Much ink and many pixels have been spilled in disputations over the nature and significance of neoconservatism, particularly as this tendency appears to be the dominant political motif of the present administration. Much of the discussion has been, well, not so much a discussion as an exchange of incandescent invective, and, when it has not been so intemperate, it has tended towards the obfuscatory, as in the attempt to deny that there actually exists a definable tendency corresponding to the term "neoconservatism". Fortunately, prominent neoconservative Michael Novak has obliged those pining for a succinct exposition of neoconservatism. That interview, however, requires some interpretation; for, like a scriptural text, the story of neoconservatism is not a fit one for private interpretation, particularly the self-interpretations of those who authored it. Unlike a scriptural text, which is best interpreted from within the tradition out of which it arose, neoconservatism is best interpreted by outsiders. After all, is it not the case that we are often understood best by those who are, well, not us?
To this end, I propose to provide an interpretation of select passages from the linked Novak interview, refraining from emotionally-freighted language; imagine the deadpan delivery of Bob Dole, and you will have in mind the intended tone.
In the first generation, virtually all neo-conservatives—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Paul Johnson in England—were not only Democrats; we were on the left wing of the Democratic Party. We were Kennedy Democrats. But from about 1972, the Democratic Party, drawing the wrong lessons from the war in Vietnam, chose as its campaign slogan, “Come home, America!” and began retreating from the world and its international burdens.
Neoconservatism, whatever the merits, or lack thereof, of the Democratic response to the mounting catastrophe of Vietnam, is constitutionally internationalist and interventionist in its approach to foreign policy, as evidenced by the "retreating from burdens" terminology. Neoconservatism also speaks of "wrong lessons" and, by implication, "right lessons" to be drawn from the failure of this vision; this possesses an enduring relevance for an understanding of the tendency, though the relevancies themselves may stand in an ironic relation to neoconservatism itself.
Then, after 1973, the Democratic Party increasingly became the party of abortion. It is still the party of abortion. From our point of view, we did not leave the Democratic Party, the party left us.
Social issues have figured in the development of neoconservatism, although the evolution of the tendency leaves open the question of whether they are integral to it. Moreover, neoconservatism is the result of the movement of the Democratic party; which, being interpreted, is to say that neoconservatism is the preservation of the consensus liberalism that postwar conservatism coalesced to oppose, finding it something worth standing athwart.
Many of us once thought that socialism was basically a good idea, but socialists had not found a practical way to implement it successfully. Then we actually started to examine the many different national experiments in socialism—almost 70. None of them worked. So socialism cannot be a good idea.
Commendably, having been left by their ancestral political home, the neoconservatives re-examined the socialist legacy and found it wanting. It is never too late to welcome the prodigal son.
Now, if you are on the Left and you cease being a socialist, what are you? If you do not take the state as the main engine of progress, where do you turn?
Neoconservatism is an essentially progressivist impulse; note that the acknowledgment of the failure of socialism did not occasion an interrogation of the notion of progress, but rather a search for an alternative philosophy for that vessel.
Like socialists, neoconservatives try to imagine, and to work toward, a better future. Unlike socialists, neoconservatives saw in a dynamic free economy a better way of breaking the chains of poverty than socialism ever discovered.
Neoconservatism, as a form of progressivism, is concerned less for what we have been than for what we might be. The future authorizes the present; and the future of a freer, more dynamic economy validates action in the present, and liberates us from the constraints of the past - the "chains of poverty". Capitalism is the engine of human liberation, the revolutionary principle at work within society.
At this point, a misconception must be corrected, lest it lead to greater misunderstanding. It might be thought that to the extent that the future figures in conservative thought, the future would be conceptualized as like the past, but characterized by, say, greater fidelity to the traditions that have defined us as a people, by a renewed resolve to pursue justice and right order. And these considerations are not absent from neoconservatism. But the narrative of conversion from socialism to capitalism seems to be foregrounded. It must not, on this account, be thought that neoconservatism neglects the weightier matters of the common good; no, neoconservatism merely assimilates them to a particular conception of political economy.
Capitalism forms morally better people than socialism does. Capitalism teaches people to show initiative and imagination, to work cooperatively in teams, to love and to cherish the law; what is more, it forces persons not only to rely on themselves and their own moral qualities, but also to recognize those moral qualities in others and to cooperate with others freely.
With this generalization, neoconservatism does not run too far afield, if the historical experiences of those nations that have 'experimented' with socialism are at all indicative. Nevertheless, the neoconservative affirmation of self-reliance is not untinged by irony, as we will see.
If you are running a company in 15 different cities, you have to trust your local manager to be telling the truth. You just cannot afford for them not to be telling the truth. This elevates the standard of truth in society. And if they’re not telling the whole truth, they’ll be fired. There’s a reverse incentive in socialism: People develop an interest in reporting only good news, and they don’t dare to tell the truth.
Neoconservatism, we now see, building on the foregoing, regards as a matter of justice, progress, and the moral development of the people the evolution of corporations which may maintain offices in fifteen different cities, and not necessarily all American cities, at that. The nature of this example is illustrative; Novak could well have argued that small proprietors and the towns they serve, by virtue of the responsibility they exercise over their properties, and the mutuality requisite to their ordered prosperity, illustrate the virtue-forming properties of a free economy, but did not. This generates numerous aporias, as such large corporations as often as not inhibit the formation of social trust by setting employees against management in struggles over outsourcing, undermine responsibility by privileging profitability over communal stability, stifle initiative by concentrating wealth and property, and devalue truth by means of the manipulation of abstract forms of property. Perhaps the clear moral advantage of this form of capitalism, then, lies in its progressive tendency to liberate from the shackles of the past, as the remainder of the ledger is rather ambiguous. This is a profound mystery.
In most nations, the most brilliant, the most artistic, the most creative products are lovingly produced by small entrepreneurs. You can get workmanship in Italy that you can’t get anywhere else in the world, and it is usually produced by small companies.
Neoconservatism acknowledges the vitality and importance of the small enterprise, yet assumes that enterprises of this nature are of the same fundamental order as big business, despite the vast differences between private ownership, with its attendant responsibility, and the diffused and abstract forms of ownership characteristic of large, publicly-traded corporations, their bureaucratic management cultures, and their homogenized products. The very structure of such a corporation is private only in the nominal sense that it is not public, as in "state-owned", and conducive to the evasion of responsibility, as evidenced by corporate bankruptcy proceedings and, occasionally, liability proceedings. Nevertheless, small businesses tend to anchor local communities, and are thus inclined to stability; they are unprogressive, and we are apparently in a hurry, as was once said of a certain type of progressive.
In summary, then, neoconservatism is the lineal descendant of consensus liberalism, interventionist in foreign affairs (nationalist as opposed to patriotic), and favours economic concentration. These things represent progress. The reader may colour the outline as desired.