What is paleoconservatism? The term seems to connect the American hard right with paleolithic anthropoids who wooed their women with clubs and ate raw meat because they were too stupid to discover fire. Even though Paul Gottfried and I are probably responsible for popularizing the term, I never adopted it, if only because it implies that we consider ourselves to be the true heirs of some earlier American right: either the largely imaginary Old Right of the 1930’s and 40’s or the anticommunist movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.
We have no quarrel with the conservatives who defined themselves by their opposition to communism, but whatever their virtues might have been, those defenders of the New Deal status quo have little to say to people of the year 2000. Instead of aiming at the cultural and political transformation of the United States, postwar conservatives and libertarians were content with forming a movement (or movements).
Movements are characteristically American and symptomatic of a people who take their beliefs from Reader’s Digest articles and executive summaries. As a Hollywood scriptwriter might put it, we are a “high concept” nation that will not feed its mind on anything that has not been already chewed and twice digested in our bovine stomachs and finally turned into the cud of sound bites and slogans. Left or right. Republican or Democrat, we are babies that must be spoon-fed our political pabulum. If leftist Democrats can only talk of “compassion” and “caring” and the “richest one percent of the population,” mainstream Republican conservatives display a talent for reducing every issue to sentences like “I thought America was all about opportunity,” or “We’re a nation of immigrants,” or (and you will hear this from hard-eyed tycoons and think-tank executives who believe in nothing) “Say, this is still about the greatest country that has ever existed in the history of the world.”
I am far from criticizing plutocratic conservatives who have turned their base-metal credo into the gold of wealth and power. It is the members of the more sophisticated “traditionalist” right who have made nothing with their affected drawls, Victorian mannerisms, and obsession with imperial Vienna and Franco’s Spain. Compared with their rivals, traditionalists and reactionaries are mere children. Content to spend their time writing unscholarly articles in unrefereed journals, posing for pictures with their Carlist berets. Confederate flags, and “I Like Ike” buttons, lovingly poring over their complete sets of Triumph and National Review, they will pose little threat to the regime they think they are opposing. If there is any future for the American right (and I say this with equal parts amusement and incredulity), it lies in the hands of the odd birds who call themselves (or are called by others) “paleoconservatives.”
As the word implies, paleoconservatism is rooted in ancient and permanent principles of human nature. No one invented marriage, the family, or the maternal love upon which the survival of our species depends. To be human is to live in families where senior men make the crucial decisions and where the household is autonomous and self-governing in all its own affairs; the rearing and education of children, the provision of assistance for elderly and infirm members, disciplinary measures for those who violate the family’s laws. After hundreds of thousands of years of social and political evolution, the ancient (Greek, Roman, Jewish) and medieval family retained most of its primitive authority and responsibility, and the first step of any conservative movement should be the liberation of families and households from the power of the total state.
Social conservatives and some members of the Christian right have made similar pronouncements, but always with an obeisance to the left. “The state has harmed the family,” they say, “so now let the state make reparations by passing pro-family legislation”; or “Let us restore family values but not with the crushing burden of patriarchy and inequality that disfigured earlier regimes: We have learned something, after all, in 2,000 years.”
What have we learned? Not to mind our own business? Not to accept responsibility for ourselves and our families? Scientific and economic progress does not entail moral or political progress. The opposite is more often the case. Paleoconservatism does not offer a nostalgic appeal to the golden age of the 50’s—either the 1950’s A.D. or the 450’s B.C.—but an insistence upon the permanent things that have been under attack for centuries and the memory of which is being obliterated in our time.
In calling for a restoration of manhood and womanhood and family autonomy, we are not so naive as to believe that some think tank can draw up a package of magical legislation of taxes and incentives that will restore American social life. On the contrary, we know that things will probably get much worse before the first steps can be taken toward restoration. But having an ideal in mind, we also know that we must oppose any social legislation, whether it comes from far-left Democrats or center left Republicans, that does not shift power and wealth away from government and toward families and local communities.
This approach is both practical and principled, and its practitioners are not likely to be taken in by Potemkin-village projects that go by the name of “revenue sharing” or “the new federalism” or “school choice.” If voucher plans will increase the power of the federal government over private schools, we oppose them, along with national legislation restricting divorce and defining life. When we have a Christian country, it will be time enough to consider expanding the social authority of the state.
The family is not the only natural social institution that is being undermined by the modern state. Men are by nature competitive, and they created war and games, politics and the marketplace, to satisfy their need to contend for status, wealth, and power. One of leftism’s greatest successes has been to adopt the social language of Christianity and to transfer it from enclosed households to the open fields where men do battle with each other.
A simple definition of socialism is the pretense that the nation is a family or a village, where everyone takes care of everyone else. Socialism, whether it takes the form of Social Security or welfare payments or aid to higher education, not only undermines the authority of the family but obscures the whole point of competition, which cannot be defined as the struggle for money and power but as the pursuit of excellence.
The declared goal of socialist societies is to spread a minimum level of mediocrity (e.g., of affluence, free time, education, beauty, virtue) as broadly as possible throughout the population, while the goal of any honorable society is to foster the pursuit of excellence by individuals and within communities. Judged in socialist terms, America falls dismally short of social justice, but judged by the standards of sixth century B.C. Greece, medieval Pisa, or 19th-century Europe and America, we are a nation of savages. In the life of the mind, where the pursuit of excellence has all but disappeared, the socialist approach has reduced our colleges and universities to assembly-line factories that turn out sensitive, nonjudgmental, anti-intellectuals, the worst of whom are hired to keep the machinery running.
