on a libertarian website, but then I am talking to a conservative.

  31. Brenda. Actually, you really did need to explain yourself. I was waiting for a rant about “stolen elections” after reading the first sentence (at 4:16)

  32. Sorry Joeanne2, I probably could have been more clear.

  33. Looking at it again, I’ve been too kind to Holbo. He’s just making stuff up.

    Read Frum’s quoted paragraph near the top starting at”

    “?The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk.”

    And then read the Holbo’s conclusions. It’s just dishonest:

    “the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt ? as fearful people will ? a cowed and subservient posture”

    Notice the “*the* thing.” Frum never states that the *only* good thing about capitalism is the risk. Holbo simply makes that up. Also notice the “causes them to live in fear.” It’s fair to assume, I think, that Frum assumes that increased self reliance will decrease fear and misery. I think this is pretty much born out by reality as well, which is an important consideration when you’re trying to figure out what an author’s assumptions are and give him a fair reading.

  34. The best elucidation of what is wrong with conservatism, and why libertarians are not conservatives, is in the last chapter of Hayek’s book, The Constitution of Liberty. That chapter is titled “Why I am not a Conservative,” and its argument is well-captured by these quotes:

    “The difference between liberalism [Hayek uses liberalism to mean the classical variety, i.e., what we here mean by libertarianism]and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.” Hayek notes: “There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvements of institutions. Liberalsim is not averse to evolution and change…one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such…”

    Libertarians oppose the drug war, and want to leave gay people the fuck alone, because we value liberty and the individual is our unit of moral analysis, not “society or “the family,” and we are not impressed with the “we have always done it that way” point of view as a justification for encroaching on liberty.

  35. “Is there any phrase less conservative than ‘no end in sight’?”

    How about “Creative destruction is our middle name”? Next thing you know, the gnostics at the Standard will be telling us to immanentize the Eschaton.

    Regarding the substance of the article, it seems pretty obvious to me that the foreign anticommunist strand and the domestic anti-big government strand of 50s New Right conservatism are mutually exclusive. An activist foreign policy leads to a leviathan state at home.

    For example, James Burnham was a cold warrior’s cold warrior, willing to commit U.S. forces virtually without limit in any conflict, anywhere in the world, where Communism was allegedly involved. But at the same time, in *Congress and the American Tradition*, he condemned the rise of the imperial presidency. Ironic.

  36. The fallacy is that conservatism is not a “philosophy” at all, but an alliance. Most of the Christian Right wouldn’t know a Phillips curve from a Laffer curve, and wouldn’t mind if the federal government tried to enforce the economic wisdom of the Mosaic Code.

    How can it be wrong if it’s in the Biiibuhl? Don’t you belieeve in the Biiibuhl?

  37. I’m a confirmed anti-neocon, but sometimes I think they get a bum rap on the “creative destruction thing”. Wasn’t the original point just that we shouldn’t cry too much over the hand weavers and the buggy-whip makers?

  38. Oops.

    I meant

    . . . the “creative destruction” thing.

  39. I missed the irony there, Kevin. I think fighting communism was important, fighting Islamic fascism is important, and the U.S. government has too much power over our lives at home. I don’t see any contradictions there. A powerful military requires tax money, but I see plenty of tax money being wasted elsewhere that we could use. And there’s probably plenty being wasted at the Pentagon, too.

  40. A brief response to JDM. Well – first, a general point. I am, to tell the truth, equal parts pleased and bemused and nervous about the attention my piece has gotten. It was a late-nite blog post that just ran on and on. It’s got fast and loose bits and now everyone has gone and linked to it. (Yes, I know that can happen. It’s called blogging.) I think I’ll probably clean it up and try to make it better. (Without destroying the original, which I appreciate I am bound to stand by, in case I’ve seriously misrepresented Frum and folks want to call me out on it. Fair is fair.) I wasn’t trying to slander Frum and don’t believe I have. Frum really does say that the good thing about risk is that it makes people behave in a conformist way. That’s sort of an odd thing to say, and I don’t think Frum quite means it. You are quite right to point out that Frum is not really in favor of cringing conformism. He wants rugged individualism. In the post I say he wants the former – this is a logical inference from some things he says about risk and fear – but then I make the correct response on Frum’s behalf. The post proceeds by experimentally attributing a lot of stuff and then retracting, concluding there is really very little left except for a lot of idiosyncratic private social and cultural preferences which Frum really has no business dressing up as philosophically justified or justificatory. His philosophical position is absent, not noxious. I could probably have been clearer, but that’s what I tried to say.

