Depending on and threatened by Government

Posted: Dec 13, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--America's unending political argument is about how freedom both depends on government and is threatened by it, and competes with other values. That argument was raging in 1800, when the government, moving from Philadelphia to Washington, packed the executive branch archives. In seven boxes. Now war has discomfited many participants in the argument. The war has rendered perilous liberalism's attitude of adversarial cosmopolitanism. And because the war has produced a Hamiltonian moment, it is awkward for conservatives who take an adversarial stance toward federal power. Sept. 11 discombobulated liberals because it triggered an outpouring not merely of patriotism but of nationalism--not just love of country but a robust assertion of the superiority of America's political and cultural institutions and mores. Modern liberalism has been deeply tinged with distrust of nationhood, and with eagerness to dilute sovereignty by delegating national rights and responsibilities to multinational bodies. Sept. 11 forcefully reminded Americans that their nation-state--not NATO, not the United Nations--is the source of their security. And they relish the clarity of the Bush Doctrine, which is that nation-states have the great utility of locating responsibility: National regimes are responsible for terrorism that issues from their sphere of control. Because modern liberalism defined itself partly in reaction against Vietnam, and because in its recoil against American power it became susceptible to ``moral equivalency'' analyses of the origins and conduct of the Cold War ("two scorpions in a bottle," etc.), liberalism radiated chilliness toward America's military and the CIA--and toward agencies of domestic security, including police and the FBI. It inverted the isolationism of the right (America is too good for the world), arguing that the world is too good for the depredations of American militarism. In less than three months, America's military collapsed a regime complicit in Sept. 11, and domestic security agencies now stand between Americans and ``sleeper cells" of terrorists. Liberalism's chilliness conflicts with the public's warm pride and gratitude. Furthermore, in the name of ``multiculturalism" and ``diversity," liberalism has treated racial and ethnic differences as identities that are unmeltable and, anyway, morally preferable to national identity. So liberal politics has become the accommodation of grievance groups clamoring for recognition of their victimhood. And liberalism is uneasy with what Sept. 11 quickened--a shared sense of nationality. When America became a victim, the politics of parochial victim-mongering suddenly seemed worse than just stale, and modern liberalism was stripped of what has become its principle vocabulary, that of complaint. Some liberals say liberalism will now prosper because it celebrates the nobility and utility of government, and confidence in government has risen sharply. However, the last time it rose notably was under Ronald Reagan, who refocused government on its core functions, such as national security. James Q. Wilson notes that whereas New Deal liberalism was concerned with who gets what, when, where and how, modern liberalism is concerned with who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where and who feels how. The national government's prestige has soared because it is preoccupied with its elemental duty--national defense. However, conservatives, too, must think anew. Liberals rightly say that the post-Sept. 11 sense of community is problematic for a conservatism of pure individualism, of markets considered the always preferable mechanism of social choice, and of general suspicion of the governmental institutions through which the community acts. Even Enron's spectacular meltdown demonstrates how capitalism requires strong government to structure markets, and to enforce the transparency to sustain investors' confidence. The conservatism of cultural hand-wringing--the belief that Americans are too morally flaccid for patriotism and great national exertions--also needs a post-Sept. 11 overhaul of its vocabulary. And events since Sept. 11 have underscored the limits of libertarianism. This faux conservatism asserts that freedom exists where government compulsion does not, and that freedom generally and easily trumps all other political goods. This doctrine vitiates the core conservative virtue, which is prudence, and eliminates the need for the conservative art, which is the balancing of clashing goods (freedom, equality, order). Modern conservatism defined itself largely in reaction against the New Deal and then the Great Society--each a project for nationalizing politics, each a product of an energetic executive. Hence the reluctance of today's conservatives to admire the Founder who was especially admired by earlier conservatives--Alexander Hamilton, advocate of ``energy in the executive" and the Founder most visionary about America's economic and military might. Perhaps one indicator of the nation-shaping effect of this Hamiltonian moment: since Sept. 11 there has reportedly been a slump in sales of Confederate flags.