A few days ago I asked the question “Where are the conservative intellectuals?” I posed the straightforward question, but also gave a reason why I, as a person who is generally on the left, asked: I used to be challenged by conservatives, but not these days, and wonder if there are any out there who are still challenging. I received interesting replies.
Michael suggested the Heritage Foundation, and Alex suggested Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution Blog and Kosmos, a career networking site for classical liberals. I found the Heritage site very predictable. The Cowen site an interesting place for the discussion by conservative economists, or more precisely classically liberal economists, and Kosmos a networking site for like minded people. Scott later pointed me in the direction of American Conservative Magazine, Reason Magazine, and sometimes the Frum Forum: a site of traditional conservativism, one for significant libertarian thought, and a kind of Huffington Post for conservatives.
So there are places to explore, but as a looked around, I didn’t find anything that challenged me. Where are the conservatives who have ideas that I must consider because of their intellectual power and insight?
Scott poses a hypothesis why I am having a problem. He wrote:
I think there are conservative intellectuals, but they use their brainpower however towards electioneering and must necessarily for the most part remain in the background. That is, they can’t be public intellectuals, or at least appear to be intellectual in public, but follow their own narrative which says that the elitist intelligentsia is out of touch with the majority of Americans.
This is ironic. There are conservative intellectuals, but because of their practical commitments and principled convictions that intellectuals are dangerous, they dare not show their faces, nor their ideas. In the past, they avoided this problem by calling themselves “men of letters,” reserving the label of intellectuals for despised leftists. This was the position of Paul Johnson in his book, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sarte and Chomsky.
Now, apparently, or at least according to Scott, they are not doing this.
But Tim in his reply found more than this. He had his own appreciative take on conservatives, which tells me that I need to pay attention:
It seems to me that a fundamental conservative posture in American intellectual discourse is still soundly rooted in our history and traditions as a people. That posture rests on the respectable ideal that at the conclusion of the American Revolution the sovereignty of the crown passed not to a government nor to a select elite (though it certainly did pass to a propertied white, male elite for a time) but to “The People” who then delegated carefully circumscribed powers to government through elected representatives. Of course, the historical reality was far more complex, but the ideal of “The People” setting constitutional restraints on public power is not.
This understanding of limited government places a burden on those seeking to expand its writ to explicitly and narrowly justify almost any exercise of power. To a progressive liberal, as I would describe myself, that burden does not create an insurmountable obstacle to public action — only a serious rebuttable presumption. Concentrated power — from any source, but particularly from government — must be justified in light of constitutional limits, settled public expectations and the exigencies of the moment.
A good and constructive conservative is therefore a natural critic of government power, constantly probing and challenging changes that encroach on private prerogatives. When I recognize such people I actively support them. For example, I supported a candidate for Congress from Long Island, Frank Scatturo, who recently lost the Republican primary in his district to a less impressive choice of the local party bosses. Scatturo has a brilliant conservative mind and would have been a thoughtful dissenting voice in Congress. For the same reason I am glad Antonin Scalia is on the U.S. Supreme Court, though I disagree with most of his decisions and wish he were the only conservative voice on the Court.
But the conservatives I describe and respect are hardly the conservatives we routinely witness in political life today.
Perhaps he is right about Scalia, but I have my doubts. He is smart and learned. But his notion of original intent makes no sense to me as a sociologist, given how I understand the sociology of knowledge. I will address this issue in an upcoming post. I will have to look into Scatturo.
Indeed looking further reveals some interesting developments. In yesterday’s Times, Ross Douthat presented a genuinely interesting conservative critique of the Wall Street bailout, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, on the grounds that it establishes a custom of crony capitalism and undermines the moral foundation of sound economic life.
Something worth considering, I would say. I am not persuaded, but it is intriguing.