Solidaristic Conservatism: A Reply to Ahmari

The 117th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.


[UPDATE: We see that Ahmari is trolling through the JAG archive looking for things to point and sputter at.  We drafted the below (we thought, respectful and serious) response before noticing that.  We’re not going to change what follows, but neither are we going to waste time further explaining things that Ahmari is obviously determined to misunderstand.  If he wants to make any substantive points, we’ll read them.]

I’m not very good at arguing via tweet, so I thought I’d take this discussion here.  Wall Street Journalwriter Sohrab Ahmari says of us that JAG is simply “Buchananite.”  As a factual matter, that’s inaccurate in both the narrow and broad senses.  In the former, we’ve specifically criticized Buchanan, e.g., for his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, which we believe well-served American interests.  In the broader sense, as “Paleo-Straussians,” our intellectual framework differs from Buchanan’s in highly significant ways.  The first half of that formulation points to the similarities, but the second to the differences.

In a follow-up, Ahmari writes that our anonymity is a drama-queen pose meant to suggest that America is a police state, which we all know is a joke.  No, we don’t think America is a police state and we pray, God-willing, that it never become one.  But we also think that it’s trending in that direction in troubling ways, not least the persecution of dissident thought.  The chief way is to deprive people of their ability to make a living and then say “Free speech doesn’t mean consequence-free speech!” after they get fired.  This happens a lot today and the right is almost just as eager to do it as the left—in a way, more-so, because the right feels a greater need to demonstrate its Davoisie bona fides.  In any event, it’s fine if you think we’re making too much of this, but we assure you that, if so, it’s an honest misjudgment.  We’re not faking it for shock value.

Moving to more substantive matters, he continues: “If you want to rethink—or discard—free trade, liberal order, etc. and be taken seriously, you need to put names to ideas.”  We disagree that names make any difference at all and said so.  Ahmari seems subsequently to have taken some of the edge off this claim, so let us leave it aside.

We do think that the phrase “or discard” was wholly unnecessary, since we’ve not argued for discarding either the liberal world order or free trade.  We’ve actually defended the former, albeit with the argument that its conflation with the last 15 years of the neocon agenda is a prudential and historical mistake.

As for trade, we are not doctrinaire free-traders, it is true.  We are happy on this score to stand with Smith, who wasn’t either.  Or Reagan.  Or Lincoln.  And so on.  To make a very simple point, if there were truly free trade, why wouldn’t every “free trade” deal that America signs with other countries simply be one sheet of paper that says “There shall be free trade—no tariffs or any other kind of barrier—between the United States and Country X”?  Instead, our “free trade” deals require truckloads of volumes, each as big as the phone book.  (If anyone remembers those.)

There is no such thing as free trade.  There are just deals, good and bad.  And what is good and bad—necessary or superfluous, beneficial or detrimental—changes with the times.

We’re still pretty supportive of the WSJ’s 1980s program—for the 1980s.  (Bob Bartley’s absurd 1984 “There Shall Be Open Borders” Constitutional Amendment aside.)  We also find much useful and applicable in the paper’s 2016 program.  Just not all of it, and not—we’re pretty sure—the parts that its writers feel are the most important.  Though it has been interesting to watch the editorial page equivocate about Trump.  We assume some of that comes from on high.  But might it also signal a re-think of some of the editorial page’s most sacred dogma?  We can hope!

Steve Sailer (we further assume you don’t like him*, but credit where credit is due) recently wrote that the WSJ’s agenda of revitalizing individualistic conservatism made sense in the 1970s, when the country was stalled owing to the exhaustion of several decades of corporatism and collectivization.  But individualism long ago grabbed all the low-hanging fruit and ran out of fresh ideas.  It’s no longer delivering on its promises like it did 30-40 years ago.

What’s needed now is a revival of solidaristic conservatism, to help repair the civic fabric and restore a sense that we are all in this together.  That is what, it appears to us, Trump is offering.  Eventually this solidaristic conservatism will, too, run out of steam and stall.  And some of its adherents (not us) will insist that the solutions of 2016 must stand forever.  But for now, solidarism is what’s needed. Individualism can make a comeback if and when solidarism (perhaps inevitably) goes too far and squelches individual initiative.

We stand athwart history yelling “What difference, at this point, does it make?” but also “No dogmatism!”  That’s our core beef with conservative intellectualism, including the WSJ.  You guys aren’t wrong about everything, but in this present crisis, you’re more wrong than right about the big things most needed now, and Trump is more right than wrong.

—Decius

* To be clear, since it is unfortunately necessary in these troubled times to be absolutely clear, we certainly find some of his statements thoroughly objectionable as well (but, again, credit where credit is due).

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