The End of Conservatism and the Rebirth of Politics: Michael Anton
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The End of Conservatism and the Rebirth of Politics: Michael Anton

September 11, 2019


MATTHEW SPALDING: Good evening. Welcome. It’s good to have you. I’m Matthew Spalding, the
Associate Vice President Dean for Hillsdale College,
here in Washington, DC. Welcome to the Allen
P. Kirby Center for Constitutional
Studies and Citizenship, which is our forward
deployment of Hillsdale College in the nation’s capitol. Hillsdale College,
as most of you know, is an old institution
based in Michigan, founded in 1844, that from the
beginning was anti-slavery, and opened its doors to all,
regardless of race, religion, or sex. And today it remains
vigorously independent, among other things not
accepting any government money. And the reason we do that is
to maintain our independence, so that we can remain a trustee
of the Western philosophical and theological inheritance,
tracing to Athens and Jerusalem, which we believe
find its clearest expression in the American idea– the American experiment. Our mission is to
teach those ideas, and it follows that we have
always been less interested in labels and isms
like conservatism, and more interested in thoughts
and actions of politics. We’d rather focus on
conserving the liberating principles of the American
Revolution, for instance. And so we teach about
politics, constitutionalism, and the prudence of
statecraft, which is what we will be teaching
at our graduate school we will soon be opening
here in Washington, DC to teach those things. Our speaker today
is Michael Anton, who is a lecturer and research
fellow here at the Kirby Center. He received his BA
from the University of California at Davis, a
master’s of liberal arts degree from St. John’s
College in Annapolis, and a master’s
degree in government from the Claremont
Graduate University. Prior to joining
Hillsdale College, he served in the
Trump administration as Deputy Assistant
to the President for Strategic Communications. He’s written for numerous
publications, many of which you’ve seen– some famous, some
infamous, I supposs– including the Washington
Post, the journal– Wall Street Journal,
Weekly Standard, and I know he’s also a senior fellow
at the Claremont Institute. The topic this evening, “The End
of Conservatism and the Rebirth of Politics.” Mike Anton. [APPLAUSE] MIKE ANTON: This
is kind of scary. It reminds me of Peggy Noonan’s
little book on speechwriting, and she said that people’s
number one fear typically is public speaking. I’ve actually had to do it a lot
over the last year and a half or so, and I thought it had
gotten kind of easy, you know, nothing to worry about. And so I asked Matt,
well, what do you want? Do you want me to script
something out, or just get up there and wing it? Because that’s what
I’ve been doing lately. He’s like, you don’t
have to script it out, but you don’t really
want to wing it, either. So I wrote an outline. [LAUGHTER] Matt actually came
up with the title. I came up with something
incredibly witty, like “The Proper Relationship
Between the General and the Particular,”
and I sent that to him. And he wrote back an email– I can’t remember– he
spelled out the word. I can’t remember if
it was groan or yawn, but it was one or the other. [LAUGHTER] And so I said, all right, I
got to think of something else, then. And he said, what about this? That’s good. That’s good. That works. I can talk about that. Open with a little warning– one of my favorite
teachers– not a teacher, because I never knew him,
but I read all the books, and studied his arguments
with care, Leo Strauss, said– I think it was in
a letter somewhere, he said, the title of a book
or a piece or an article should never reflect what’s
actually in the contents. You need to let the reader
figure that out for himself. So I’ll leave it to you to
figure out whether I actually do talk about the
end of conservatism and the return of politics. One of things you
learned from Strauss is, you read all the
platonic dialogues, and they’re all centered around
a what is question, right. So of course that’s
where we have to start. What is conservatism? I use Lincoln’s
definition from the– well I’ll tell you
where it’s from next. I’m getting ahead
of my own outline. “What is conservatism?”
said Lincoln, “is it not the adherence
to the old and tried against the new and untried?” It’s a decent
definition, I would say, but notice what Lincoln
does not say there. He doesn’t say
conservatism is true. He doesn’t say it’s good. He doesn’t say it’s right. He doesn’t say it’s just. He doesn’t say it isn’t any
of these things, either, but he doesn’t evaluate
conservatism at all. He just sort of
tells you what it’s trying to do in terms
of newness and oldness. So I would say we have to step
back conservatism can’t really be in itself a governing or
a guiding principle for what we’re trying to do. For instance, oldness. It’s the old and tried, right. Well as a graduate
student friend of mine once said in a seminar that
got incredibly heated– but in a good way– he said, you know what,
second only to the family, slavery is the oldest human
institution in the world. I wouldn’t say it’s good, right. As for it’s being tried– in Lincoln’s terms–
we know it works. I put that in quotes for– this
is for the C-Span audience. It works for the
slaveholder, right? Old and tried, therefore
then cannot be a standard for the good. What’s Lincoln doing here? He’s using rhetoric. He’s appealing to a
popular prejudice. The quote comes from
the Cooper Union speech, which if you’ve not read
it, I urge everyone to read it. It’s very long and complicated. It’s not his greatest speech,
it’s not his most stirring, but it’s his most
intellectually impressive. His law partner said,
in both awe and lament– because I think he felt like
it cost them a lot of money because Lincoln wasn’t
really working– that he spent the better
part of a year working on it. So at the time the speech was
given in February of 1860, before Lincoln’s
election to president– but it’s essentially made
him the Republican nominee– his Republican Party was
being accused of radicalism, and seeking to keep slavery
out of the territories. So they were being called
the anti-conservatives. They’re the rabble
rousers, the agitators. His great opponent– Lincoln’s,
that is, in 1858 and ’60– Stephen Douglas
appealed to the founders in support of his position
that slavery should be subject to a majority vote. Douglas said something like,
we should govern ourselves in this matter,
as in all matters, as did our
forefathers before us. So Lincoln said, OK, I’m
going to put that to the test. I’m going to go research
what they actually thought on this question. He delved through
tons of archives, and every single place
where a vote was taken on the question of
federal authority to exclude slavery
from the territories, he found that a majority, and
in most cases, a super-majority of those founders who
placed a vote said, we have the power
to keep it out. So Lincoln turns Douglas’s
argument back against itself. He destroys Douglas’s
appeal to the founders. They’re both making the same
appeal– we’re going back. We’re the conservatives. I’m the conservative– Lincoln’s
saying, I’m the conservative, you’re saying you’re
the conservative. Well who’s really
right on this question? So the argument is rhetorically
brilliant, I would argue, but intellectually limited. What is the American founding? Is not the new and the
untried, in a certain respect? The founders, they
called it an experiment. They used a Latin phrase,
novus ordo seclorum, a new order for the ages. Is there a conservatism
that must be open to risk and to the new? I would argue that of
course there should be, and I don’t think Lincoln
