Ever since the dawn of the Progressive Era, conservatives have been fighting progressive assumptions about the role of the state, the nature of justice, and the relevance, if any, of the transcendent to public life. With few exceptions, this argument has been almost entirely on the opposition’s terms.
Consider, for example, the debate about same-sex marriage. Among those already convinced that same-sex marriage should be illegal, invocations of the Bible and natural law are common. But these arguments are useless when it comes to persuading the secular-minded. That’s why Maggie Gallagher, Stanley Kurtz, and others consistently invoke not God’s law but the laws of regression analysis and standard deviation (“deviation” in a strictly statistical sense, of course). These are useful arguments, and it’s good that someone is making them. But the implied assumption seems to be that if numbers and charts demonstrated that same-sex marriages were better for kids than “traditional” ones, conservatives — or at least many of them — would throw in the towel.
Indeed, so steeped are we in progressive assumptions that “traditional” has become a category to be tested and prodded like any other. One can imagine some study with towers of numbers falling in neat columns. One of these appears under the heading “traditional” and stands alongside a dozen others. Whichever category scores the highest, wins.
Why has this happened? The answer is that we live in a progressive world. If you live in Japan, you’ll be hard-pressed to persuade people of anything if you don’t speak Japanese or understand the culture. Similarly, conservatives must speak the language of progressivism in order to persuade progressives that they are wrong. The danger in this is that you can go native. John Blackthorne in James Clavell’s Shogun becomes more Japanese than many Japanese people. So, too, conservatives can end up more progressive than the progressives.
But what, exactly, do I mean by “progressivism”? Certainly not — or not merely — the tinfoil-hattery that gets called “progressive” on the web and elsewhere. Progressivism has overlapping meanings. It refers both to the generic leftism we associate with the word “progressive” and to the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But both of these senses rely on a more metaphysical meaning. Progressivism was perhaps best summarized by Condorcet’s declaration that there is “a science that can foresee the progress of humankind, direct it, and accelerate it.” Progressivism takes it as a given that mankind, not God, is the pilot of Spaceship Earth. The good is measured in material terms — greater health, greater prosperity, greater comfort — and the social sciences are the disciplines that allow us to engineer society in ways that will maximize the good. Recall that the phrase “social engineering” didn’t start out as an epithet; people once bragged that they were social engineers. Even if the term has fallen into disrepute, the practice is alive and well.
Progressivism was an entirely rational response to the scientific method’s success at what Francis Bacon called “the relief of man’s estate.” Rather than beseeching God for bounty and good fortune and giving thanks when these were received, mankind learned to do for himself. Irrigation replaced rain. Animal husbandry and domestication brought more happiness and prosperity than praying for a good hunting season. Medicine substituted for crossing your fingers that the smallest cut wouldn’t lead to deadly infection. While one occasionally hears sophomoric voices — on the left and the right — opining about the superiority of medieval life or the rapture of living in a “state of nature” with one’s fellow noble savages, few of us are eager to defenestrate dentistry, cable TV, and air conditioning in exchange for such joy. And rightly so.
But there was a considerable downside to the displacement of the Almighty by the trinity of the slide rule, the microchip, and the test tube. Eric Voegelin was among the most alarmed critics of the rising progressive tide. According to Voegelin, you cannot eliminate the religious instinct. “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” Translation: When you rely on science and technology to do God’s job, it won’t be long before you worship science as a god. Marxism, the apotheosis of progressivism, purged the divine and replaced it with materialism. For the Marxist, proclaimed Voegelin, “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.” For many people today, the steam engine has been replaced by the embryonic stem cell as the promise of the realm to come.
Conservatives, or at least a majority of them, retain an admirable opposition to crossing bright lines on “life” issues. The passionate denunciations that this “dogmatism” elicits from liberals are a sign of how fundamental is the progressive faith that we are our own gods. The Left’s rancor also reflects the fact that protection of the unborn is one of the last redoubts of conservative adherence to immutable moral law. Pro-lifers often concede that having an unwanted baby is “bad” for both the baby and the mother in material terms (though it is of course not as bad for the baby as death). They simply say that a higher law applies.
But very few conservatives would dream of making such an argument when it comes to, say, economics. They note that eliminating the “death tax” would be good for “growth,” or for minorities, or for entrepreneurialism. The cuts would pay for themselves, we are assured. But even when conservatives believe that the death tax is not only unwise but unjust (as indeed it is), they recognize that this position simply won’t fly. Indeed, the supply-side school of economics was born of the progressive desire to prove that cutting taxes for the rich would be good for the poor. Why? Because conservatives either accepted or surrendered to the prevailing view that high taxes on the wealthy would be justified if they advanced the common good. As a matter of logic, this view offers no principled reason for the state not to confiscate all wealth if doing so would be beneficial to society (though there are of course pragmatic reasons to think it would not). As a matter of justice, it is no more legitimate to rob a man of nine of his apples for the “public interest” than to take all ten.
Many supply-siders tout John F. Kennedy’s tax cuts — meant to counteract the worst stock-market crash since the Great Depression — as their model. But they were not implemented in the spirit of supply-side economics at all. They were rather a form of Keynesianism, justified in the language of Cold War competition. As H. W. Brands notes, Kennedy was the first president to claim that the government had an obligation to ensure economic growth. It is a sign of how thoroughly conservatism has absorbed progressivism that most of us take JFK’s view for granted. Believing it is the government’s job to ensure growth is tantamount to saying that the government should superintend the economy. A captain need not keep his hand on the tiller every second to remain a captain, and today’s “laissez faire” means “Let it be — until things take a bad turn.” In short, conservatives, too, have accepted that there is a science of human progress.
I offer no solutions here, in part because it is difficult to see exactly where the problems lie. The West may need a new metaphysics to deal with the challenges of modernity. I am not up to the task of crafting one. But conservatives could help that project along by asking themselves more regularly whether they favor something because it is right in itself, or simply because they like its outcome.
June 20, 2006
Interesting National Review Jonah Goldberg Article:
Posted by TS at 10:07 AM