Thursday, October 11, 2007

Jonathan Rauch reviews Brian C. Anderson's Democratic Capitalism and its Discontents:
Like his intellectual mentor Alexis de Tocqueville, and unlike so many of today’s red-meat, red-state right-wingers, Anderson is no triumphalist tub-thumper for capitalism or democracy. Both, he recognizes, are far better than the alternatives; but both, unchecked, can set in motion cultural forces — anomie, dependency, ruthless egalitarianism — that corrode soul and society alike. Like Jouvenel, Anderson holds with a worldly-wise anti-utopianism whose lineage goes back to the very origins of conservative thought. If more of today’s conservatives had heeded its cautions, they might not have been so surprised to see Iraq’s unstructured liberation turn sour.

Karl Popper once wrote, “The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.” For Anderson, conservatism’s stewardship of that truth is the source of both the movement’s indispensable strength and its intrinsic weakness. Conservatism can keep us out of trouble by warning against the fanciful idealisms of the left (communism), the right (fascism) and the ultrareligious (bin Ladenism), but it cannot scratch humanity’s perpetual itch for a Promised Land free of hunger, pain, conflict and grubby politics. “There is no ultimate solution in politics, only temporary ‘settlements,’ ” Anderson writes, affirming Jouvenel, who affirmed Aristotle (“Man is by nature a political animal”). To read Anderson at his luminous best is to be reminded of conservatism at its wisest — not least in its understanding of its own limitations.

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