disagreed with me. What he’s doing in that
speech is rhetoric. That’s not an adequate– that
may be an adequate definition of conservatism, but
it shows the limits of what conservatism
is, or what it can do. So I’m going to
mention Strauss again. I think I’m going to mention
him at least one more time, just letting you know– after this. He taught that philosophy
is the awareness of permanent
problems, and one such is the inherent tension
between the right and the just on the one
hand, and adventurism or newness on the other. The Declaration
of Independence– I’m going to give you
a fairly long quote, but I think it’s very important. It says, “prudence
indeed will dictate that governments
long established should not be changed for
light and transient causes. And accordingly,
all experience hath shown that mankind are more
disposed to suffer evils while evils are sufferable
than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to
which they are accustomed.” So the point here is, if you
go too far in one direction, you get stasis and
injustice forever. Do you just accept
injustice and wrong because conservatism
is old and tried, and anything new is radical? You go too far in
the other direction, you get utopianism– every
evil must be righted. Every problem is urgent. We’ve got to do it right now. And whatever China and eggs
we have to break, not only is the cost worth
it, but there’s almost a moral
necessity to doing it. The only solution
here is prudence. You’ve got to know what to
do in a given circumstance. The American founders– you
can make a case either way, did they need to do what
they did when they did it. They had to argue about that. There were people who
didn’t want to do it, people who didn’t
want the revolution, and they made good arguments. I’m not saying they were right,
but they made good arguments. It’s not obvious. It requires prudence. Prudence requires
knowing the good, which requires philosophy. In other words,
conservatism has to look up to something above itself. The question of what it
conserves absolutely matters. Conservatism today–
from this point on, when I say conservatism,
put that in quotes, I mean kind of an ideology,
a mindset, in some respects an industry. Conservatism likes to say
that it has a philosophy. I also have that in quotes. But once you put an article
in front of the word– in other words, once
you say “a philosophy” or “the philosophy,”
the philosophy of so-and-so– you’ve changed
the meaning of the word. Philosophy literally
means, love of wisdom. It’s a process of reasoned
investigation that never ends. When you say, I
have a philosophy, you’re implying that the
investigation is over, that you’ve figured
everything out. But have you really? I just want to describe
a scene from a book that I love that I
urge you all to read. It’s called The Education
of Cyrus, by Xenophon, and it’s the story of the
founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, although
all the biographical details are made up, because
Xenophon is really not trying to tell you the biography
of the founder of the Persian Empire. He’s trying to teach
political lessons So young Cyrus has
a political project. He wants to take Persia and
make it into something else– make it bigger, grander,
better, richer, more powerful. And he runs into
the conservatism of the Persian peers, including
his own family, who are the constitutional monarchs. They don’t have a lot of power. They’re sort of like a
constitutional monarch today, symbols of the
principles of the regime. So as he’s going
out on his project, he has a conversation
with his father. And in this conversation–
by the way, book one, chapter six if you want
to read the conversation, which I recommend– he essentially says, I
know what I’m doing, dad. I know what the good is. I know what this
project entails. Don’t worry about it. Everything’s going to be fine. And his father is kind of
a stand in for Socrates in this conversation. He pokes holes in all Cyrus’s
arguments, and kind of shows that he doesn’t really. He’s not sure Cyrus is wrong,
but Cyrus doesn’t really know, and he has not examined his
own case for what the good is. This points to another one
of those insoluble problems or tensions. How do you act when you
don’t know what to do, when you don’t know
what is the good? So, famously, Socrates
always claimed that he only had knowledge of ignorance. Fundamentally, the only
true knowledge he had was knowledge of ignorance. He spent a whole lifetime
investigating the noble, and the good, and
the just, and he claimed that as he died he
still didn’t know what it was– 70 years old. Then again, if you never
act until you know, you’ll never act– paralysis. An analogy that I’ve used,
which is glib, but not therefore inaccurate is, you
can’t have a dielectric about the noble of the good
when a tank is coming at you. You’ve got to do something. You either got to get out of the
way, or try to stop the tank. So the important
thing, though, for– I wrote here, “study the good.” I’m trying to– that’s
a little bit glib. What I mean to say at this point
is you have to study the good, even with full
knowledge and awareness that you may never
get to a completely adequate understanding. If Socrates didn’t, then
we probably won’t either. But the fact that you never
get to a full and adequate analysis, a proof
of what the good is, doesn’t mean you no longer
have an obligation to study it, nor does it mean you
can’t ever figure out anything about what it is. The blessing from Socrates
and from other philosophers is to be humble about
what you think you know. Be open to change. There’s a famous quote,
often attributed to Lincoln– and I looked it up
thinking it was Lincoln; I was going to quote
it as Lincoln– but apparently nobody can
prove where it came from. It might have been
John Maynard Keynes. We don’t even know that, either. [LAUGHTER] But it’s good. It’s a good quote. It fits the purpose, right? “When the facts change,
I change my mind. What do you do?” So when conservatives
say they have a philosophy, what
they really mean is that they have an ideology. Some even use the
phrase, ideology, in a non-ironic
and positive way. Maybe it’s one of those words
that’s morphed over time, but initially it
meant something lower, something kind of
degraded in philosophy. What an ideology is a
kind of popular philosophy which presents conclusions
that philosophy leaves open. So the true philosopher of
course disdains ideology. But ideology is fine as long as
we recognize it for what it is, for its limitations. I would say it’s even
necessary in a practical way to solve the what now problem. In any political situation,
in any situation, you’ve got to deliberate
about what to do. We’re not allowed to just
step back and say, well, since I can’t make up my mind,
let’s just not do anything. Life doesn’t work that way. So we need an
ideology, but it always has to be open to revision. And that’s where I think
conservatism lost its way. Now, I’ll just say
this following. I’m not on Twitter. I intend never to be on Twitter. If you ever find me on Twitter,
come to my house and shoot me. [LAUGHTER] Quill pins, inkwells,
and parchment are my speed when it comes
to information technology. But I do know what a hashtag is. And if there were one hashtag
to define conservatism over the last decade at
least, maybe longer, it would be #Always1980. Now I have nothing against 1980. It was a good year
for me personally. I was 10, so I couldn’t vote. And I knew nothing about
politics, but I later learned– I came to appreciate Reagan,
and looked back with fondness that he won the 1980
election, that he rebuilt the military, that he cut
taxes, that he jumpstarted the America. All that stuff,
I think, is good. But Reagan’s policy solutions