  41. I read the paltry zingerfest that supposedly is a riot act for conservatves. It was about as argumentally riveting as the common spew of the average Ricki Lake audience memeber. Nice try anarcho-Liberts.

  42. I didn’t read Holbo piece so not responding to that, but to Yglesias’s and Julian’s continuing attempt to claim that philosophy and conservatism are anti-thetical. ..

    What about Gadamer? There is clearly a conservative slant–incrementalist, hostile to systematizing theories, etc.–to Truth and Method, and much else he wrote. I understand many on the left want to claim him, but he has was attacked by Habermas and Derrida for being a Burkean reactionary, which is good enough in my book…

    Oakeshott, MacIntyre? The notion that conservatism is antithetical to “philosophy” is a bit facile, I think…

  43. It’s worth noting that Frum’s mistake in allowing an aesthetic assumption to take the place of reasoning is neither inherent to nor unique to conservativism. The same logical misstep can be found periodically in the writings of any particular ideology if you look. This mistake drives much of the left?s knee-jerk anti-corporatism and even a libertarian may fall into the idolization the productive individualist as presented by Rand. Frum?s mistake does not necessarily discredit conservativism in any broad sense; they simply need to claim that Frum put the wagon before the horse by mistake – that traditional values are needed to endure hard times that may come, thus the promotion of traditional values is necessary so that we are not caught off guard when our lives are not so comfortable. I don?t agree with that proposition, but it does require a separate rebuttal from the dissection of Frum?s logic.

  44. Fred Garvin,

    I don’t know that the case is that conservatism in the general sense is not reconcilable with philosophical thinking, but that modern (American?) conservatism is philosophically suspect.

  45. It’s silly to dignify Holbo’s screed as a philosophical search. It’s just a silly exercise in strawman-bopping, typical of what liberals write about conservatives and libertarians.

  46. JDM,

    Its a fair reading of Frum’s work; and if Frum means more than that, then it goes to Holbo’s thoughts about Frum being a sloppy thinker.

  47. And lo, the baby boomers did die off, and it was good.

  48. Conservatism, as embodied by the Republican party, today comprises a mercantilist economic elite seeking to preserve their status, allied with southern former Democrats seeking to preserve their social status over darkies, homos, and weirdos (their perspective, not mine).

    Fueling this weaving hoopty are large foundations that fund conservative studies and research (or “research”) and the Cato Institute, which produces a great volume of terrific libertarian research, all of which is ignored by the Republican establishment except that which is useful in defending mercantilism or (much more rarely) discrediting darkies, homos, and weirdos or the programs that benefit them.

    Conservatism is most charitably described as a temperment – many elite conservatives will happily admit to this. And it does have its merits – writing the whole thing off as batty is a mistake. But as it’s practiced, it amounts to little more than race-baiting (see Barbour, Haley and Lott, Trent) and maintaining privilege by selling bogus aesthetics and specious social theories to traditional social conservatives fearful of change, darkies, homos, and weirdos (perhaps best represented by Spencer “Man on Dog” Abraham, whose anti-gay rights stance is motivated by a fear that large numbers of people will take to fucking their dogs).

  49. Clarification: When I call conservatism a weaving hoopty, I don’t mean to imply it’s not successful. It’s hugely successful – Bush is by far the most pro-big-business (not pro-market) president we’ve had in a long time. He’s not a religious fanatic, but he’s throwing red meat to the snake-handlers down yonder and Republicans in the House and Senate are even more solicitous.

  50. Pete,

    You mean Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum. Abraham is far closer to “mercantile elite.”

    I’m sure Santorum was on the tip of your tongue.

  51. Oh my goodness, yes. Here I’ve tainted the wrong guy with that charge. Rick Santorum, of course. Sorry, Spence!

  52. I think Abraham would be very uncomfotable with the idea of being tainted with Santorum.

  53. The Holbo piece is good. Before you attack him, you need to read it all, and read his disclaimers. Understand what he’s saying, and what he’s not saying.

    His basic point is that there is no “conservative philosophy” in Frum’s book. His conservatism comes down to disliking certain things — an emotivism, not a philosophy.

    I haven’t read Frum’s book, so I don’t know if it’s fair. But having read the blog, I am intending to go read the book a.s.a.p.

    I will also check out the Kekes books — thanks for the tip!!

  54. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/19/2004 07:10:04
    The greatest administrators do not achieve production through constraints and limitations. They provide opportunities.

  55. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/20/2004 03:04:32
    It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.

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