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“Ask Not What Capitalism Can Do For You; Ask What You Can Do For Capitalists.” That was the gist of Barack Obama’s “State of the Union” address last Tuesday night. It is useful to state his point in a Kennedyesque way since it might otherwise be lost amidst all the soporific invocations of “moderation” and “centrism.” There was more going on in that speech than the absence of substance. Obama used the occasion to reveal more plainly than ever before what his underlying political philosophy is. It is not what is widely supposed. Obama is a libertarian, and therefore not, according to the most pertinent sense of the term in our political discourse today, a liberal.
Gone are the days when Obama’s vacuities functioned like Rorschach tests, empty vessels upon which the gullible could project their dreams. Gone too is the illusion that Obama is a wily progressive, faking right the better to steer the ship of state leftward. And does anyone still think that it was “f…ing retard” advisors that made milquetoast out of his health care and financial reforms or that kept his foreign policy, along with almost everything else, glued to the track George Bush set? By now only the willfully blind can deny that our current president is as dedicated a steward of ruling class interests as his predecessor was. The difference is that he is more capable – who wouldn’t be! – and that, as a Democrat, he is better placed for bringing capitalism’s victims along.
Unlike a Republican or a Blue Dog Democrat, Obama is not just a toady; and, unlike a true Clintonite, there’s more to his governance than crass opportunism. It is plain too that there is more going on with him than just a pathological need, never requited, to work with, rather than against, the most pernicious elements of our political class. Obama holds convictions that conventional liberals do not share, libertarian convictions. Let me explain.
Partisans of order, tradition, family and faith –in other words, men (with women in tow) of conservative dispositions have always been with us; we have always had a political right, opposed to the enlightened ideals of our revolutionary founders and of many, probably most, Americans since. But, outside barely assimilated Catholic circles, genuine philosophical conservatism has always been rare on our shores. This is mainly a consequence of America’s colonial past. Already in the throes of capitalist development, seventeenth and eighteenth century Protestant England was problematic territory for conservative political philosophy, and it was in that milieu that what Americans now call “conservatism” took shape.
This is why our self-described conservatives seldom appeal to the (purported) depravity of human nature, and seldom defend established institutions on the grounds that they are necessary for saving ourselves from its free expression. The most important strain of conservative political philosophy in the Western tradition takes Sin (human imperfection) seriously. It has been largely a continental European phenomenon; and usually, it is theologically driven. But this strain of political philosophy was not unknown in the British Isles, and it can take on a secular guise. Indeed, its most philosophically astute exponent was an Englishman, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who was widely believed to be an atheist.
There is another kind of conservative philosophy that focuses more on the nature of governance than on human nature, and that is more characteristically British and more unequivocally secular. Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) captured its nature well by emphasizing conservatism’s incompatibility with what he called “rationalism” in politics. Strictly speaking, rationalism is a philosophical position pertaining to the forms and limits of human knowledge. Rationalists hold that knowledge is possible thanks to “innate ideas,” as they once were called — mental structures that are, as it were, hard wired into our minds. Rationalism is standardly contrasted with empiricism, though their differences are not as clear as is widely assumed. Empiricists maintain that knowledge comes entirely from sense perception, though in practice they too ascribe an indispensable role to mental activity; while rationalists, conceding the obvious, acknowledge that knowledge of “the external world” must derive in part from sense experience. Nevertheless, the standard understanding does track a difference real enough to underlie distinct philosophical traditions.
Perhaps the best-known rationalist philosopher was René Descartes (1596-1650). As every Philosophy 101 student is taught, Descartes sought to overthrow received beliefs (about what is real) and to reconstruct knowledge claims, including those based on sense perception, on rationally defensible foundations.
An analogy with revolutionary politics, the bugbear of conservatives in the modern era, is plain. Revolutionaries seek to overthrow the old order and then, as the song goes, “to build a new world on the ashes of the old.” In contrast, empiricists, being disinclined to put faith in human reason (outside mathematical and logical contexts), are generally accepting of received understandings; in this respect, they are like conservatives. It is telling that the British empiricist tradition was long held to have conservative implications. [This was the view, not only of Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753), one of empiricism’s most important and politically conservative exponents, but of V.I. Lenin (1870-1924) as well.]