were carefully designed and calibrated for his
time by Reagan himself. I just– I don’t have this
here, but just as a little aside, the most famous quote
from Reagan’s first inaugural is, “government is not the
solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” But everybody cuts
out– there’s a phrase before a comma right in front of
that, “in this present crisis.” “In this present crisis.” In other words, that’s
not a mantra for all time, not a mantra for every
crisis, and it maybe it’s not a mantra
for non-crisis. Anyway, conservatism
came to believe that Reagan’s
policies would work for all time– were timeless. Some probably are, but not all. And then there’s the
matter of priorities. When the top marginal tax rate
is 70%, as it was in 1980, tax cuts are very high priority. When they are in the
30s, not so much. Or if you want, instead of
1980, you could pick 1955. Why do I choose that? Because it’s the year of the
foundation of National Review. What is National Review doing? Fundamentally– no, you laugh. I’m not here to bury or
criticize National Review. It’s certainly not in
its 1955 dispensation. What did National Review– I mean, Buckley’s
big achievement there, aside from giving a
voice and venue to writers who didn’t have an outlet, was
to see these disparate threads that had maybe– that weren’t talking
to each other, but maybe had something in
common, and put them together. This came to be
called fusionism, and the three threads were the
traditional, religious slash conservatives who were very
concerned with morality, the economic conservatives
and the libertarians, and the foreign policy hawks. Again, necessary
to do for its time, and a spectacular
achievement in fact. So I’m not here
to criticize them. I’m here to criticize us,
and yes, that includes me. I was once a
movement conservative just like a lot of people
in this room– maybe most of the people in this room. So this is very much
a self criticism. My point is that Reagan,
Buckley, these people who met– and Lincoln– the people who met the
crises of their time did what the conservative
movement as I’ve seen it hasn’t been able to do in
the last 10 or 20 years. That is they went to a
reservoir of deeper ideas, and they used them to
examine their own time. What did Lincoln do? He went back to the
founding founding. The founders were asking
fundamental questions. What is the purpose of politics? What is the good society? What does justice require? What is justice itself? I want to tell a very
short anecdote there. So you know, I said,
every platonic dialogue is a what is question. That’s of course, the
question of the Republic– what is justice. So when Harvey
Mansfield was teaching in Berkeley in the
early ’60s, Leo Strauss spent a semester at Stanford. People who knew both of them,
Harry Jaffa in particular, said, you’ve got to go see
this guy as much as you can. Mansfield would drive across the
Bay and see Strauss every week, and they’d read The Republic,
and with some other students. And one of the
first things Strauss apparently asked him was
(HIGH PITCHED GERMAN ACCENT) what is the question at the
center of this dialogue? (IN OWN VOICE) And the room
was silent, and they’re like, he’s too important. What if I get the wrong answer
in front of this brilliant man? Nobody talked. The clock ticked by, and
finally Mansfield said, what is justice? And Strauss says, (WITH ACCENT)
yes, that’s the right answer. (IN OWN VOICE) And
he felt so relieved. I got the right answer. This genius recognizes that
I got the right answer. It was an easy question. He thought maybe there was
a trick in there somewhere. OK. We go back to the founding,
we get fundamental questions. We go back to 1980,
what do we get? We get tax cuts, enterprise
zones, small government, being tough on the Russians. Not that these are
bad things, but they don’t address the fundamental
issues of 2016 or 2018. So I’m going to give
you another quote. This is the chapter
title of book three, chapter one of the
discourses of Machiavelli. It is entitled, “if one
wishes a sect or a republic to live long, it is
necessary to draw it back off and toward its beginnings.” I’m not going to tell
you what he really means by that because it’s
a lot meaner than it sounds. But for conservatives,
the beginning is 1980, or maybe 1955. For some, I think, it even
moved further forward in time. And there’s a pretty big wing of
the conservative movement which now would say the
whole 1980 platform is much too mean and harsh. They’d maybe point to
compassionate conservative in 2000. One of the things
conservativism has done lately is it’s jettisoned a lot of
what is best in its useful past. So I would say
the real beginning for us is the founders– the American founding, and the
principles which underlay it, some of which are contemporary
to its time, some of which belong to the early modern
period, some of which go all the way back
to the classical era. Now conservatives all
agree– they say they all agree– the one thing they
will say they all agree on is they love the founding. They love the founding. But like Cyrus and the
good, in the conversation with his father, they
think they understand it, but I question whether
they really do. Now this is another
Strauss quote. I think is the last one. He wrote a book in
1949 called On Tyranny. 1949, it’s four years after
the end of World War II. Stalin’s conquered
half of Europe. He’s a very bad man, and the
Soviet Empire is going strong. Strauss writes an
analysis of tyranny, and he makes an indictment
against his fellow political scientists. He says, “when we were brought
face to face with tyranny, with a kind of tyranny
that surpassed the boldest imagination of the most
powerful thinkers of the past, our political science
failed to recognize it.” He’s essentially saying,
if you’re doctor, and I bring in to you a
terminal cancer patient, and you can’t even tell
me that he has cancer, then you don’t know
what you’re doing. Well, I would flip that
onto the conservatives. The American people
were presented with the most conservative
founder-like presidential candidate in a generation. Our conservatives
failed to recognize it. Now that, people, is
going to sound crazy. Trump is the least
conservative Republican ever. He deviates from
these principles all across the board. How can you say that? Well, what do you think
the founding is about? I think I know what– I’m going to guess at
what’s in the heads of a lot of the people in this room– liberty, freedom, rights,
equality, constitution. All those are essential. No doubt about it. But the real– the
core of the founding– what the founders are
trying to do is protection– the protection of
rights, the protection of persons, protection
of property, protection of the country itself– of the physical country
itself, of its communities, of its industries, and so on. If we go back to the founding,
the pre-founding beginning, the true beginning, we find
another fundamental philosophic distinction, that between
mere life and the good life. You can’t have the latter
without the former. The founders understood this. I’ll just make a small
aside, which I left out because it goes down
kind of a rabbit hole, but this is one of those
ancient to modern distinctions is the ancients and the
moderns would say, of course, you have to have mere life. Base protection is fundamental. No disagreement there. How much does the state,
or the polls, or whatever, get involved in the good life? The ancients would say, a
lot, right, maybe almost overwhelmingly. There’s a line floating
around out there that came up on an email list I’m on. It goes something like,
the ancient formula is, anything the law does
not command, it forbids. Whereas the modern formula
is, anything the law does not forbid, it permits. The founders would
