What’s Wrong with Conservatism
A Conversation with Charles Kesler, Editor of the Claremont Review of Books
Ben Judge: June 8th, 1998, this is you speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, quote: “What is plaguing conservatism is that its sense of mission, its devotion to a high, clear, and overarching cause, has deserted it, and recognition of this fact has begun to sink in among conservatives and liberals alike.” That was almost 21 years ago. Has anything changed?
Charles Kesler: [Laughs] Well, I’m surprised you didn’t congratulate me on my prescience—
Kesler: —What kind of an exercise is this going to be? I don’t think anything has changed with the conservative movement as such. Thanks to the rise of Donald Trump, and to various other concomitant developments in our politics, I think conservatism now looks different and probably has a different path in front of it than it did in 1998. Ninety ninety-eight, after all, was really just in the wake of the end of the Cold War, and in a way it represented a moment of triumph for conservatism.
The “Reagan Revolution”—both domestically and, you might say, even more important in its foreign policy component—had been largely successful; but the puzzling thing was that the conservative movement didn’t feel triumphant. It had won the Cold War, and it certainly did celebrate that fact, but it did not rise to the occasion, in a way, domestically, or even in general; and that’s what I was talking about in that address at A.E.I., which I titled “What’s Wrong with Conservatism”—not with a question. [Laughs]
Kesler: It was declarative or emphatic, rather than a question. Although, I tried to explore it as a question, as well, in the course of those remarks.
Judge: You say conservatism’s sense of mission deserted it. That assumes that at one point there was, as you say, “a devotion to a high, clear, and overarching cause.” When was that clearest in American history?
Kesler: The cause I have in mind is the cause of defending the West against Soviet and communist tyranny, but also against the paler domestic reflections of similar movements in the statist enterprises of American liberalism at home; and in its opposition to those things—and to a certain degree in its love of the things it was trying to defend—I think American conservatism was at its best. It had always been a movement that was more confident and clearer about what it was against than what it was for; and this was true, really, from even before the Cold War, in a sense.
I think in the opposition to the New Deal, American conservatives—who were gradually beginning to call themselves that in the 1930s—American conservatives were very sure that they were against Roosevelt and against the statist ambitions of the New Deal, but they were much less agile and much less articulate about what it was exactly they were defending in the old republic. And the fact that Herbert Hoover had been a progressive Republican and had been very proud of being a progressive, that Teddy Roosevelt had been emblematic of a very powerful progressive strand—really probably a majority view in the Republican Party itself that was, in some ways, progressive—meant that what was the opposite of liberal progressivism was a little unclear—certainly to Herbert Hoover and to a lot of other people.
Judge: To that point, since 1998 America has had two Republican presidents and ten Congresses in which one or both chambers were held by Republicans. Between 1952 and 2001, only once did Republicans hold the House, the Senate, and the Presidency at the same time. Since 2001, it’s happened four times; and yet, we’re still talking about conservatism’s drift. Why?
Kesler: Well, I think it’s illustrative of the drift, isn’t it? [Laughs] Even when the Republican Party had power—I mean commanded all of the elected branches of the government simultaneously—it didn’t exactly know what to do. It had succeeded in blocking the bad guys from the holding power—and to that extent, it congratulated itself on that—but what was the power for, or what was it supposed to do to revive American mores and American Republicanism, more broadly considered? For American conservatives, it was always a question whether they wanted to go back to some previous constitutional regime, or whether they thought that impossible and the only thing to do was to accommodate to the place liberalism had brought them at that point and simply to slow down the further progress of liberalism by going forward.
To go back or to go slow was, in a way, a fundamental choice confronting conservatism; and especially in its Republican version, conservatism, I think, decided that question—you know, it’s answer was a mixture of those two things—but on the whole, it’s view was to go slow. This was an element, which you might say was a kind of low-level triumphalism—the notion that socialism had been defeated, communism had been defeated, and so our politics—this was especially a view in the 1990s—our politics wasn’t going to get much more liberal than it was already, that nothing radical was really in the cards going forward. Only gradual incremental change—Clintonism, of the Bill Clinton variety in the 1990s—was really in the cards, and so conservatism didn’t have to worry about going back or making any kind of radical moves.
