Among the many dark tidings for American conservatism, there is one genuine bright spot. Over the past five years, a group of young and unpredictable rightward-leaning writers has emerged on the scene.
These writers came of age as official conservatism slipped into decrepitude. Most of them were dismayed by what the Republican Party had become under Tom DeLay and seemed put off by the shock-jock rhetorical style of Ann Coulter. As a result, most have the conviction — which was rare in earlier generations — that something is fundamentally wrong with the right, and it needs to be fixed.
Moreover, most of these writers did not rise through the official channels of the conservative or libertarian establishments. By and large, they didn’t do the internships or take part in the young leader programs that were designed to replenish “the movement.” Instead, they found their voices while blogging. The new technology allowed them to create a new sort of career path and test out opinions without much adult supervision.
As a consequence, they are heterodox and hard to label. These writers grew up reading conservative classics — Burke, Hayek, Smith, C.S. Lewis — but have now splayed off in all sorts of quirky ideological directions.
There are dozens of writers I could put in this group, but I’d certainly mention Yuval Levin, Daniel Larison, Will Wilkinson, Julian Sanchez, James Poulos, Megan McArdle, Matt Continetti and, though he’s a tad older, Ramesh Ponnuru.
Two signs of the times: (1) I found out about this via messages on Twitter and Facebook. (2) Of the ten people Brooks mentions (the rest of the column focuses on Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam), three of us are some species of libertarian.
I should probably say, though it seems a bit churlish to pick nits under the circumstances, that I have actually benefitted from some of these “official channels”: I was a Koch Fellow in college, and worked as a staffer for Cato for a year after I graduated. (Also, Burke is one of those writers who, to borrow Will’s phrase, “I’ve read, but not by myself.”) But the broader point, I think, is right: Blogging lets you develop a voice and an audience outside the traditional channels that would be available to a young libertarian or conservative writer. And for all the justifiable kvetching that goes on about the blogospheric echo chamber, this creates a healthy engagement with a broader range of perspectives than you get if you’re mostly talking to the readership of Reason or National Review. To the extent that we’re “quirky” or “heterodox,” I think it’s probably not that there’s something unusual about us—two decades ago, I’d probably have turned out substantially more doctrinaire—but that the media environment is different.
Slightly apropos of which: I was having a conversation with a couple friends the other night about our own ideological trajectories, and I mentioned how my attitude had shifted toward a semi-famous essay by Robert Nozick called “The Zig-Zag of Politics.” This is the one where Nozick was seen as renouncing his youthful libertarian views—though when I interviewed him in 2001, he claimed that reports of his apostasy had been much exaggerated. I used to think this was a befuddling instance of a thinker who’d made some brilliant and original arguments for the libertarian position backing away from it for some pretty poor reasons. I still think that about some of the arguments floated there: Expressing our symbolic concern for the poor is all well and good, but it is a poor justification if the means of doing so are both ineffective and otherwise morally questionable.
But one of the central ideas there—and a theme in much of his later work—was that no deductive moral or political system could embed as much wisdom as the process of deliberation and reform over time. I wrote about this a couple years back when I said, somewhat anachronistically, that Nozick viewed philosophy as a Wiki. I’m certainly the last one out there to idealize or romanticize the democratic process: It’s a field on which ignorant armies clash by night, afflicted with all the problems so familiar to public choice theorists. I suppose one way to put it is that I’ve become more of a Bayesian about politics: I cannot help but notice that lots of folks who are as smart or smarter than I have rather radically different views about what sort of polity is best, and I cannot quite bring myself to conclude that they’re simply watching shadows dance on the cave walls, while I have glimpsed the Forms. And so I don’t, these days, much find myself thinking about the specific contours of libertopia. Instead, I tend to find myself thinking in terms like: “Well, let’s push in this direction and see how it works.” You have to be careful there too, of course, since depending on the details, a government-market hybrid (say) will just give you the disadvantages of both. (See: Healthcare System, United States.) But I think this is the direction you end up pushed in if you take Hayek’s warnings about “constructivist rationalism” sufficiently seriously. On this model, libertarianism isn’t so much a final picture of a just society as a specific sort of toolkit for working on Neurath’s ship.
All this reminds me, by the way, that I had started work long ago on a comprehensive Robert Nozick Web resource, then lost a bunch of the work I’d done in a computer crash and been a little too daunted to start it up again. But I really would like to get that going again. If you’ve got relevant material that’s not otherwise easily available online, or would like to help out in some way, please do drop a line.
Update: The first reaction to Brooks’ column from a lot of my friends has been some variant of: “Since when are you part of the right?” Which is fair enough: I’m rooting for Barack Obama this time around, and I’ve long tended to focus on issues where my position is a lot closer to, say Russ Feingold’s than to Sam Brownback’s. I’ve never particularly thought of myself as part of either the left or the right. That said, the basic principles driving most of those positions are still of the sort conservatives still like to pay occasional lip service to, even if they are (perhaps ironically) pretty diametrically opposed to the new direction Ross and Reihan advocate for. I suppose my sense is that given that the conservative coalition appears to be in flux right now, calling me part of “the right” is not so much a pure description as what John Searle would call a “speech act” (like “I promise” or “I now pronounce you man and wife”). Whether I’m on “the right,” in other words, depends on whether conservatives think what I’m writing resonates with their own values. If they do, hey, who am I to discourage them?