I sense intellectual deterioration of the once-vital conservative movement in the United States. As I shall explain, this may be a testament to its success.
Until the late 1960s (when I was in my late twenties), I was barely conscious of the existence of a conservative movement. It was obscure and marginal, symbolized by figures like Barry Goldwater (slaughtered by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election), Ayn Rand, Russell Kirk, and William Buckley--figures who had no appeal for me. More powerful conservative thinkers, such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and other distinguished conservative economists, such as George Stigler, were on the scene, but were not well known outside the economics profession.
The domestic disorder of the late 1960s, the excesses of Johnson's "Great Society," significant advances in the economics of antitrust and regulation, the "stagflation" of the 1970s, and the belief (which turned out to be mistaken) that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War--all these developments stimulated the growth of a varied and vibrant conservative movement, which finally achieved electoral success with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981. The movement included the free-market economics associated with the "Chicago School" (and therefore deregulation, privatization, monetarism, low taxes, and a rejection of Keynesian macroeconomics), "neoconservatism" in the sense of a strong military and a rejection of liberal internationalism, and cultural conservatism, involving respect for traditional values, resistance to feminism and affirmative action, and a tough line on crime.
The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge of prosperity worldwide that marked the global triumph of capitalism, the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement. But there were signs that it had not only already peaked, but was beginning to decline. Leading conservative intellectual figures grew old and died (Friedman, Hayek, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Buckley, etc.) and others as they aged became silent or less active (such as Robert Bork, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb), and their successors lacked equivalent public prominence, as conservatism grew strident and populist.
By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of "originalism," the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded. All these became causes embraced by the new conservatism that crested with the reelection of Bush in 2004.
My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.
By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.
And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression. These unanticipated and shocking events have exposed significant analytical weaknesses in core beliefs of conservative economists concerning the business cycle and the macroeconomy generally. Friedmanite monetarism and the efficient-market theory of finance have taken some sharp hits, and there is renewed respect for the macroeconomic thought of John Maynard Kenyes, a conservatives' b√™te noire.
There are signs and portents of liberal excess in the policies and plans of the new administration. There will thus be plenty of targets for informed conservative critique. At this writing, however, the conservative movement is at its lowest ebb since 1964. But with this cardinal difference: the movement has so far succeeded in shifting the center of American politics and social thought that it can rest, for at least a little while, on its laurels.