What Is the Future of Conservatism?

In his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald proposed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

This strikes me as an illuminating description of the conservative mind, least in its American incarnation. Since its emergence in the decade following the Second World War, the American conservative movement has been characterized by a dramatic combination of pessimism and optimism. Think about what it means to stand athwart history yelling stop.

Yet the point of Fitzgerald’s famous Esquire magazine essay, which is more often quoted than read, is that this philosophy is untenable. In the long run, even a first-rate mind has a limited capacity for paradox. At some point, it becomes impossible to hold intellect and will in equilibrium. That is when the crack-up occurs.

Like the middle-aged Fitzgerald, intellectual conservatism has entered its crack-up phase. It was always a product of competing motives and sources, and now the tension between its fundamental elements has become too sharp to sustain. Events have moved so quickly since the emergence of Donald Trump as a presidential contender that prognosis may well be foolhardy, but here goes: the patient is unlikely to be cured.

Conservatives’ inconsistent attitudes toward the future are reflections of more fundamental tendencies that were once safely contained within the conservative mind but now strain its boundaries. These cannot be reduced to the familiar distinctions between libertarianism and traditionalism, neoconservatism and paleoconservatism, establishment and base. For the sake of simplicity, call them liberalism and reaction.

Start with liberalism. It hardly needs to be said that I mean the philosophical movement retrospectively dubbed “classical liberalism.” This term, familiar to the point of cliché, means different things to different people. So I beg the reader’s indulgence of a brief explanation.

Although it is often associated with the doctrines of natural right, the essential feature of classical liberalism is its distinction between public and private. This distinction was originally deployed in favor of religious toleration. Over time, it became a more expansive argument that certain activities are of concern only to those directly involved. It followed that such activities should be protected against restrictions imposed for ostensibly general purposes.

Among the activities considered as private is the production and exchange of value. Unless they pose direct threats to the essential interests of others, liberalism places making and doing, buying and selling beyond public control. This application of the public/private distinction has an instrumental justification: that free markets promote prosperity. But it was, in its origins, a moral claim.

An extensive private sphere could, in principle, be secured by a benevolent despotism. Indeed, there have been situations in which despots were more favorable to liberalism than were peoples. But skepticism toward absolute power is deeply rooted in the liberal tradition. Although liberals have sometimes been tempted by dictatorial shortcuts, liberal thought emphasizes rules and institutions—including mechanisms of democratic accountability—that prevent arbitrariness.

But if liberalism fears that power corrupts, it also promotes a certain confidence in reason. The pendant to private freedom is a public sphere in which common enterprises are open to scrutiny and debate. The exercise is useless, even dangerous, if it is not based on sufficient information or conducted by citizens unskilled in reasoning. Liberalism is therefore traditionally protective of formal education and—more concretely—of the political influence of persons who possess it.

This collection of assumptions and dispositions generates a particular combination of optimism and pessimism. In a sense, classical liberalism is hope that human beings will develop reasonable solutions to their problems if they are left free to do so. At the same time, it warns that these solutions cannot be determined in advance or effectively imposed on those who do not accept them. Reversing Antonio Gramsci’s famous motto, liberalism could be described as optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will.

Notwithstanding all the Adam Smith neckties and ceremonial tributes to Alexis de Tocqueville, classical liberalism is not the only pole of American conservatism. If liberalism is American conservatism’s Antarctica, reaction is its Ultima Thule. The liberal landscape is solid and open to exploration. The topography of reaction is shrouded by mists and shifting seas.

Intellectual history is an unreliable guide because the masters of reaction—Joseph de Maistre, Thomas Carlyle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt—exercised only an attenuated influence on American conservatism. A few native intellectuals, including H.L. Mencken and Robert Nisbet, studied and wrote about the reactionary canon. European-born scholars like Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin adopted some its themes in their teaching and passed them on to American students. On the whole, however, these were very recherché tastes. Despite the recent surge of interest in figures like Julius Evola, whom Trump advisor Steve Bannon has apparently read, we are looking for elective affinities rather than direct inspiration.

The political theorist Mark Lilla provides a useful starting point in his recent book The Shipwrecked Mind (2016). He describes reaction as the yearning to overturn a present condition of decadence and recover an idealized past. The pursuit of social transformation distinguishes reaction from the conservative inclination to cherish and preserve what actually exists.

If reaction is temperamentally unconservative, it is also historically antiliberal. In the 18th and 19th centuries, reactionary thought challenged the public/private distinction, free markets, constitutional government, and the public authority of reason. These critiques were often brilliant and remain major accomplishments of political theory. For all their insight, however, the reactionaries struggled to propose appealing alternatives to liberalism. Some defended the old prerogatives of altar and throne. Others articulated a kind of aristocratic anarchism that held some literary appeal but was hard to accept as a guide to practical politics.

