There are two rivers running through conservatism these days, and while the source of each stream is not known, the sea they empty into is one that falls off the face of the earth.
The first opposes all thought. The second opposes all government. And there’s a third I’ll get to later.
I have for a long time noticed a strange anti-intellectualism in conservative circles. We have seen it, for example, in our local St. Louis Chesterton Society meetings. To begin with, even though this is a literary club dedicated to the works of the greatest writer of the twentieth century, most members don’t want to read his books. They would, if we let them, come to the meetings and gripe about the sick modern culture and how awful everything is. But if we do stay on target and read and discuss actual works, there is a strong resistance to any close analysis, coupled with the droning complaint that Chesterton’s writing is too difficult to understand. Literary criticism is not tried and found wanting; it is found difficult and left untried.
But this anti-intellectualism flows and mingles with the other stream: libertarianism. At a recent Chesterton Society meeting, a fellow Chestertonian proposed the question–should people be allowed to enter into marriage covenants that reflect Our Lord’s teaching on the nature of marriage (divorce and remarriage being prohibited), with the state governments recognizing these and enforcing their terms as Covenental Marriages?
This would simply entail the state’s acknowledgement that some bonds are “marriages” (a lifelong union between a man and a woman) as opposed to the more common secular “contracts of cohabitation” (which increasingly can be between anyone for any length of time, including between members of the same-sex). On this question, our conservatives in the St. Louis Chesterton Society reply with the knee-jerk reaction, “We have too much government already! I want the state to keep its hands off my marriage!”–thus ending all discussion.
When it comes to economics, things get even goofier. For example, Murray N. Rothbard of the Austrian School of Economics, spends the first part of his book A History of Money and Banking in the United States arguing the hard money position that fiat currency is dangerous, and that when states create funny money things go wrong. He spends the second part of his book arguing that once individual banks start dealing with the creation of money via fractional reserve lending, the government should keep its hands off. In other words, funny money is bad, but government regulation of such is worse. This is the same as saying drug abuse is horrible and thus it’s terrible for the state to push dope, but it’s OK for individuals to. In this superstitious mood of libertarianism, the government is always more evil than anything that it seeks to correct.
Pushed to the ultimate conclusion of these positions, that rational thought is suspect and that government in and of itself is evil, these twin streams, which comingle their murky waters, do indeed drop off the face of the earth into oblivion, into the great Abyss of Absurdity.
This is why a recent Austrian schooler on Facebook, knocking Distributism, says that Distributism is stealth socialism. Why? Apparently because any governmental regulation of the economy is socialism. The merits of Distributism are thus dismissed off-hand because the looming threat of any government involvement in the economy is far too heinous to consider. Whatever we do, we can not allow “the Man” to control us.
This brings me to a third stream that runs into these other two as they plunge toward suicide–a stream that gathered force in the foothills of Rousseau and that tumbled into rapids during the sixties, the stream of the noble savage, the idea that liberty equals license and that thought is wrong because it orders and constrains and that if you stick it to “the Man” you’re doing the right thing, regardless of who the man is.
So the aging hippies of the left hold hands with the survivalist Tea party conservatives of the right and they both jump gaily over the waterfall–a lover’s leap of madness.
Strange bedfellows. Strange times we live in. Liberty becomes anarchy, and anarchy, though it sounds romantic, begins as chaos and ends as the rule of mere power, bully-ocracy. It’s an inner city school room without supervision, which is a very close thing to hell, if you’ve ever seen it.
The long-haired bomb throwing radicals of my youth are now the conservative free market true believers of my (almost) old age. They look in the mirror and see one another and pull back aghast, left and right still despising its opposite and not seeing the thread that ties them together–which is hatred of all discipline—whether it be discipline of the intellect (rejection of which produces anti-intellectualism), discipline of society (which can only be formally accomplished by some form of government), or discipline in general (rejection of which creates a faux brotherhood of bored narcissists doing “their own thing”).
It’s like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel-headed confusion.