All it had to do was to help to guide the slow conservative process of change as it naturally was going to unfold in the decade of the ‘90s and forever after. And so it was managing the natural rate of change, in a way, that it assumed in a free society was inherent if you could cut the legs out from under radical liberalism, or radicalism. And so the notion was that society was a kind of balance between liberal and conservative forces and that, in a way, those forces were based upon temperamental differences.
A lot of people who were friendlier to change, but a lot of people were more conservative than that and didn’t want change to happen so quickly; but if you could balance them against each other, then the natural evolutionary forces of society—neither racing ahead nor falling behind the natural level and pace of change—would do just fine; and you didn’t really need politics in the decisive sense. What you needed was simply to follow society’s own inward evolutionary urges to keep them from being accelerated in a dangerous way, but also keep them from falling behind the natural rate of evolution, so to speak; and if you could do that, then I think a lot of mainstream Republicans, as well as centrist liberals in those days, thought the political problem would be solved.
Judge: And yet here we are. [Laughs]
Kesler: [Laughs] And yet here we are. Well, it was a mistake, you know, to think that there was such a thing as a natural rate of social evolution absence state-craft or political aims and talents; but it was also very short-sighted to think that liberalism had been de-fanged and that all of its radical urges had been sublimated now and that the problem was over.
Judge: And you don’t need to look much further to see that it hasn’t been de-fanged than to look towards 2020. Early signs point to income inequality being a major issue in the campaign. Most Democrats running for their Party’s nomination have come out with some form of redistribution proposal. Julian Castro, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and mayor of San Antonio, supported taxing income over $10 million at 60-70%, so pre-Reagan era levels.
Then you have Elizabeth Warren, who came with what she called a wealth tax of two percent for households with over $50 million and three percent for those with over $1 billion in total assets—not annual income, total assets. So you could have made the money 30 years ago and paid taxes on it. You’re still paying two to three percent now.
Conservatism’s intellectual traditions can all independently take on these sorts of policies, but can they do so pointing to, as you say, a clear, high, and overarching cause? I’d like to go through each tradition and get your take on where they each fall short in addressing something like a wealth tax.
So you say you want to tax some so that others can have more. I say that’s all well and good and I agree with the sentiment, but that money won’t go as far you think it will. A dollar bill doesn’t look as good when what cost a dollar yesterday costs two dollars today. This is an example of skeptical pragmatism of neo-conservatives. Sounds reasonable. What does this argument miss?
Kesler: Well, it’s neoconservative, I suppose you could say, not in the new-fangled foreign policy sense, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s original sense of neoconservatism as empirical and skeptical of large-scale social solutions. It’s also libertarian in a sense. I mean, it’s an economic argument. It’s a version of an economic argument which Bill Buckley used to make, for example, that when dollars make round trips to Washington, they don’t come back at the same level that you sent your tax money to Washington. They have a couple of nights out in D.C., and the living is pretty good, you know, and when they come back they’re greatly diminished. He used to make that argument.
I think what’s missing in that kind of argument, as true and as good as it is, is a larger political context. You do need to have a middle class society for successful democracy. This has been known ever since Aristotle’s Politics: that the middle class is the best, most stable, and most just social foundation of an enduring republican regime.
And so, in a way, the statesman’s question is what do you need to obtain and then sustain a middle class sufficiently broad, and numerous, and wealthy to make democracy viable, a republican government viable? And, you know, a very high level of taxation is compatible with a middle class democracy under certain conditions. If you’re in World War II, you may need 70% or higher tax rates—probably you don’t, or you rarely do—but it’s conceivable that you would need to capture, you know, a very high percentage of the national income for national defense under those circumstances.