The historical opposition between liberalism and reaction has led some analysts to impose a sharp separation between an essentially liberal Anglo-American conservatism and a reactionary European Right. Because it is politically flattering as well conceptually clarifying, I have been tempted to make this distinction myself. But I now think the opposition between liberalism and reaction is only contingent. When reaction is defined as the attempt to recover a lost golden age rather than commitment to a specific historical order, it becomes compatible with liberalism.

Liberalism and reaction can overlap in a specific kind of decline narrative—one according to which private conduct used to be protected, government was properly limited, reason ruled. There was a veritable golden age of freedom. But this paradise was interrupted by a calamity that undermined liberalism and imposed different principles of social order. Unless confronted, the substitution threatens to become permanent.

This decline narrative is not just an abstract possibility. Although it can be presented in several versions, it provides a template for the self-understanding of American conservative thought. It does not matter precisely which period is identified as the golden age or what event serves as that intervening calamity. Whether the point at which things went wrong is the Civil War, the Progressive movement, the New Deal, or the Great Society, the basic structure is the same.

It might be objected that even if American conservative thought involves a reactionary pattern of historical reasoning, it does not seek classically reactionary ends. Few American conservatives admired early modern absolutism or ancient paganism (although more expressed affection for the antebellum South). But they have dabbled in the endorsement of non-liberal means to liberal ends.

In the American context, that usually means adopting populist strategies that cater to the prejudices of the public. Conservative intellectuals have been willing to accept support where they could find it, without inquiring too deeply into its sources. In particular, the role of conspiracy theories and racism in generating support for putatively liberal candidates and policies tends to be downplayed or ignored. Conservatives have also been less than vigilant about limited government when sympathetic figures are in office. Concerns about executive power, for example, have a way of disappearing when Republicans occupy the White House.

The divergences are not simply lapses from principle. Reaction is, in a paradoxical way, more hopeful than liberalism. Instead of placing its faith in the long-term salutary effects of countless private actions, it depends on the acquisition and assertion of power. Like Antonio Gramsci’s Marxism, reaction could be characterized as pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Despite the tension between them, liberalism and reaction are not mutually exclusive. They coexist not only as factions within the conservative movement, but even in the thought of individual conservatives—maybe most of them. That is where the political theorist Corey Robin goes wrong in his perceptive if polemical book The Reactionary Mind (2011). Robin depicts conservatism as inherently reactionary and only situationally liberal. Rather than the inner truth of conservatism, however, reaction is part of a dynamic tension that helps explain its vitality.

That tension has been sustained for longer than Fitzgerald’s 39 years of sanity. But now the conservative mind is coming apart.

Some of the centrifugal forces encouraging a separation of liberalism and reaction are technological. As the political scientist George Hawley (about whom David B. Frisk has written instructively for Law and Liberty) has argued, innovations in media have made it more difficult to hold any coalition together. The preservation of balance within the conservative movement owed a great deal to the ability of a few institutions to exclude figures and ideas they judged kooky, cranky, or otherwise unacceptable. Talk radio, cable news-entertainment, and especially the Internet make this task virtually impossible.

The international setting for conservative thought is also different from what it was 30 years ago. Anticommunism no longer acts as a force field holding together disparate elements of the Right. Economic libertarians and foreign policy hawks, for example, shared an enemy in the Soviet Union. Our current geopolitical challenges—including Islamist movements, Russia, China—do not exert this unifying effect.

Domestically, Reagan-era concerns about excessive personal taxation and inflation are not as salient as they used to be. As a result, conservative obsessions with cutting marginal tax rates and hard money seem more like ideological fetishes than serious responses to today’s problems.

The aforementioned causes of the conservative crack-up have been widely discussed. But there are deeper causes that have received less attention. One is a growing skepticism about the sufficiency of classically liberal means to classically liberal ends. Conservatives have published books, established think tanks, served in Congress, and staffed the White House. But has anything really changed?

Given the centrality of anticommunism to the development of conservatism, it is ironic that concepts derived from Marxism have become central to understanding its failures. Originally developed by James Burnham, the theory of the administrative or managerial state holds that our country is actually governed by institutions with no basis in the written constitution. This unelected fourth branch is composed primarily of the federal bureaucracy. But it also includes representatives of the legal establishment, media, academia, and major financial interests.

There is nothing inherently reactionary about the theory of the managerial state, which offers considerable insight into the reality of American government. The theory only acquires that connotation when it becomes the basis for political strategy. Because the administrative or managerial state is not elected and operates through regulation not statute, the argument goes, it is impossible to overturn this shadow government by winning congressional majorities, passing laws, or even raising challenges in court. Since Leviathan cannot be restrained, it must be smashed.