say the state should have a lot less–
it should leave you free to pursue
the good life, have a lot less involvement,
but not zero involvement. They were not libertarians. They were strongly for
laws inculcating virtue, promoting religion,
and so on and so forth. Now I’m not saying
that our conservatives would deny any of this. They wouldn’t. They’d say, of course. Duh. And I do need to
give them credit. They’ve done some great
work on this theme. In particular, what
movement has done more to protect lives,
property, and society than the great crime-fighting
movement that was essentially launched by conservative
intellectuals– the Manhattan Institute– and put in
place by conservative mayors and governors since the
late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s one of the great
conservative policy success stories of my lifetime–
maybe the single greatest. But conservatism
failed to protect us in three fundamental ways– on immigration, trade,
and foreign policy. Now this is not a policy speech. I’m not going to go into
this in great detail, although I’m sure you’ll
all have questions, and I’ll have the
answer to them. And I do have strong
thoughts on all three, but I mostly want to answer why. Why didn’t they recognize it? So yet another philosophic
distinction, that between the form and the matter. In political terms, the form
is the regime or the principle, the matter is the people, the
land, the stuff, the buildings, the industries, the resources. There’s a line in
Francis Bacon where he quotes the dangers of
the little philosophy. “Little philosophy doth
incline men’s minds to atheism, but depth in the
subject bringeth them back around to God.” I think that’s exact. I’m not sure. I didn’t write it down. So conservatives, they
got a little philosophy about first principle, and
they fell in love with it. And essentially what
I think happened is they sloganized the
founding principles. They love to quote
the Declaration. We all quote the
Declaration, but we only quote the second paragraph. Everybody– “we hold these
truths to be self-evident.” Everybody knows the
second paragraph. Do you know the first paragraph? I’ll read it. When you hear me
emphasize my voice, and sort of yell a little,
that means it’s bolded. When it’s on the page, right? “When in the course
of human events it becomes necessary
for one people to dissolve the political
bands which have connected them with another, and to assume
among the powers of the earth that separate and equal station
to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle
them, a decent respect to the opinions
of mankind require that they should declare
the causes which compel them to that separation.” So what is the founding,
fundamentally– or at least at the basic level? It’s when we declared
ourselves people. The principles of
paragraph two are declared to be true for all mankind. But the founders would not
pretend that they had the power to apply them to all
mankind, nor would they say, even if they had
that power, that they had any right to do so. Remember, the separate
and equal station. It’s right there
in paragraph one. Nations are entitled to a
separate and equal station, “entitled by nature
and nature’s God.” Lincoln called the
second paragraph– Lincoln famously referred
to the Declaration itself as a merely
revolutionary document. It’s just stating fact. And he says, absolutely could
have written that document without the second
paragraph at all– didn’t have to put any
political theory in it. But it’s there to
state for all time the basis of
political legitimacy. This is how we define justice,
and how we base legitimacy in our regime going forward. It will no longer be
on the divine right of kings, or
aristocratic principles, or any of the things
that prevailed in Europe at the time. And Lincoln also said that
statement was in there in order to be forever a stumbling
block to future tyrants and future oppression,
that it would galvanize the minds
of the people, and make them more aware,
and more apt to fight back should such oppressors arise. So I would say the
reason that conservatives missed the Trump phenomenon
is because they don’t really understand trade and
immigration, which is because they don’t
understand first principle. Or maybe they forgot. I don’t know. I’m trying to be a
little more generous. They recoil at any talk as
Americans as a separate people, because they think this
violates some first principle. Now that’s maybe a little
bit of an overstatement, but it’s getting more
radical out there, I think, with the
immigration debate. They forgot the proper
relationship of the general– the form– to the
particular matters. Oh, there I got my title
into my lecture anyway. So on this question, the
ancients understand– Plato, and Aristotle, and
the founders– they agree. There is only one best regime. It’s true for all
times and places. It’s not always practicable,
meaning possible to set up, or even if you could set
it up, to make it last. And in fact, it very
rarely will be practicable. It’s practicability
depends on the matter, whether the given matter is
capable of sustaining it. And you all know the very
famous Ben Franklin quote. He walks out of the
Constitutional Convention. What did you give us,
Mr. Franklin, a monarchy or a republic? He says, “a republic,
if you can keep it.” That’s an awareness
of the importance of matter to the regime, that
the matter has to fit the form, and vice versa. The fact that there
are universal truths does not obviate another
fact, namely that all politics is inherently particular. There will always be
separate cities, nations, and countries entitled to
separate and equal stations. One of the points
of the Cyropaedia is to point out the limits
of that understanding. And essentially Xenophon, just
like Plato in The Republic, is making sort of
the same point. Ultimately the distinction
between citizen and non-citizen may be arbitrary
in the sense that– where the line is drawn. There is not always
a clear line. But that there will
always be a line is a fundamental fact
of human nature, which is why one world government
is both impossible and undesirable. Now this may definitely be– this is definitely glib, and
it may be slightly unfair, but not therefore
wholly inaccurate. I think conservatives allowed
their misunderstanding of form to convince them that principle
requires globalization. We are all Tom Friedman now
in the conservative movement. Certainly they think
it requires free trade. They think there’s some economic
principle that absolutely requires free trade,
and protection is the worst thing
you could possibly do, and it’s almost an affront
to the national dignity of every American. This is kind of hilarious. The very first law the
United States Congress passed after it
became operational was the Tariff Act of 1789. Now it wasn’t exactly
the first law. They passed a couple of sort
of housekeeping, managerial– but the first substantive
law they passed was the Tariff Act of 1789. You can’t appeal
to Lincoln, either. He was a thoroughgoing
protectionist, and the entire Lincoln-inspired
Republican Party that dominated American
politics from 1865 until the progressive era
was also protectionist. So I’m not denouncing
free trade. I’m saying, it’s a policy. It depends on the context. There are times in
which it’s good for us, and there are times in which
maybe it isn’t working out. It certainly worked out
extremely well for the United States from 1945 to 1965, maybe
you could stretch that to ’75. Actually Reagan understood
the dangers of free trade better than the conservatives
today who appeal to him, and introduced a number
of protectionist measures, and arguably saved
the US auto industry by doing things to
the Japanese auto industry that conservatives