But when you are spending three percent of GDP on national defense, as you are now, where’s the money going? Where is the wealth tax going? And it’s not just a case of the inefficiency of the extracting mechanisms of the federal government. It’s a case of taking people’s property, their money, which they have owned and which helps to make them responsible democratic citizens—the management of it, the care for it helps to make them better citizens—and confiscating it and blowing it on various socialist projects—I think we could use that old hoary term in this case without too much distortion—you know, in an attempt to transform a middle class democracy into a very different kind of society in which the distribution of income and the basis, you might say, of the middle class is subject to government design, and superintendence to a very great degree, and basically at the whim of a class, which is itself not part of the middle class or not part of the—has a different set of mores than the broad middle class, and indeed sees themselves as answering to a different law than the one that they wish to apply to everybody else.
Judge: And Irving Kristol talked about a new class.
Kesler: Yes, I mean, the neocons—and before them, far-sighted communist and ex-communist theorists in the ‘40s and ‘50s—had already cottoned on to this phenomenon that, you know, communism doesn’t actually mean rule by the working class. It means rule by a new class of party operatives and party experts, and in a way, the neocons learned that from what was going on in Yugoslavia and elsewhere in the Soviet empire. Their observations of that were quite astute. It’s the phenomenon of the new class, and we still don’t, in a way, have a better term for it. I mean, now the “ruling class” is the certainly politically more potent and cutting term, and it’s probably a better term, for sure, than the “new class” ever was; but it’s still a fact that identifying who the ruling class is is an important political task, which I would say has not been completely successful so far.
Judge: So that’s one argument. Let’s try another one. You say you want to tax people who make a whole bunch of money for a whole bunch of noble reasons. I hold up a copy of Modern Age and quoting Murray Rothbard say, “Theft is theft and does not become legitimate because organized robbers call their theft ‘taxation.’” Set aside for a moment whether or not a wealth tax is a good idea. Is it a legitimate act of government?
Kesler: Well, it would rarely be a legitimate act of government under modern conditions. It’s not, as I say, inconceivable that there might be a sufficiently dire situation where something like that might have to be contemplated, but it should never be contemplated as a first step or as an ordinary regulation of government.
The question that Murray Rothbard is asking is, of course, a necessary question. It’s the same question that Augustine, Bishop of Hippo asked many many centuries ago. What’s the difference between the government and a band of robbers? And many governments really are nothing but bands of robbers. The thing that makes a difference, contra I would say Murray Rothbard, is that the government is legitimate, or that it serves the safety and happiness of the people who authorize it, and they do have to authorize it, at least in the best of circumstances.
His argument is really an argument against bad government or tyrannical government, which is basically the same as a band of robbers, but not every government is bad or tyrannical. And so there is a difference between duly constituted government that is good and bad government. Having said that, though, the wealth tax is so obviously a communistic imperative and a socialist stratagem that it is so transparently an attempt to bring the private sector under the control—the even greater control—of the public sector to enhance the ruling class and its power that the whole idea of it scarcely passes any kind of political muster—certainly not, I hope, in a society that is a free one.
Judge: Another argument from the same vantage point: one government, just like one human being, can’t know everything, and when we try artificially altering an economy, we assume more knowledge than we have. Sounds good, but you say this is an incomplete argument. Why?
Kesler: Well, it’s a good argument as far as it goes. This is sort of Hayek’s argument. There’s an information problem, which is insurmountable, and what the free market does is coordinate, without conscious human arrangement, the supply and demand of every article in a free economy through the medium of the price mechanism. If something is scarce, its price will go up; if something is in profuse supply, its price generally speaking will go down; and the government doesn’t have to worry about setting the prices.
The Soviet mistake amply illustrated in history—diagnosed many many decades before history actually had presented a good enough example by the Austrian economists and especially by Hayek—it is undoubtedly true, as the Soviet example showed, that you can’t run a modern economy on the basis of the government dictating the price of every shoe, every piece of a car, every part of every commodity that’s being assembled and sold anywhere in the country. That defeats even the most totalitarian ambitions.
