I’ll take my neoconservatism with a side order of fries, please

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On the train ride back from Washington Tuesday night, I did some of the reading that Brad DeLong assigned me after my first attempt at writing about neoconservatism. The first thing I got out of Irving Kristol’s Fall 1995 Public Interest article on “American conservatism 1945-1965” was that Brad was overdoing it when he said it was “false and stupid” for the Economist‘s Lexington columnist (a.k.a. Adrian Wooldridge) to claim that neoconservatism “began as a critique of the arrogance of power.” Whether that’s stupid is an opinion call, but it’s definitely not false: Kristol makes pretty clear that neoconservatism began in reaction to what its founders saw as the overreaching of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. That’s what the early Public Interest, the movement’s founding journal, was all about.

Then again, Kristol begins his essay by stating that “The Public Interest was born well before the term ‘neoconservative’ was invented, and will–I trust–be alive and active when the term is of only historical interest.” Not quite: the journal ceased publication in 2005, and here we are still jabbering about neoconservatives. So Brad is right that the movement left those early days behind and moved on to entirely different places.

Basically, you can take your pick of neoconservatisms, and the Economist chose the early version. But why would anybody want to do that? Brad asked in a post Tuesday (appropriately giving full props to a certain Curious Capitalist commenter):

I think Paul Lukasiak has the right analogy: You can tell a “revolution betrayed” story of neoconservatism and say that everything would have been peachy if not for the hijacking of the movement by Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and their progeny; just as you can tell a “revolution betrayed” story of Communist Russia. But complaining that William Kristol, John Podhoretz, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and the Kagan brothers today do not have the analytical modesty and dislike of poorly-thought-out radical leaps of Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan is like complaining that J.V. Stalin failed to properly implement Marx’s vision of a free and wealthy society of associated producers. Such a story has more than a little lunacy in it.

The most interesting question to ask of the “revolution betrayed” stories is why people feel compelled to tell them. Stalin at least (mis)cited Marx at every occasion. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard a neoconservative refer to Bell or Moynihan as any sort of authority.

I have a partial answer, and I like it because it also helps answer why Brad and Paul Krugman, who on economic beliefs alone would seem to be in the center or perhaps even slightly to the right of the American mainstream, get so “shrill,” to use Brad’s term, about the neocons and their intellectual fellow travelers in the Republican Party.

The mainstream academic economics of the 1950s and 1960s (as personified by, say, Paul Samuelson) was already more oriented toward free markets and the importance of incentives than the bulk of liberal intellectualizing in those days. It still had its excesses, mainly an overconfidence in the possibility of Keynesian “fine-tuning” of the economy. But those were confronted within the discipline, by Milton Friedman and then Robert Lucas. And Marty Feldstein, another figure very much of the economic establishment, got his peers to start paying more attention to the incentive effects of taxes and government programs. Graduate students at MIT (Krugman) and Harvard (DeLong) in the 1970s and 1980s were taught all this stuff in class; they certainly didn’t need Irving Kristol or, god forbid, Jude Wanniski to tell them that some of the liberal dogmas that evolved out of the New Deal were flawed. (You can get a flavor of this in the fascinating recent debate on supply-side economics between Krugman, DeLong, Bruce Bartlett and others on Mark Thoma’s blog.)

Those of us too benighted to study economics, however, had to take our critiques of liberal verities where we could find them (because at Princeton in the mid-1980s, you generally weren’t going to hear them in undergraduate politics and history classes). For my part, I started doing crazy things like reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page and talking politics with a couple of budding neocon classmates. Later on, I even subscribed to the New Criterion for a couple of years. I was never a convert, but I appreciated hearing intelligently argued alternatives to the standard liberal narratives.

So for me at least it’s not so much a “revolution betrayed” story as a sort of “cafeteria neoconservatism.” I took what I found interesting, and ignored the rest. Which may be naive, but I don’t think it’s lunacy. I guess Brad would call most of the stuff I found to be interesting “neoliberalism.” But I’m not really clear on what neoliberalism is supposed to mean (other than that in Europe it means free-market zealotry). All I know is that I’ve got some neo in me. No, not that Neo.

Update: In the comments to this post, and on his blog, Brad invokes The Dread Alterman, Sworn Enemy of All Time Bloggers, who took Sam Tanenhaus to task a few years ago for perceived sins similar to those that prompted Brad to dump on the Economist‘s Adrian Wooldridge (a.k.a. “Lexington”). Anyway, I’d love to pick an ugly fight with Alterman, news of which would then spatter Rashomonstyle through the mediasphere, but I’m afraid I don’t get invited to the same fancy parties that he and Ana and Joe do.

Update 2: I’d like to offer a big howdy to “Altercation” readers, sent here grudgingly by The Dread Alterman himself. Just so you know, the previous paragraph is meant humorously. Also, an occasional host of fancy parties attended by Ana and Joe has reminded me that I have in fact gone to a couple of them. Just not to the really good ones where fights break out.