*Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea*

The author is C. Bradley Thompson and this new book is in broad terms an Objectivist ("Randian") critique of neoconservatism and Leo Strauss.  Here is one summary bit:

Inevitably, the neocons are epistemological relativists (though of an anti-egalitarian nature), which is the source, as we shall see momentarily, of their moral relativism.  Because the political good in their world is mutable and always changing, the neoconservatives do not want fixed principles to which they are hbeholden, nor do they strive to be morally or politically consistent.  Their power and authority is generated and sustained by the illusion that the world is in a state of constant change and that it is governed by what Machiavelli called fortuna.  The truth or falsity of an idea is, according to the neocons, determined by its usefulness in a particular situation and for particular people.  What is true today, they argue, may not be true tomorrow if an idea or an action fails to work in new and different situations.  In such a world, there can be no certainty, no absolutes, no fixed moral principles.

The author writes — correctly – "hoi polloi," instead of the redundant "the hoi polloi."

Thompson argues that Leo Strauss showed sympathies for the Italian fascism of Mussolini, at least relative to liberalism and religion.

At times the book sounds like Bryan Caplan criticizing me, though I take such ripostes to say more about Bryan than about me.

When I was young, I very much enjoyed reading John Robbins's Calvinist answer to Ayn Rand (revised here), even though I did not agree with much of it.  I often learn more when ideas clash in relatively stark forms.

In my view, principles and politics don't always mix but the problem is neither epistemological nor moral.  Ill-informed voters, especially in diverse societies, can only swallow so much in the form of principle.  If one is committed to intellectual discourse, but within the range of the politically feasible, a lot of intellectual principle is difficult to sustain.  I do believe in principles, but I don't see that any point of view has overcome this quite general problem.  In that sense I do not blame neoconservatism per se.  But am I a neoconservative?  No, and Brad's book gives some of the reasons why not.

Comments

"At times the book sounds like Bryan Caplan criticizing me, though I take such ripostes to say more about Bryan than about me."

You've been doing the Internet sniping and backbiting thing with increasing regularity. It's interesting, but not as interesting as actual subjects to discuss. At least, that's my take, but I'm old ... what do I know?

"hoi polloi"? Transliteration is for dolts. The only acceptable writing is οἱ πολλοί.

Leaving the "the" off of "hoi polloi" is all well and good, but if the political good is "always changing", it pretty much goes without saying that it's "mutable".

I'm not even sure neoconservatism has agreed upon features that could be subject to criticism of this sort. I mean, a primary critique from the left seemed to be that neoconservatives were too zealous an inflexible in their morality - cultural empire and intolarance of non judeo christian ethics and so forth. Here we have an objectivist complaining that neocons blow in the wind? I suppose, from an objectivist standpoint, that's basically the argument you have with every other person on earth - that they are not rigorously consistent with your own views which are of course rooted in the infallibility of A is A.

"If one is committed to intellectual discourse, but within the range of the politically feasible, a lot of intellectual principle is difficult to sustain."

That depends entirely on how much patience one has.

"The hoi polloi" is correct. When a word or expression is borrowed into English, it is adapted to English rules of usage. There are any number of words beginning with al- (eg, algorithm) that are of Arabic derivation. Do you omit the article in front of those too?

This supposed redundancy is also common in our use of acronyms. Perhaps you fussily say "ATM" instead of "ATM machine", or "PIN" instead of "PIN number", but nobody says "the HI virus" or "the HIV", because that would be bloody stupid and confusing.

I was fairly interested in Robbins and his mentor Gordon Clark in my college days. I consider Clark to be the Calvinist Mises given his penchant for theory/a priorism. Being raised in a generally libertarian and Calvinist environment, I was always looking for ways to merge the two, or at least justify libertarianism to my Calvinist friends, most of whom couldn't care less about delving into political philosophy in the first place. Clark's "Scripturalism" like Mises' a priorism is ultimately unsatisfactory and I've mostly given up on the project. Still, I find it fascinating that the historical narrative tends to support the notion that Calvinism, despite (or because of?) its more deterministic beliefs, seems to breed political rebellion while Arminianism seems to breed passivity toward political tyranny despite its doctrine of free will, which goes along well with libertarianism thinking generally. That's not to say that Calvinists are any more libertarian once in power (Calvin's Geneva was extremely authoritarian), but they seem to have a regard for individual rights that extends beyond a mere freedom to worship and willing to act on that individualism even if that means defying earthly rulers. Calvinists are strong believers that everyone is bound by God's law, even kings, but I don't think that's a sufficient explanation of their historical proclivity toward rebellion. Thoughts?

