Saturday, July 08, 2006

Crunchy Cons vs. Donkey Cons

Last I heard, Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons was in its third printing, having been promoted with its very own theme blog at National Review Online. But Dreher, not content with having pocketed fat royalty checks from Crown Forum (a division of Random House, which is in turn a division of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann), wishes to add to his wealth a reputation for wisdom and virtue, not surprising since the entire theme of Crunchy Cons is "more conservative than thou."

And so we now have Dreher's review of my review of Crunchy Cons. Because Rod is more wise, virtuous and conservative than me -- or you, or anyone else you might care to name -- his review of my review is, of course, negative:
By labeling the conservative moral case I make for, say, non-factory-farmed meat as mere elitism, he avoids having to confront the argument. But the argument remains unanswered, and even unengaged.
Correct. "Unengaged" because it is absurd. By "non-factory-farmed meat," Dreher refers to modes of production which add significantly to costs. It is all fine and good for the affluent educated elite to seek out organic vegetables and free-range meat, since they have the money, knowledge, and time to do so. This option is not really available to the poor, who must eat cheap or go hungry. Because there are (and always will be) more poor than rich people, the ostentatiously "moral" eating habits of the elite will have no measureable effect on the welfare of feed animals in general.

What Dreher's adoration of the organic diet is really about is Veblenesque conspicuous consumption. In this case, the status display involves moral virtue. Dreher apparently believes that his grocery shopping habits make him morally superior to those of us who just buy whatever's on sale at Food Lion. If I refuse to "engage" such an argument, it is because no sober person could take it seriously.

It was obvious to me, and I think Jonah Goldberg was close to nailing this, that Crunchy Cons is all about Dreher's alienation from his peers in the conservative movement. Certainly, I can relate to that. There is a certain sort of "cool kids" clique within Establishment conservatism, and if one isn't chosen for the GOP prom committee, the temptation toward a "Carrie"-like resentment is very real. This is even more true because those conservatives who are most successful in the Establishment aren't always the most principled conservatives, nor the most considerate and selfless.

But Crunchy Cons is more about a certain vaguely "organic" lifestyle than about politics. As such, it does not really examine what I think is the real problem of American conservatism, namely its failure to halt, much less to reverse, social and cultural disintegration. Paul Weyrich pointed to this in his famous "Moral Minority" essay in the wake of Clinton's Senate acquittal.

True, Dreher endorses home-schooling and criticizes the contraceptive culture, but these good points are subsumed in a larger argument which is mostly about ... Wendell Berry, E.F. Schumacher and an idiosyncratic reading of Russell Kirk.

This is from Dreher's conclusion:
The only solid point I could find in the review was RSM's charge that my book is ignorant of the finer points of economics. I plead guilty to that, and regret my ignorance. Because my knowledge of economics is so poor, I tried to avoid prescriptions. Still, I don't think you have to be well-versed in economics to have an idea of what makes a good society, and to see that certain economic practices we accept in our society work to the overall moral and civic harm of families and communities.
I hardly count myself "well-versed" in the "finer points of economics." But you don't have to read a lot of Mises and Hayek before understanding why the defense of free markets is a moral imperative. Dreher not only criticizes free markets, he condemns those who defend free markets as "exploiting and encouraging greed and envy." Considering that he is doing this while in the employ of Bertelsmann, I'd say Dreher was guilty of biting the Invisible Hand that feeds him.

In economics, freedom produces prosperity. It is prosperity that allows the common man the chance to take his nose away from the grindstone long enough to glimpse up at the stars and dream of better things for himself and his children. Economic freedom, and the prosperity that naturally ensues from this freedom, are thus blessings for which we ought to be grateful.

David Horowitz has written how, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Westerners finally beheld the withered fruit which had grown from the poisoned root of Marxism. Soviet citizens had been forced to stand in line for hours for basics like bread, meat, potatoes and vegetables. Meanwhile, in America, for less than an hour's wages for the average worker, we could walk into a Sizzler and get an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner with an almost infinite choice of entrees, salads, vegetables, breads, beverages, desserts.

Thus, capitalism does more to improve the condition of the proletariat than did the "dictatorship of the proletariat." And we see how, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, civil society has proven nearly impossible to establish in Russia. It's a kleptocracy now in the grip of organized crime and a corrupt government, ruled over by the quasi-dictator Putin. By relentlessly attacking private property as immoral, Soviet ideology destroyed one of the most basic moral virtues. After all, if all rich men (including the despised peasant kulaks) are de facto criminals and exploiters, then why not become a mafioso, a pimp, a pornographer, a dope dealer? Demonizing the capitalist, the entrepreneur and the freeholder tends toward the demoralization of economic life.

Dreher seems to think that ordinary people are incapable of distinguishing between virtue and vice in the pursuit of wealth, and that we are in danger of a world in which Americans cannot understand why what Ken Lay did was wrong -- or why Larry Flynt is less admirable than Bill Gates. I have a bit more trust in the common sense of the common people, and do not think that the common people are much in need of the sort of sermons to be found in Crunchy Cons. If that makes me a "populist," so be it.

But it is (still) a free country. Dreher may say what he will, and get paid for it. Like I said in my review, I earned $10 just by repeating his subtitle, since I was paid on a per-word basis. And I was grateful for that free-market opportunity. I simple can't see why Dreher is not similarly grateful.

UPDATE SUNDAY 7/9: Rod says my comments are "blustery, vapid" and make him angry. Remember that my original review was most gentle:
Hate the sin, but love the sinner. I’m praying for Dreher, who, thanks to the Invisible Hand, gave me the chance to write this greed-motivated review. God bless you, Rod. Go in peace.
In other words, I thought Rod's analysis was in error, and hoped he might remedy the errors. But then he responded here by claiming that I had failed to "confront the main thrust of CC's argument" -- i.e., I'm too stupid to understand what he's saying. But what Rod is saying is quite clear and simple to understand, and his key points -- that is, where "crunchy" conservatism parts ways with unmodified conservatism -- are cited in my review:
"The tragic flaw of Western economics is that it is based on exploiting and encouraging greed and envy." ...
"Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character." ....
Crunchies “orient their lives” toward “serving God, not self,” Dreher writes. “By way of contrast, a libertarian conservative sees the point of life as exercising freedom of choice to serve his self-chosen ends.”
These are broad, sweeping condemnations. Dreher felt no compunction about making such damning generalizations about people he's never even met. And then when he's served in kind, he cries, "Unfair!" Perhaps so. But I didn't get paid by an international conglomerate to write a book which, under the guise of "conservatism," derogates my fellow conservatives as motivated chiefly by greed and envy -- "money, power, and the accumulation of stuff."

I am sorry that Dreher is angered by my pointing this out. It was he who chose to profit by falsely insulting the rest of us. His childish response indicates that, in his mind, no one has any grounds to resent these insults. Or, if we think we've been insulted, this just proves how stupid we are.

I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from
The Outlaw Josey Wales: "Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining."

UPDATE, 20 MINUTES LATER: The fury has passed. I don't know why I let these things get hold of me like this. At any rate, just to check my assertion that "free-range" food is expensive: Free-range eggs, $4/dozen. And free-range chicken seems to sell at about $4.50/pound.