The classical liberalism I have tried to describe is characteristically skeptical of executive power, particularly as an instrument for renovating constitutions whether written or unwritten. The reactionary tendency, by contrast, sees a strong executive as the only viable weapon against managerialism. This analysis has become a central feature of the theoretical case for Donald Trump. His combativeness, unpredictability, and indifference to expert opinion are seen not as defects of character but as tactical advantages over the bureaucracy.

Approving radical tactics of opposition to the administrative state need not involve sympathizing with authoritarianism as such. Some conservatives see Trumpian intransigence as an unpleasant but unavoidable precondition of any revival of old-fashioned liberalism. But there is no longer a consensus around that goal. One reason that the dispute between the libertarians and traditionalists of the 1950s could be resolved was that they agreed about their preferred social form: an idealized version of the federal republic that existed before the New Deal. As it slips out of living memory, this vision no longer brings together elements of the intellectual Right.

The breakdown of the consensus may have been inevitable. For psychological reasons, most people recall with fondness the period of their youth. It is not coincidental that the early conservatives could actually remember the arrangements and mores that many of them wished to restore. The presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) was nearer in time to the heroic age of American conservatism than that age is to our own.

The focus of political nostalgia has shifted accordingly. Today, it is the comparatively socially stable, economically egalitarian, and culturally homogeneous America that flourished from roughly the end of the Second World War to the mid-1970s that stands out in the popular imagination as a golden age. Intellectual honesty requires us to acknowledge that these conditions were not the result of classically liberal policies. On the contrary, they were sustained by the very processes of nationalization, bureaucratization, and regulation that American conservatism arose to challenge.

Generational shifts are not the only reason for the waning appeal of the brand of conservatism derived from classical liberalism. Some intellectuals on the Right have always questioned whether the likes of Smith, Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill were right in the first place.

It goes without saying that there are important differences between these thinkers. Even so, their arguments for limited government, free markets, and a rational public sphere presuppose a shared anthropology. According to this conception, human beings in full command of their faculties are capable of recognizing, if not discovering, the conditions of their own flourishing. We need governments, on this view, to protect our lives and property, adjudicate disputes, and perform other tasks that are hard to accomplish on a voluntary basis. But it is morally illegitimate and generally ineffective to coercively impose a specific vision of the good life.

Yet this assumption is dubious. Consenting adults often make very foolish decisions. And many of the societies conservatives admire were far more coercive and intrusive than classical liberal principles would permit. The desire for a more powerful sense of purpose and moral direction calls those principles into question. This deeper nostalgia, when it is not expressed as what Peter Augustine Lawler calls “polis envy,” often fixates on medieval Christendom. An uglier version defends the old South as a model social order.

The conclusion that classical liberalism is based on fundamentally mistaken premises is part of the reactionary inheritance that has always played a role, if a submerged one, in American conservative thought. In the past, however, it was rarely asserted consistently or used as the point of entry to wholly independent currents of political thought. Vaguely absurd expressions of anti-liberalism like Brent Bozell’s affection for Francoist Spain are exceptions that prove the rule. What is new is the emergence of illiberal movements that cannot easily be dismissed as marginal. The influence of the so-called alt-Right should not be exaggerated. Nevertheless, the growing popularity of neo-reactionaries, white nationalists, and men’s rights activists, to say nothing of freelance provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, demonstrates the appeal of joining an opposition to the modern Left that is not liberal and, because it is not liberal, also not conservative.

The stresses on the conservative mind that I have described in this essay predate Trump’s emergence on the political scene. But his election made them acute. For the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose indifference to classical liberalism prompted the creation of the conservative movement, a Republican President barely pretends to care about the philosophy. Eisenhower, however, had compensating virtues not found in Trump.

In this unprecedented situation, tendencies that once coexisted are being resolved into independent alternatives. For some conservatives, Trump’s hostility to institutions and formalities, markets, and expertise is impossible to accept. For others, Trump’s gaining the White House is an irresistible opportunity to throw off stale orthodoxies. The result is a decomposition of conservatism into opposed factions. One group basically accepts a classically liberal conception of how the world works—and how it should be governed. The other rejects one or both of these premises.

These factions are comprised of more intellectually various members than one might expect. The conservatives drawn toward opposition include neoconservatives, libertarians, Catholics influenced by natural law, theologically serious evangelicals, conservative legal activists, and East Coast Straussians. Many Trump skeptics share, in addition to an philosophical inclination toward classical liberalism, a relatively favorable assessment of the current state of constitutional government. They tend to see the Constitution as diminished but far from a dead letter.

The sociological homogeneity of this group belies its intellectual diversity, however. Trump-skeptical conservatives are often products of prestigious universities and comfortable in major political and cultural institutions. The academics and lawyers among them, especially, tend to regard themselves as custodians of majestic structures in a condition of severe but remediable decay.