today would find completely [INAUDIBLE] The founders on
immigration– similar. They knew it depended
on the context. In the founding era, you
see a lot of arguments from leading founders saying,
we have this giant continent. They didn’t have the
whole continent yet, but if you think
about it– and I think on the eve of the
revolution of the 13 colonies, there were about
3 million people. And they said, that’s
not enough people. We can’t even hold it. We can’t hold this land
with that many people. We need more people for our
own safety and security. They made this
argument, immigration is good for the
existing citizenry. Let’s welcome in some people. But they’re asking
the right question– do we, the people,
need more people? Sometimes we do. The failure to understand
principle, I would argue, also has real
rhetorical implications. I’m hearing this more and
more from conservatives. Any time you bring
up the particular, their immediate go-to, it’s like
just a gut reaction, or a rash, or something, is identity
politics, and that’s bad. That’s what the left does. It’s bad. Only talk about universals. Anytime you talk about anything
particular and not universal, you’re engaging in
identity politics. This misunderstanding
of principle, I think, is weaponized by the left, and
used against the conservatives. And they still haven’t
really caught on. I caught on. I’m trying to help them. They don’t to hear it. You can trust me. Your principles– the
left will say to them, your principles mean that
you must be for open borders. And they’ll go– [SIGHING] they don’t
want to believe, you know, but they think–
they tie themselves in knots trying to think
of a principled answer, or they give in and agree. The founders would
just simply say, what are you talking about? We the people get
to decide that. That’s the principle
of republicanism. And the founders
would also say– and this is an argument
that conservatives really get super upset about, is
that it depends on the matter, or the suitability
for republicanism of the people you’re admitting. They make this
argument very openly. We’re doing an
experiment, right. Remember, when the
founders found the United States of America, the lat– there’s really only
one arguably one– arguably two, I would
say, successful republics in the world at that time. Switzerland, or the
Swiss Confederacy, and the Netherlands,
and the Netherlands is nominally ruled by a
Hapsburg monarch out of Madrid. So the last experience that
the West had with republics would be the Renaissance,
and they were all disasters. The founders have to make– this
was The Federalist 1-6 was them making a case for why
republicanism is not a complete failure in human
terms, but it can be revived, and it ought to be revived. But then they say, if it’s
going to be sustained, we have to make sure that
the character of the people remains republican,
which they say has a lot to do with what we’re
going to do on immigration– sorry, on education policy–
but on immigration policy. Well conservatives
cannot bear that thought. They think it’s ruled
out by their principles, and as a result they concede
a huge amount of vital ground to the left, and
they lose arguments, which I think they/we have
been doing for a while. Another way we lose is to
accept the tyranny of expertise. The modern left, drawing
from Hegel and others, asserts that there
are no fundamentally political questions,
that is, just questions which there’s no
necessary right or wrong answer, or that is to say,
correct or incorrect answer. There might be a
right or wrong answer. There are only
issues or problems that are correct or incorrect. And naturally, the left
has all the solutions, and they have the
research university, which I analogize to the
pre-revolutionary monasteries of France, which Napoleon
spent a serious amount of time and effort breaking
up for good reason. And the analogy is more
apt than you think. I mean, they’re rich. I didn’t coin this
term, but I wish I had. I mean, I’m all for
Hillsdale’s endowment. May it grow in perpetuity. But colleges that are
teaching bad things and doing bad things to the
society, we have to recognize. They’re hedge funds with
these little schools attached. And another analogy to
pre-revolutionary France– remember, one of the reasons
that the French Revolution happened is because the nobility
didn’t have to pay taxes. The richest people
in the society didn’t have to pay taxes. Universities don’t pay taxes. The guys who manage their hedge
funds pay the so-called two and 20– no, sorry, the
investor pays that. And they get the carried
interest loophole. So they make a lot
of money, and they don’t have to pay
ordinary income tax on it. I call that the tax
exempt nobility. It’s certainly the tax
privilege nobility. It’s not good. So conservatism too often
foolishly accepts this, that, OK, all these are
questions of expertise, so we just have to come
up with a better argument. Well, we’re going to do
a better policy paper, we’re going to run the numbers,
and we’re going to win, so then our expertise will
get to decide the solution. But that’s not the game the
left is playing against them. I don’t think they realize it. It’s the game they tell
us they’re playing, and then I think we are
dumb enough to believe it. We’re losing the rhetorical
war because we don’t understand first principle. We don’t know how
to apply principle to the challenges of our time– and because we came to mistake
policies for principles. Almost done. There is a conservative
reaction against this, which I think is healthy
and good, but it’s inchoate, and there’s a problem
at its core, which is that the people who see
the problems with current– or a lot of them
who see the problems with current conservatism
say that the problem is the principle. They just equate principles
with universalism, and they say, so the solution is just
to abandon principle, and we’re just going to go back
to the particular altogether. It always tramples
the particular. I say, first of all,
that’s logically not true. I could explain it,
but it would take– there’s a bit of a
proof– it takes a bit– so I’ll skip that. But also, this is important, the
founders didn’t believe that. So to those in the
traditionalist right, or whatever we
want to call them, who invoke American history,
customs, traditions, et cetera, I sympathize all the time. I want to preserve all
of those things too. The fundamental question,
what is conservatism trying to conserve? Those are some of the
things conservatism ought to be trying to serve. But tradition fundamentally
is about the passion of love of one’s own. It’s the problem
with traditionalism, is it can’t give you an account
of why tradition is good. Some traditions are good. We should defend
them on that basis. But if you don’t know what the
good is, or have no idea what the good is, or if you deny
the existence of the good, you have no basis on which
to say tradition is good. That’s not my point here though. My point is, the founding
is– if love of one’s own is the passion that the
traditionalist want to take us back to, away from some sort
of radical particularism, well the founding is our own, so it’s
self-contradictory to denounce the founding principles,
or principles in general, and then say you want
to appeal to– it’s also self-defeating and
unnecessary– and then say, but we want to
appeal to America, and America is what
we’re trying to save. All right. So everybody– you’re
always supposed to on, what do we do now,
to which I would say, I don’t know. But I have some answers. The first task is to
understand principle correctly, and that’s within reach. We can do it, because
there’s books out there that explain it, and there’s
teachers who know it. There’s no reason
why we have to get first principle in such a mess. There’s no reason for it– at least there’s no reason
