links for 2007-07-11
Note to Self: The Next Time I Teach Economics 101b...

My Little Golden Book of Neoconservatism

Jeff Weintraub worries that people don't know what neoconservatives are:

Jeff Weintraub: "Neocons," "very liberal Communists," and other scare-words: As Patrick Porter correctly points out, "neocon" (or "neoconservative") is expanding into an all-purpose term of abuse without much concrete content, historical specificity, or political substance.... This increasingly promiscuous use of the increasingly elastic scare-word "neocon" reminds one of the equally promiscuous way many right-wingers used to call anyone they didn't like a "communist."... [T]he word "liberal" often serves a similar function in some right-wing circles ...... though that's not entirely new, either. Back in 1973 Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon's Attorney-General John Mitchell, said that her husband often warned against the threat posed by the "very liberal Communists"...

I think I have the answers. Here are what I think are good takes on the neoconservative ideas and their vicissitudes, and on the neoconservatives--my takes and others':

Take 1:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: The intellectuals who provided the energy for the early Public Interest--Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, et cetera--were what we now call "neoliberals": they wanted to do the Great Society and the Cold War right. In the 1960s they did not think of themselves as neoconservatives, and they were not neoconservatives--not even in retrospect.

The "neoconservatives" were a different group of people, later--Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz were their intellectual godfathers, rather than Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The real neoconservatives formed into a group at the end of the 1970s around four planks:

  • That the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War, which the west needed to heat up and wage it with harsher methods--nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, and death squads rather than limp-wristed Carter-Ford focus on international economic prosperity, democratization, and human rights.

  • That Likud should be encouraged to drive Palestinians into their existing homeland of Jordan as soon as practicable.

  • That taxes should be cut, (military) spending raised, and budgets balanced--and that anyone who pointed out that this didn't add up needed to be shouted down.


  • That African-Americans got too easy a ride in modern America, and needed to be made poorer and less powerful.

You can get what the Economist's Lexington claims were the founding principles of neoconservatism--concern for the arrogance of power and fear of unthought-out social engineering--out of the work of the Daniels: Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But the founding moments of neoconservatism were not the internal critiques of the Great Society made in the 1960s, but rather the 1970s' Team B and Ariel Sharon's West Bank settlements and Ronald Reagan's deficits. Today's neoonservatives are not, and neoconservatives never were, the Daniels' children. Neoconservatives are the children of Irving and Norman...

Takes 2-5--a discussion with Justin Fox:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Does "Neoconservativism" Exist?: Over at his Time, inc. weblog, Justin Fox asks a good question: does the word "neoconservatism" have a meaning other than "things liberals don't like"?

The Curious Capitalist - Justin Fox: Economist Brad DeLong, as part of his long-running campaign to persuade the world that journalists are flawed (and many are; unlike academic economists, who are right about everything and also smell great!), had a post Saturday tearing into the Economist for allegedly mischaracterizing the neoconservative movement. Brad apparently thinks Daniel Moynihan and Daniel Bell weren't neoconservatives, while Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol were....

[I think] neocons were lefty, urban intellectuals who became disillusioned in the 1960s with the Great Society and the anti-war movement. They were "mugged by reality," as Podhoretz put it. Bell, Kristol and Podhoretz were all card-carrying neocons. Moynihan strikes me as a more complicated case, but... it's certainly not wrong to label him a neoconservative.

Sure, later on, Bell and Moynihan went in different directions than Kristol and Podhoretz.... But the Economist's claim that neoconservatism began "as a critique of the arrogance of power" has far more basis in historical fact than Brad's definition of the movement. He says that "real neoconservatives" combined extreme foreign policy hawkishness with supply-side economics and a belief "that African-Americans got too easy a ride in modern America, and needed to be made poorer and less powerful." As intellectual history, this is dubious (most of the neocons didn't care about economics, and I don't think it's fair to say that their anti-affirmative-action tendencies meant that they wanted blacks to be "poorer and less powerful"). But as political rhetoric, it may turn out out be brilliant.

Basically, Brad is defining neoconservatism as everything about American politics over the past 30 years that he didn't like....