Classical liberalism is at home in the classroom, courtroom, and boardroom. It is—and always has been—less effective at the hustings. One of the most important lessons of Trump’s success is that classically liberal rhetoric and positions were not very important to voters. It turned out that they wanted a candidate who promised to help, not one who knew his Hayek. The institutional advantages that the liberal strand of conservatism enjoys are thus the mirror image of its political weakness. It excels in producing journal articles, legal briefs, and business plans, but struggles to win popular support.

The group drawn in a reactionary direction is also intellectually diverse. It includes (among others) the surviving paleoconservatives, the heirs of the Reagan-era religious Right, traditionalist Catholics, Orthodox Jews, West Coast Straussians, as well as the alt-Right. These conservatives either do not believe that strategies of education, legal maneuvering, and market competition are going to secure conservative goals any time soon, or believe that those goals were misguided in the first place.

Then, too, as with the Trump-averse conservatives, the connecting thread among reactionary conservatives may be as much sociological as ideological. Although not necessarily members of the working class they often claim to defend, conservatives drawn to Trump are typically outsiders to the educational, legal, or economic establishment. Both as a cause and a result, they have no affection for elite institutions or the norms associated with them. These are not monuments to be defended but obstacles to be demolished.

This taxonomy is more like a spectrum than a hard-and-fast division. Some conservatives lean more to one side, some to the other. A few seem determined to remain in the middle. But the balancing act is growing more challenging as the distance between the poles expands. In the future, the diverging tribes of conservatism may have less in common with each other than with formations outside the Right as we have known it.

Having failed (along with many, indeed most political observers) to accurately predict the outcome of the election, I hesitate to offer forecasts of the development of conservatism. Too much depends on what happens over the next few years. It is possible that the administration will avoid major crises, develop a coherent legislative agenda, and find ways to insulate the President from the aspects of his duty that he seems to find overwhelming. But I doubt it.

So I will conclude by sketching a scenario that I regard as plausible, if far from certain. It involves the comprehensive Trumpification of “official” conservatism. That would mean the ascendance of certain reactionary features, including demotic style and an emphasis on executive power.

As it grew more reactionary in these respects, this conservatism could at the same time moderate in other respects. In particular, it could coopt the labor movement with its promotion of protectionism, and it could attract the religiously unaffiliated, who were alienated by the ostentatious religiosity of the old conservative movement. The danger is that the bond between these constituencies and traditional Republican voting blocs would be white identity politics. And that danger increases the more that Trump and his supporters deny that this bond exists.

Would a Trumpified American Right have room for intellectuals? Yes, but their role would be more retrospective than original. Their task would not be charting new directions; it would be making sense of accomplished facts. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The habit of deducing law and policy directly from an abstract anthropology is a congenital vice of philosophical liberalism. On the other hand, the pragmatic assessment of decisions that have already been made can also degenerate into the sycophantic application of a rubber stamp.

What about those left behind by the Trump revolution? Some will find ways to reconcile with existing centers of opposition to the Trump administration, including the Democratic Party. “Liberal-tarians” who see economic freedom and the protection of individual liberties as means for securing social justice have pioneered this realignment. Neoconservatives may also find that they share more with their Wilsonian cousins than with Trump’s revival of America First.

Other conservatives will conclude that Trump and his supporters are unacceptable but find it difficult to make common cause with non-classical liberals and Progressives. Their inclination will be to hunker down in their own communities and institutions. The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s just-published manual for riding out the storm, is addressed to orthodox Christians, but it may prove useful to nonconformists of other kinds. Associations that were conceived as beachheads in advance of a larger invasion can also be refuges for those waiting for more favorable opportunities.

This is not a happy scenario and I hope to be wrong about it. Trump has promised to make America great again, but his hostility to freedom, to the rule of law, and to disciplined thought suggest that his conception of greatness is very different from any that I can share. Nonetheless, one can believe that things are hopeless and remain determined to make them otherwise. In some sense, that is what is necessary for those of us who retain the unfashionable opinion that classical liberalism, for all its imperfections, is the best available guide to the means and ends of politics. It also part of what it means to be a conservative.

Reader Discussion

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on May 02, 2017 at 22:40:21 pm

"Classical liberalism is at home in the classroom, courtroom, and boardroom."

Reaction has arisen in direct proportion to this statement no longer being the case.

The purge was not effected by reactionaries.

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on May 03, 2017 at 16:05:14 pm

[…] not miss Samuel Goldman’s detailed autopsy on the death of conservatism. It is 100% right and 100% required […]

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Hang Together
on May 03, 2017 at 18:42:59 pm

It is not surprising that, after an extensive display of knowledge of various factions of "conservatism", the author can make no predictions about the future of "conservatism". "Conservatism" is a term created by academics and writers of political magazines, but it actually describes nothing particular, which is why the term lacks predictive value. Thus, questions about the "future of conservatism" are meaningless when "conservatism" is seen as a political movement or a coherent philosophy.