As Oakeshott maintained, empiricism is of a piece with the core idea of the English common law tradition – that cases should be decided not on the basis of rationally compelling first principles, but in accord with what precedent prescribes. The idea is that there is a collective wisdom inherent in the way problems were addressed in the past, and that the best course of action is to build on it slowly and carefully, avoiding the reckless bravado rationalists in politics and philosophy exude.
Oakeshott’s conservatism is arguably more congenial to American sensibilities than is the more venerable continental variety, but it assumes an aristocracy trained from birth to govern. How else, after all, could the craft of wise governance be learned? This is why even this strain of conservative philosophy never quite took hold on the American scene. Thanks to the revolutionary origins of our republic, we have never been encumbered with the rigid class divisions that afflicted our colonizer.
However, in Britain and later in America, conservative modes of thought ran up against an emerging capitalist order that is massively destructive of tradition, order, family and established forms of faith –a point epitomized by the observation registered in The Communist Manifesto that, under capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air.”
In these circumstances, even in aristocratic Britain (though to a lesser degree), the conservative dispositions that define the political right bended to accommodate pro-market, pro-capitalist ideas, to the detriment of robust conservative political philosophies. The result was never entirely coherent, but there was nevertheless a point of contact with genuine conservatisms: the idea that the most urgent political imperative is to defend the status quo, whatever it is, or, what comes to the same thing, to defend the power of those who benefit most from it. In an already partially democratized Great Britain where, after the revolution in France, calls for liberty, equality and fraternity were in the air, this meant opposition to the “moral economy” of traditional British society and support for what was increasingly supplanting it, untrammeled market relations. It meant subordinating other moral concerns to a (tendentious) conception of justice that supports the inviolability of (private) property rights.
In the United States, we call contemporary exponents of this early nineteenth century ideology “libertarians” or “classical liberals.” Their philosophy comes in many flavors, not all of them despicable; and although being libertarian is a way of being on the right, libertarians need not oppose liberty, equality and fraternity though most of them do.
For many decades, important segments of the American right have attached themselves to libertarianism’s more noxious strains. A case in point was the Republican rejoinder Congressman Paul Ryan delivered in response to Obama’s State of the Union address. Billed as an intellectual leader, Ryan, like many of his fellow Republicans and Tea Partiers, considers himself a follower of a virulently libertarian but enormously popular pseudo-philosopher, Ayn Rand (1905-1982). His remarks reeked of her views. Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party rejoinder, though cut from the same cloth, was even less coherent than Ryan’s. Bachmann is someone whose thinking might actually be improved by a study of Ayn Rand’s work.
Libertarians love private property and markets the way the faithful love God, and they think that, like God, “free” (capitalist) markets are perfectly good. Philosophically minded believers have arguments that purport to show that God exists. These arguments can be interesting, but they are profoundly flawed in ways that have been evident for centuries. Still they persist. Libertarian ideology, though many times defeated by events on the ground, persists too; and its “theologians” also have interesting arguments. Those arguments are not flawed. However they apply only in highly stylized and unrealizable conditions. Therefore their bearing on real world market arrangements in capitalist societies is, for all practical purposes, nil.
Still, there is no denying that markets can work well (efficiently) in many circumstances, mainly because they simplify the information processing tasks that undid their main twentieth century competitor, central planning. But even before this became evident across the political spectrum, many on the left had already made peace with market arrangements. This was especially the case on the right of the left, in social democratic and liberal circles; in other words, within political formations that sometimes assumed the burdens of governance in capitalist states. In these quarters, markets were accepted for want of suitable alternatives. But they were not loved, and no one considered them or their consequences for the societies in which they operate unequivocal blessings.