Update: Brad DeLong has a comment.... I still think that, by removing Bell and Moynihan from the neocon storyline and throwing the supply siders and racists in, he's trying to define neoconservatism to match his own political dislikes. But the Kristol family is certainly helping him.... I came across an Irving Kristol essay on the "Neoconservative Persuasion" in which the senior Mr. K lists "cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth" as a key neocon policy....

paul_lukasiak April 23, 2007: Justin, while the Economist may be correct in the "origins" of the neocon movement, its like talking about the origins of Stalinism which had its roots in utopian visions of material and social equality. The fundamental point of the neo-con is its extreme REACTIONARY nature -- its basically a form of political schizophrenia. Far leftists saw stuff they didn't like in the left, and rather than MODERATE their positions, they created a "movement" that was in opposition to everything that people they had previously agreed with stood for.

Terrapin April 23, 2007: Justin - I agree with everythig p_luk said. I would only add that you cannot talk about Neocons without mentioning Leo Strauss and Trotsky. A quick Google ought to explain why....

Brad DeLong April 23, 2007: Ummmm... I did talk to Daniel Bell about this--and to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Bell's line was that Kristol and Podhoretz came to the Public Interest from a different place than he did, and that in the 1970s they took it to a place where he didn't want to be--that in Bell's view the right mission was to improve and enhance post-WWII American Cold-War Great-Society liberalism, while Kristol and Podhoretz wanted to destroy it. Moynihan said that he had flirted with what became "neoconservatism," especially during his stint at the UN, but only flirted with it--that he and it had never gone all the way. Nathan Glazer, if I remember the story right--was it Jeff Weintraub's story?--characterized himself in the mid 1980s as a recovering neoconservative, on a 12-step program.

IIRC, the abandonment of Bell-Moynihan "we must cross the river step-by-step by feeling for the stones with our feet" for today's Kristol-Podhoretz-Kagan idiocies came rather swiftly in the late 1970s, when the Public Interest and its ilk endorsed Laffer, Team B, Begin and Sharon, and Reagan in one big package. Do take a look at Irving Kristol's retrospective on neoconservatism. IIRC, Bell and Moynihan each appear once, each time pleading for analytical modesty. They are not the central players....

Brad DeLong April 24, 2007: Justin.... As for the supply-side, you might take a look at John Ehrman's take, at Of Irving Kristol, Ehrman writes, I believe accurately:

By 1975, however, concern with what he saw as the continuing anti-capitalist influence of the New Left as well as America's deteriorating economic performance led him to publish Jude Wanniski's "The Mundell-Laffer Hypothesis--A New View of the World Economy," which proved to be the beginning of the Public Interest's promotion of supply side economics."

The Public Interest was a really big booster of supply-side economics in the late 1970s--a thing for which Irving Kristol half-apologized in the mid 1990s, writing of his own "cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit.... The task, as I saw it, was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority - so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government." Papering over the split between balanced-budget Republicans (who were horrified of deficit-creating tax cuts) and tax cut Republicans (who couldn't care a fig for the long run) was a task that supply-side economics could perform, and so Kristol embraced it--not because he thought it was right (that word "cavalier") but because it was "politically effective."

Do remember: Daniel Bell was off the Public Interest masthead after 1972, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan would always bite if provoked by being called any form of "conservative". One thing I don't understand is the neoconservatives' descent into Straussianism--such views as the belief that fundamentalist Christianity should be encouraged because it is good for other people to believe in it...

Brad DeLong April 24, 2007: And another passage from Irving Kristol:

Though the educational establishment would rather die that admit it, multiculturalism is a desperate -- and surely self-defeating -- strategy for coping with the educational deficiencies, and associated social pathologies, of young blacks. Did these black students and their problems not exists, we would hear little of multiculturalism." ["Neo-Conservativism, The Autobiography of an Idea, Selected Essays 1949-1995"]

I think Paul Lukasiak has the right analogy: You can tell a "revolution betrayed" story of neoconservatism and say that everything would have been peachy if not for the hijacking of the movement by Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and their progeny; just as you can tell a "revolution betrayed" story of Communist Russia. But complaining that William Kristol, John Podhoretz, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and the Kagan brothers today do not have the analytical modesty and dislike of poorly-thought-out radical leaps of Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan is like complaining that J.V. Stalin failed to properly implement Marx's vision of a free and wealthy society of associated producers. Such a story has more than a little lunacy in it.

The most interesting question to ask of the "revolution betrayed" stories is why people feel compelled to tell them. Stalin at least (mis)cited Marx at every occasion. It's been a long, long time since I've heard a neoconservative refer to Bell or Moynihan as any sort of authority...

