Have we Found the Conservative Intellectuals?

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.

  • Scott

    Indeed it may simply be slim pickens when it comes to conservative intellectuals. As for the sources I had mentioned, you really do need to catch them on a good day to find something intellectually stimulating. The writers at Reason often stick to a cookie-cutter libertarian thinking that frequently precludes any sort of depth of analysis. (Though I do find Radley Balko’s articles on police brutality to be extremely informative, though he is a journalist not an intellectual.) As for the Frum Forum, I find its often bi-partisan perspective to be refreshing. But David Frum is not really an intellectual. So much for the Frum Forum. As for the American Conservative, there have been articles on it that I found to be very thoughtful, perhaps even intellectual. I’ve provided a few links below.

    Also, here’s a link to a recent article on neo-conservatism, or the death thereof.

    Interestingly enough, perhaps it is due in part to the decline of neo-conservativism, the dominant conservative ideology ever since Karl Rove had triumphantly declared that they had “seized the mantel of idealism.” This decline has left the “mantle of idealism” up for grabs, as conservatives of all strata now debate the very definition of conservative, and mostly in “traditional terms.” You will hear Ayn Rand and FA Hayek bandied about, but with very little reflection upon whether or not these thinkers really offer anything useful for us to solve the pressing problems of the present. They were right in the 1950s, during the cold war, so why not now? And, even though this vacuum has created the opportunity for a new idealism to emerge, “new ideas” has become a common talking point and nothing more, and I still maintain that the real conservative brain trust is occupied with electioneering, and winning a “global war on terror.” The stock tools of this trade are not Weber or Tocqueville, or Rawls or whomever, but game theory and facile analysis of the discourse of focus groups.

    In fact, I am really at a loss to name a single bona fide living conservative intellectual, in the academic tradition, other than Richard Epstein. And he is active in the public sphere as a journalist and his articles have recently appeared in Reason and Forbes Magazine. Over the summer, he wrote an excellent piece on Rand Paul, entitled “Rand Paul’s Wrong Answer:”

    But his book “Takings” really is where you find his intellectuality; he, albeit predictably, begins with a classical liberal approach to the topic, invoking Hobbes, Locke, and even Weber; but I find much of his thinking to be dubious. Regardless, this area of legal scholarship is another area where conservatives concentrate their brain power; they aim it seems to OWN the constitution. But this is not through creating new and profound ideas, but by rehashing the old ones, primarily the thought of the “founding fathers,” and to use their thought to lend to them a monopoly on legitimacy.

    So is conservative and intellectuality an oxymoron? Its legitimacy must ultimately be based on the past, on pre-existing thought, not on a vision of the future. (At least for now.) Yet the very ideals of the founding fathers where indeed once new and progress. And furthermore, there will always come a time when the word “convervative” must be redefined. What is now being done is redefining conservatism by a return to the “founding principles” on which this country was based on. Not entirely a bad development. Yet I do not yield to conservatives a monopoly on “human rights” based on constitutionalism, nor do I see them as the sole guardians of private individuals against the excessess of state power. One reason is, this “constitutional fundamentalism” is often blind to the contradictions of the constitution and also of the ideals that have yet to be realized. I try to debate such issues in the discussion threads of websites such as Reason Magazine. I usually get nowhere. Such topics are evidently not up for debate. America was born perfect, and has been getting better ever since. Until of course Barack Obama showed up. Or so the story goes.

    At this point,then rather than searching for a conservative intellectual, I will settle for a conservative with an open mind.

  • Michael Corey

    I’m intrigued by from where the legitimacy of the Constitution comes, the grand norm of the U. S. legal system. For me, the most persuasive arguments are based upon the principles of associating, building consensus, and contracting. To that end, the contract is in force until it is amended through the iterative process of associating, consensus making, and contracting as prescribed by procedures in the Constitution. These basic principles of “community building” seem to work on both macro and micro levels.

    For the most part, contract law considers what was written and agreed to by the contracting parties, and by implication, the intent of the contracting parties. My guess is that many conservatives subscribe to this position without necessarily articulating it. This view is contrasted with the concept of the living constitution that replies on members of the judiciary to refresh the Constitution to make it relevant to current concerns and situations through judicial interpretation and rulings. One approach relies upon consensus building and the other relies on judicial imposition.