why we can’t clean that up. That’s achievable, and it’s
achievable in the near term. The second is to
just not be afraid. Once we learn the
principles, stop conceding rhetorical
ground to the left as if they understand our
principles better than we do, and keep losing. The third is we need
to have honest debates amongst ourselves about how
to apply principle to policy, and we have to recognize
that those debates are political debates. They’re not debates
about expertise, about correct and false. They are, in a philosophic
and perhaps theological sense, debates about right
and wrong, but we need to understand
that in a sense, the political sphere has been
either taken away from us or vastly constricted, and
we need to get it back. So we can look to the founders
for the first half for sure. We can look to the founders
for the second– be not afraid, and fight back. We can’t really look
to them for the third. Their ideas will not supply us
with recipes for today’s use. Only we living today can
possibly find the solution to the problems of today. They can give us the basis on
which to find those solutions, and that’s where we
need to start looking. And I think ultimately that’s
why I’m here at Hillsdale, working here now– dream job, very
happy to be here. I look forward to doing
it for many years to come. I think that’s what
the college is trying to do in a broad
sense, and I would include in all of that,
which I left out of the talk specifically, but not just
America, but the whole West– the whole West– the whole
civilizational project of the West is what
we’re trying to conserve, fight for, correctly understand. Whether we’re going to win– we can win the
argument, and then we’re going to win the fight. I don’t know. I didn’t write this part
down, but I will quote Machiavelli one more time. He lays out the sort of
fundamental alternative between two courses of action
in Discourses, book one, chapter six, and he says reason
can’t really make a case for either one of these. You know, you could argue
this, you could argue that. It’s got a strong case for
and against for both of them. So he says, take the honorable
course, and do this one. Take the honorable
course and fight, even if you think
you’re going to lose. I’ll end there. [APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 1: We have time
for some questions, and we have a couple of
microphones [INAUDIBLE] in the back. So, right there. AUDIENCE: Mr.
Anton, thank you so much for coming and speaking. Definitely thank you again. What I want to ask about is,
you mentioned Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was someone who
said that Henry Clay was his beau of an ideal
statesman, and yet Henry Clay would have been horrified
by the Homestead Act that Mr. Lincoln signed. It’s contrary to his policy of
how to form land in the West. So my question is, in terms
of in the administration of public policy from a
perspective of conservatism, but moreover trueness
to first principles, when does one in a sense
change one’s principles– not change principles, sorry– change how one has
planned to administer and work within
government versus what is the plans of the times. MIKE ANTON: I’m not sure
I understood the question. I’ll give you a little
pseudo-autobiographical account. I was always a free trader. I thought the conservative
principle demanded it. I didn’t study much
economics, but what I studied seemed like,
as a matter of expertise, free trade was superior,
and as a matter of justice it’s required. I took that view into
2015, and all of a sudden, here comes along a
presidential candidate who I liked what he was saying
on immigration for sure, and he made sense to
me on foreign policy, but I thought, on
trade he’s terrible. He’s nuts. He made me go back to
rethink it and look it up, just to try to figure something
out, revisit the arguments. He changed my mind on
trade– or he led me to the path of changing
my mind on trade, and I’ve come
around to this view that trade is not a principle. It’s contextual. It’s what’s good for
us in this moment– what’s good for the United
States, its citizenry, its communities, its industries,
and so on, in this moment. There may come a time
when the wide open trading system that we championed
around the world in the immediate post-World War
II era is good for us again, but it isn’t right
now, I don’t think. All of this stuff is contextual. That’s what I say
about prudence. There’s no easy answer to this. You have to come to it with a
decent understanding of what you’re trying to achieve
of what the good is– what the political good is. And then you have a debate
with your fellow citizens, and you see who wins, and
you see what gets enacted. So one other short anecdote. A couple of months
ago, I was invited to give a talk to this small
group of high-achieving people in Washington, and they come
in from around the country and they meet somewhere. I think the speaker canceled. That’s why. Oh yeah, I meant to say,
what do you guys all– it’s the All-Star Game, and
you’re here listening to me. I mean, did you not have
tickets or something? I feel bad for you. So they invite me,
and it’s a bunch of real Davos-quality oligarchs
in here, right– none of them household names
that I recognize, but everybody in there is in
some super-rarefied position in a corporation
or in the economy, and they hear me
give my little spiel, and they’re of course naturally
terrified and horrified. And this one guy
says to me, but I run a tech company in San
Bruno, and I can’t hire– you know. And I said, well, have you
tried paying them more? (STAMMERING) Well, you know– I– no, even at
any price, I can’t. And then it goes down this road. So what are you saying–
because I had made the argument, we don’t need more people
right now, at 347 million in the United States, it’s not,
at the moment, have a pressing need for more people. And, well, what am I
supposed to do to– so how do we decide
this question? I said, if the regime
operated the way it’s supposed to operate, and
you were Senator Smith, and I were Senator Anton,
we’d argue about this. We would debate it. You’d tell me why you
thought it was necessary. I’d tell you why I thought
it wasn’t necessary. We’d see who could
marshal the most votes. We would vote on it. We would make a
political decision. You might win that argument. I might win that argument. I don’t know, but
that’s not the ground on which we’re arguing
about it today, and that’s what fundamentally
needs to change. AUDIENCE: In the present
crisis, how can conservatives revitalize politics without
falling into polarization? MIKE ANTON: Well, I mean,
polarization amongst ourselves, or with the left? I mean, we’re already kind
of polarized with the left. And their actions have
a lot to do with that, and I don’t think we’re
going to talk them out of it. So a certain amount of that is,
if not necessarily, inevitable, and we just need
to deal with it. And in fact, one of the things
that I think conservatives do is they let themselves
get talked into believing that polarization is evil. But what the left
means is, it’s evil when you do it, so just
back down and agree with us. There are a lot of
high-minded conservatives who sort of think that
way– oh, we can’t, it’s just against my principle. Some polarization–
politics is a fight. I don’t remember the Latin,
but what’s that line in Latin? Aristotle is accustomed
to seeking a fight, right. You see it quoted a lot. And the point is,
when you’re arguing about important things– the noble, and the good,
the just, the true, the beneficial– people are going to draw lines,
they’re going to take sides, they’re going to get
mad at each other, and they’re going to
yell at each other. There’s no avoiding it. You don’t want it
