Conservatism and Anarchism, or Why “Limited Government” Is Not Synonymous with “No Government”

Before his now infamous meltdown at a recent town hall, Tucson shooting survivor Eric Fuller gave an interview to Democracy NOW, excerpts of which were picked up by Politico last Friday. While I do not wish to disparage survivors of the attack (they have suffered enough), Fuller and so many others in the wake of this tragedy, repeated a baseless charge that has gone unchallenged for far too long: “Their [Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and John Boehner] wish for Second Amendment activism has been fulfilled — senseless hatred leading to murder, lunatic fringe anarchism…” (emphasis added). The “lunatic fringe anarchism” of which Mr. Fuller et al. speaks is no province of the right.

“What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” Lincoln rhetorically asked in his 1860 Cooper Union speech. Fundamentally, Lincoln was right: from Aristotle to Locke, Smith, Burke and Madison and more recently Russell Kirk and Hugh Heclo, conservative political thought has emphasized the fallen nature of humanity and the accompanying importance of institutions (family, Church and State) to constrain the worst excesses of our nature, channeling our energy into more productive ends. This is why, in no small part, conservatives have long placed ourselves on the side of ordered liberty, in stark opposition to the absolute democratic, utopian or totalitarian schemes of philosophes, Marxists and pop psychology. We do not “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’” because we oppose progress or because we fail to recognize that times change; we adhere to the old and tried because we respect the wisdom of our ancestors and understand the our society is an organic being, transcending time and rescuing us from the ugly and short life of a summer fly:

Society is indeed a contract. …It is not to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed., Frank M. Turner (New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 2003), 82).

Similarly, the Framers of our federal Constitution well understood that “…what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The 222 years that have transpired since Madison wrote Federalist 51 have seen the advent of many technological advances (electricity, automobiles, the Internet, etc.), but, despite the best efforts of social science, mankind has yet to become angelic—nor will our descendents some two centuries hence. That is largely why “conservative” and “lunatic fringe anarchism” are oxymoronic terms.

While both extremes of the ideological continuum have their unhinged elements, lunatic fringe anarchism seems more openly accepted on the far left than it does even on the far right. Anyone familiar with the contemporary philosophical ramblings of postmodern or deconstructionist philosophy will recognize a recurring theme: our existing system–civil society and culture–is designed to suppress individuality (i.e. forced conformity). One of my least favorite writers of this period, Michel Foucault, reflecting on the origin and nature of prisons, knowledge and even language, is far more likely to instill within his devotees an anti-government, anti-institution paranoia than any speech ever delivered by John Boehner or Sarah Palin. For example:

But we can surely accept the general proposition that, in our societies, the systems of punishment are to be situated in a certain “political economy” of the body: even if they do not make use of violent or bloody punishment, even when they use “lenient” methods involving confinement or correction, it is always the body that is at issue—the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1995), 25).

While Foucault’s books are taught in university courses and feted by the New York Times, mainstream conservatives justly condemn the twisted theories and perverse actions of “our fringe.”

Mr. Fuller and others have every right to be angry about the actions of one deranged gunman, yet they have no basis for alleging that just because we conservatives have frequent, and often heated, arguments over the proper size and scope of government—in no small part also a product of our colonial heritage—that we are somehow anarchists. To the contrary: we are institutionalists who respect the existing system and its underlying raison d’être. The real anarchists and their enablers operate openly on the far left bank and few contemporary critics of anarchism seem to care.

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