"Three Things Conservatives Wrote This Week That Everyone Should Read"
Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Steve Jobs: The Spoiled Child as Tech Guru” — Bruce Frohnen, The Imaginative Conservative
Over at the Imaginative Conservative, Bruce Frohnen has been working on a multi-part series critiquing the influence of Steve Jobs on modern culture. His first entry, drawing largely from Walter Isaacson’s biography, is a pretty brutal takedown of what Isaacson sees as the vacuous and asinine values Jobs was inculcated with by his post-baby-boom liberal upbringing in the San Francisco Bay suburbs. This week, Frohnen expanded that critique into the ways Jobs shaped American attitudes towards technology.
Keying off some of Jobs’ own anti-scientific quirks, Frohnen argues that the “rebellious” brand Apple sold itself with, and the underlying assumption that reality and human experience can in some sense be remade through engagement with information technology, are mainly conceptual indulgences of the elite that allow them to maintain a self-satisfied aloofness:
The real problem with today’s technology is not that it poses any intrinsic threat to a humane culture. The problem is that so many in the tech world follow Jobs in believing that they are “Important.” Jobs did not see himself as merely making “good products,” though he sometimes talked in those terms. He saw himself as redesigning the world. And such smugness pervades the tech industry, and even tech consumers, such that our latest toys have a kind of self-created importance that blinds us to their very limited importance beyond rather utilitarian purposes.
None of this is to minimize the large role computers and related technologies now play in our lives. It is, rather, to ask that we come to recognize them as merely another form of infrastructure, in many ways no more interesting or ennobling than a street or a sewer line. We want those sewer lines to work, we need them to work, but few of us should ever head into the sewers, let alone think that playing games in the sewers makes us better than others, or is a better use of our time than, say, conversing with the people around us, looking out the window, thinking, or staring into mid-space.
Frohnen sees this problem of belief in one’s own “Importance” extending to many of Apple’s boutique customers — who are, let’s be honest, probably a pretty die-hard liberal group — as well as the people in the tech industry. But he also notes a tension: that Jobs’ penchant for both control and perfectionism actually resulted in a computer product that’s actually quite closed to tinkering by customers. Ironically, that closed system could actually help remind us that computers are just another tool, something most people simply need to do whatever they need or want to do, and don’t need to fiddle with on some existential level.
2. “The Right, the Left, and Reform Conservatism” — Yuval Levin, National Review Online
The “reform conservatism” movement — exemplified by writers like Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, James Pethokoukis and others — is back in the blogosphere after the recent publication of Room to Grow, a batch of policies aimed at building a new conservative agenda to appeal to middle-class voters. That in turn provoked a series of critiques from left-leaning writers that reform conservatism is in tension with the anti-government nihilism of the Tea Party, and can only succeed to the degree it pushes mainstream conservatism and the Republican Party leftward.
Yuval Levin pushed back in National Review Online’s blog this week, saying reform conservatism was explicitly about pushing the GOP rightward; and that it actually compliments the Tea Party, in that both movements emerged from a disgust with ” the fat and happy, big-business-oriented, go along to get along, aimless centrism of too much of the Republican party over the past decade.”
Making concrete proposals obviously involves offering incremental steps, which begin from where we are today and move toward a conservative approach to government. But that concreteness, and that vision — which would build decentralized, bottom-up, market-oriented approaches to problem solving upon (and in the service of) a firm foundation of social conservatism — puts this effort well to the right of where Republicans are. Advancing toward this kind of approach would mean a smaller government, to be sure, but it would also mean a more effective government far better aligned with the realities of American life and the principles of America’s political tradition. […]
The core emphasis of some of the tea-party critique of the right, though, was on what Republicans were acquiescing to, rather than what they were failing to champion, and so tea-party activism has focused primarily on rolling back the government’s fiscal commitments and its excessive reach, and has therefore enabled Republicans to avoid offering a real direction of their own. This is understandable, given the appalling excesses of the last few years. But it is also problematic, because it has meant that tea-party activism has sometimes allowed itself (and the Republican party) to fall into the very debate that the left wants to have: a debate about how much we’re willing to pay for the left’s vision of government. […]
Of course, tea-party activists haven’t all, or always, done that, but because that element of their complaints has been the one that more traditional Republicans have (oddly) been most comfortable with, that has been the core of what the Republican party has championed lately: less of the same. What the reformers are pushing for is an emphasis on the right’s better way. It seems to me that’s very much in line with what a lot of tea-party activists want too, and it’s not a coincidence that it is a response to the same frustration with Republicans that brought on the Tea Party.
In particular, Levin singles out the question of “How large should spending be on the social safety net?” as missing the point, and part of this tendency he sees on the right to debate matters on the left’s terms. In this, Levin risks falling into a kind of mysticism — as if the health of society rests solely on the wisdom of that society’s design rather than how many tangible resources everyone has. But he does offer a compelling political theory of how the Tea Party and the reform conservatism movement embody flip sides of the same coin.
3. “The Good of Government” — Roger Scruton, First Things
Also on the subject of conservatives’ philosophy of government, Roger Scruton showed up at First Things this week with a long and thoughtful piece pushing back at the tendency within conservatism to see government as a sort of alien imposition on natural human social relations. He criticizes the “frontier” individualist strain in much right-wing thinking, pointing out that “the human individual is a social construct,” that individual freedom emerges out of our relations to others, and that government is a natural emergent property of this impulse “to hold each other to account for what we do.”
However, with that argument in place, Scruton is able to sketch a theory of government’s proper role and boundaries. That allows him to criticize what he sees as liberalism’s failure to abide by those limits:
In the liberal worldview — and you see this magisterially embodied in the philosophy of John Rawls — the state exists in order to allocate the social product. The rich are not really rich, because they don’t own that stuff. All goods, in liberal eyes, are unowned until distributed. And the state distributes the goods according to a principle of fairness that takes no account of the moral legacy of our free agreements or of the moral effects of a state-subsidized underclass.
On the liberal view, therefore, government is the art of seizing and then redistributing the good things to which all citizens have a claim. (This may seem hard on the rich, but in fact it is psychologically convenient for them, since it removes the obligation to account for their wealth.) On this view government is not the expression of a preexisting social order shaped by our free agreements and our natural disposition to hold our neighbor to account. It is the creator and manager of a social order framed according to its ruling doctrine of fairness and imposed on the people by a series of top-down decrees. Wherever this liberal conception prevails, government increases its power, while losing its inner authority. It becomes the “market-state” of Philip Bobbitt, which offers a deal to its citizens in return for their taxes, and demands no loyalty or obedience beyond a respect for the agreed terms of the deal.
There are tensions here: for one thing, much of Scruton’s critique relies on highly disputable factual claims about the social effects of the welfare state. Scruton also notes that in a society as large and diverse as ours government inevitably takes on certain top-down functions. But he does not engage with the possibility that what conservatives experience as power “imposed from outside” is merely other portions of civil society winning a few elections, and thus gaining control of those entirely legitimate top-down functions. All that said, it’s a dense piece on human nature and how government arises out of it, which offers a framework both for cautioning conservatism and explaining to liberals why conservatives oppose them.