to come to violence. You don’t want it
to come to division. But if avoiding polarization
is the highest good, we’re just going to keep on
the trajectory that we’re on, and I don’t think that’s
good or going to end well. AUDIENCE: Thank you so much
for speaking, Mr. Anton. When railing against the
tyranny of expertise, you said we’re losing a
rhetorical war because we make mistake policy for principle. It seems to me, though, that
President Trump won in 2016 in large part because of the
list of proposed Supreme Court nominees, a list provided by
the expert legal establishment of Conservatism Inc.,
the Federalist Society. How do you account for the huge
number of conservative voters who turned out explicitly
because of that list? MIKE ANTON: Because
it was a good list. [LAUGHTER] No, seriously. I’m not saying that there’s
no use for expertise. But let’s replace expertise
with a more important fundamental word, wisdom. Expertise is a specific
type of knowledge that claims to be
wisdom, but that is not. Of course we always want to be
guided by wisdom, by the truth, by knowledge of what is good. Good judges are better
than bad judges. I would turn to people who
know a whole lot about judges before making
judicial appointments, and I would listen
to their advice. But the fundamental
point is not that you don’t listen to advice, or that
you don’t listen to wisdom, or that you don’t gather
and process information. You’re not rejecting
those things because you’re
anti-intellectual, or you’re just
against knowledge. You’re saying that
your claim to expertise does not give you the final say. This is still a fundamentally
political question. So to take it back
to another one of those fundamental
tensions I was talking about, the final analysis, right– the classical argument is that
the only just claim to rule is wisdom. And then they
spend a lot of time undercutting that,
showing you all the inherent
contradictions, saying, well that’s never going to work. But you have to agree
with them in principle. The only just title
to rule is wisdom. If you know how to
rule, and I don’t– if you’re wise and I’m
not, you should rule me. The founders make this point
consistently in The Federalist Papers and elsewhere,
where they say, if there were a perfect
being– if God directly governed the affairs of men, of
course we would let him rule us without our consent as
a despot, or an angel, or something like that. But there’s no human
being who has that. We have to resolve these
questions for ourselves. They remain fundamentally
political, and always will. That’s just in
the nature of man. AUDIENCE: Thank you. You talked about
the relationship between the universals
and the particulars, and you said that
it was important that we don’t abandon
the universals and simply try to make decisions
based on particular issues. But in this talk we’ve heard
about the idea of protection and the good, and we’re
distancing ourselves away from traditional principled
movement conservatism in ideas like the need for
liberty and virtue to be combined, or in
terms of natural rights. So if we’re moving
away from those, and simply going
after the good, how do we stay away
from utilitarianism with that approach? MIKE ANTON: I’m not moving
away from natural rights, or liberty, or virtue. I would argue that it’s
movement conservatism that’s forgotten how to properly
interpret these things and link them together. That’s really my argument. When I say they replace
principle with policy, what I mean is, to them,
policies that might be good, and that might– a great example, a bedrock
principle of the founding, is the protection
of property rights– hugely important, both as
a utilitarian measure– a rich country is a
stronger country– and as a moral measure. The government really
should have the right to limit your ability to use
your talents to the fullest. So they make the case both ways. But from there, I think
too many conservatives say, OK, we’ll take that principle
and we’re just going to say, no limits on acquisition
or on property rights can be ever set at all,
because it’s a principle. And so the argument against
protectionism in free trade– or against certain
trade measures is– one of the arguments
made is not merely– they make a utilitarian
argument, oh, this will never work,
despite the fact that it has worked in the past. It doesn’t mean
it will work now, but at least we know it has. But they also make
what they think is a moral argument, which
is that this is somehow an unjust government
interference in property rights. I don’t see it that way. I think that misunderstands what
the founding principles were, and what these higher things
that you’re talking about are. That’s my criticism. It’s not that we’re abandoning
natural right, liberty. It’s that we’re
trying to recover them in their proper relationship
with one another, against a movement that, if it
ever really understood them– it maybe did 30 years ago– it doesn’t seem to anymore. SPEAKER 1: Back here. [INAUDIBLE] Last question. It better be a good question. AUDIENCE: I’ll do my best. Thanks so much
for speaking, sir. You began your speech by talking
about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and both candidates
making arguments about history to try to convince their voters
of certain first principles. You have essentially tried
to do that same thing today, making an argument about history
of the founding to convince us of certain first principles. But Stephen Douglas
was not convinced by Lincoln’s argument,
and there will likely be many conservatives
who are not convinced by your argument– MIKE ANTON: Count on it. AUDIENCE: –respectfully. I personally happen
to agree with you. And even more so, there
are many on the far right and the far left who say we
need to reject the tradition of the founding in general. So is there a way to speak
about political values in a way that can convince
other people who disagree with you without
necessarily relying on the institution of history? MIKE ANTON: Well first
thing we need to do is just banish the word, values,
from this context for reasons I can go into later. It gets a little abstruse. So your question
is, can we do this without appealing to history? I mean, look– maybe, but
why would you want to? It’s a wonderful tool in
the rhetorical arsenal. So we can evaluate the
founders on two bases– well, more than two, but just to
say– are the principles true? I have examined them with great
diligence for a long time, and I believe they are,
and certainly have not found a better alternative. Did they work out in practice? Did they deliver
what they said they were going to deliver to
us in all of the writings that they put out in
justifying the revolution? They did. It worked. And third, is it ours? Is it inspiring to us? Is it something that
we can look back to? A sect or a republic, if
it wishes to live long, must go back to its beginnings. We don’t go back to the
beginnings of others. We go back to what’s our
own, because it’s part of human passion is
to love one’s own. It so happens that
our own is good. We don’t need to
lose sight of it. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. That’s what I mean when I
talk about the universal. But it’s also our own. It’s particular. So I would use them both
in the rhetorical toolkit, and do, and will. I don’t see how we gain
anything by giving up the one or the other. That was the point I was
trying to make at the end by– some on the
disgruntled right get what’s wrong with
movement conservatism but their view is,
ditch the principle and just embrace the
particular alone. Ultimately, I don’t think
that’s going to work, and it’s unnecessary. That’s just the flip– essentially I think
what they’re arguing for is the flip side of what
you maybe didn’t argue for, but asked about. [APPLAUSE]

