Brad DeLong links to Matthew Yglesias linking to Damon Linker linking to my old Dead Right post. How gratifying! I was thinking of writing it all out again, in response to Charles Murray’s rather odd AEI dinner talk. But they’ve saved me the trouble. (I would like to say, however, that I prefer the term ‘Dark Satanic Millian Liberalism’ for what Linker calls ‘Donner Party Conservatism’.)
As you’ve probably noticed, conservatives tend to argue against liberalism/progressivism by asserting (plausibly) that Robespierre, or Stalin, or Hitler did bad things; then asserting (considerably less plausibly) that liberalism/progressivism somehow equals, or naturally tends to slide into, bad authoritarianism of a distinctively modern sort. Ever since Burke wrote his book about the French Revolution, some such slippery slope argument is the Ur-argument of conservatism as political philosophy.
Suppose we sketch out that thing that it is feared liberalism/progressivism will slipperily slide into. See if you don’t agree that the one thing every conservative swears up and down that he hates in all its many works and deeds, is anything resembling the following:
Intellectuals cook up some abstract, scientistic, rationalistic System. Blinded by the light of Enlightenment hubris, they conclude that a very great transformation of society can be happily effected in relatively short order. A political revolution shall ascend atop some alleged social science breakthrough which, we are assured, is a sold extension of more fundamental advances in the natural sciences. Mostly, the engine of change is the force of changed minds themselves. First, some activist elite manages to get their heads on straight. Then the people will eventually be dragged (if necessary) into the light. It’s Politics of Meaning as the Rule of Reason. The job of government is to understand what the right values are, and make sure those values permeate the lives of the (potentially false-consciousness afflicted) masses. For their own good.
The elite summon the New Man onto the stage of history, by cramming ‘enlightened’ values down the throat of the Old Man. Which never works. And that’s if he’s lucky. (If he is unlucky, his head has been cut off.)
Now: quite apart from his tendency to prescribe misery, what is notable about Murray is the degree to which he fits the science-turned-social-engineering-hubris bill. He claims that some people know what the true values are in life – the transcendent ones. What this enlightened elite should do is use the government (i.e. by forcibly shrinking it) to induce those who are deluded by false values to accept the true ones. Also, the scientific basis for this sort of thing is established in works like Consilience, by E.O. Wilson. (An ambitiously systematic, totalizing, rationalistic philosophy that asserts, among other things, that the apparent plurality and complexity of social phenomena must ultimately give way to highly reductionistic understanding of such phenomena in terms of simple natural laws. Even rationalistic analytic philosophers are leery of this stuff as way too rationalistic to be workable.) Murray predicts that the New Man (as we may as well call him) will emerge within the next decade or so, sweeping into the dustbin of history all those fools (they said I was mad! MAD!) who resisted this totalizing, systematic, rationalistic, Enlightenment-inspired understanding of things. Mankind is about to take leave of immature childhood – ‘adolescence’ as Murray says – and enter into rational, scientifically-informed adulthood. Plus Darwin is great, too.
Now, to be fair, both Goldberg and Douthat express polite demurrals at the ambitiousness of the 10-year plan. But even so: it’s notable that conservatives apparently find this sort of thing quite attractive.
Conservatives will object that advocacy of limited government can’t be any sort of totalitarian temptation. Small is the opposite of big. But this misses the point. At the philosophical level, the concern is not big or small. Coercion is as coercion does. The philosophical concern is about willingness to force others to accept your values for their own good. Bringing about small government, on the grounds that this will eventually induce others to accept your superior value system, is just as ‘coercive’, in the relevant sense, as bringing about big government to do that. (Forcing people not to have something they think they want is no less coercive than forcing them to have something they don’t think they want.)
I can think of a couple other bad arguments against what I’m saying here. But that’s what the comment box is for.
What’s the significance of all this? Well, apart from the fact that it’s silly that some conservatives can spy the totalitarian temptation under every liberal bed, but can’t recognize it when it gives a speech after dinner – but that’s why they pay Goldberg the big bucks. No, seriously. The significance might be this: the Ur-conservative argument, the slippery slope argument that somehow liberalism/progressivism tends to threaten freedom, hinges on the observation that liberals think they know what is really good for people, and generally think they have some arguments about all this that make a considerable amount of sense. Thus, liberals are naturally going to be tempted to sacrifice classical liberal values of liberty – freedom from coercion – for a ‘politically correct’ imposition of this or that alleged value. But obviously conservatives think they know what’s really good for people, and think they have arguments that make a certain amount of sense. (I think Murray is a nut. But I don’t fault him for having, and expressing, opinions and arguments about what is valuable in life.) This is why it isn’t really all that surprising or damning that Goldberg and Douthat would kinda like Murray’s speech – for its overall attitudinal tendencies. But this just goes to show, by analogy, how weak the conservative slippery slope argument must be.
It’s plausible that modern life has introduced us to distinctively nasty forms of authoritarianism. At the ideological level, a toxic combination of The Politics of Meaning (if you must call it that) and the Rule of Reason. (Of course, at best this gives us the left flank, from Robespierre to Stalin; not the right flank. But let that major point pass.) But it’s absurd to treat all minor manifestations of this combination, in modern life, as canaries in the coalmine of liberty. Because what’s distinctively bad is not the combination, per se, but precisely the extreme cases of it. In a low key way, the combination of the politics of meaning and the rule of reason is just any old case of thinking you know what really ought to be done, politically, combined with a strong suspicion that those who don’t see it that way are confused.
I ask you: if even Charles Murray doesn’t constitute much of a totalitarian temptation, what hope do the mere Clintons and Obamas of the world have of being secret enemies of freedom?