For a new Paleoconservatism 🥂

The case for shaking the mothballs off a useful idea.

After making fun of my collection of ideological trinkets in contrast with the shining beacon of all that is Lindy, grandma (internet find, but my granny was eerily close), someone asked me what the deal was with being a Paleocon.

Few people identify with this idea in 2020, but I want to make a case for a revival.

Paleoconservatism is a quintessentially American movement (as most modern politics is, in one way or another), and is typically identified with people like Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis, and Bill Buckley. Its roots are primarily in the conservative schism that happened during the Vietnam war - the Paleocons saw it as imperialistic nation-building and wanted nothing to do with it, while the Neocons were very much into the idea, and saw American exceptionalism as an export product.

Paleoconservatism traditionally stands for decentralization, the nation-state, Christian ethics, controls on immigration, controls on trade & protectionism, opposition to multiculturalism, and non-interventionism. So, as the name implies, it’s pretty much neoliberalism upside down.

My route to this point was not via Christianity, a conservative education, or any tangent with Buckley or Francis or even American conservatism as such. So, I’m not exactly on board the ole’ paleocon party boat, I still think it’s a handy concept.

Two main beliefs led me here:

Humans are parochial. 

We’re tribal, local, kin and kind (incl. memetic tribes - up to a point) loving animals. We cluster in groups, and though these groups can be malleable, they are neither infinitely malleable nor disposable and they definitely don’t respond well to top-down social engineering. 

Disturb this instinct in humans for too long you get alienation, anomie, and mental illness on the one end of the spectrum, and genocidal rage and ethnic cleansing on the other.

A socio-political system needs to work to accommodate this, not against it, as dystopian as this reality may be to the theoreticians of the social order.

Solving coordination problems is one of the main functions of culture, and downstream, of politics.

Growing up in Romania meant that I got a front-row seat to some mind-bending logic: Everyone was decrying corruption on the one hand, while bribing and taking bribes from every soul in sight on the other. I thought it was the height of hypocrisy for a long time, but then I realized it’s just game theory. I was living in a world of defectors who knew what a world of collaborators looked like instinctively. They also saw it on TV and hearing about the *mostly* honest governments in alien places like Germany and the U.S. The problem was, nobody wanted to volunteer to be the first honest person because they would get smoked instantly. Small scale coordination problems would still get solved in networks of trust, which in post-communist Romania meant friends and family. This, unfortunately, still left out the commons. “Social trust” was the thing that we were missing, and it’s proven to be a hard thing to replicate.

I believe a major role of government is to support a culture that embeds social trust and to serve as a last resort guarantor and enforcer of social trust mechanisms. I believe social trust is where the magic happens, and without it, the world is the war of all against all.

So, this brings us back to point 1. Social Trust is hard to create, fragile, and doesn’t happen by decree (I live a stone’s throw from the former Yugoslavia. Reminders of this fact are everywhere). Historically, only culturally homogenous countries, where people can have a reasonably accurate theory of mind of their co-nationals and their propensity to collaborate, have been able to foster it.

Multiculturalism, as noble as it is on paper, may give rise to famously great takeout, but it’s a social trust shredder. 

Putnam was startled by it, but after living in a few European metropolises over the last ten years, it rattles me a bit less. People cluster with their own everywhere on earth. They develop and pursue group interests, and these usually conflict with the interests of other groups. Add to that a media that seems to have figured out that constant ethnic war is its last meal ticket, and it’s a recipe for slow-motion failed states.

The U.S. “melting-pot” was a temporary equilibrium, where adoption into a new memetic tribe was more glorious than old tribal allegiances, but it was a fragile balance. The amount of immigration is a factor - once you have enclaves that can seamlessly adopt people into “Little Bucharest” or “Little Beirut,” without significant friction with the primary culture, people have few incentives to join. If you also lack a strong, aspirational, future-oriented core memeplex to incentivize people to shed their old parochialism for a new one, it makes assimilation almost impossible.

The idea that humans will shed their deep ancestral roots to adopt a culture with the aspirational potential of an airport lounge is dangerous wishful thinking.

Paleoconservatism, though it’s a term laden with historical baggage, seems to still be a good descriptor of the least bad way to address these problems.

The solution to how we solve global coordination problems and externalities affecting the global commons is still not obvious. I do believe that the nation-state is probably the upper limit on sovereignty for groups, and this is also, by that definition, the only level on which externalities can be addressed. The idea that only global governance can solve global problems doesn’t seem that obvious if you look at the record of supranational organizations “solving” things. Negotiation between sovereign entities seems more likely to yield results.

Is this the most fun & optimistic outlook on life, will it spawn T-shirts, postcards, and we-are-the-world flatland illustrations? Probably not.

Is it the closest approximation to what would lead to a probably sub-optimal but ultimately sustainable equilibrium in the world as it exists? I think so.