Peter Saunders likes to call himself a classical liberal. Leftist commentators prefer to call him a neoconservative. But what is neoconservatism and how does it differ from ordinary versions of conservatism? And what has he done to earn the label?
Andrew Norton says that "nothing in the contemporary Australian scene" qualifies as neoconservatism. Jason Soon isn’t so sure. Jason thinks that Peter Saunders can be described as neoconservative because many of his views are similar to Irving Kristol‘s — the most neoconservative of all neoconservatives. Both Andrew and Jason have worked with Saunders at the Centre for Independent Studies and Andrew currently edits the CIS’s journal Policy. Both ought to know what they’re talking about.
There’s a sense in which Jason is right. Saunders views on welfare and social policy can justifiably be described as neoconservative because they are strikingly similar to the views of thinkers like Irving Kristol. Saunders’ views are conservative but not traditionally conservative. And because they can’t be described as classically liberal it’s difficult to think of a label which fits better than neoconservative.
But if you think the defining features of neoconservatism are membership of a loose network of New York intellectuals, a radical and hawkish approach to US foreign policy, and an allegiance to the esoteric doctrines of Leo Strauss, then Saunders is obviously not a neoconservative. As Andrew would say, nobody in Australia falls into that category.
Who is Peter Saunders?
There are two Peter Saunders who write about welfare, poverty and social policy. One of them works at the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) while the other works for the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). The SPRC’s Peter Saunders was trained as an economist and argues that Australian governments should do more to reduce poverty and inequality while the CIS’s Peter Saunders was trained as a sociologist and argues that Australian governments should do less to reduce poverty and inequality.
To make sure nobody gets confused, Paddy McGuinness has given them separate labels:
Professor Peter Saunders the Good [SPRC] … has to be carefully distinguished from his dark-side counterpart in the Centre of Independent Studies, Professor Peter Saunders the Bad, lest the enlightened fall into error.
Like his namesake, ‘bad’ Peter Saunders has authored a number of books. The first was a rather dry text on urban sociology that argued that countries like Britain were moving from a socialized mode of consumption to a privatized mode of consumption (pdf). Another was a much more accessible text titled ‘Capitalism: A Social Audit‘.
What is neoconservatism?
Not even NRO’s Jonah Goldberg can define neoconservatism concisely. "Ultimately" he says, "there’s literally no defining attribute one can ascribe to neoconservatism which cannot be easily and substantially falsified with numerous counterexamples." It took Jonah three long articles to give readers enough background to use the term competently (you can find them here, here, and here).
As Andrew Norton says , many Australian commentators haven’t managed to pass the competency test. Wilson da Silva, for example, managed to confuse neoconservatism with classical liberalism by announcing that Friedrich Hayek was the ‘godfather’ of the neoconservative movement. Even left leaning bloggers like John Quiggin had to agree that Andrew had a point.
But amongst all the confusion and controversy there’s one thing everyone agrees on. Anyone who knows anything about American conservatism agrees that Irving Kristol is a neoconservative. And long before neoconservatism became identified with the hawkish foreign policies of the current Bush administration, it was a label for a group of intellectuals who clustered around a magazine called the Public Interest. Founded by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, the magazine took a sceptical view of efforts at planned social change.
Worried that this scepticism would stall the development of an American welfare state, socialist writer and activist Michael Harrington dubbed these intellectuals ‘neoconservatives’. For "all the decency and intelligence of its proponents," he said, the neoconservatives were "unwittingly doing the work of the reactionaries who will have unchallenged dominance over the collectivism of the 21st century…" (Dissent Fall 1973 p 454).
One of the major themes in Kristol’s work was the idea that people needed a moral framework that gave their lives meaning and that justified the distribution of rewards within society:
My reading of history is that, in the same way as men cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.
Kristol was appalled by classical liberal thinkers like Hayek who freely admitted that free markets didn’t reward people with what they deserved. He wasn’t appalled because he thought that Hayek was wrong. He was appalled because Hayek was undermining the public’s faith in the idea that talent and hard work (along with a bit of luck) would lead to success.
For Kristol capitalism rested on fragile cultural foundations. Unless citizens maintained their attachment to bourgeois values like honesty, sobriety, diligence and thrift, the free market society would collapse. "For well over a hundred and fifty years now," said Kristol "social critics have been warning us that bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy, and that once this capital was depleted, bourgeois society would find its legitimacy ever more questionable."
Kristol believed that intellectuals had a responsibility to tread carefully when they spoke in public. It may well be the case that wealth and privilege have become hereditary in America — after all, parents endow their children with much more than their genes — but it was irresponsible to draw attention to this. It’s far better to say, as Kristol always did, that talent is distributed according to a bell shaped curve and so is income. If you’re poor it’s not because you’re being oppressed or discriminated against, it’s because you’re just not hard working or smart enough. Put your nose to the grindstone and maybe your luck will change (or maybe it won’t).
