Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea


Several times on the show, I have made mention of the book Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Selected Essays 1949-1995, by Irving Kristol. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Kristol was a popluar and influential writer and political commentator for over fifty years; he was a father of the neo-conservative movement (neo meaning “new”) and the father of Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard who carries on his father’s tradition and, with his own compatriots, profoundly influences the Republican party to this day.

Neo-Conservatism lays out the decades-long journey Irving Kristol made from self-described neo-Trotskyist and neo-Marxist to one of the founders of the neo-conservative movement. The book is beautifully written with a truly elegant style, and Kristol brings to the subject levels of sociological analysis that one rarely finds on the right.

As a matter of fact, it’s the kind of sociological analysis that one never finds on the right – the traditional right, that is – because it is a fundamentally leftist view which starts with the assumption that the basic unit of society is society itself instead of the individuals who comprise it. As beautiful and interesting as the book is, it’s also an offense to sincere Americans, from its total lack of recognition of objective individual rights to its Machiavellian prescriptions for the Republican party.

I still recommend the book both because it is intellectually gripping and also because the essays are artfully written, but the real value of the book is that it reveals the origins and goals of the neo-conservative movement, and they are quite illuminating.

For the benefit of those who don’t have the time to read the whole book, I have selected several telling passages and added some of my own commentary. Here is the first from the 1976 essay The Republican Future:

[The Republican] party has never fully reconciled itself to the welfare state, and therefore has never given comprehensive thought to the question of what a conservative welfare state would look like. . . .

The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy–as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind if they are to cope with many of their problems: old age, illness, unemployment, etc. They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it?

This is not a question the Republican party has faced up to, because it still feels, deep down, that a welfare state is inconsistent with such traditional American virtues as self-reliance and individual liberty.

The dirty little secret is that Bismarck recommended the modern welfare state to the Kaiser because the citizenry was getting too prosperous and too independent following the Industrial Revolution. Bismarck sensed that the populace was beginning to question the Kaiser’s value-added and he knew he had to shore up the government’s position or risk revolution.

As the great Professor Robert Higgs points out in his essay The Welfare State and the Promise of Protection and elsewhere that Bismarck’s motive in creating the modern welfare state was to rekindle the people’s love for the Kaiser by making them dependent on him. The people did not demand the welfare state as Kristol suggests, it was sold to them like a bad insurance policy–which is exactly what it is.

Motives aside, however, what exactly does Kristol mean by a conservative welfare state?

The basic principle behind a conservative welfare state ought to be a simple one: Wherever possible, people should be allowed to keep their own money—rather than having it transferred (via taxes) to the state—on condition that they put it to certain defined uses.

That is one big condition! It’s a condition that may be consistent with Kristol’s new conservative philosophy, but it’s not consistent with a fiscally conservative philosophy, and it’s not consistent with sound economics or with liberty.

Being told how to spend your money is not the same as keeping it, and although it may cut out the middle man and some of the inefficiency of government, it also creates dangerously inefficient markets in targeted services. We’ve already seen the effects of government-promoted spending in industries such as health care, education and housing, effects that include excess demand and inflated prices. In addition, anytime you encourage certain behavior over others by artificially interfering with free market pricing you reduce the total utility that otherwise would result. That is, people maximize their utility with each free choice they make—being induced to make a different choice either by being taxed and given a “free” service, or by being forced to use one’s own money to consume that service, results in a reduction in net social utility.

Kristol goes on to say:

If the Republican party were capable of thinking politically–i.e., thinking in terms of shaping the future–it would realize that its first priority is to shape the budget, not to balance it. Then it could go to the electorate with the proper political questions: How do you want the budget balanced? By more taxes for more governmental services? Or by lower taxes, lower governmental expenditures and incentives for the citizen to provide for his own welfare.

This is not the language of someone who believes in free markets, civil liberties and limited government. A traditional American conservative does not think of how to use government to shape the future. He knows that in a free society, the future emerges organically (and gloriously) from the creativity, ingenuity and efforts of millions of free actors maximizing the value of their gifts and the resources at their disposal.

Furthermore, Kristol’s exhortation to forget about balanced budgets is like foreshadowing in a horror movie! He continues presciently to add:

Obviously there is some risk in such a bold approach. The budget, for a while, would indeed be in a perilous condition if some such Republican programs were passed while Democratic programs were not cut back. But that is the only way to permit the American people to choose their future—by making the choice, not only a clear cut one, but a necessary one.

Could Medicare D and No Child Left Behind be the “Repbulican programs” that Kristol urges? Was our current budget crisis deliberately or at least recklessly precipitated by neo-conservatives to force America to choose? It seems too great a coincidence for this not to be the case.

While I do believe Kristol and his gang set this plan in motion, it also seems clear they could not control the outcome. As this last presidential election seems to have demonstrated, the sheeple Kristol bases his elitist theories on aren’t as easily deceived as he predicted, and after the Republicans intentionally or ineptly initiated the budget crisis, voters seemed to know better than to run to them for a solution.

But don’t get your hopes up that these political animals will learn from their failure and abandon their grandiose aims. In dismissing the risks of his strategy, Kristol pragmatically points out that:

Unless and until the Republican party is willing to overcome its book-keeping inhibitions and become a truly political party, it will be of only marginal significance which faction is in control, or which candidate it proposes.

Herein lies the rub: Instead of offering the voters on the right what they want – a small, fiscally responsible government – the neo-conservatives will fight for big government to the last man standing because, as Kristol points out in this passage, it’s not worth winning elections if only a small government is the prize. It’s big government do or die for neo-con power seekers.

This is part one of a two part post. Click here for part 2 in which I will offer passages on Kristol’s plans for the religious in America and for shaping foreign policy as well as his “conservative” defense of radical socialism.


  1. The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy

    “This is the first history of the development of American Jewish political conservatism and the rise of a group of Jewish intellectuals and activists who are known as neoconservatives. It describes the growth of perhaps a dozen such figures in the 1940s and 50s, including Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Norman Podhoretz, to several hundred younger people such as Paul Wolfowitz, David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer who have had a powerful impact on American public policy, including the run up to and aftermath of the war in Iraq.”

    The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy:

    1. hugh says:

      Thanks for this reference. It really is so important to understand the origin of ideas and philosophies. Do most of us know the drivers of our policies today? I think not!

  2. It took me a long time to realize that all the parties are just would-be rulers, but once I did, it was a quick fall into the idea of anarchy and voluntary individual action. All the systems and strategies to make a better republic are just efforts to make people accept being ruled more fully. That’s why I don’t vote, and I try to live without resorting to government as much as possible. It’s all you can do. All voting does is give one oligarchy or another permission to rule.

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