Mark Thompson found an interesting quote that is relevant to the current healthcare debate:
Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance—where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks—the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong . . . . Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make the provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken, . . .
Here’s a sign of the times: If a libertarian cable TV personality or a conservative talk radio host were to hear this quote they would likely accuse its author of espousing socialism. No doubt they’d be shocked to find the passage is found in their favorite anti-socialist tome, F.A.Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.
Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Hayek is more quoted than read. Despite being on the short list of leading intellectual heroes for the American right, few conservatives or libertarians are all that familiar with his actual views on classical liberalism and free-market capitalism. Instead, as Thompson notes in his post, the rhetoric of the right reveals that we are more influenced by Ayn Rand than Hayek:
This is why, for all the bluster about “death panels,” and health care reform being an irreversible step on the road to socialism, it is the Randian vision of the world that animating the Right’s position on reform at the expense of the far more rigorous, thoughtful, and classically liberal vision of Hayek. Were the influence of these visions reversed, we would have a situation where the Right would actually make a good-faith negotiating partner on the issue of health care reform rather than leaving it up to liberals to negotiate reform with spineless and philosophically unmoored centrists.
I think this is a very astute point that cuts to the heart of the problem on the right. The libertarians often prop up Hayek as their hero while we traditionalist conservatives like to trot out Edmund Burke. But the truth is the vast majority of the right subscribes to a form of libertarian populism inflected with social conservative attachments—an unholy hybrid of Ayn Rand, William Jennings Bryan, and Morton Downey, Jr.
One of the key concepts in this weird era—adopted from Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged— is “Going Galt.” From Tea Party protestors to think-tank intellectuals, folks talk about Going Galt without the slightest hint of irony. The problem is not such much that it’s a silly hollow threat, but that it exemplifies a trait that is prevalent in conservative movement: The embrace of personality driven ideas that are often incompatible with some of our most basic philosophical, religious, or political beliefs.
This lack of reflection about how foundational views mesh is one of the most significant failings of the modern right. During the Cold War-era people who held incompatible views—such as libertarianism and social conservatism—embraced a limited form of “fusionism” in order to provide a united front against a common enemy—communism.
Today, the common enemy is liberalism and the fusionism occurs not between disparate groups but within an individual. People who would laugh at the absurdity of a “Christian Muslim” seem not to recognize the similar incongruity between being a follower of Christ and an acolyte of Ayn Rand.
The American right has begun to mimic the left in adopting a perverse form of political syncretism. A decade ago we’d mock well-intentioned, but misguided, liberals for being so intent on advancing their cause that they’d gloss over the views of their nutcase, extremist radical allies. Now, we do the same thing without giving it a second thought. Indeed, if you point out that there may be something wrong with embracing the loony ideas of fringe cultists—directly as with Ayn Rand, or indirectly, as with W. Cleon Skousen—you’ll be accused of being, depending on how polite your accuser, everything from an elitist to a socialist dhimmi.
Despite the fact that these well-meaning conservatives fail to exhibit any discernment about the views they are imbibing, they become terribly offended when you question how they could accept such nonsense.
Their defense tends to be based on a variation of a common theme: They don’t actually subscribe to those crazy views (at least not all of them), they just align themselves with a personality that does. It’s politics by proxy with a Machiavellian cult of personality twist. If any victories against liberal elites can be attributed to our favorite TV personality/failed politicians/radio host/third-rate novelist, then that cult figure, their views, their motives, and their actions, are provided blanket immunity against criticism.
These St. Georges slaying the liberal dragons are placed beyond reproach. You are no more allowed to question the right’s preferred cult of personality—CoulterHannityBeckLimbaughPaulLevinRandPalinWhoever—than liberals can challenge Obama. Even thinking contrary thoughts about these figures is enough reason for them to question your conservatism (if not your patriotism, manhood, and love for small animals).
The result is that the conservative movement is becoming increasingly ineffective, insular, and irrational—in other words, we’re becoming the mirror image of the political left.
This reliance on personalities rather than ideas is particularly worrisome. Conservatism has never exactly been a bookish movement. And since the rise of talk radio during the Clinton-era, we’ve become accustomed to having ideas and issues presented to us in the form of pre-digested talking points.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, does it? Isn’t it possible that we could create a movement where people read books—real books, not insta-books ghostwritten for a former Morning Zoo DJs or brick-sized political novels about narcissistic atheist industrialists? Is it too much to ask that ideas be presented to us in a sober manner rather than like a dramatic reading of the apocalyptic Left Behind novels? Shouldn’t we hold our pundits and politicians to the same standard of behavior—no screaming, lying, talking gibberish, or fake crying on national television—that we expect of our children?
If not then the movement has morphed into something beyond recognition. I don’t know what this syncretic cult of libertarian populism should be called, but its certainly unworthy of the label “conservative.”