Christopher DeMuth on national conservatism

I thought the recent WSJ Op-Ed by DeMuth was one of this year’s more important essays.  DeMuth argues that conservatism needs a new [and also older], less libertarian, less cosmopolitan turn.  Here is his core message:

When the leftward party in a two-party system is seized by such radicalism, the conservative instinct for moderation is futile and may be counterproductive. Yet many conservative politicians stick with it, promising to correct specific excesses that have stirred popular revulsion. Republicans will win some elections that way—but what will they do next? National conservatives recognize that in today’s politics, the excesses are the essence. Like Burke after 1789, we shift to opposing revolution tout court.

Why national conservatism? Have you noticed that almost every progressive initiative subverts the American nation? Explicitly so in opening national borders, disabling immigration controls, and transferring sovereignty to international bureaucracies. But it also works from within—elevating group identity above citizenship; fomenting racial, ethnic and religious divisions; disparaging common culture and the common man; throwing away energy independence; defaming our national history as a story of unmitigated injustice; hobbling our national future with gargantuan debts that will constrain our capacity for action.

The left’s anti-nationalism is another sharp break with the past.

Do read the whole thing, as they say.  I cannot summarize his entire argument, but here are some points of push back:

1. It is a mistake to start by defining one’s view in opposition to some other set of views, in this case progressivism.  You will end up with something limited and defensive and ultimately uninspiring.

2. Unlike many classical liberals, I’ve long made my peace with nationalism, but for pragmatic reasons.  I view it as morally arbitrary, but also as the only possible solid foundation for a stably globalized world, given the psychologically collectivist tendencies of most humans.  DeMuth opposes national conservatism to globalization for the most part, but strong nations and strong globalizations go together.  There is talk of “global markets that eclipse the nation and divide its citizens,” but the case needs to be stronger and more specific than that.  National security arguments aside (yes we Americans should produce more chips domestically), which exactly are the global markets that are eclipsing us?  And is it global markets that are polarizing us?  Really?  Which ones exactly and how?

3. Virtually every critic of globalization wants to pick and choose.  There is plenty of “globalization for me, not for thee” in these ideological arenas.  (In similar fashion, I don’t quite get the Peter Thiel bitcoin > globalization point of view….crypto has been quite international pretty much from the beginning, and often at least in spirit directed against national monies.)  And which exactly is the national body we are going to trust with micro-managing globalization?  Some DC bureaucracy that operates as effectively as the CDC and is filled 90% or more with Democrats?  From a national conservative point of view, or for that matter from my point of view, why do that?

4. For better or worse, Biden is far more of a nationalist than DeMuth makes him out to be.  “Confiscating vaccine patents” is the only example given of this supposed excess cosmopolitanism, but hey just look at the allocation of those third doses, something Biden has pushed hard himself.  On many matters of foreign policy, including China, the differences between Trump and Biden are tiny.  And Europe isn’t exactly happy with Biden either.

5. The policy recommendations toward the end of the piece are underwhelming.  Common carrier regulation to prevent Facebook from taking down controversial opinions is the first suggestion.  Whether or not you agree with that proposal, the major social media companies were not doing much in the way of “take downs” as recently as ten years ago.  To return to that state of affairs, but with the whole thing enforced by government (“Some DC bureaucracy that operates as effectively as perhaps the CDC and also is filled 90% or more with Democrats?”), is…uninspiring.

6. The next set of policy recommendations are “big projects” for cybersecurity and quantum computing.  Again, whether or not you agree with those specific ideas, I don’t see why they need national conservatism as a foundation.  You might just as easily come to those positions through a Progress Studies framework, among other views.  And is a centralized approach really best for cybersecurity?  How secure were the systems of the Office of Personnel Management?  Doesn’t the firming up of all those soft targets require a fairly decentralized approach?

7. DeMuth refers to our “once-great” museums as deserving of revitalization.  I would agree that the visual arts of painting and sculpture were more culturally central in earlier decades than today.  But putting aside the National Gallery of Art in D.C. (in a state of radical decline…maybe blame the national Feds?), and the immediate problems of the pandemic, American museums are pretty awesome.  MOMA for instance is far better than it used to be.  If there has been a problem, it is that 9/11 made foreign loan contracts for art exhibits more difficult to pull off, in part for reasons of insurance.  In other words, the contraction of globalization has hurt American museums.

8. I wonder how he feels about crypto, Web 3.0, and the Metaverse?  I think it is perfectly fine to regard the correct opinions on those topics as still unsettled, but is national conservatism really such a great starting point?  Aren’t we going to rather rapidly neglect the potential upside from those innovations?  Shouldn’t we instead try to start by understanding the technologies, and then see if a nationalist point of view on them is going to make sense?

More generally, if you are going to do the NatCon thing, how about embracing the tech companies as America’s great national champions?  Embracing them as your only hope for countering left-wing MSM?  Somehow that is missing from DeMuth’s vision.

So I liked the piece, but I say it is a rearguard action, destined to fail.  We need a more positive, more dynamic approach to a free society of responsible individuals, and that is probably going to mean an ongoing expansion of globalization and also a fairly new and indeed somewhat unsettled understanding of what the nation is going to consist of.  What DeMuth calls “empirical libertarianism,” as he associates with Adam Smith, I still take as a better starting point.

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