“First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” That was Margaret Thatcher’s advice to conservatives. And, whether it’s a foe of conservatives like Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times or a conservative like David Winston writing at the National Review Online, the constant refrain is that conservatives aren’t offering new ideas—or even drawing on the legacy of long-established conservative principles to address contemporary problems.
Indeed, many of the encomia offered to Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of its publication have claimed a sharp decline from the post-war period when Kirk, Hayek, William F. Buckley, and others were leading a revival of conservative ideas. For example, writing in a new University Bookman symposium on The Conservative Mind, Steven P. Millies laments:
Certainly the people most prominently associated with conservatism in the popular political imagination are strangers to Kirk’s refined vision. Popular conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin to Rick Perry are notable for their apparent and profound disinterest in ideas.
And yet, it seems simply an overstatement to say that the flow of conservative ideas has simply dried up in the last few years.
I recently reread Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (now approaching its own fortieth anniversary) and was struck by its relevance to today’s political debates.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia—which won the National Book Award in part for its lively prose and provocative thought-experiments—takes on the most fundamental question in America today: how much scope do we want to grant to government and the state, and how much do we want to preserve for individuals and civil society?
Nozick—more insistently than anyone else in a generation—answered that government should be restricted to an absolute minimal state with only police and defense functions, and he optimistically believed that this would lead to the flourishing of civil society and, quite possibly, of philanthropy.
Among the many provocative thought experiments Nozick offers is this one: suppose there are ten Robinson Crusoes, each on his own island, but who can communicate with one another by radio and send goods from one island to another. Do those Robinson Crusoes whose islands have more coconut trees and more fish owe anything to those with poorer islands? Absolutely not, Nozick says, and not even if some Robinson Crusoes have only the most meager of resources. But might the better-off Robinson Crusoes be willing to share? Perhaps, indeed, perhaps quite likely, they would. For these Robinson Crusoes, and for those of us in American society, Nozick hypothesizes that if forced contributions to others were removed—by eliminating all social programs and limiting taxes to a bare minimum necessary to support a night-watchman state—we could realize a “utopian” society in which people might cooperate in all kinds of hitherto-unforeseen ways.
Certainly few people will be persuaded that civil society and philanthropy can provide all the benefits Nozick supposes (I’m not persuaded that we can do with only a night-watchman state, and Russell Kirk certainly found libertarianism such as Nozick’s incompatible with his traditionalist conservatism). And yet, it’s so intellectually invigorating to read not only that we don’t need more government, a bigger budget for the White House Social Innovation Fund, and more government-funded social programs if we’re to address social ills, but that doing away with all such programs would be to realize a utopia of sorts—and just one example of how classical liberal and conservatives have continued to offer fresh ideas in the last half-century.
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The challenge here, of course, is that citing books that are 40 and 50 years old is hardly an encomium to “fresh.” But perhaps it’s not “fresh” we should be seeking. These books should be less characterized as “fresh,” which implies that they might also spoil or lose their shelf-life, and more portrayed as “timeless.” These books present ideas that can be read anew profitably, so it’s great that Merrill commends them. Unfortunately, politics runs on “fresh” because few executives want to arrive in office without a platform for “social change”, and few legislators want to join the “Do Nothing Party,” which would pursue a platform of doing nothing but strengthening the rule of law. When conservatives attempt “fresh,” however, we get things such as “Compassionate Conservatism,” which failed as a political slogan and came across mostly as an effort to spread our political walking around money a little farther into the recesses of civil society. To this observer, the White House Social Innovation Fund looks awfully like the re-made and re-defined descendent of the White House Office for Faith-based Initiatives… and both just new mechanisms dedicated to patronage. The problem for conservatives these days is that we’ve participated in creating a hollowed out civil society where all eyes are locked on Washington DC and too few hands are engaged in building neighborly communities. For a “fresh” take, I think Kevin Williamson’s “The End is Near” is really worth a discussion.