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But Do We Eat Arugula?

June 27th, 2008 · 15 Comments

Well, this is obviously incredibly flattering:

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?

Tags: General Philosophy · Journalism & the Media · Libertarian Theory · Personal · Washington, DC



15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tim Lee // Jun 27, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Why isn’t the Nozick page a Wiki?

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jun 27, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    I was just thinking that myself. Two obstacles:
    (1) I don’t actually know how to set up a wiki, though presumably I could figure it out with an hour or two’s investment.
    (2) More seriously, a Wiki requires a sufficiently large user base to do what Jon Zittrain calls “civic defense” against vandalism; I’m guessing there are as many people out there who’d want to screw with a Nozick resource as would be interested in reading it.

  • 3 Franklin Harris // Jun 27, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    A quick glance at the history of Wikipedia’s Nozick entry doesn’t seem to indicate any incidents of outright vandalism there.

  • 4 Franklin Harris // Jun 27, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    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.”

    For me, it was “Invariances,” which slowly crystallized my own thoughts in the junction of evolution and ethics and left me in a generally Hayekian/late-Nozickean paradigm as opposed to the much more rationalist Jan Narveson/von Mises/Rothbard-flavored paradigm I’d more or less been in since I was a college freshman.

  • 5 southpaw // Jun 27, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    If you’re looking for the sort of audience that can produce a civic defense force, you could put your Nozick stuff up on a larger project like wikisource. Though I suppose looking to a larger preexisting structure for protection might be something of a fraught choice for a libertarian.

  • 6 jwh // Jun 27, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    “Among the many dark tidings for American conservatism…..”

    This opening statement is fatally flawed. There are no dark tidings in “conservatism”. The flaws and foibles of the Republican Party does not equate to flaws and foibles of “conservatism”.

    If anyone ever cares to enter into an intellectually honest discussion about the solution to any problem, the answer will never be found in the liberal lexicon. The answers will ALWAYS be found in individuals willing to take responsibility for some actions and making a difference.

    When the Republicans forget this fundamental fact (and start acting like liberal Democrats) that is when they start experiencing “dark tidings.” True conservatives will soon emerge from the wings, very possibly encouraged by some of these writers, with real solutions……maybe even for Social Security…….ok, let’s not get carried away……

  • 7 Ashish // Jun 27, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    But you don’t really self-identify as on the right, do you? If anything, your primary concerns–privacy issues, personal autonomy, cultural tolerance, anti-imperialism–seem to be those most strongly defended by the left these days (though not always the Democrats, of course). In this respect I don’t think you and Wilkinson really fit in with the rest of that group.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Jun 27, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    In terms of my central issues right now, that’s true — for practical purposes I’m a lot closer to an ACLU liberal than folks on the right. But in terms of my broader conception of the proper role of government, it’s close to the sort of ideal conservatives still pay occasional lip service to.

  • 9 Tulip // Jun 28, 2008 at 4:06 am

    You are officially the height of cool: An old conservative warmonger praised you in a New York Times op-ed!

    Now you know how Jonah Goldberg musta felt when he got his first bit of praise from Wm F. Buckley.

  • 10 Franklin Harris // Jun 28, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    You are officially the height of cool: An old conservative warmonger praised you in a New York Times op-ed!

    On the flip side, Sean Hannity attacked that same op-ed on his radio show Friday.

  • 11 David Nozick // Jun 28, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Best of luck with the webpage. I’ll dig around and see if I (or my sister) have anything that you might like. I know that my father really enjoyed being interviewed by you.

    David Nozick

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Jun 29, 2008 at 4:37 am

    Thanks so much! I’m only sorry I let it languish for so long after the crash.

  • 13 Dave W. // Jun 30, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    I always wondered if this intellectual evolution (or whateveruwannacallit) was why you stopped writing for the HIT’N’Run Blog.

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