American liberalism of the New Deal and Great Society variety stood as far to the right as one could and still be on the left. Thus our liberals accepted the capitalist order, but they hardly loved markets the way the benighted love God; they accepted them faute de mieux. They therefore did not oppose welfare state measures that advance the public good apart from or in opposition to market arrangements. They welcomed them.
Not Obama. To be sure, there were times in the first two years of his administration when exigent circumstances caused the difference to fade from view; times when one could suppose, without undue strain, that Obama fell, say, in the Ted Kennedy mold. Apparently, Kennedy himself thought so, and so did other dinosaurs left over from the pre-Clinton Democratic Party. But Obama and the old-line liberals held different ideologies, even if their policy prescriptions sometimes overlapped.
No doubt, Obama favors a more democratic and egalitarian conception of justice than the average libertarian; and he is surely not opposed, as most libertarians are, to the values implicit in the call for “liberty, equality and fraternity.” He is not a man of the right but rather, as he and his defenders proclaim, of the center – in the ideal or notional sense of that term, according to which a centrist stands between genuine progressives and genuine conservatives (and can go either way depending on the balance of political forces). But he is a libertarian, not a liberal, even so — because unlike the liberals in whose ranks conventional wisdom casts him, he is an enthusiastic, not a reluctant, free marketeer.
According to some of his defenders, Obama is a “pragmatist,” a non-ideological politician, unencumbered by principles (though that implication of what pundits call “pragmatism” is, for obvious reasons, seldom stressed). But even allowing that this is a possible position – in other words, that one can be an adroit tactician without being guided by any ideologically-driven strategy — the description plainly does not apply to Obama. As much as any bona fide (right-wing) libertarian, he is guided by the idea that market arrangements, left undisturbed, lead, as if by an invisible hand, to the best of all possible worlds.
Thus his politics is more like, say, Charles Murray’s than Ted Kennedy’s; philosophically, if not at a policy level, it is of a piece with the so-called new libertarian thinking that emerged in the 1980s when, having vanquished social democrats and liberals politically, the right still had to consolidate its victory ideologically. New libertarianism was the answer. The old libertarian view, made new again by benighted Tea Partiers, was that justice requires that people be “free” to endure the vicissitudes of capitalist markets. Old libertarians decry state assistance on the grounds that doing good is bad inasmuch as people deserve their market-generated due, and therefore insist that the state do nothing to enhance equality or social solidarity. New libertarian thinking was kinder and gentler; it held that efforts to improve the condition of the badly off through non-market means were laudable but wrong-headed because, in one way or another (for example, by creating a “culture of poverty”), they make outcomes worse. The new libertarians did not directly take on the progressive ideals the left advanced; if anything, they supported them. What they claimed is that the way to achieve those goals, the only effective way, is to let markets do their beneficent work. To this day, that thought remains the public face of the libertarian “lamestream.”
Obama’s faith in markets resembles theirs. If his policy prescriptions appear more like Kennedy’s than, say, Rand Paul’s, it is only because he has a more realistic view than Paul or other self-identified libertarians of what states must do to help markets achieve their wondrous effects. As a matter of principled conviction, Obama agrees with the libertarian right that they should do as little as possible. He differs from Tea Partiers and other Republicans only on empirical grounds – because he has a more sensible view than they do of what, in real world conditions, as little as possible involves.
Realizing that Obama is a libertarian explains a great deal: why, for instance, in the debate over “Obamacare,” the “public option” was dispensable window-dressing, while the “private option” was never in question. It explains Obama’s readiness to let Wall Street call the shots, and his attack on business regulations. It explains why Obama is so eager to get the most shameless corporate types into his administration, and why, on matters of war and trade and other issues of immediate concern to capitalists, he can’t do enough for them – to the detriment of his core constituencies. These are not just political maneuvers or expressions of unrequited bipartisan yearning, and neither are they concessions to ineluctable constraints. They are misguided but principled positions that actually make conventional liberalism look good.
And it explains Obama’s “bipartisan” endeavors too. To conclude as I began, with yet another familiar trope, just as “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” neither can a Reagan-besotted executive committee of the entire ruling class.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.