The Power and Parasitism of Big Government

You ought to take a look at Yuval Levin’s National Review cover story, which recapitulates the case for conservatism as the constitutional approach to political order. (Contrast, Levin smartly notes, both rule by experts and mobbish ‘social action’.) Though applause is in order, we can also push the conversation a bit further.

Reihan Salam flags a long passage of Levin’s that walks what seems like a pretty well-trod path: some “friends of liberty” see (small-l) liberal politics as the pursuit of an ideal society illuminated by the principles of the Enlightenment; others (conservatives) see “liberal institutions” as

the product of countless generations of political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of the Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms because they allow us both to grasp the proper principles of politics and to govern ourselves well.

This was arch-classical liberal and proto-libertarian Benjamin Constant’s view as well. Notably, Constant devoted the bulk of his career as a public figure to developing the political upshot of this view — while, in his private circles, he invented non-German Romanticism by novelizing the dissolute and strangely paralyzed lives of privileged liberals. Constant helps us see the beginnings of the gulf and tension that could open up between a liberal’s political public life and his or her apolitical private life — a problem that spread rather quickly from the confines of aristocratic-liberal salon society to, well, elements of every social class.

The policy challenge facing the post-Nixonian right has arisen from the widening of Constant’s gulf to a point where culture was in danger of no longer being able to support the prudential conservative-liberal politics of gradualism and moderation. When individual helplessness and estranged, envious socialization became cross-class phenomena (evincing what Hobbes, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and others took to be hallmarks of the life of all in a democratic age), the foundations of liberty-based governance on the right could no longer be taken for granted. Conservatives determined — and argue still — that the otherwise untrustworthy and incompetent government should be used to subsidize the middle class, indefinitely, in order to preserve those foundations. Libertarians rejected and reject this view.

Levin’s schematic reasonably suggests that the foundations of left-liberalism are to be found in the proposition that liberty is best advanced by translating the ideals of the Enlightenment philosophy of science into political practice. But a people as estranged as ours from their own coherently unfolded history of gradual, prudential change — and as estranged from one another — simply don’t latch on, as liberal educators continue to hope, to the progressive creed that sees the unfolding of History as the great improved alternative to a (conservative) liberal politics hemmed in by allegedly enduring confines limned by Nature and/or Religion.

A relatively few talented and ambitious pupils are poetic enough to get stars in their eyes when presented with this stuff. But the pattern, thoughtlessly adopted by many, is to simply allow oneself to be subjected to the mythmaking, one’s life dominated by the apolitical troubles and pleasures of the culturally uprooted modern democratic liberal that Constant had already begun to understand in a time when Napoleon walked the earth.

If the scope and tempo of conservative liberalism, in other words, is founded on a certain kind of people — a people with a certain kind of foundation of their own — then the practice of left-liberalism should be distinguished for its ability to flourish whether or not a people like ours even possesses the left-liberal foundation created to oppose and replace the right-liberal one.

History’s most insightful democratic theorists and today’s most unvarnished look at reality reveal, it seems to me, that the left-liberal project of democratizing the progressive faith in History as a social and political foundation is actually a sad failure. It is perhaps capable of creating an officer class of sorts, and a broader segment of voters who recognize and respond to certain huge cues (the first black candidate for President, etc.). But it has ultimately left the left with a remarkably infertile ground for political rule: a license to a parasitical sort of power that has no real authority — outside the imagination of a people whose relationship with national government is so wildly and unquestionably unequal that it satisfies Hobbes’ requirement of Leviathan that it keep the many in awe.

That puts the ball back in the court of the conservative liberals. I’m sorry to say that their recent track record leaves, in my judgment, a lot to be desired, and a lot of elementary questions unanswered. Can and should government undertake to restore the people to foundations capable of bearing the weight of conservative-liberalism’s own? The contemporary evidence is not very promising, and the posture of stubborn optimism on this point so often struck by leading Republicans can seem more like a way of shutting down the conversation about how to proceed than putting it center stage in our policymaking.

This, I think, is why libertarianism is on the rise — not just among those looking for a persuasive model for optimism, but among pessimistic conservative-liberals ready to renegotiate the particular policy terms on which a politics of prudential circumscription should proceed.

  1. cbc

    1. This post got me thinking but I didn’t understand what you meant to say.  I went back and read the Levin.  He highlights the seeming incoherence between the left’s government by technical experts and the current left’s encouragement of populism. He points out that this profound incoherence was present among progressives in 1912.  It was also key to post revolutionary Marxism.  In the Chinese land reform of 1948, the purpose was not to actually give all the peasants an equal amount of land.  The purpose (revealed by the Party) was to destroy the existing social structure by having the masses turn on the rich landowners (who might own as much as 10 acres).  The Marxist agenda requires the destruction of the existing institutions of civil society — like family, property, land holding etc.  To do that, the experts fired up the masses.  Not pretty but it worked.  So, as an alternative . . . 

    2. “Can and should government undertake to restore the people to foundations capable of bearing the weight of conservative-liberalism’s own?”  I don’t think they can, and I don’t think they should try — but then I am for limited government.  

  2. Kermadec

    As you point out conservative-liberalism requires a foundation but left-liberalism can operate without one. It is a matter of the ‘tragic’ view of life inherent in the former, which is its counterbalance to the inevitable discontents of civilization, and for which a level of mature understanding is necessary but not sufficient.

    Left-liberalism, even of the sloppy unprincipled kind has no need to internalize these discontents, it turns them into demands and promises, projects and projections, into the whining of the OWSers and the velleities of liberal bien-penseurs.

    So it would seem that until, if ever, a way is found to restore such a moral or even metaphysical foundation the project of conservative-liberalism will prove ineffective. That’s why we expect more in human terms of our prospective conservative leaders, they need to show us how it can be done, and without alienating the great mass of people.