A Concord of Visions

How the neoconservative right adopted the worst errors of the left


Last weekend, Johns Hopkins political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared his apostasy from the conservative philosophy he helped to create in a much-discussed New York Times Magazine essay, "After Neoconservatism."

In a concise genealogy of neoconservatism, Fukuyama describes two of the movement's philosophical strains that were in tension from the outset: a deep skepticism about ambitious social engineering and a deep faith in the ability of American power—including military power—to transform the world for the better by accelerating the spread of democracy and human rights. Other strains, notably the ideas of political philosopher Leo Strauss, were added over the course of the 1990s, and neoconservative optimism about the prospects for global social engineering seemed to have triumphed over any doubts that arose from that domestic skepticism.

Dissecting what he calls "the Bush administration's incomprehensible failure to plan adequately for the insurgency that subsequently emerged in Iraq," a failure that has equally baffled war supporters such as Andrew Sullivan, Fukuyama concludes that neoconservative hawks "seemed to think that democracy was a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred."

What is striking about this characterization is its extraordinary resemblance to the worldview economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell describes in his conservative classic A Conflict of Visions as the "unconstrained vision" of man and politics—a worldview that Sowell, here and in his more polemical follow-up The Vision of the Anointed, typically regards as distinctive of the left.

On the "constrained" or "tragic" vision, Sowell explains, we are all embedded in phenomenally complex social systems that embody the evolved, inexpressible experience of many generations. Human nature is largely resistant to change and frequently troublesome. Broad and ambitious plans for social improvement—especially when they propose bettering not just human conditions but humanity itself—are to be regarded warily, because the knowledge explicitly available to even the wisest individual or group is dwarfed by the implicit wisdom of our evolved traditions. As Sowell puts it, "the particular cultural expressions of human needs peculiar to specific societies are not seen as being readily and beneficially changeable by forcible intervention." In the "unconstrained" vision as exemplified by William Godwin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by contrast, human nature is fundamentally benign and cooperative, spoiled rather than tamed by society. Rational reform, spearheaded by an enlightened class, is the remedy for the psychic corruption wrought by superstition and blind adherence to custom.

The problems Fukuyama diagnoses with the planning of the Iraq War and its aftermath are typical of the unconstrained vision as Sowell describes it. The administration apparently hoped initially to have drawn down the American presence in Iraq to some 25,000 troops by the summer after the invasion, a symptom of a profound Rousseauian confidence that with the fetters of an oppressive regime broken, something approximating liberal democracy would blossom almost automatically.

But the unconstrained vision has not remained cabined away in neoconservative foreign policy—it has also begun to institute a regime change in conservative domestic thought. While in many ways Leo Strauss, a potent influence on many neocon thinkers, is an archetypal proponent of the constrained vision—he stressed the importance of religion and tradition in tempering the antisocial impulses of the great mass of men—he borrowed from the unconstrained vision the belief in the importance of an anointed few who were capable of facing hard realities and steering society for its own benefit. It is this belief, says Sowell, that makes adherents of the unconstrained vision impatient with elaborate systems of checks and balances or tight restraints on government.

It now seems clear that many of the neoconservative thinkers who supported the Iraq war as a vehicle for democracy promotion decided to focus on the threat of weapons of mass destruction precisely because they concluded the broader public would not accept the deployment of American troops in the service of an abstract-sounding end. And George Bush's expansive views of executive power and penchant for secrecy, as evidenced most recently in the revelation that he had authorized a program of warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency, bespeak a supreme confidence in the ability of well-intentioned and well-informed leaders to do good without oversight.

Even when it appears to be most traditional, contemporary conservatism bears the imprimatur of the unconstrained vision. When, at a primary debate before the 2000 elections, Bush averred that his favorite political philosopher was "Christ, because he changed my heart," most supposed that the candidate was either exploiting an opportunity to trumpet his religiosity or simply couldn't think of an actual political philosopher. But taken at face value, it is a surprisingly telling comment: It implies that the function of political philosophy is to change hearts.

Bush's defenses of his faith-based initiatives, for example, are redolent with the rhetoric of changed hearts, affirming that social programs are to be not merely ameliorative but transformative. Consonant with the constrained vision, Bush frequently recognizes that government is not equipped to undertake that sort of task directly, without intermediation by more local groups with a more direct understanding of the communities they serve. Yet he retains the core faith in government's competence to steer a process that relies more on improving people than on improving the incentives people face. His Healthy Marriage Initiative recognizes, as thinkers guided by the constrained vision will, the importance of an evolved social institution, but seeks to manage it with the benefit of up-to-date social science. The No Child Left Behind act is meant to ensure the accountability of public schools—which sounds conservative enough—but it implements accountability to a set of centralized standards and measures, rather than local actors with more direct access to the needs and circumstances of children.

A final symptom of the unconstrained vision—and the focus of Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed—is the tendency (in Sowell's account invariably the tendency of liberals) to focus on the intentions of policies rather than their effects, so that a "poverty relief program" is so called whether or not it actually manages to relieve poverty, and a "Terrorist Surveillance Program" can retain the title even if the vast majority of the people whose conversations are swept up by it have nothing to do with terrorism. "Compassionate conservatism"—in addition to suggesting by implication that conservatism simpliciter lacked compassion—makes a sentiment or an attitude, rather than the specific policy mechanisms it seeks to employ, definitive of the philosophy. As a corollary to this focus on intention, opposition to the particular means employed by elites is viewed as opposition to their ends: Where once progressives tarred Great Society skeptics as callous brutes unconcerned with the plight of the poor, conservative pundits now routinely cast opposition to the Iraq war and other components of the War on Terror as prosecuted by the president as a sign of sympathy for tyrants or terrorists.

None of this is to say that all good flows from the politics of the constrained vision and all ills from the unconstrained view. For my taste—and that of most libertarians, I suspect—Sowell's constrained vision in its purer forms is probably a shade too constrained, too ready to assume that old customs continue to serve their traditional functions under changed circumstances. But it is the worst features of the unconstrained vision—its hubris, its pretense to omnicompetence—that have taken hold of the right. And if there is wisdom in each of the two perspectives, it should be worrying that, for all the other differences between the major parties, between progressives and conservatives, in this one fundamental way the political landscape increasingly offers only half the picture—different refractions of the same unconstrained vision. With the waning of the constrained perspective's tempering influence, we're left with a political vision that's dangerously double.