Take 6:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: The Shape of American Conservatism Today: There are, I think, five factions....

  • Those who fear the foreign enemy--which used to be the Communists, and are now the Muslims.
  • Those who don't especially fear the foreigners, but think that the drumbeat can be useful for other purposes--to distract attention from rising income inequality or destructive domestic government programs or simply to hold on to power--who found it convenient to play up the fear of the foreigners, and now find it convenient to play up the fear of the Muslims.
  • Those who fear the domestic enemy--which used to be Jews and Blacks, and is now a bizarre combination of homosexuals, a ghetto-bound underclass, Mexicans living here, Hollywood actors, and George Soros.
  • Those who want low taxes because they think the government is inherently inefficient and wastes its money.
  • Those who want low taxes because they are too rich to value anything the government does other than protect their property.

Now you can't satisfy all five of these factions and win elections in America with an honest policy. A mighty war arsenal is expensive, and must be financed either by high taxes (thus losing factions 4 and 5) or by a full-fledged assault on the social insurance programs (thus losing elections). You can stage a phony war--say that the threat from abroad is mighty but that there is no need to spend money defending against that (and to some degree Bush has tried this strategy)--but then you lose faction 1.

The... um... "genius" of the neoconservatives is to wield these factions together with a dishonest policy: tax cuts that are claimed to raise revenue. This allows for a mighty military to defend against the foreign foe of the day without either alienating the fiscal conservatives or having to cut back the great social insurance programs. That the policy was dishonest was said openly and loudly in the public square by Irving Kristol back in 1995: Among the core social scientists around The Public Interest [in the late 1970s] there were no economists.... This explains my own rather cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or fiscal problems. The task, as I saw it, was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority - so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government...

Without this fundamentally dishonest policy move, the whole thing falls apart.

The question is what an honest libertarian, or even an honest human being of any intellectual complexion, is doing in such company...

Others' takes 7-11:

It sounds as if Lexington is working off the account in Fukuyama's book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. The book is Fukuyama's public break with the neo-conservatives of whom he was part and the Iraq adventure they supported in particular. You should read it understanding to whom it is addressed and what has shaped the content and emphasis of the arguments. I don't quite agree with your alternative summary, either. The idea of a domestic moral renewal was much more important and central (cf Fukuyama's communitarianism or all that talk about "virtue") than support for Likud. Also, the Daniels were influential on the neoconservatives. When you see good ideas developed in a way you don't like it's tempting to deny the influence. But that's wrong. Adam Smith inspired Marx, Hayek and de Long. If you like You can say that the others misunderstood Smith (although even that would be to miss an important point). But you can't say they weren't influenced by him. Posted by: JK

I don't think Bell or Moynihan would have agreed with "Why Iraq, not Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Because we could—period." Hard to distinguish from "Why did I blow away half that German class?"... Like I said, whatever they called themselves, Bell and Moynihan were part of a tradition that did not welcome with sadistic glee the boot-stamping-on-human-face vision implied by "Because we could -- period." Posted by: Roger Bigod

I have two points of friendly disagreement with Brad. 1. I started reading The Economist in the late 1970's. Like Brad, I found that it was seldom wrong, and almost never stupidly wrong--with one glaring exception. Its Central America coverage was unadulterated Reagan apologetics. 2. I think it is unfair to associate the neocons with unbalanced budgets. Exaggerated anticommunism? Check. Likudism? Check. Racism? Not an unfair accusation, although it was somewhat like their anticommunism, They had a core of a case, but exaggerated it beyond reality. (Remember Ocean Hill-Brownsville? That's the core. Remember Hymietown? That's the insane exaggeration.) Lousy arithmetic skills? That's unfair. They knew better, but also knew that only the Republicans could make them happy with #1 & 3. So they did a deal. Posted by: Joe S.