As far as it goes, that’s a very good argument. One would want to, I think, again, put it into a larger political context, which is what Hayek, in fact, did in his book The Road to Serfdom. His argument there was that you can’t really have democratic socialism in the long run. If you have real socialism in which the government is in charge of setting prices, assigning jobs, assigning salaries to every person—if every person works for the public, works for the government essentially—you can’t have a free society, you can’t have a free market, you can’t have free speech ultimately in such a society. And that was, I think, a clear standard, a clear analysis that helped both the economic and the political thought of conservatism in the middle of the 20th century and thereafter. But again that depended upon putting the pure economic point into a larger, you might say, liberal or free-society context.
In a way, Hayek went pretty far in that direction. Now, it’s true that—as many neoconservatives and others have said for decades afterwards—that, in fact, totalitarianism doesn’t usually come through socialism, and you can have societies that are fairly socialist in, you know, Scandinavia or in continental Europe after The War; and they don’t automatically become totalitarian systems, contrary, one might say, to Hayek’s prediction.
I acknowledge that point, but I don’t think it’s dispositive because the fact is that even the societies with largely socialist economies weren’t 100% socialist. They were part of a western anti-communist coalition, many of them, which was a very powerful influence on their own domestic political direction. And many of them in later years, pulled back from socialism having found that it was unsustainable economically and politically retrograde.
Judge: So let’s look at a third set of arguments. You say you want to tax some so that others can have more. I take a sip of sweet tea and say, “Nature ordered things a certain way, and that certain way did not create everyone equally. You try to destroy a civilization’s power to create and enforce distinctions, and you destroy civilization itself.” What say you?
Kesler: Well, if that’s your version of the traditionalist argument, I would say, yes, it’s a mistake for government to attempt to micromanage a free society. And it is especially dangerous for a government to play culture-tsar with a society and set out to experiment or change the culture of a free society as though it were, you know, an experiment in a petri dish.
But having said that, I think that the weakness of the traditionalist argument is tradition is not enough. Some traditions are good and some are bad, and to make that distinction, you have to step outside of tradition itself. To take the American example, you know, anti-slavery is certainly a major part of the American political tradition, but for hundreds of years there was a pro-slavery current of American political thought—or at least there was a current that defended slavery, not always as a positive good, but eventually as a positive good—and from a certain point of view, both are equally traditional. To say which is the good tradition and which is the bad tradition, you have to repair to a moral standard that is outside or above the tradition itself, in order to decide what is worth conserving in the tradition and what is not worth conserving in the tradition. And that has always been the shortcoming of the traditionalist conservative argument.
They were afraid of the rationalist excesses of modern politics, from the French Revolution, to the Russian Revolution, to the Chinese Revolution; and therefore, they thought that we should follow a better guide than reason. But that analysis is very short-sighted and begs so many questions that it doesn’t really stand up, I think, very long because you have to decide: what is the better guide than reason? And how are you going to decide except by the use of reason, which defeats the purpose?
If you decide simply on the basis of what works, which is what a lot of traditionalists sometimes used to say and certainly libertarians still often say, you simply switch to a different question: what do you mean “works”? What works? Slave societies work quite well for the masters. The question is, though, what about the slaves? And what does slavery do to the masters even eventually? So I think that’s the unfortunate weakness of the argument, which appeals to nothing so much as traditional American values.
Judge: And at its core you say the weakness stems from a discomfort with principles such as equality and justice. Going back to the Bradley lecture, quote: “Conservatives can see that equality and justice are liberal causes to be defined by liberals, defended by liberals, and implemented by liberals.” Why is that?
Kesler: Well, conservatives and, especially Republicans too, have always been nervous about universals, or about the appeal to principles—and particularly the appeal to any, you might say, abstract notion of justice—because it’s dangerous, they think, as I was explaining. It leads to a kind of rationalist excess in society that can destabilize and revolutionize societies in directions never quite anticipated by those who launch such revolutions.
And that, unfortunately, translates into, and goes with also, a kind of businessman’s horizon, which in the Republican Party—and, you know, in a lot of conservative businessmen around the nation—has always been attractive and authoritative. And the view is that what we don’t need to solve our problems is great statesmen [sic] with big ideas and theories. What we need is some business sense, you know, someone who can read, who can do double-entry bookkeeping—
Kesler: —who understands how to get things done, how to organize large organizations and get them to run efficiently and to stop all of the theoretical nonsense, which liberals so indulge in and like to indulge in. And that’s very attractive.