"Conservatism" is not a movement, and it is not even a set of agreed principles. For example, I could be called economically conservative because I think the government has no business trying to run everything, and should not spend money foolishly. I could also be called a social liberal, because I am prepared to allow people to be gay, have abortions, use drugs, etc. Yet my social liberality at rock bottom consists of nothing more than my desire to be left alone and my willingness to extend the same right to others. But, isn't it peculiar that privacy was once deemed a fundamental right, so that by insisting on it, I am upholding a traditional (conservative) value? Therein lies the problem with labels like "liberal" and "conservative". They lead to flawed analysis.

Call me what you will--and in this, I think I am like most people-- I will vote for the candidate who most closely expresses my views. I will not be moved by his claims to be "conservative" or "liberal" or progressive" ; I mean, "conservative" (or liberal or progressive) about what, exactly? Nor do I give a hoot about ideology. So-called "conservatism" could disappear from the face of the earth, but if I am religious, I will not stop being religious. If I believe in the efficacy of force in international relations, I will not abandon the use of force merely because there is no longer an ideology which calls itself "conservative" and claims to represent my views.

The question is not "what is the future of conservatism". The question is, will social views evolve, and if so, how? And I submit that nobody has the data to answer that question.

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Michael Baechle
on May 04, 2017 at 04:01:24 am

Great article. I find that the moniker 'Classical Liberalism' grates though. Ideas like free speech, among others, were the product of liberal thinking at the time the American constitution was conceived, but they have long since been institutionalised and are now very firmly part of a tradition that is to be conserved by conservatives. Modern liberal thought actually rails against these values, as can be seen by efforts to impose PC speech on various college campuses. These students are not being illiberal, they are simply doing what liberals have always done, push back against what they see as oppressive conservative values such as the right to say things that some would construe as harmful. In any case, ideas like free speech are now firmly ensconced as conservative values and would benefit from a label that identified them as such. Many conservatives, I believe, may be slow to rally in defence of something identified with a liberal agenda.

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Liam Moran
on May 04, 2017 at 15:28:24 pm

Why should those who oppose liberty be called "liberals"? They shouldn't, but their intellectual forbears misappropriated the label about a century ago. It was false advertising then, and even more so now.

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on May 04, 2017 at 16:46:52 pm

Good article. Id suggest that things have changed sufficiently that we need a go back to "first principles" and a long evaluation of what has worked and not, and why, to build a model going forward. By first principles i dont mean the constitution, but the burkean heuristics on the dynamics of man and society that led to it. The "operating system" is fine, but the "coxe base" has gotten too kludged over 200 odd years to be effective. It needs refactoring. For my part id suggest we need a model that 1) reinstalls societal trust, among current americans as "Americans" and for integrating future Americans, as americans 2) TRUE (natural, for accountability Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? ) accountability among the political classes (from which accountability for other elites will follow) , and 3) a facilitation of dynamism in the economy. Reagans tax cuts in the 80's worked because thats what they did, but the problem they fixed cant be solved again. Hayek says a functioning free market economy is an information discovery machine, but like any control machine , the discovery has to happen faster than the forcing signals- that does not happen in our economy, and being poorly regulated is only part of the blame. I think with those things restored, a workable model will eventually emerge. Whatever that is.

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on May 05, 2017 at 03:49:56 am

[…] • Samuel Goldman in Law and Liberty: […]

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Right and Left React to Trump’s Comments on the Civil War – 24 365 News
on May 05, 2017 at 04:41:42 am

[…] • Samuel Goldman in Law and Liberty: […]

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Right and Left React to Trump’s Comments on the Civil War | TrumpShake
on May 05, 2017 at 06:32:22 am

A rose is still a rose ’Tis but thy name that is mine enemy:
What’s Montague? It is not hand nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

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on May 05, 2017 at 07:31:17 am

Sort of like the "Freedon Caucus".

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on May 05, 2017 at 07:41:28 am

Define liberty please, and explain how a desire for broad-based social equity, works against it. On second thought, just look up the definition of 'liberal.'

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marykate smith
on May 05, 2017 at 08:16:52 am

Well Michael, as a mathematician who believes that as a practical matter today's conservatives can be characterized as in general as people who hate date, distort history, and believe in myths, I do not have a dog in this hunt. But let me give you an example of my thinking. You write that "the government has no business trying to run everything, and should not spend money foolishly."

Except for the few surviving real communists, nobody today believes the government has any business trying to run everything. So lets's look at spending foolishly.

Clearly spending wisely is better than spending foolishly, but a good argument can be made for the necessity for the government to spend, indeed, to spend more than it takes in. Here is a brief exposition:

1. We need money to conduct commerce.

2, As the economy grows we need more money.

3. Money can come to the private sector from 2 places--the federal government or from a favorable trade balance.

4. Money comes from the federal government in 2 ways--spending (fiscal) or from the FED to the banks (monetary).

5, The FED has sent a lot of money to the banks with little effect. The money has sat in the vaults of the banks or been lent to the Rich who use it to speculate. This money has low velocity--it doesn't change hands in domestic commerce frequently.

