Paul Gottfried says the paleo movement is dead, and calls for youth to take over in the form of a post-paleo movement based on true American conservatism, which is the constitutional liberalism once represented by Taft Republicanism. He sees signs of such a development in the Ron Paul campaign, and in the writings of some youngish right-wingers.
If such a thing happens I’m all for it, especially compared to anything else that seems likely in the near future. Still, there are some bothersome points. Gottfried’s piece seems to suggest a sort of Brownian motion theory of historical development that leads to an overemphasis on strategy and tactics at the expense of basic principle:
- Stuff happens, and that leads to other stuff.
- Figure out the configuration of forces, and you can guide how they play out through intelligent intervention.
- The reason the paleos failed was that they didn’t have enough money, and the media were against them, so they couldn’t push things their way.
- That practical problem was due to an odd combination of circumstances that can’t last forever. Maybe next time we can get more money and get things to go more our way.
If that’s the analysis, it leaves out a lot. I’d say that the paleos failed, at the pragmatic level, because they were on the weaker side of a battle between the imperialism of bureaucratic and market institutions, and the resistance of the informal, local and traditional institutions they correctly believe necessary to a tolerable way of life. Money, media, managers and other mainstream authorities support the former side for excellent and enduring reasons. They are the ruling class, so why not squash all competitors? And if their side is stronger, for basic reasons, why shouldn’t it just keep on winning?
What follows to my mind is that staring at the existing configuration of power might suggest some tactics or strategies of secondary importance but isn’t going to get us out of the hole we’re in. To do more than try to stave off catastrophe we need to be able to say what we want, why we want it, and why we should get it: at a minimum, to be able to explain to other people why we’re right. And right-wingers aren’t able to do that just now. How else could left-wingers win in court on claims that traditionally-minded legislation has “no rational basis”? The failure of conservatism has not been just institutional. It has also been—as all agree—intellectual.
More specifically, we need to offer an explanation why markets and expert regulation aren’t uniquely rational principles of social organization. To do that, though, we have to be able to say why neutral scientific expertise is not the whole of knowledge, why maximum equal satisfaction of preferences is not the human good, and if those things lack something just what it is, as a practical matter, that can supply what they lack.
In other words, we have to go rather deep—so far as I can tell, to something rather like the Catholicism of which Gottfried complains. America may be basically Protestant, and originally Calvinist, but both those tendencies have their origins within Catholicism. They are Catholic factions that believed—falsely, it now appears—that they could go it alone. That being so, why wouldn’t it be smart for them to return to their origins when they’ve evidently ended up in such a hole?
Dealing with the most basic issues is not of course a sure-fire recipe for victory. At present, though, it seems necessary for getting anywhere at all.