Private property and the free market are essential to any nation’s health, and both are being eliminated by big government and the state-capitalist internationale that is quickly assuming total control over the global economy. Paleoconservatives may disagree over the merits of free trade, but anyone calling himself a paleoconservative or “paleolibertarian” who does not unequivocally oppose NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO is either dimwitted or duplicitous. These acronyms represent global organs of trade control and world government.
Competition and family solidarity are the dynamic forces that generate human society. The theory of equality (and the politics of envy which it generates) is fatal to both of them. In the real state of nature, as opposed to the destructive myth put forward by philosophers out to destroy the social order, women defer to men, children to parents, young to mature, strangers to natives, low-status natives to high-status natives.
Traditional conservatives were instinctively revolted by egalitarianism, but they were often deluded into ascribing mysterious virtues to the upper classes. Unfortunately, ruling elites—whether they are 18th-century aristocrats or 19th-century plutocrats—are often as stupid and futile as the French Bourbons, who saddled their country with a centralized bureaucracy, waged aggressive and destructive wars for the sake of making aesthetic improvements to their cartographic hexagon, and sold out Christendom to the Turks. The mere fact that conservatives acknowledged the importance of status and hierarchy should not have blinded them to the shortcomings of the American ruling class. At least since the 1870’s, the upper echelons of the American elite have been manned by venal and unprincipled fixers who made their money not so much by building better mousetraps as by fixing government. From Jim Fisk and Jay Gould to Armand Hammer to Michael Milken and Ross Perot, our ruling class has thrived on the manipulation of government.
Paleoconservatives stand staunchly in defense of free markets and free enterprise and oppose every attempt made by the central government to control the market. We know that those who write the regulations control the market, even if those regulations are theoretically on the side of business and free enterprise. The reality is that regulations on business or programs designed to support agriculture impose disproportionately heavy burdens on small entrepreneurs and producers and confer correspondingly richer benefits to the monopolists.
Agribusiness was created by government; and chain stores and megabanks benefit from regulations and court decisions that have struck down the rights of states and local communities to regulate their own economic affairs. The way to liberate the economy from the monopolists is not through any government policy but this: Strip all three branches of the national government of the power to regulate all business, manufacturing, and agriculture that takes place outside the District of Columbia. Then, if the people of Peoria are ready to eat real spaghetti at Luigi’s and bank with their neighbors, they will have the power to shape their economic destiny. If they prefer the microwaved, garlic-powdered plastic at the Olive Garden (a corporate chain that funds the infanticide lobby and represents all that is wrong in America), then they will have the life they deserve.
Many traditional conservatives have opposed the free market, because in their hearts they believe that Marx and Engels were right, that capitalists have dissolved every bond between man and man except the cash nexus. But Marx was wrong. It was not businessmen who made the revolution that began the destruction of England and America but political liberals, the direct ancestors of the Tony Blair/Al Gore leftists who want to create a global government that will finish the job.
In cozying up to fascist and authoritarian regimes, traditional conservatives betrayed their fundamental ignorance of the nature both of a legitimate commonwealth and of the modern state. The commonwealth can only create conditions that are propitious for the good life; it cannot compel good books to be written or moral lives to be led. That was the wisdom of St. Thomas, and it is a pity that his teachings have been distorted.
It is not any traditional social order but the modern state that makes the claim to create beauty and enforce virtue. Those of us who have to live with the results ought to know better than ever to entrust any government with such power again. Rebuilding Christendom will take far more work than the restoration of Rome to its condition in the age of Constantine (the goal of many a Renaissance humanist), but it will not be done by any government. No government (or series of individuals) created civilization in its variety of forms. Civilization was made by a society informed by a classical sense of beauty and a Christian vision of life. Restoration of that sense and that vision is the task apparently impossible—that lies before us.
But the impossible is accomplished all the time by men and women who believe that they are working on the side of destiny. When liberals were destroying civilization, they were smugly confident that they had not only right but the future on their side. Looking at their handiwork, liberals today are finding it ever more difficult to keep their chin up. If they do, that jutting chin makes a perfect target for the punch we are going to have to deliver.
The pundits say America lacks leadership, but we have had enough leaders and gurus—particularly foreign gurus—to take over a fair-sized solar system. What America needs is not a few leaders but a substantial class of clearheaded and resolute men who refuse to give way to despair and who take no pleasure in histrionic boasts and threats; men with an Irish imagination and Germanic discipline; men who, when they go into battle, do not stop to swat the flies swarming over the enemy corpses. If revolutions (including cultural revolutions) are usually fought by masses in the streets, they are always led by a disciplined elite class. Three hundred Spartans held off the barbarians at Thermopylae; a few thousand Athenians at Marathon drove the barbarians back to their ships; and a mere 300,000 rightists, if their minds and characters were properly formed, would drive these modern barbarians—anti-Western Christophobes—out of the universities and back to whatever planet they came from.
Center-leftists will undoubtedly jeer at this image, saying it sounds more like a poem by G.K. Chesterton than a plan of action, “and Chesterton, you know, was an antisemite.” But policies and programs must be based on unchanging principles, if policies are to be anything but plans to change the spark plugs of a car going 120 m.p.h. the wrong way down the interstate.
What I have tried to do is to sketch out a few of the necessary foundations of any conservative movement: the glorious differences between men and women and between all people; free enterprise and free competition for excellence and success; the necessity of social hierarchy; the very limited sphere of government in the regulation of both economy and culture; an appreciation of the createdness of the things of this world and of their resistance to tinkering; the necessity of faith. This is not an ideology, much less a program, and I am putting myself forward as the next guru who will free conservatives from the necessity’ of thinking.