I mean, the Trump phenomenon is one part the businessman’s revolt against the American political system, and one aspect of Trump is the businessman who knows the world better than the worldly experts in Washington who are supposed to know all about the world. No, he knows how to do things. Trust him. That is not unique to Trump. It is a very powerful part of the appeal of Mitt Romney and Wendell Wilke and many Republican politicians for many many decades—that we are close to private industry, to business in America; we understand the American genius for business and why it’s so successful; and all we need to do is to get the government to be more like business.
That is, I think, a very understandable wish, but it, unfortunately, is more illusory than it seems because government and business really are rather different kinds of enterprises, as Donald Trump has found out. You can’t fire anyone. [Laughs] You know, he’s surrounded by 435 Congressmen and 100 Senators, none of which he can fire or has any real authority over. Unelected judges—but even people in his own branch—I mean, he’s supposed to be heading the executive branch and running all of these agencies. All of these people report to him, and he can’t do a damn thing with them. I mean, it’s very difficult to apply business practices to government.
Now, that’s different from the question of deficits and debts and so forth—although the two issues, the two concerns do overlap at some point—but it is a long-standing wish. Herbert Hoover was very much part of the same, sort of, consciousness. He was the equivalent of a billionaire, you might say, in today’s terms. He was a very wealthy man, a very successful businessman, and the thought is always that that kind of sensibility is the one thing needful to complete the circle of our happiness. But it rarely works, and the limitations of that way of thinking are, unfortunately, I think, endemic to a lot of good citizens and the way that they think about the problem of American government, and, of course, many of them are conservatives, those citizens.
Judge: Going back to your 1998 lecture, quote: “For the first time in perhaps 100 years, it is now possible for us to return to the natural rights doctrines of the American Founders in an intelligent way to revive their moral and political enterprise and make it the heart and soul of a new American conservatism.” End quote. Why, for the first in perhaps 100 years, was this possible?
Kesler: Let’s compare our opportunity now to conservatism during the New Deal or right after the New Deal, let’s say. In the 1920s and into the ‘30s, there was a kind of constitutionalist American conservatism that had begun to arise in opposition to progressivism—the Democratic progressives, let’s say, and indeed many Republican progressives in the teens and ‘20s. If you think of Calvin Coolidge, if you think of Harding even, if you think of William Howard Taft, a favorite of yours—these are figures who found themselves in the conservative position of trying to correct the progressive moment and to move us back towards an older constitutional formalism or older constitutional tradition, but they weren’t very good at it, in a way.
One of the deep reasons why the conservatism of the GOP of the 1920s—if you think of Coolidge, who was certainly an extremely intelligent and literate political man, if you think of even Herbert Hoover, who was much less cultured in a way than Coolidge but was still a very smart guy—but they had grown up thinking of themselves as progressive Republicans and thinking of progressivism as something good.
They had thought that progressivism was conserving the best of the past and facing forward, moving forward in a slow, considered, constitutional way. But the result of that was they didn’t, in a way, see the issue between extreme progressivism, you might say, and America as a regime question. They didn’t see that there was something about extreme progressivism—and even moderate progressivism, one would have to say—that was carrying the country, not simply forward, but away from the constitutional traditions of the past. And it was hard for them, in a way, to believe what was happening before their eyes.
Now, the fact that, and to its credit, that the Republican Party in the 1912 election had to break with Teddy Roosevelt—because Teddy Roosevelt broke with them—and had to see and to act on the insight that the direction Teddy Roosevelt was going to take progressive Republicanism was increasingly progressive and less and less republican in the traditional American sense of the term, not just the partisan sense of the term—but in a way, they thought that having defeated the danger of a Roosevelt candidacy in 1912, that the country would right itself. Again, Wilson was not the beginning, or a new beginning of the same problem in the Democratic Party. That was, in a way, their blindness. Maybe that’s too strong a term, but something like that.