Joe s. is right. Their alliance with the supply-siders was only a tactical one, and an uncomfortable one at that. To this day the neocons are not generally small-government people - quite the reverse. Posted by: derrida derider

Podhoretz wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in which he outlined the motives behind the creation of "neo-conservatism." In it he pointed out that formerly liberal Jews had decided that Israel's best defense long-term depended upon US military might. From that insight flowed all the rest: the shift to a hard line on the cold war, the endorsement of "conservative" US values, including the vague contempt for blacks, the alliance with the warmongers, and the support of Zionist expansionism in Palestine. According to him Israel and its well being was the primum mobile of neoconservatism, not the rejection of liberal cultural "excesses." Posted by: Hal

And take 12:

Anyone listen to Kristol on Fox this morning?... [William] Kristol insists (and he's rabidly adamant about it in his on air affect) that, save a small qualification that we are fighting against some Shia----that American troops are fighting Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda only in Iraq... completely conflated the Sunni insurgency with Al Qaeda.... So we've gone full circle... the war in Iraq is solely about the foreign terrorists.... Kristol's not saying that some of the large bombs might be planted by Al Qaeda, as a form of provocation--I don't know, maybe they are.... He's explicitly saying we are FIGHTING Al Qaeda, i.e. that is our mission now in Iraq....

Those of you with blogs should feel free to eviscerate these remarks.... [I] used to respect the conservatives, but no more.... [Y]ou have to wonder about a guy like Kristol, who obviously has the requisite cognitive skills and erudition: How can this not yet be another example of intellectual dishonesty? Does he really believe this, or is he so intent on promulgating his "long march thru the institutions" against liberalism that he will say and write anything in the service of a Higher Truth?

This casual mendacity, along with its alliance with the most anti- intellectual cesspools in American political culture (Coulter, the Evangelicals) are the Faustian bargains of the [neo]conservative intellectual class. Posted by: Anonymous

To which I comment: take 13: This is, I think, the poison that Leo Strauss introduced: it is not only moral to lie, cheat, and steal in order to make sure that the "gentlemen" support policies for which only the "philosophers" can understand the true reasons; it is immoral not to lie, cheat, and steal to do so...

Take 14: me again:

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: A Weblog: Some Thoughts on Health Care: The Clinton [health care] reform was blocked because, as [neoconservative] Republican insider William Kristol wrote at the time, a successful Democratic party-led reform of America's healthcare-financing system would be a mortal threat to the Republican party...

And, last, take 15: Gene Healy:

Cato-at-liberty » War without End: Here’s the money quote from the Bill Kristol piece George Will went after yesterday:

We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions — and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.

And here’s a front pager in today’s Washington Post about neoconservative anger towards the Bush administration because of its newfound restraint in foreign policy. Prominent Iraq hawks like Max Boot and Cakewalk Ken Adelman are upset that their favored tactic, “bomb today for a brighter tomorrow,” no longer commands the respect it once did in Washington.

Now, you could marvel at the brazenness of all this: the same people who helped lead us into the biggest foreign policy disaster in 30 years trying to push another war (or wars) on us without so much as a prefatory “sorry about the whole Iraq thing, old boy.” But the current squawking also strikes me as a useful reminder of how very, very important war is in the neoconservative vision. It is as central to that vision as peace is to the classical liberal vision.

For the neoconservatives, it’s not about Israel. It’s about war. War is a bracing tonic for the national spirit and in all its forms it presents opportunities for national greatness. “Ultimately, American purpose can find its voice only in Washington,” David Brooks once wrote. And Washington’s never louder or more powerful than when it has a war to fight. In 1997, Fred Barnes pouted about the “ennui” accompanying that decade’s peace and prosperity:

The last great moment in Washington was Desert Storm…. It was exciting to follow and write about … Every press conference, I watched. Desert Storm was all I thought about or talked about. My stories concentrated on President Bush’s heroic role in the war.

Indeed, for many neoconservatives, the 1990s were about the search for an enemy. Who it was didn’t much matter. That can be seen in this 1996 Foreign Affairs article by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, in which they seem distinctly unsettled by the apparant lack of anyone for the U.S. to fight:

The ubiquitous post-Cold War question — where is the threat? — is thus misconceived. In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness.

To dispel any notions of weakness, a little therapeutic bombing is sometimes in order. As AEI’s Michael Ledeen apparently put it some years ago:

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.

It could be the Serbs. It could be Iraq. If we’re really feeling our oats, it might even be China. Even now, when the United States faces a genuine enemy in Al Qaeda, some neoconservatives are hedging their bets: If we wrap up this war on terror thing too quickly, let’s give great-power conflict a chance.

Who we’re fighting is secondary. That we’re fighting is the main thing. To be a neoconservative is to thrill to the sound of gunfire. (From a nice, safe distance, generally.)