Charles Murray, in Sydney to deliver the John Bonython lecture, is a rare and valuable breed of conservative.
The hard-hitting American author and pundit esteems tradition, marriage and religiosity, the notion that humanity is directed towards a goal beyond the material universe, yet eschews telling others how to live their lives. He's surprisingly relaxed and warm-hearted, the sort of bloke you'd have a beer with even after discovering he voted for George W. Bush.
Murray is highly critical of liberal romanticism, the muddled conviction that democracy can legislate and spend its way to a civil society. Social welfare programs, he argues, are rife with unintended consequences that end up hurting those they claim to help. By actively taking the trouble out of life, governments strip us of key opportunities to make a difference and feel fulfilled.
He laments the spread of European Syndrome, a vapid secularised worldview wherein "humans are not intrinsically better or more important than other life forms, including trees". People are merely "collections of chemicals that are activated and, after a period of time, deactivated. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible."
While insightful and compelling, Murray fails to offer a viable alternative. He's not alone. Commentators remain fractious about where conservative politics should head after Mitt Romney's failure to win the US presidency.
The Republican Party doesn't have a structural problem, argues Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post. Just run a Latino like Marco Rubio in 2016 with an immigration amnesty. Win the Hispanic vote, win the election. Crisis averted.
According to David Brooks of The New York Times, Republicans should spend less money on marketing and more on product development. Shift the "debate away from the abstract frameworks". Tackle the concrete everyday problems of concern to average folk.
But isn't the brand itself an abstract ideal? Isn't it impossible to ground the hope of individual freedom? If it was formulaic it wouldn't be freedom.
Elsewhere, Brooks evokes the vocational spirit of the Protestant dissenters who first colonised America. These were people who refused to submit to established authority, and in doing so built a nation "around liberty, individualism, equal opportunity, populism and laissez-faire". He also told Alec Baldwin recently that a key part of his conservatism is "epistemological modesty".
What binds a community is an artform created in the doing, participation in a shared belonging far too intimate and dynamic for reason to quantify. The American Dream is necessarily metaphoric, at best a negative concept. Freedom is a practical position, reflective of the innate limits of rational institutionalism. The simple promise of government is that of an opportunity, never a guarantee.
Alas, the human mind favours the positive and tangible over the ethereal. Freedom from, becomes freedom to. Art gives way to science. Less is no longer more. More is more, and a final solution imminent. Just drive the vast political machine a little harder.
It is here that the right compromises itself. Convinced it is the only way to win office, conservatives dabble in European-style positivism, thus entrenching the false hope that human affairs can be reduced to pragmatic criteria and managed on our behalf. As Laura Tingle and others have pointed out, it was Howard and Costello who first made the entitlement culture fashionable in Australia.
Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He
also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write
a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.