But now, at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, we can see liberalism as a whole, as something that has developed for 100 years in a way that they couldn’t see it when it was new and fresh. And we can see that the path that what we call modern liberalism or progressive liberalism began on in 1912 has diverged further and further from the old Constitution and the old mores of the Republic as we had known them.
So when you combine that with the theoretical clarity that Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa and Harvey Mansfield and many others in the last 50 or 75 years—that many other great teachers and scholars have brought to the subject of natural rights and historicism and so forth, we are now in a position, which our forefathers of 100 years ago were not in, to see the danger and to see the path that leads away from that danger and back to constitutional sanity. We can see the problem and, at least, glimmers of the solution to the problem in a way that no other earlier generation could see.
Judge: How important for that project is it to recapture the story of the Founding?
Kesler: It’s essential because the Founding is the controls, really, is the key to the meaning of America, and I mean that not just in an historic sense, but to the continuing meaning of America—the possibility of republican government along the lines that they had first sketched out. In a strange way, it is precisely the re-discovery of the possibility of natural justice that makes the Founders our contemporaries, in a way that they really were not quite the contemporaries of anyone else earlier in the 20th century—as much as they were lauded by, you know, genuinely lauded by Calvin Coolidge and even by Teddy Roosevelt, let’s say.
But we are in a position, I think—helped by the re-discovery of Abraham Lincoln and of his statesmanship—to appreciate what the Founding was really trying to found, what the break was between the American Founding and the British constitutional tradition that led up to it. All of those questions, which conservatives have been confused about for a long time—both traditionalists and libertarians—now shine with a new clarity, it seems to me, both because of the distance we’ve travelled politically from the old republic, but also because of the theoretical clarity that has now been brought to bear on the issues of natural justice—which we can now see a bright line distinction between history and nature, between progress and natural rights in a way that was difficult, not impossible, but difficult for the Coolidge generation and others around that time and afterwards to have.
Judge: So let’s return to the tax question one final time. You say you want to tax some so that others can have more. From the standpoint of American conservatism, what should I say back?
Kesler: There are many layers to an answer to that, but I think the basic answer is that the purpose of government is not to take from Peter and give to Paul, not to take from those who have too much and give to those who, the government says, have too little. What we’re trying to conserve and what the purpose of American government is is to protect the life, liberty, and property of each of us, whether that property is a little or a lot.
Once you get in the business of deciding whose property has rights and whose doesn’t have rights because they’ve got too much of it or something else, you are eroding the foundations of everybody’s security, property, and liberty. That isn’t hard to see. It’s just that one of the major problems, obviously, is that it’s become habitual to regard taxation as a way of taking from Peter and giving to Paul, and we are comfortable with progressive taxation, let us say.
Though I’ve always thought the moral case for progressive taxation was very weak. By that I mean that I can tax you at a marginal rate of 90%, but other people whom I favor, I will tax only at the rate of 10%. That kind of double standard, or multiple standards, invites tyranny—a tyranny of the majority over a minority, or maybe of a combination of minorities over a different combination of other minorities.
But it is the tyrannical aspects of power taxation, which to James Madison were crystal clear—and to, you might say, everybody in the founding generation and for a long time in American politics, for 100 years in American politics—were crystal clear, the dangers of the power of unlimited taxation, and especially taxation at rates arbitrarily different for certain people as opposed to other people. That moral case has been occluded for almost 100 years now.
I’m not talking about the economic arguments exactly, the efficiency arguments against it. I’m talking about the justice arguments. It’s not that people who have more shouldn’t pay more in certain kinds of taxes. If you have a 10% income tax, a flat income tax, everyone pays 10%, with whatever rebates or whatever you might have on the side; but basically it’s the same law for everyone, and 10% of X is the same percentage but it could be a bigger or smaller amount than 10% of Y. But it doesn’t raise the questions of tyranny or of the unequal application of the taxing power that the kind of high proportional taxation that A.O.C. and this new generation of socialist Democrats is calling for.
Judge: Well, we’ll have to leave it there. Dr. Kesler, thank you.
Kesler: You’re welcome, and thank you for the invitation.