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American Conservatives Are Anything But : Their Drastic Notions Lack the European Discipline of Reason

March 01, 1987|WILLIAM PFAFF | William Pfaff writes a column in Paris

The United States is a deeply conservative society and will remain one long after the Reagan Administration has been interred in the history books and the liberals are again in power. America's liberals are not actually very far on the left, by any comparison with the left in the rest of the world, while America's conservatives, or neo-conservatives, are not conservative at all. A comparison with Western Europe shows this, and suggests why it is dangerous. The United States deserves a more serious conservative movement than it now possesses, and certainly it needs it.

European conservatism is pessimistic about history. It believes in original sin, or in the secular counterpart of that idea--that mankind is fatally flawed, disposed to crime and cruelty. It holds that the institutions of law and political order are fragile accomplishments of civilization, constantly at risk. It defends the established order and distrusts change.

America's new conservatives do just the opposite. They adore change and reject the past. They believe in political evil, certainly, but they look upon it as conveniently contained in a few locations, notably the Soviet Union, or confined to a political group, that on the left. They do not believe that society itself is irremediably flawed, but rather that it steadily progresses, and that American society itself is a kind of secular promised land.

They are deeply optimistic, at least about America, and they look to the future. They are willing to overturn established institutions because of their confidence in making everything better. Thus they are enthusiastic about dismantling government, deregulating commerce, breaking up great corporations. As former Budget Director David A. Stockman has testified, they even were willing to push the country deliberately into deep debt on the theory, disproved in the event, that this would force the executive and Congress to cut back on federal spending.

In short, these "conservatives" are actually very radical in their ideas and in their willingness to provoke drastic changes in society in the name of unproven ideas and a sectarian ideol1869052206and anarchists.

The modern European conservative is represented by such figures as the late Raymond Aron, a political analyst in a tradition that includes Tocqueville in France and Edmund Burke in Britain. It is hostile to ideology and concerned with protecting not only liberty but social justice as well. It regards civilization as fragile and distrusts radicalism.

The modern British conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, describes nations as sailing "a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat. . . . " That scarcely sounds like Ronald Reagan, or even Irving Kristol.

The most visible of modern American conservatives, the man who first made Americans aware of what claims to be a new American-style conservatism, is William F. Buckley Jr. He recently wrote a column commending the efficiency with which the Argentine military oligarchy of a few years ago ended terrorism in their country. It "acquiesced" (note the weasel word) in "kidnappings, torture and executions of those suspected of conniving with (terrorists)."

Buckley proposed creation of a new international anti-terrorist agency to apply the Argentine method, so as to produce "the extinction of a species," the terrorist species, by killing them, posting bounties for delivery of them dead, and by causing "the gradual e1668247151sanitation" of "prohibited zones" such as Lebanon, where terrorist bases exist.

This, of course, is not conservatism but a form of rightist radicalism, prepared to disregard or destroy the established norms of international conduct in order to deal with a peculiarly repugnant but nonetheless ephemeral, and, in terms both of lives lost and real political consequences, objectively trivial phenomenon, international terrorism.

Buckley concedes that, for Americans, his plan "raises constitutional problems."

It raises problems more serious than constitutional ones. It always has been hard to take American conservatism seriously, precisely because of its failure to grasp the radical implications of the things it so innocently proposes, or indeed does. Under the Reagan presidency it has attacked other countries, attempted to kill their leaders, tried to overthrow other governments, authorized subversion and kidnappings, and might even do the things Buckley proposes, without ever grasping how all of this contributes to the moral subversion as well as the institutional breakdown of international society.

Lord Acton, the great 19th-Century historian, who was truly a conservative, said of this idea that law and established convention count for little against the popular cause of the moment:

"The fate of every democracy, of every government based on the sovereignty of the people, depends on the choice it makes between these opposite principles, absolute power (of popular emotion) on the one hand, and on the other, the restraints of legality and the authority of tradition. It must stand or fall according to its choice."

One would like to introduce Lord Acton to Mr. Buckley and the "conservatives" of the Reagan White House; but they would not understand him, and he would undoubtedly be astounded by them.

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