Sufficiently Radical

This blog’s epigraph is drawn from Orwell, and it’s one I’ve long been fond of for its openness to the world and its contempt for frivolous or fixed attitudes. I annex it here (on both the anniversary of the war in Mesopotamia and the date of my birth) to express my determination to pursue the least varnished version of the truth I can find. But though one must stay in ground contact with the world as it actually is, I’ve never been able, or willing, to disguise a burning passion to press it toward where it ought to be. Those who take a critical interest in politics cannot easily exist without at least a few ideological lodestars, and it’s worth gazing at mine forthwith, if only so you can see how I’m orienting myself.

My idiosyncratic politics has got me tagged many things down the years but if I had to nominate one that has cropped up most frequently, from antagonists and allies alike, I suppose it would be “neoconservative.” The term originally emerged to denote conservatives who germinated on the left but abandoned it when it became a lugubrious guilt trip trembling in the presence of illiberalism. In the zeitgeist of my youth it had become the accepted shorthand for Jew warmonger (among other endearments). This pervasive slur won’t go away and, I’m obliged to confess, I don’t necessarily run away from it—despite having never thought myself in any hue a conservative (after growing up in Europe and being labeled a curious sort of liberal fundamentalist).

Nonetheless, I have the distinct suspicion that some readers—especially those poor souls on the modern left—may find this space to be overly partisan, even radical. I don’t run away from that, either. For the standpoint I adopt is one of classical liberalism in that “shallow” Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment tradition—following Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill on the free market idea of political economy and the republican idea of political liberty, respectively. Just as radical, in other words, as “the patriots of seventy-six.”

If by chance that ideology sounds reasonable enough on its face, its execution in the real world will appear extravagant, or eccentric, more often than not. In the realm of foreign and defense policy—the supreme duty of government and, as it happens, my primary interest—I make no secret of my sympathies for an America that takes seriously the responsibilities that have devolved upon our regime.

There is much truth to the observation that since the end of World War Two the United States has taken Britain’s place as the preeminent liberal power providing the rest of the world with beneficial public goods including a modicum of peace, prosperity and the shining example of representative government. In a world replete with hostile and illiberal rivals, America has little choice but to maintain this forward position. In this role, I believe that it must be as unapologetic about securing its interests as it is confident about defending its ideals. This belief puts me at odds with the glib attitude of (apologies to Conor Cruise O’Brien) “unilateral liberalism” which holds that liberty is not chiefly threatened by a recrudescence of illiberalism and totalitarian ideology among enemies of civilization but instead by the nature of the American-led world order itself.

What Irving Kristol called “the neoconservative persuasion” also colors my approach to domestic policy. This way of looking at the world proceeds from the assumption that limited government to enhance mobility is the proper objective of the American right in the post-New Deal era. Government must be limited precisely because the more responsibilities it assumes, the worse it performs. I believe, in opposition to “punitive liberalism,” that government ought not be used in the pursuit of a rigidly egalitarian social order. I believe, in opposition to “reactionary liberalism,” that public programs do not deserve to be preserved and extended merely because they are features of life to which we have grown accustomed. In short, the answer to every problem of the welfare state is not yet “more state.”

I further believe, however, in opposition to unalloyed libertarianism, that government has a compelling interest in the welfare of its citizens beyond what the market can provide. In a rich nation sorely lacking in equality of opportunity, government must act––preferably at the lowest level of administration possible––in a focused but energetic fashion not merely to offer what Samuel Johnson called a “decent provision” for the deserving poor but to equip its citizens to compete in a dynamic and global market economy. In this way, government can be an instrument of civilization. The alternative vision of a small state is too bleak in a world too complicated and too precarious for an untethered individual to thrive. The mass production of unrealized human potential is a gross stain on any society.

I therefore believe, in opposition to residual protectionism, that the commitment to free trade must be vigorous, though sometimes checked when foreign powers fail to adhere to fair trade. I believe, in opposition to one-way multiculturalism, that e pluribus unum, the melting pot, must be the objective of immigration policy, for reasons of social equality as well as social cohesion. I believe, in opposition to Christianist politics, in providing mortar to the “wall of separation” between religious and civic authority, so that religion is neither traduced nor imposed by the state. On many traditional political questions, my inclinations generally correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal than those of the New York Times (to which I, like Noam Chomsky, attribute the deplorable habit of grinding my back molars).

Fired to the core by revolutionary politics as I am, I tend to distrust those who speak about nothing else. It’s part of that ossified Marxist tradition in which the personal and the political cannot be separated, but it is not mine. Oscar Wilde thought the trouble with socialism is that it takes away all your free evenings. This fact certainly inoculated me early on to totalitarianism in all its forms. Nonetheless, moral philosophy is incomplete without political philosophy, and (to borrow again from Orwell) the search for truth needs a constant struggle. That struggle isn’t going away anytime soon, and so it should be embraced, for its own sake and in defense of high purpose. With my throat thus cleared, let us disturb the peace.

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