6. Net federal spending is measured by the federal deficit, i.e. the deficit measures the net flow of money to people, businesses (not banks) and state & local govs. But we need spending with high velocity money.

7. Thus in order to get the new money the private sector needs, the federal deficit must be larger than the trade deficit. We have a large trade deficit. We need a large deficit.

8. If the above is correct, periods of negative deficits, surpluses, which pay down the federal debt should lead to a bad economy. They have. There have been 6 such periods of longer than 3 years in US history, They have ALL ended in a real gut wrenching depression. In fact this accounts for all of our depressions. Here is the historical data:

The federal government has balanced the budget, eliminated deficits for more than three years, and paid down the debt more than 10% in just six periods since 1776, bringing in enough revenue to cover all of its spending during 1817-21, 1823-36, 1852-57, 1867-73, 1880-93, and 1920-30. The debt was paid down 29%. 100%, 59%, 27%, 57%, and 38% respectively. A depression began in 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893 and 1929.

9. On the other hand, in 1946 we had the largest debt ratio in our history. The public debt ratio was 47% larger than today. We had deficits for 21 of the next 27 years. We increased the debt 75%.

And we had Great Prosperity.

- See more at: http://www.libertylawsite.org/liberty-forum/what-is-the-future-of-conservatism/#comments

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Len Charlap
on May 05, 2017 at 13:38:24 pm

I agree the essay is interesting, but it is also convoluted. Go back in time when the monikers liberal and conservative generally applied to those who promoted change to those who desired no change. What gets changed or left alone is the point of each argument. In the current time, what is surprising is that both sides want change only. Liberals want to change conservative policies recently enacted to change back to policies they feel brought benefit and social progress to common people. Conservatives want to change policies and laws created largely from the Roosevelt years and beyond, by Congress, the courts, and the White House, that altered society into something they did not recognize or like, and that also tended to favor the less privileged members of our society. The rise of an enormously ignorant man into the White House now has crystallized all of this in a direction I am not certain will have a good ending. Can anyone listen to him speaking without cringing? I did not always agree with Ronald Reagan's policies, but I always admired his ability to speak intelligently, clearly, and with conviction. Agree with him or not, he was a true leader. Our new guy is a cardboard fraud. He even has trouble reading from a teleprompter. I have yet to hear him speak extemporaneously about any involved subject he should have real knowledge about. And his comments about the Civil War and Andrew Jackson? Good lord! My high school civics teacher would have covered her ears.

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on May 05, 2017 at 13:53:38 pm

Mr Goldman makes great academic arguments. However, I would suggest that an overwhelming majority of so-called conservatives left the classical liberal camp a long, long time ago. In fact, the so-called progressives are far more aligned with classical liberalism than conservatives have been since Reagan, even if those progressive/liberals have very different ideas from Buckley et al about where lines of "limited government" should be drawn. The purchase of public policy to prop up monopolies and thwart a free market is not classical liberalism. So-called think tanks that invoke the free market in their rhetoric only to be fed through the backdoor by a handful of companies seeking propaganda for government intervention to limit their competition and adjust their quarterly earnings are not classically liberal. Attempts to limit the free flow of labor are not classical liberalism. "Consent searches" by police allowed by court decisions influenced by drug use hysteria that make a mockery of the 4th Amendment are not classical liberalism. Social control sought by reactionaries has been the dominant feature of conservatism for 35 years. The crack up occurred long ago. Trump is just making those who wished it to be otherwise finally acknowledge it.

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Scott Mooneyham
on May 05, 2017 at 16:38:36 pm

Yes, nothing says "liberty" like governmentally coerced "social equity."

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on May 05, 2017 at 16:43:29 pm

My first job after college was working as an editorial assistant at Human Events, the National Conservative Weekly. I believe it is safe to say that I am and have been a conservative. However, my entire professional life has been a chronic string of professional disappointments. While I have written for newspapers and magazines for over 35 years, it now appears as if there is no market for my talent and abilities here in the deep, flyover region. Conservatism, the business community and those who have the financial resources to impact public opinion, would rather give money to PACs, members of Congress and independent expenditures campaigns, rather that create alternative local newspapers, web sites and television stations. It is a function of the abject intellectual bankruptcy that has afflicted the conservative movement since I first started working in journalism. I am profoundly disappointed at this. I feel like a broken man. What is even worse, I know people in the industry who have the capacity to help me and they sit on their hands and refuse to do anything to help me. I do not mean to sound like a whiner. This is simply the way it is and it makes me sick. My email address is registered here -- if any of you have ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear from you.