The idea that Republicans are the new relativists has been floating around for a while. That was the origin of the term reality-based community, and here is Josh Marshall making the case in early 2003.

That's rich: a proponent of the pseudo-philosophy of "Obejectivism" objecting on the grounds of metaphysics

Cowen's taking Objectivism seriously is a useful reminder that there *are* areas of thought in which he is painfully ignorant. One tends to forget that, reading his blog.

I have liked the book so far but have some trouble with it. While the authors seem to have some respect for the intellectual abilities of the neocons they may have seriously underestimated them and what they really stand for. I once had a long discussion about Allan Bloom with one of his students, who taught at the University of Toronto and made a similar attack about the lack of principles as the book does.

The response both shocked and confused me a bit. First, I was told that neocons were not monolithic and that some were idiots who did not really agree with the principles held by the Straussians just as some of the followers of Jefferson are idiots who do not really agree with Jefferson's principles. Some intellectuals, was the response, were superficial simpletons who mostly slept through life and did not understand much of it. The more interesting group, I was told, were those who were principled but rejected those principles because they understood human nature as it was rather than as it 'should have been'. I was pointed to the libertarians, who had logic and principle on their side but would always be marginalized because the average voter wanted no part of either and preferred to go with the prevailing sentiment. In such a world, knowing what should be done was not as useful as doing what had to be done.

I look forward to finishing the book. Hopefully as I read on I will find out that the authors understood what my old professor was trying to say. But somehow I doubt that they did.

I suppose I'm in the minority, but I've never seen any strong evidence that Strauss was particularly important to many of the people I identify as neoconservative. Sidney Hook seems more relevant.

I would also be careful with the appellation itself: are we talking about the foreign policy hawks of the mid-1970s and early 1980s? Or are we talking about Daniel Bell? Or Charles Krauthammer? Is is really possible to call all these people neoconservative and have the word mean anything?

In any case, to my mind, there was very little relativism among the 1970s foreign policy bunch.

Vangel:

I'm not sure that I understand your comment. It appears to entail that Strauss has settled the debate over objectivism and relativism.

Straussians know that relativism is false, and they presumably have a reason for this belief. Mainstream theorists are not privy to this reason. In part this is why many of them adopt relativism. Now that relativism has been refuted, however, its adoption signals ignorance and error.

The counterpoison to this philosophical error is reading Strauss. The non Straussian relativists are just waisting time with their (disgracefully) diverse array of methodologies and theoretical frameworks. Retail sanity. Wholesale madness.

Vangel, is this what you believe?

The problem with our military is that it's underfunded. We can't compete with other militiaries. Also, deficits are horrible and will also destroy us as a country.

Steve, Paul Wolfowitz was greatly concerned with Israel but he was not a Likudnik (he actually got booed in Israel for his dovishness, not surprising since he has that Arab girlfriend). Neoconservatism wasn't always about Israel either (you used to consider yourself a fellow-traveler and admired the older generation, so you should know). As you pointed out, Norman Podhoretz didn't seem especially concerned with it before 1967. Edmund Banfield & Richard Herrnstein weren't any more concerned with it than their gentile counterparts in James Q. Wilson & Charles Murray. And of course Likud has only recently become the natural governing party of Israel (with a Kadima interval), for decades it was Labor.

DPR, by focusing on liberals you ignore the paleo/traditional conservatives who object to the neocon newcomers with their newfangled (circa 1930) ideas and refusing to get off our lawn.

Cowen's taking Objectivism seriously is a useful reminder that there *are* areas of thought in which he is painfully ignorant. One tends to forget that, reading his blog.

In other words: anyone who takes Objectivism seriously is ipso facto ignorant, hell take the evidence.

Telling, that.

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