What now for conservatives? Andrew Bacevich says they should advocate restraint–economic, personal, cultural, and in the foreign policy sphere. He contrasts this with the liberal culture of “unchecked individual autonomy,” “Ponzi scheme” capitalism, and neoconservative foreign policy. Damon Linker replies that what Bacevich advocates is tantamount to a culture of authoritarianism.
I agree with Linker that there’s no going back to a pre-modern culture and politics of authority–and we wouldn’t want to even if we could. (I’m also not sure that’s what Bacevich is proposing; in his book The Limits of Power he writes quite positively about the movements for expanding human freedom in the 20th century and laments conservatives’ opposition to them; see pp. 26-27.) Yet I don’t think Linker grapples seriously enough with the problem that some forms of liberalism face: if freedom of choice is the highest good, then it’s difficult to make the case for any restraint on human appetite. This is true even if freedom is only the highest political good, as that arch-liberal Lord Acton held. The reason is that sometimes we have to choose collectively in light of a greater good than the sum of individual desires.
Or at least it seems to me. A Millian harm principle might get you a good distance toward curtailing human selfishness, but is it enough, for instance, to get us to care for the environment, even if that might mean lowering our material standard of living? Or to work toward justice for people living in absolute poverty? Linker is right in my view to defend the “modern, liberal order” that “valorizes consent and individual choice,” but somehow that order needs to be balanced with a sense of limits and restraint. Bacevich’s writing thus can provide a useful corrective.