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David Coker
on May 06, 2017 at 05:55:59 am

Michael Baechle illustrates an interesting notion when he writes about his "desire to be left alone and my willingness to extend the same right to others." This is the notion of consistency.

It is an unusual idea, the modal position being "leave me alone and send the police to get those people in line."

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David Lloyd-Jones
on May 06, 2017 at 10:43:08 am


You had extraordinarily bad luck in your choice of a first job. It has tainted your resume, and it seems possible it has warped your judgement.

There is no sense in which Human Events was ever "the" national conservative weekly, and I think many people would join me in denying the honorific "conservative" to it. It always struck me as an exploitive, sensationalist, crank propaganda sheet. I am pleased to hear that respectable people of all political walks are apparently avoiding your plea to subsidise them.

Best wishes, and good luck finding honest work,


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David Lloyd-Jones
on May 06, 2017 at 11:02:14 am


I agree with the general direction of some of your conclusions, but your point 1 through 7 cannot really be called "thinking." They're mostly just word salad. "Not even wrong."

For starters, you don't understand the meaning of the word "money." As you work on that you'll be appalled at what you find about the rest of your points. Even your attempts at tautology fail.

Your point 8 is roughly correct as a historical report. What it means in policy terms is a work in progress, with a good deal of sound work being done on it from both Keynesian and Monetarist points of view.

Your point 9 should make you cringe without my help since you claim to be a mathematician. Percentages of percentages in a desideratum of changing value, 1946~2017 dollars? Give us all a break. Give yourself a break.

Now get to work. Wikipedia on Keynes and Friedman might be a reasonable start. But anyway, start.

Best wishes,

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David Lloyd-Jones
on May 06, 2017 at 11:21:12 am

Ronald Reagan liked HE a lot.

Since 1991 I have written opinion columns for the Evansville Courier & Press. A former Scripps Howard paper, it recently changed hands twice -- first to Journal Enterprises and about a year later to Gannett.

In years past, my columns have single-handedly altered the contours of political power in this region. I have also written about a wide range of artistic, historical & cultural topics.

Recently, the C&P scrubbed every column I wrote for them from their web site. It is as if I never existed.

You may not value my work but many people in this region miss my columns. My brand is strong.


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David Coker
on May 06, 2017 at 11:43:32 am

Thank you, dlj, for you reply although I find much of it to be rather unhelpful. I will just comment on your statement about percentages of percentages. The difficulty here is that the so-called debt ratio is not a ratio or percentage at all. One can only form a ratio when the numerator and denominator have the same dimensions and units. The dimension of the the debt is money and the units are usually taken to be dollars, but the dimension of the GDP is money/time. Thus debt/GDP has the dimension of time. It is the length of time it would take to pay off the debt if the entire production were devoted to that task. So, for example, when people say the debt ratio is 50%, they mean this time period is 1/2 of the unit time period whether it be years, or months or decades. The debt ratio should really be called the debt period. Thus it makes perfect sense to say the one debt period is 47% longer than another.

I have used the usual fallacious nomenclature since I have found few people will understand me if I use the correct one.

As for the change in the value of the dollar over the time period, since the debt period, debt/GDP, has money in both the numerator and the denominator, it cancels out, and the resulting time period is independent of the value of the dollar.

I hope this helps you.


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Len Charlap
on May 06, 2017 at 13:52:57 pm

The ratio you are nattering about is usually called "the ratio of debt to GDP." The units are thus dollars per dollar per year. Remember miles per hour? The dimension of the numerator is different from that in the denominator.

Your reply is getting better than your "money" stuff above though. You've moved to not not even wrong, just wrong.

As I said, Wikipedia on Keynesianism and Monetarism will get you started.


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David Lloyd-Jones
on May 06, 2017 at 15:02:31 pm

I don't know if my previous replies got through. We had a power outage in Princeton, and I am inept typing on my phone.

I hate to argue semantics, but:

"Ratio as a Rate. The first type [of ratio] defined by Freudenthal, above, is known as rate, and illustrates a comparison between two variables with difference units. (...) A ratio of this sort produces a unique, new concept with its own entity, and this new concept is usually not considered a ratio, per se, but a rate or density.", "Ratio and Proportion: Research and Teaching in Mathematics Teachers"

I agree that people call debt/GDP the debt ratio, but from a mathematician's point of view, this is an error.

Since you seem enamored of Wikipedia, you might look up Dimnesionsal Analysis there. You will find that expressions of dimensions or their units cane be manipulated by the usual rules of algebra. Thus

money/(money/time) = time.

If you look up Debt-to-GDP ratio in Wikipedia, you will find:

"The debt-to-GDP ratio is generally expressed as a percentage, but properly has units of years, as below.
By dimensional analysis these quantities are the ratio of a stock (with dimensions of currency) by a flow (with dimensions of currency/time), so[note 1] they have dimensions of time. With currency units of US dollars (or any other currency) and time units of years (GDP per annum), this yields the ratio as having units of years, which can be interpreted as "the number of years to pay off debt, if all of GDP is devoted to debt repayment". Thus, 90% refers to a debt which would take 90% of a year's GDP to pay off."

