Over to Bradley Thompson:
Defining neoconservatism is no easy task given that its exponents deny that it’s a systematic political philosophy. Neocons such as Irving Kristol prefer to characterize neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” a “mode of thinking,” or a “mood.” At best, they say, it’s a syncretic intellectual movement influenced by thinkers as diverse as Plato, Trotsky, and Hayek. Daniel Bell captured the syncretic nature of neoconservatism when he described himself as a “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” On one level, neoconservatism certainly is a syncretic “mode of thinking,” but I shall demonstrate here that neoconservatism is in fact a comprehensive political philosophy shaped most fundamentally by the ideas of Leo Strauss via Irving Kristol.
First, though, let us examine how the neocons present themselves, particularly in relation to the broader conservative intellectual movement and the Republican Party. Irving Kristol once boasted that neoconservatism is the first variant of twentieth-century conservatism that is “in the ‘American grain.’” The implication of this extraordinary claim is that Goldwater conservatism—with its proclaimed attachment to individual rights, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism, and its rejection of the modern welfare-regulatory state—is somehow outside the American grain. The neoconservatives are and always have been, by contrast, defenders of the post–New Deal welfare state. Not surprisingly, the neocons support, in the words of Ben Wattenberg, a “muscular role for the state,” one that taxes, regulates, and redistributes—and, as we shall see, one that fights. This, apparently, is what it means to be in the American grain.
What really bothers the neocons about small-government Republicans is that they lack a “governing philosophy.” The neocons have long urged the Republicans to reinvent themselves by giving up their Jeffersonian principles and developing a new “philosophy of governance.” Ironically, though, the neocons’ conception of a “governing philosophy” is notone defined by fixed moral principles. Instead, it’s an intellectual technique defined by pragmatism. The neocons’ “philosophy of governance” is a philosophy for how to rule or govern. It’s all about “thinking politically,” which means developing strategies for getting, keeping, and using power in certain ways. The neocons therefore urge the GOP to become chameleon-like and to adapt themselves to changing circumstances.
The neocons’ pragmatic statesmanship is grounded in two basic assumptions: first, the identification of the “public interest” with some kind of golden mean and, second, the conceit that they—and only they—have the practical wisdom by which to know the golden mean. The neocons therefore believe it to be both necessary and possible for wise statesmen to find the golden mean between altruism and self-interest, duties and rights, regulation and competition, religion and science, socialism and capitalism. Norman Podhoretz, for instance, has argued that neoconservative statesmen should be able to figure out the “precise point at which the incentive to work” would be “undermined by the availability of welfare benefits, or the point at which the redistribution of income” would begin “to erode economic growth, or the point at which egalitarianism” would come “into serious conflict with liberty.” In the end, the neocons’ strategy is to accept the moral ends of liberal-socialism, but with the caveat that they can do a better job of delivering “social services” or that they can direct those services toward conservative ends. (...)
What, then, are the core principles of neoconservatism?
- Neoconservative Metaphysics: The neocons take the “political community” or what Irving Kristol called the “collective self” as the primary unit of moral, social and political value. They accept Plato’s premise that the polis or the nation is the only community adequate for the fulfillment of man’s natural end or telos, which they associate with what they variously call the “public interest” or the “common good.” The actual content of the “public interest” is whatever wise and benevolent men say it is, which is precisely why it should never be defined. The highest task of neoconservative statesmanship is to superimpose ideological unity on the “collective self” in the name of an ever-shifting “public interest.”
- Neoconservative Epistemology: Neoconservatives begin with the Platonic assumption that ordinary people are irrational and must be guided by those who are rational. According to Irving Kristol, there are “different kinds of truth for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy.” The highest truth in Strauss and Kristol is restricted to the philosopher, while the common man is and must be limited to “knowledge” of a different sort: to myth, revelation, custom, and prejudice. Neoconservatives believe the opinions of the nation must therefore be shaped by those who rule. To control ideas is to control public opinion, which in turn is to control the regime as a whole. Ultimately, the vulgar must be ruled by faith and by faith’s necessary ally, force.
- Neoconservative Ethics: If you believe, as Straussianized neocons do, that there are “different kinds of truth for different kinds of people,” then you must believe that there are and must be different moral codes as well. Ordinary people need some form of conventional morality that is easily learned, followed, and transmitted from one generation to another. The vulgar many need piety and patriotism as the ordering myths by which to live. For the neocons, morality is conventional and pragmatic. Because they regard the nation as the primary unit of political value and because they identify the “public interest” with the purpose of government, they regard moral good and virtue to be that which works—not for the individual, but for the nation. Morality is therefore defined as overcoming one’s petty self-interest so as to sacrifice for the common good.
- Neoconservative Politics: Central to the neoconservatives’ philosophy of governance is the conceit that it is possible, in the words of Kristol, for a small elite “to have an a priori knowledge of what constitutes happiness for other people.” Because common people cannot possibly know what they really want or what constitutes their true happiness, it is entirely appropriate for a philosophically trained political elite to guide them to their true happiness and to prevent them from making bad decisions. The highest purpose of neoconservative statesmanship is therefore to shape preferences, form habits, cultivate virtues, and create the “good” society, a society that is known a priori to those of superior philosophic wisdom. The neocons therefore advocate using government force to make “good” choices for America’s nonphilosophers in order to nudge them in certain directions—that is, toward choosing a life of virtue and duty. As Strauss made clear in his most influential work Natural Right and History, wise statesmen must learn to use “forcible restraint” and “benevolent coercion” in order to keep down the selfish and base desires of ordinary men.
The culmination of the neoconservatives’ political philosophy is their call for a “national-greatness conservatism.” Following Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss, David Brooks, William Kristol, and a new generation of neocons proclaimed the “nation” as the fundamental unit of political reality, “nationalism” as the rallying cry for a new public morality, and the “national interest” as the moral standard of political decisionmaking. This new nationalism, according to Brooks, “marries community goodness with national greatness.”
This is very interesting stuff – if you're interested in this sort of thing, of course – and heartily recommended. Thompson finishes off with a disquieting comparison between neocons and fascism. Go and read the whole thing!