Neocons put values at the center of their governing philosophy, but their social policy was neither morally laissez-faire like the libertarians nor explicitly religious like some social conservatives. Neocons mostly sought policies that would encourage self-discipline. “In almost every area of public concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers, or voters and public officials,” James Q. Wilson wrote.Brooks reiterates a key point about neoconservatism: that its essence is a domestic policy movement, despite the rise of the foreign policy Vulcans during the George W. Bush administration.
How would they know if programs induced virtue? Empirically. “Neoconservatives, accordingly, place a lot of stock in applied social science research, especially the sort that evaluates old programs and tests new ones,” Wilson added.
Nobody would call George F. Will a neocon, but, in 1983, he published a superb book called “Statecraft as Soulcraft.” It championed the sort of governing conservatism that was common then and is impermissible now. “It is generally considered obvious that government should not, indeed cannot, legislate morality. But, in fact, it does so, frequently; it should do so more often,” Will wrote.
He was not calling for a theocracy. He was calling for “strong government conservatism,” for a limited but energetic government that could cultivate the best in persons by educating the passions. “American conservatives are caught in the web of their careless antigovernment rhetoric,” he concluded.
But what Brooks doesn't do is examine how the so-called neocon support for "strong government" in fact erodes the values of personal responsibility and self-sufficiency that are central to a conservative creed. Also neglected is the notion that some Republicans thought of as neocons, John McCain comes to mind, have become the biggest enablers of dependency-state Democrats in recent years, and have thus tarnished the brand nearly beyond redemption. Indeed, McCain's now saying he'd more likely back Hillary Clinton over Rand Paul in 2016, which raises the question: When will McRINO be switching parties? (See IBD, "Why Does John McCain Keep Running as a Republican?")
The problem for neoconservatism is not to surrender to laissez-faire libertarianism, it's simply to stand up for the very values that it purports to champion. Pushing for a "strong government" conservatism at this point simply empowers Democrat big government. Neocons need to reconnect with the mediating institutions that help families free themselves from government dependency. This doesn't mean becoming a 100 percent small-g conservative. It means standing up for values by reining in out-of-control Democrat-collectivist entitlement statism. Without that, there is no "neocon revival."
RELATED: From Reihan Salam, at National Review, "Searching for Irving Kristol" (via Memeorandum).