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  1. I think, but of coarse I’m not as smart as you, before judging Trump, It would be wise to understand that we should give Trump the opportunity to rid the Government of the corrupted politicians and clean up the CIA, FBI, NSA and the the others. How about free press that is not bias. Shouldn’t we educate our people on the constitution first. Your leaving out all the important issues of today. But we know that you are so smart you may never understand this.

  2. Your position is critically flawed because it has only the pretense of knowledge. Think back to when you were a child what of the world could you have predicted then? What makes you think you can know now what we will need in trade? You don't. Neither do you have any assurance that the President does. Nor that his successor will.

  3. You're starting with the wrong definition of Conservatism. Don't feel too bad, Lincoln got it wrong, too. It took me a long time to get one I like, myself.

    Conservatism is the preservation of that combination of Greek Reason and Christian Morality called Natural Moral Law. That is the backbone of all Western culture, and built the West, from Constantine to the Founding of America, and largely defined by St Thomas Aquinas. Where it is practiced, civilization thrives. When it is weak, if suffers.

  4. Trump is no student of political theory nor ideology. He wouldn't be able to define post-modernism or discuss about the Frankfurt School versus the Chicago School. He wouldn't go into discussions about Gramsci or Marcuse because maybe he doesn't know them. All Trump understands is cause-and-effect and that the problems of America today is about having jobs, productivity and security from enemies foreign and domestic. It's almost like the burden of too much political philosophy had weighed down public discourse and common sense solutions.Out of nowhere Trump won because he cut through all that scholastic bullshit and was willing to do what needs to be done.

  5. American Conservatism needs to radically change to combat neoliberalism. It needs to look to the European New Right, German Conservative Revolution, and Fourth Political Theory.

  6. Trump was just an American patriot who watched Conservatives bend the knee to progressives year after year ending with companionate conservatives (Progressive lite). Trump actually has the guts to fight back against these Communist in our Society that the weakness of Conservatives have allowed

  7. Before sowing more confusion, for whatever reason, among his listeners, Mr. Kirby would have done better to decide which meaning of a given word/concept he was referring to at any one moment i.e. the casual conventional, or the more demanding analytical and scholarly. His larger message was lost in a fog of ill considered and muddled rhetoric.

  8. Conservativism is
    Anti science
    Anti education
    Anti religious freedom
    Anti freedom to make ones own decisions
    And anti free press
    Pro destruction of political foes
    Pro silencing of freedom of speech
    Pro war
    Pro corporate greed
    Pro corruption for political control
    They are destroying America on purpose in the name of false patriotism.
    But they ignore the open bias of Fox fake news. They still believe the R. Limpballs story on Fusion gps and that it was funded by the clinton campaign. When it was funded by the Washington free beacon, an anti trump conservative group. Conservativism is dying on the vine.

  9. Michael Anton – Q-uestion ANswered TON of proof!
    THANKS to HIM for sharing so much knowledge, sowing so much desperately needed HOPE and patriotic inspiration.
    AWESOME BRILLIANT AMAZING MAN & TRUE PATRIOT!

  10. I get the sense that Anton's a pretty smart guy—rare for an intellectual. But he suffers the same infirmities that nearly all intellectuals do: the inability to entertain, explain, and exhort. Whether because they look down on it or because they feel they can't do it, intellectuals rarely make an effort to do those things, which are all indispensable to any good talk. Every worthwhile political speech of any type must tell us what to do, why to do it, and how to do it. Else, it'll be forgotten in five minutes.

  11. The good I think is to cause NO HARM… from there one can begin to analyze good actions.The actions should cause no suffering and it should help alleviate the suffering. How does being a military might or a dictator accomplish any of these goals? eg., Are the Middle East Wars are a fine example of causing harm or not? Do any of the goals justify destruction of cities? Killing an untold number of women, children, elders and other non combatants? How can there be any pride in the literal murder of innocent victims? What harm could or has these actions created? Are there not more fears globally about a WWIII nuclear war?

  12. I don't think that we should support Corporations who have moved to foreign nations. Our protection of r Corporate "interests" has gone over board. They are stealing the lands of other nations as well and their resources including their waters. I think when the constitution it was not the intent to go to war for the sake of Corporations or private enterprises abroad. I think protection of American interests should be that protection within our own borders.

  13. The United States was explicitly founded as a white country. He doesn’t come right out and say so, but the original immigration policy of what used to be our country is the correct one.

  14. Immigration, Trade and Foreign Policy.
    AND the Comprehensive Embroilment of a Transgressive Worm Twisting all throughout, Animated by a Gnawing PARASITISM corroding our Nation at many levels…
    They failed us in Immigration, Trade, Foreign Policy AND protecting the Social Contract.

  15. Preserving the Republic as formed by The Founders is our PRINCIPLE.
    From there, we need to Excise the KLEPTOCRACY of the private Central Bank in favor of a Fed managed National Bank.
    Then, if an Industry enriched by US soil, personnel and Infrastructure could be seen to owe a COMMITMENT to provide Value AND Benefit to The People of the Nation, at least on parity with it's own profitability and GDP benefit…then we must Excise the PLUTOCRACY.

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