What’s ‘neo’ about neoconservatism?
Up until the late 1960s, the dominant tendency in American conservatism was ‘fusionism‘ — an alliance between free market libertarians and traditional conservatives. Anti-communism was the glue that held the alliance together. The movement’s key thinkers clustered around a magazine called the National Review and attached themselves firmly to the Republican Party. The early neoconservatives were different. Emerging from the milieu of the New York intellectuals, neoconservatives like Kristol and Bell were more interested in culture than in economics or sociology. Kristol thought that National Review was too right wing and lacking in intellectual muscle. He had no sympathy at all for Republicans like Barry Goldwater.
The cultural upheavals of the late 60s made Kristol’s ideas more relevant and with help from philanthropies like the John M Olin Foundation he was able to help set up a network of magazines which included the New Criterion and the National Interest. Eventually he moved from moved from New York University (where he was John M Olin Professor) to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Bill Baroody Sr — the think tank’s head — sought him out after reading the Public Interest. As Kristol remembers, Baroody:
…calmly ignored the fact that not a single one of us was at that time a Republican, a fact that caused much outrage among Goldwater conservatives who were the main financial support for the AEI (p 33).
The early neoconservatives emerged from very different intellectual networks and traditions to America’s more established conservatives. Kristol may have ended up supporting many of the policies of the Reagan administration, but his motivations for this were quite different to those of establishment conservatives.
Is Peter Saunders a neoconservative?
Strictly speaking Saunders could never be a neoconservative. He’s English not American and has no deep links with the institutions which have fostered neoconservative thought. But in another sense, the label fits. Saunders’ views on culture and politics are surprisingly similar to Irving Kristol’s.
Like Kristol, Saunders started out supporting a left of centre party — the British Labour Party. Saunders believed that Britain needed to move away from what he called a ‘socialized mode of consumption’ to a more ‘privatized mode of consumption.’ By this he meant that while governments needed to make sure citizens were able to obtain health care, transport and housing it no longer made sense for these things to be provided by government. So when the Labour Party tried to stop working class people from buying their government owned houses, he realised that he no longer belonged.
While Kristol’s inspiration came from thinkers like Leo Strauss and Lionel Trilling, Saunders has been more influenced by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. But despite the difference in their backgrounds, both take the same position on Hayek and distributive justice. According to Saunders:
Hayek goes on to say that in a system of free market capitalism, sometimes very deserving people will fail and scoundrels can succeed. Awful people, morally reprehensible people can get lucky, and those who are more deserving will get nowhere. Hayek says that that is the price you pay for a free society.
While he is to be admired for his honesty, Hayek was an economist and a legal philosopher, not a sociologist. A sociologist would heartily disagree with Hayek’s conclusions. As Durkheim said 100 years ago, in order for any society to work and function with stability, it has to have a clear sense of how it justifies its arrangements to those who live in it. Hayek’s ‘like it or lump it’ stance is unproductive because it will never provide legitimation and justification for a free capitalist society. It does matter why people end up where they do and with the resources they end up with. The reasons are important, and the questions must be answered.
Again, Saunders doesn’t say that Hayek is wrong about how capitalism actually works. Like Kristol his objection is that Hayek doesn’t conceal the truth.
In the postmodern era, we have no confidence in the correctness of our own moral judgments and we therefore shy away from judging others. Even government has become morally relativistic, decoupling welfare provision from any duty on the part of the recipients to behave in a certain way or to assume any responsibility for their own condition. The language of moral duty has fallen into disuse. Today, there are only different lifestyle choices, each equally valid, and ethics has become a matter of individual taste (p 118).
This is Saunders’ objection to free market libertarianism. Like Kristol he argues that capitalism depends on shared values — values like self reliance and mutual obligation. He also argues that government has a role in maintaining these values:
Because a society’s laws and formal rules are its most visible and symbolically significant statement of its collective morality, legal and administrative changes shift the public perception of what is ‘acceptable’ or even ‘normal’ behaviour. By shifting the laws in response to social changes, governments therefore underpin and reinforce the existing direction of change.
The conviction that the state ought to embody a particular moral tradition is a conservative idea rather than a liberal one. But the claim that it should do this for self-consciously pragmatic reasons is what sets Kristol’s neoconservatism apart from orthodox conservatism which grounds morality in religious faith or cultural loyalty. And to the extent that Saunders shares this approach, he too might be described as a neoconservative. After all, what better label is there?