So there has been a lot of good email about recent posts, in addition, of course, to all the thinking going on in the threads.
Here’s what Jean Yarbrough of Bowdoin, the distinguished author of pathbreaking books on President TJ and President TR, wrote:
I read this post with great interest, as you wonder what the connection is between the three pillars of Obama’s policy, and whether progressivism accurately captures these aims. You may be interested to see how TR connected the first two. He made conservation the great moral issue of the day, and expanded it to include not just the conservation of natural resources, but also human resources. That meant pushing for all kinds of social security measures, including health insurance. Everything could be subsumed under conservation, and broadly speaking, everything was. The great advantage of conservation as the organizing principle is that it avoided the harsher rhetoric of class warfare, but also provided a way to trench on individual rights, especially property rights. TR was explicit about that in his Autobiography. Of course the gay marriage proposals were far beyond his ken, as he strenuously ( how else?) supported traditional marriage, But the great thing about progressivism, being an offshoot of pragmatism (which in turn rests on the discoveries of evolutionary biology) is that it keeps evolving! Back to the waves!
Now I have to admit that I’m for conservation myself, as are all the conservatives in the tradition of Russell Kirk. Conservation sounds conservative, of course, And I like it as a comprehensive category that includes nature, health, and marriage. To what extent can conservation trump “individual rights, especially property rights?” Well, we read that very prominent Republican donors play fast and loose when it comes to environmental regulations, and one reason they fund Republicans is to get those regulations to disappear in the name of individual liberty. Their libertarianism, I’m thinking, is too extreme or Randian. A little trumping is surely justified, but not the new central planning of the Obama’s administration that has waged war on a whole sector of our economy. Conservation can morph into paranoia, such as keeping the earth at the exact temperature it is now or keep people alive indefinitely by waging war against every risk factor that might be the cause of personal extinction. Conservation so understood could morph into a Hobbesian police state, with health and safety fueling every public policy. That’s not what the Kirkians or Porchers want, of course. They want conserve what’s left of local communities against both big business and big government. And Roger Scruton has written with special eloquence about the psychological connection between genuine concern with conservationism and localism.
“Back to the waves!” is Jean’s reference to our previous discussions on “wavism,” an -ism name here on this blog. Jean joins Jim in being a wavist, in explaining with all kinds of evidence from TR and others that the “first wave” of modernity was transformed into the “second wave” by the progressives. I’m pretty on board with this. But the problem with calling Obama a progressive is that at some some point the “third wave” as described by Mr. Strauss must have kicked in in our country. That wave, for Europeans at one point, was the existentialist decisionism of Heidegger, the one that produced resolute devotion to insane, massively murderous tyrants (Hitler and Stalin). But in America and in Europe today, the third wave is the uncruel Heidegger described by our Rorty and his soft European counterparts. Here’s OUR decisionism: We SAY people have rights, and we don’t have to explain why. So our nonfoundationism is a decision against the progressive devotion to History; the point of life is to keep the people around right now as alive, free, and comfortable as possible, not to use them as fodder for some glorious future. This “third wave” Jim has described as nonfoundationism. Nonfoundationism, as displayed by our president, is a lot less “strenuous” than the confident progressivism of TR. It’s certainly a lot less American. There’s nothing MILITARIST about Obama’s nonfoundationism, and nobody even has to sacrifice anything significant for it, just as there’s nothing MILITARIST about Europe these days. We have to admit that more than one of today’s conservatives who worry about national defense have spoken well of TR and even Woodrow Wilson, as contrasts to BO.
Jean went on, though, to show me some undeniable connections between TR and BO: The use of the courts, the bureaucracy, and the MSM to direct and displace public opinion. TR, somewhat like BO, called for a new social contract, promising that government–really the president–would grant new rights and entitlements in exchange for new powers. Transformations we usually associate with FDR are already part of the program in TR’s 1912 platform.
Jean and I emailed about her disagreement with the family guy Bob Patterson. Bob thinks of TR as the first “social conservative.” He, Jean reminded me, “constantly warned about the birth dearth, and inveighed against the wealthy in their selfish refusal to have large families. He called it race suicide.”
Obama doesn’t seem to even know about the birth dearth, and he when he talks about the selfishness of the wealthy, he doesn’t mean their failure to reproduce to replace themselves. American women have the right to contraception, the right not to have and not to be judged publicly for not having babies. As I said before, it’s characteristic of liberals to worry mostly about the future of the environment, conservatives about the future of the family, babies, and such. From this view, TR’s conservationism is superior to Obama’s because it covers both bases, and it has a properly human or anthropocentric focus.
Jean added, quite reasonably, that there was something “vaguely creepy” or strenuously statist about TR’s view that American women have a duty to have babies to serve the needs of their country (or race!). In the context of the age of nationalism that morphed in some places into Fascism, it seems that women were being told to produce cannon fodder for imperialist America. A view that wouldn’t be creepy for Sparta (or Krypton) has no place in a country devoted to individual rights. On this point, of course, Jean and Obama agree, which is on this front someone might call TR a bit of a Fascist but Obama not at all.
Finally, however, Jean is right that TR’s pro-natalist, pro-family policy can only be called ambiguously socially conservative. Most social conservatives know that the main determinant of reproductive rates in America isn’t patriotism but religion. But they might be understood to a limited extent to agree with TR that the birth dearth is a kind of spiritual crisis caused by individualism run amok.
Some conservatives today would chime in immediately that TR missed the boat by not seeming that government-guaranteed security would cause parenthood to wither away by taking away from the main reason–security in their old age–for having conservatives. I actually think these conservatives way exaggerate our minimalist Social Security as a disincentive for reproduction. And so there’s no reason to believe that doing away with entitlements, by itself, would produce a new birth of births.
I certainly agree with those who say that no government policy–from the bully pulpit to various kinds of bribes–can reliably promise to spike the birth rate. (See Europe, where all you can find is very modest success here and there.) Nonetheless, I can agree with Santorum’s thought that our tax system should be based on the premise that you can pay your debt to your country with either money or babies–or in most cases some calibrated combination thereof.
Here’s what our anti-statist libertarian purists say in their most reasonable mode: We’re going to have climate change and few babies; those are examples of the collateral damage of a society dedicated to individual liberty. There’s no reason to believe that those forms of change can’t be managed technologically. But in any case liberty is the bottom line.
I can even say that libertarianism should be chastened a bit by the semi-true discoveries of evolutionary biology, although the progressives misunderstood what those discoveries really are. I could go on and talk about the relationship between the pursuit of happiness and happiness itself, but that’s going on somewhere else.
I have asked JEAN to join us as a contributor to POSTMODERN CONSERVATISM. PLEASE welcome her as an indispensable addition to our grand and glorious project.