Ramesh Ponnuru points us to a debate, begun here by the recently ubiquitous Brink Lindsey, and continued here (Ponnuru), here (Lindsey), and here (Ponnuru), with recent interventions by Peter Wood here and here.
Let me begin at the beginning. Here’s the contradictory core of Lindsey’s argument:
[After the 60s, a] strong work ethic and belief in personal responsibility, a continued commitment to the two-parent family as the best way of raising children, and a robust patriotism all survived the Aquarian challenge. Meanwhile, a host of hopeful indicators showed that the country’s frayed social fabric was on the mend....
Conservatives deserve considerable credit for restoring American society to relative health and vigor. Ironically, though, conservatism’s successes ended up making the world safe for the secular, hedonistic values of Aquarius. Traditional attitudes about race, sex, the role of women in society, the permissible scope of artistic expression, and the nature of American cultural identity have all taken a beating.
I think Lindsey is all to confident that the characteristics and attitudes that sustain the prosperity that he clearly loves can survive the acid bath of the Aquarianism he also clearly loves. Hence I don’t share his conclusion:
What should [conservatives] be seeking to conserve? The great American heritage of limited government, individual liberty, and free markets seems the only viable answer. As Peter Berkowitz has frequently and wisely noted, a truly American conservatism must have at the core of its concerns the defense and preservation of the liberal tradition. Which makes it a special kind of conservatism indeed: Its function is not to arrest change generally, or even slow it down, but rather to preserve the institutions that are both the chief source of change and the primary means through which we adapt to new conditions.
[M]uch of what has defined modern social conservatism — namely, political resistance to the incessant cultural change engendered by economic development — is not authentically conservative at all. It is reactionary.
It turns out that the core middle-class values that sustain a free society can survive — indeed, they can thrive — even as various historically contingent embellishments are dropped along the way. Look, for example, at blue-state New England today, where the most pronounced sort of cultural liberalism coexists with some of the highest incomes per head and lowest levels of social dysfunction (crime, divorce, illegitimacy, etc.) in the country.
I can’t believe that Lindsey buys this liberal chestnut! Has he considered that these numbers in New England have to do with the relative homogeneity of the region, the persistence of traditional religion (much of it Roman Catholic) among the working class, and the paucity of big cities. I’d be willing to bet that Boston and Hartford probably don’t look too different from other big cities. Consider, for example,
this comparison. Here’s the 2004 crime data for Hartford, Boston, and, say, Mongomery, Alabama and Atlanta.
I suppose if we depopulated the country, largely getting rid of poorer minorities and importing lots of well-to-do refugees from dysfunctional cities, we could perhaps have New England-style social statistics and the kinds of attitudes Lindsey finds congenial. But that’s not the real world, not even the real world at the end of Lindsey’s history.
This post is getting way too long. I’ll deal with the other interventions in the debate in another post.