    In essence, this is the difference in perspective, which separates conservative approaches to the Constitution from liberal approaches. If the terms liberal and conservative weren’t used, would it be more productive to discuss these alternatives? A reasonable question to ask is which approach to the Constitution best serves a democracy and why? Would we be better off if there were more consensus building and fewer judicial decrees? Which approach works better theoretically? Which approach works better practically? What standards should be used to operationalize the term “works better”?

  • Scott

    I think the legitimacy of the Constitution did, at least in the country’s nascent period, rest on the principles of “associating, consensus making, and contracting.” The constitution needed to be ratified by only nine states, with Rhode Island holding out the longest and being the last state to ratify it, and that being by a very narrow margin; but for the most part, the democratic nature of the ratification process lent to it its legitimacy in early America, egricious flaws in the constitution besides. When MLK much later refered to “the magnificent words of the Constitution” in his “I have a dream” speech, it became clear the the positives contained in the constitution greatly outweighed its negatives; thus while “negros” where originally considered only “three-fifths” of a person, the constitution could still be looked upon as the guarantor of civil liberties. These aspects, its contractual nature and its promise along with the fact that the grand democratic experiment that is the United States appears to be successful, lends to the constitution its legitimacy.

    However, as Antonin Scalia maintains, there is still “A Matter of Interpretation”– that between the originalists and those that favor a “living constition” approach. It is indeed the legitimacy of these two views that is contested, rather than the legitimacy of the constitution itself. The constitution itself is, for all intents and purposes, a “social fact,” and the only thing that could truly allow for its legitimacy to be called into question would be the complete failure of liberal democracy itself. What would that look like? We don’t really want to find out.

    Even so, as the country is experiencing difficulties, and the democratic process is not working as effectively as it should, the originalists declare that these troubles are due to a straying away from the country’s founding principles as institutionalized in the constitution; primarily however, they speak of limited government– it is due to the unmitigated growth of government that we owe are problems. If we have a “living constitution” however our problems are due to a lack of democracy, it is “limited democracy” that is our problem. (And indeed the constitution does place limits on democracy as well as government.) Which approach works better I believe depends on the conditions of the times. (Which means I mostly favor a “living constitution” approach, but am not dogmatic about it.)

    Taken to its extreme, the originalist approach becomes absurd- shall we claim that the 2nd amendment refers to only muskets and pistols? In this case NRA members certainly favor a “living constitution.” Scalia said that such an approach would ultimately reduce the constitution to “nothing at all.” That is certainly hyperbole. But it is fair to question how far the living constitution approach may be taken before the constitution itself is “rewritten.” Each approach is problematic. I ultimately believe that if the founding fathers are not to govern from beyond the grave, then we must have a “living constition” so that the contractual spirit of the constition, and the solidarity which that brings, may live on. However, with national solidarity becoming more and more difficult in this country, this approach could ultimately have the opposite effect, as seems to be the case. A question worth asking may be, “Is there an alternative to these two approaches?” Certainly there could be, and perhaps there should be.

    We can debate these matters endlessly, but, during the course of doing so, who shall say that we should just scrap the constitution and start over again? Could we achieve more of a “consensus” in these times by doing so or would a period of anarchy ensue that could inevitable lead to a dictatorship? Perhaps some people might privately wonder if the constitution really is the best possible social contract we can achieve, but what is at stake if we cease to take it seriously? To begin anew, as wonderful as the promise of a utopian outcome might seem, is not a chance too many people are willing to take.

    Just to return to the topic of conservative intellectuals, these are thoughts that they are not likely to entertain in public if at all; thus if intellectuality is really taking a critical open-minded approach that offers up new possibilities, we will not see conservative intellectuals for some time to come. However, Dr. Goldfarb, I do wonder what your definition of an “intellectual” is. Also, what would a conservative’s definition of an “intellectual be? I’m not sure that conservatives and liberals would even be able to agree such a definition at this time.

  • Snookybutts

    My current favorite conservative intellectuals are Daniel Larison, Jim Manzi, Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels), and Steve Sailer (who has a deflationary style that reminds me of Richard Rorty, if Richard Rorty was really into social science).

  • Pingback: In Review: Between Left and Right « Jeffrey C. Goldfarb's Deliberately Considered