Thursday, October 16, 2008

Christopher Buckley's Transition: a 3 Degree Turn

Several people have blogged, e-mailed and posted about Christopher Buckley's transition from conservative to liberal. Apparently, William F. Buckley's son has decided to ditch the National Review (which his father founded) and conservatism because conservatism has brought nothing but deficits and economic malaise.

This transition is unsurprising and has been made many times in both directions. The reason is that the distinction between left and right, conservative and liberal, in today's political discourse is illusory.

America is a unique country not because of "conservatives" or "liberals", but because of libertarians, who are neither. The notion of "centrist" is also illusory, because it depends on the faux liberal-conservative dichotomy. George W. Bush is as "liberal" as Barack Obama, perhaps more so, and to say that he represents "conservatives" is to admit that there is no difference.

What made America different from Europe is the belief in freedom. Freedom is neither liberal nor conservative. The proponents of conservatism are often diametrically opposed to traditional American ideals. Moreover, their fascination with Edmund Burke is outside the mainstream. At best, Burke represents the Federalist tradition of Alexander Hamilton that was discarded in favor of Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicanism. Jacksonian Democracy is inconsistent with Burke's respect for tradition. Jackson believed in the spoils system, flexibility, elimination of the central bank and change due to laissez-faire. It is from these principles that America developed rapidly in the nineteenth century to become an economic powerhouse, and today we live off the embers of the Jacksonian revolution.

Burke's conservatism is consistent with the left-right split that is characteristic of Europe and which the Progressives brought here from Europe. America's detour into European political ideas began with a mass migration of American students into German graduate schools in the late nineteenth century. This was compounded in the 1930s by European scholars, hoisted by their own petard, fleeing to America. By 1900 Progressivism, a European model that originates in Bismarck's Germany, had come to dominate American political discussion.

The distinctions that Progressivism emphasizes, social democracy versus business interests, had always existed in America, but with a different tenor. First, business interests could equally be represented by more statist (Whig and Republican) views or by Jacksonian laissez-faire. As some firms became bigger in the late 19th century they began to align more closely with the statist Republican tradition. Moreover, the situation is confused by the presence of a laissez-faire intellectual tradition that the Republicans briefly adopted in the post Civil War period and carried forward as a minority view after the New Deal. However, through the Pendleton Act and their fixation on rationalization of government and furthering their professional interests, the late nineteenth century Republicans morphed easily into advocates of Progressivism and government intervention in the 1890s. Throughout the nineteenth century, moreover, in practice the Republicans tended to be the more statist of the two parties because they favored high tariffs and public works.

The Progressives were able to completely staunch the Jacksonian Democrats intellectually. Woodrow Wilson's adoption of Progressive ideas in 1908 and his election to the presidency in 1912 meant that both political parties had dropped the Jacksonian, laissez-faire tradition. However, the American people never really bought into Progressivism.

Thus, American politics became a debate between ideological fraternal twins and a giant, uneducated cousin. Fraternal twins, recall, are not identical but are close. The first twin is a "conservative" who is a pro-business Progressive along the lines of William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. The second is a "liberal" along the lines of Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, the two twins are very close, about 97%. Theodore Roosevelt had advocated most of the social democratic ideas that Franklin Roosevelt later adopted. George W. Bush has turned out to be as much an interventionist as the socialist Theodore Roosevelt. Both parties favor massive, ill-advised boondoggles. Bush's bailout and nationalization of the banking system is more expensive and more socialistic than Hillary Clinton's proposed nationalization of the health care system.

The uneducated cousin is the mass of Americans who have retained remnants of the Jacksonian Democracy.

The idea that America is a "centrist" country is incorrect. "Centrist" would imply that there is a mean between the pro-business Progressives of Theodore Roosevelt and the social democratic Progressives of Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, there is no such mean. There is no continuum, because the uneducated cousin is off the continuum. He is a hayseed who says unpredictable things, a Sarah Palin-like Babbitt who irritates liberals and conservatives alike, driving William F. Buckley's son to liberalism, which someone like Sarah Palin cannot possibly "understand" because she did not go to Harvard and learn the crackpot theories of John Maynard Keynes.

Progressivism is an extreme, feudalist value system that argues that government should enforce the concentration of business and that an elite should manage and control the economy and the media. The "conservative" Progressives argue that the elite should say that they are an elite openly, while the "liberal" Progressives argue that they favor the poor, but of course are also an elitist movement that favors business and professional interests and decimates the poor.

Thus, Christopher Buckley's transition from National Review "conservative" to "liberal" is a minor move, a three degree turn, for only three degrees separate the fraternal twins. The difference between right wing feudalists who emphasize the power of the rouge (military and secular power) and left wing feudalists who emphasize the power of the noir (religious, benevolent power) is small. Americans emphasize neither, and neither view is rightfully American.

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