Friday, September 10, 2004

Conservatism on Campus

No, I'm not finished yet with Thomas Frank's very funny book. But I had an oddly interesting experience this past week that actually bears on the content of this blog. A junior philosophy major here at Rutgers wrote me an email, inviting me to become the faculty advisor of a new student organization (if you're going to get a share of student fee money, you need to have one). Actually, he was begging me to do so, because nobody would give him the time of day. He was desperate, and he said so. Not an auspicious beginning, I admit, but I said, OK, let's talk. I figured, what the hell, it's like every academic job search, you get what you can.

You might be wondering why nobody would even entertain the possibility of advising this new and clearly earnest organization. You will not be surprised: it's an avowedly CONSERVATIVE organization. The two would-be founding fathers, with whom I met on Wednesday, are almost paranoid about their minority status on campus, but it seems that their anxieties are not symptoms of madness. From their standpoint, there are no faculty and almost no students who agree with them--the reception their ideas get in classrooms and in conversation is invariably hostile, they said, so they feel like exiles at their own state university. I think they're accurately depicting their situation. Which is to say that the Left rules higher education.

We talked for an hour. I wanted to know if they were crazy--it's always a bad idea to be associated with such people--and found that they were bright young men with all kinds of weird ideas about liberty, contract, and Bentham (made me think of Marx's hilarious footnote in vol. 1 of Capital). They call themselves conservatives, and they're right to use the label, but they sure do sound like John Stuart Mill, as against, say, Edmund Burke. They like liberty, progress, reform. They think that amending the Constitution to outlaw gay marriage is foolish. They're partisans of utilitarianism, and OK, objectivism as well. Still, their version of what they called "traditional conservatism" didn't sound very conservative.

When we got around to the hot topic of big government, they expressed dismay at W's expansion of spending and deficits. Like Floyd Norris at the New York Times, they have noticed that government has grown rather impressively under Bush II (back in 1980, before the "Reagan Revolution," about 18% of the labor force was directly employed by all levels of government; according to Norris, the current figure is 17.4%, up from 16% in 2000). We never got to foreign policy, so I never was able to ask about the possible trade-off of defense and domestic spending, but they're clearly worried about the Leviathan in waiting.

Our conversation on taxes was truly enlightening. I have never been able to decipher the emotional energy that goes into conservative utterance on taxation. The "starve the beast" approach works for Grover Norquist and a few other Bolsheviks, all of whom have gravitated to the truly demented Club for Growth, but for the groundlings like these two kids--one of them does his parents' taxes--the goal is not the Leninist dream ("the withering away of the state": you can read this line, I swear it, in The State and Revolution). It is instead the equally unattainable dream of stopping socialism and thereby restoring an intelligible relation between effort and reward (or, conceived in terms of crime and punishment, between transgression and penalty).

How so? I ask, "So, what's the big deal about taxes? I don't get it when Hannity goes off." The answer: Taxes=Redistribution. At the local level, property taxes are obviously earmarked for education, that is, for the schools within walking or driving distance. They're egregious, they're ridiculous, but you can see them at work. And you also know that they're offset by that old mortgage deduction, so you pay 'em and you hope the real estate market doesn't ruin your retirement.

But entitlements are another category altogether. Wages without work are anathema to this crowd. Or turn it around. The kid who does his parents' taxes says, "My mom, she's a teacher, she's paying 40% of her income to taxes, where does it go? Who's getting her money?" I want to say, well, she is, if she's working in a public school, and her neighbors are, too, in the form of roads, buildings, and services the private sector can't provide. But I don't say anything because what is happening here is an emotionally charged drama that echoes the Hannity chants about taxes. What they're saying is, "Let my reward be proportionate to my effort, don't give my hard-earned dollars to someone who hasn't expended the same effort." In other words: don't let socialism ruin the American dream. They're also saying, by the same token, "Make your punishment proportionate to your crime, take responsibility for your actions as an individual, not a member of a group." Again, they plead, don't let "the social" override the moral personality that resides in individuality.

I want to say, so, bumptious Jack Welch's rewards were proportionate to his effort? Hello? Or hey, why shouldn't social origins and status be taken into account when assessing accountability (in court and elsewhere)? But again I don't say anything. I sit there wondering why these kids feel so besieged by their culture if Thomas Frank is correct to claim that conservatives have won the heart of America. Nah, it ain't the blue state thing, the left-west coast syndrome. They're right--they're the dwindling minority, not the emerging majority. They're paranoid because they're rational, because they're surrounded by us liberals, socialists, and feminists.