Can the American Right Renounce Utopianism?
Can the American right free itself from the utopianism of the post-Reagan era?
The question would have seemed strange to mid-century American conservative thinkers like Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. In their view, conservatism was anti-utopian by definition. In different ways, they identified “conservatism” with a suspicion of radical schemes to revolutionize America and the world.
But today’s orthodox conservatism consists almost entirely of radical utopian schemes to revolutionize America and the world. So-called “movement conservatism” or “fusionism” in its present form is, in fact, an alliance of three distinct utopian movements in economics, domestic policy and foreign policy. All three crusades are doomed to fail in the real world.
Right-wing utopianism in economics takes the form of schemes to repeal almost all of the major social legislation enacted since Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in 83 years ago, back in 1933. Social Security and Medicare will be altered beyond recognition, and replaced by a radically different system of private savings accounts and medical care vouchers, along the lines proposed by the economist Milton Friedman in his book Capitalism and Freedom, published 54 years ago in 1962.
Friedman always insisted that he was not a conservative but a classical liberal or libertarian. Other libertarian economists like Friedrich von Hayek also refused to be described as conservatives.
For their part, mid-century American conservatives rejected libertarianism, on the grounds that free-market utopianism is as undesirable as any other utopianism. Peter Viereck defended the New Deal programs and labor unions as conservative reforms and institutions that had averted more radical socialist or fascist movements in the United States. In his essay, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” Russell Kirk wrote:
“Conservatives have no intention of compromising with socialists; but even such an alliance, ridiculous though it would be, is more nearly conceivable than the coalition of conservatives and libertarians. The socialists at least declare the existence of some sort of moral order; the libertarians are quite bottomless.”
Those words were published in fall 1981. Thirty-five years later in 2016, the distinction between conservatives and libertarians in economic policy has completely collapsed. There is no conservative economic program at all in the United States today. What is called the “conservative” economic program—privatize Social Security, voucherize Medicare, lower or abolish the minimum wage, cut taxes on the rich, and free trade—is merely the radical libertarian economic program, under a different label.
The conservative economic program doesn’t aim to conserve anything. It seeks to blow up almost all existing U.S. economic policies, whether in the realms of social insurance, regulation or taxation, and replace them with far-fetched and mostly untried voucher and privatization schemes dreamed up by libertarian ideologues. The socialist Bernie Sanders at most wants to add a few public programs to the existing American mixture of private, public and nonprofit provision of goods and services. The libertarian right wants to burn American domestic policy to the ground and start over.
Whether pushed by nominal conservatives at AEI and National Review, or by honest libertarian radicals at the Cato Institute and Reason magazine, the libertarian program is utopian. Not that all of its policy proposals are bad—libertarians sometimes have intelligent things to say in particular areas, like transportation or energy. It is the worldview that is crazy.
The premise that humanity is moving rapidly toward a perpetually peaceful, post-national civilization with a rule-governed global market in which there will be unrestricted movement of individuals as well as goods and money across borders is as much a lunatic fantasy today as it was in the 1840s in the era of Cobden and Bright. Human beings are and always will be nonrational, nepotistic social animals, not utility-maximizing economic individualists. And there will be cycles of geopolitical conflict as long as no world empire monopolizes global power.
Russell Kirk was right back in 1981: “genuine libertarians are mad—metaphysically mad.”
Foreign Policy Utopianism
Mainstream conservative foreign policy is just as “metaphysically mad” as the libertarian economic utopianism of the orthodox American right. If the word “conservative” means anything at all, it refers in foreign policy to cautious, anti-utopian Realpolitik, the kind symbolized by statesmen like Disraeli and Bismarck and Eisenhower and Nixon.
But thanks to George W. Bush and the neoconservative advisers who eclipsed Republican realists like Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft, American “conservatism” came to be identified with the utterly unconservative project of unprovoked wars to topple autocrats in the hope of spreading a global democratic revolution. This radical utopian project, which has backfired and spread chaos exploited by jihadists from Iraq to Syria and Libya, is sometimes called “Wilsonian.” In fact Woodrow Wilson was cautious by comparison with the neocons, as were Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Neoconservative democratic revolutionary crusading owes more to the revolutionary mentality of anticommunist socialists in the neoconservative movement and their allies among European social democrats than to the more pragmatic policies of FDR or Eisenhower.