While you are in Wikipedia you might also look up Modern Monetary Theory.

BTW there is nothing wrong with taking a percentage of a percentage. A percentage is just another way of writing a pure number, e.g. 25% = 0.25 = 1/4. Thus the statement that 1/8 is 50% of 1/4 is the same as 12.5% is 50% of 25%. But that is not what we are dealing with here since the debt "ratio" has the dimension of time.

Finally you might ease up on the arrogance and condescension especially in areas you appear to have little or no knowledge.

All the best,


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Leonard Charlap
on May 06, 2017 at 15:37:45 pm

Conservatism™ is dead. It died in the first Bush administration and nobody mourns its passing.

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Image of EK
on May 06, 2017 at 18:49:49 pm


You tell us that "Ronald Reagan liked HE a lot"

Yes, and Donald Trump loves Alex Jones and Info Wars. We might say a meeting of the minds, to avoid the use of barnyard metaphors. Conservatism is involved on neither side.

Do you think the parallel is strict? I would say that Reagan demeaned himself, thinking that he needed the votes. I am quite sure my old drinking buddy Karl Hess would never have suggested Senator Goldwater do anything of the sort. Hmmm. I seem to be putting Uncle Ronnie somewhere in the middle of a downhill slide from Barry to The Donald.

That feels about right to me. What do you think?

Yrs. Etc.


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David Lloyd-Jones
on May 06, 2017 at 22:33:20 pm

Mr. Coker, I sympathize with you and know what you're talking about. You sound like you deserve much better than this crap -- either Lloyd-Jones's obnoxious condescension, of which he should be ashamed, or the indifference of your local branches of Conservatism Inc.

I have no bright ideas for you at the moment, but you're welcome to e-mail me at [email protected] I'm a former journalist, a Claremont PhD in political science, a Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute (theahi.org), author of "If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement," and the author of a forthcoming Law & Liberty response to Goldman's essay.

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David B Frisk
on May 06, 2017 at 23:28:34 pm
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David B Frisk
on May 06, 2017 at 23:29:33 pm

That's ridiculous.

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David B Frisk
on May 07, 2017 at 05:46:25 am

Buy a slave: free your little lady from housework.

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David Lloyd-Jones
on May 07, 2017 at 20:53:18 pm

What is the future of Conservatism? Let me offer a small suggestion: How about being an advocate for the survival of Western Humanity? That might sound grandiose, but it is a fairly reasonable summation of opposition to the advance of leftism/progressivism/etc.

Left-wing social values threaten the extinction of humanity at the most basic level: a failure to produce new humans, and keep the existing ones around. By advocating homosexuality and abortion and mass contraception use; by linking up with environmental radicals who insist on population control; by taking the side of "right to die" movements that seeks to excuse those seeking to enact the ultimate act of violence against themselves from even the slightest possibility to pain or discomfort in the process...social leftism is creating a world where people are rarely born, have few children, and off themselves at the first sign of difficulty.

Left-wing economic values threaten to bankrupt us. High expenses, low productivity, and little motivation to be a productive member of society simply will not sustain the things the left wants us to put money toward.

Left-wing internationalism/globalism/"diversity" threatens to obliterate Western culture - and drag the world down with it - by allowing Western, Christian societies to be overrun by those from third world or Islamic states who do not share what we hold dear, and do not respect what we are intimately attached to.

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Matthew Kilburn
on May 08, 2017 at 08:30:59 am

Anyone who thinks a country that can print arbitrary amounts of the currency its debt are can go bankrupt deserves to be called a Conservative.

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Len Charlap
on May 08, 2017 at 08:34:09 am

I meant to say "...its debt is in can go bankrupt..." Sorry.

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Len Charlap
on May 12, 2017 at 00:01:03 am

Goldman means that classical liberals are comfortable, and comfortable expounding their principles, in that kind of environment if it's truly academic. True "classrooms," etc., are ones where free speech is allowed and rationality is expected. He did not mean that free speech and rationality necessarily characterize most of today's actual classrooms.

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David B Frisk
on June 11, 2017 at 23:10:09 pm

[…] *See the essay here. […]

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Donald Trump and the Future of Conservatism - The Imaginative Conservative
on December 30, 2017 at 09:01:22 am

[…] What Is the Future of Conservatism?   Samuel Goldman,  May 2, […]

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Law & Liberty – Top 10 Posts of 2017 | RoEvanghelica
on June 23, 2018 at 07:34:58 am

[…] • Samuel Goldman, “What Is the Future of Conservatism?“ […]

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Image of Noteworthies (11) – A Sunday of Liberty
Noteworthies (11) – A Sunday of Liberty

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