Last seen proposing a grand alliance between liberals and libertarians (I explained why I think that would be a bad idea here), Cato's Brink Lindsey resurfaced last week to try his hand with the conservatives, taking to the pages of the National Review to offer advice from a "well-wishing outsider." It won't shock you that Lindsey's advice to the right is much like his appeal to the left: an invitation to think like libertarians do.
The culture wars are over, and capitalism won. The question now is: Will the Left or the Right be the first to figure this out? The answer may well determine the future balance of political power.Lindsey surveys post-war American history on a broad level, arguing that we have arrived at this juncture after mid-20th century prosperity first unleashed a tidal wave of cultural change:
As the post-war boom took off, however, the unprecedented development of technology and organization made America the first society in human history in which most people could take satisfaction of their basic material needs more or less for granted.In Lindsey's telling, the prosperity brought by unfettered capitalism triggered cultural changes both positive -- feminism, sexual liberation, the end of legal segregation -- and negative. On the negative side, Lindsey describes "a radical assault on all traditions, all authority, and all constraints" -- a sort of general "Aquarian" madness (I wasn't around at the time, but reading the right's literature I imagine that a typical day in, say, 1971 probably involved packs of cannibalistic hippies raiding churches and boiling peyote in the hollowed-out skulls of former Mouseketeers. But I digress.). Social conservatives, he says, were right to push back against the chaos and crime thus unleashed, but now, in saner times, they have reached a crossroads:
The story of post-war America is thus the story of adaptation to fundamentally new social realities, particularly mass affluence. Time-honored practices that had developed during the long reign of scarcity were now in need of serious revision or even wholesale abandonment. At the same time, new values and priorities began to assert themselves. Wrenching cultural conflict was unavoidable.
The fundamental question for conservatives today is: What should they be seeking to conserve? The great American heritage of limited government, individual liberty, and free markets seems the only viable answer. As Peter Berkowitz has frequently and wisely noted, a truly American conservatism must have at the core of its concerns the defense and preservation of the liberal tradition. Which makes it a special kind of conservatism indeed: Its function is not to arrest change generally, or even slow it down, but rather to preserve the institutions that are both the chief source of change and the primary means through which we adapt to new conditions.One obvious flaw in Lindsey's narrative is that he, a committed libertarian, ignores the important role of government investment and social insurance in fueling that post-war boom and widening the scope of its public benefits. But for the purposes of a debate with social conservatives, another problem stands out. Lindsey argues that they, clinging to their traditionalist views, are at odds with the march of history. Yet, as Ramesh Ponnuru points out in a rebuttal, Linsdey has also said that traditionalists were right to resist that march in certain ways at certain times. In that case, each social conservative argument must be judged on its merits; you can't simply dismiss them all with the proposition that, if we take care of capitalism, capitalism will take care of the rest. Ponnuru, in a sur-reply, writes:
[A]nyone who has taken up a social-conservative cause or two, or declines to sign on to all of Lindsey’s arguments, is supposed to don sackcloth and ashes and take historical responsibility for other conservatives’ having been segregationists. (Speaking for myself: No thanks.) The demand makes sense if all social conservative causes are the same, impermissibly reactionary thing, except when they happen to further “the logic of social development under capitalism,” whatever that means.Ponnuru acknowledges, and I agree, that Lindsey is correct in pointing out that material forces, not just ideas, move history. As Ponnuru puts it, "Feminism didn’t happen when it did just because Betty Friedan wrote a book, which is why anti-feminist books can’t undo it."