By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 10/11/2009
The appellation “Neo-con” has been so unscrupulously bandied about the last few years, and so incorrectly used as a pejorative that the actual meaning of “neo-conservative” has become lost in the din of ignorant debate. With the passing of Irving Kristol, who graduated from mortality two weeks ago at the age of 89, a review of the contributions and analysis of the father of neo-conservatism is a venture into what made America great.
As a young socialist, Kristol was critical of the primary tenet which he found animating the socialist movement; the idyllic perfectibility of man and his milieu. As early as 1944 he wrote of his preference for “moral realism” which “foresees no new virtues and is interested in human beings as it finds them, content with the possibilities and limitations that are always with us.” Such an expression would lead him over the ensuing decades to a realization that ideals have value in reality, if they work, but not if they don’t.
His ideas and analysis truly took hold in the 1960s when he and other liberals like him, were castigated for being “neo-conservatives.” He was driven to do something that made many liberals uncomfortable, to monitor whether their theories worked in the real world, or if they created more problems than they solved. Kristol himself described neoconservatives as “liberals mugged by reality.”
Through his column in the Wall Street Journal and his quarterly journal, he analyzed the issues founded in the “Great Society” programs. Did urban redevelopment improve conditions for the poor? Did welfare programs create more problems, especially sociological issues, than they solved economically? Did they solve any economical issues for the impoverished? As a liberal who based efficacy on what worked rather than good intent, he came to the conclusion over 20 years ago, “The problem with our current welfare programs is not that they are costly – which they are – but that they have such perverse consequences for the people they are supposed to benefit.”
Time after time, and issue after issue, Kristol brilliantly exposed the principles of the Great Society (major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, poverty, and transportation) as worthy ideas, yet wholly inadequate or destructive in application. As he aptly pointed out, after over a trillion dollars of wealth redistribution based on Great Society programs, we still have roughly 12% of the population living at poverty level. As one “mugged by reality,” he concluded that principles of socialism, even when partially executed, empirically fail.
Through his honest assessment of the failures of contemporary liberalism, Kristol emerged as one of capitalism’s greatest apologists. As he frequently reminded us, “Capitalism has eased more misery and engendered more comfort than any other economic system in world history.” And this man knew his history. So to Kristol, it only made sense that what the world needed more of was capitalism, not more of any of the other “isms” that ingratiate a few at the expense of the many.
The more nefarious use of the term was used throughout the Bush presidency, where the neoconservative concept of using American economic and military strength for purposes of expanding democracy, human rights, and capitalism. Conceptually I find it difficult to comprehend that any moral person would object to such a notion, but in the case of Bush, it had more to do with how the principle was implemented in Iraq, not a rejection of the philosophy behind it.
Even more disconcerting to Kristol’s former liberal colleagues, was his evolution as a social conservative. In his missive “My Cold War,” a recapitulation of his intellectual migration from left to right, he wrote, “What began to concern me more and more were the clear signs of rot and decadence germinating within American society -- a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism. And the more contemporary, the more candid and radical was this agenda.” He warned, “Combating the cultural decay -- a war on spiritual poverty -- was even more important than winning the other Cold War.”
Much of neo-conservatism is based in common sense and application of principles with proven empirical efficacy, both of which are scarcities in Washington. Seems to me we need a lot more Irving Kristols. At the very least, we need a lot more neoconservatives.