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 Dueling Teleocrats 

July 17, 2003

Conservatives have been enjoying the recent turmoil at the New York Times and the consequent shakeup at the top of its masthead, following the exposure of a fraudulent reporter. The Gray Lady has long been the conservatives’ bête noire, so her embarrassment has brought them delight — a delight I’ve been unable to savor. I love and respect the Gray Lady.

Setting aside its editorial and commentary pages, I don’t share the general conservative view that the New York Times is the American version of the old Soviet daily Pravda. When I want full and accurate coverage of a story, I usually rely on the Times. Any liberal bias it displays is more than compensated for by its dedication to the impartial reporting of facts. I’m particularly grateful for its practice of giving full texts of (or at least long excerpts from) important presidential speeches and Supreme Court opinions.

Howell Raines, the ousted executive editor, continued these traditions and made the Times livelier and more readable to boot. Apparently he stepped on a lot of toes and left many hard feelings on the paper’s staff, but that’s an internal matter. Readers have little cause to resent him.

Conservatives are as vague as they are vociferous about the Times’s liberal bias. Its liberal assumptions are obvious here and there, but they seldom vitiate its solid reporting. In important respects, the Times is even a conservative newspaper.

Chiefly, of course, it’s very conventional. It reverently accepts the rules of civility that form the basis of civilized life. It also takes for granted the political status quo and the legitimacy of the modern state; I wish it were more critical of these things, but then, most conservatives also take them for granted.

Conservative and libertarian philosophers sometimes distinguish two basic types of government. One is “nomocratic” government, or rule-based government, neutral as to ends; the other is “teleocratic” government, or government designed to achieve specific ends (abolishing poverty, say, or building empire).

[Breaker quote: Where liberals and conservatives agree]The deepest Western political tradition is nomocracy; the modern state, however, has strongly inclined to teleocracy. One extreme form of teleocracy is communism, in which all laws and edicts of the state are subordinated to creating a certain kind of social order — “building a new society” is a common phrase for this sort of project.

The teleocratic state may take an active directing role in a wide variety of human activities: economics, education, religion, health care, journalism, family life, the arts, sport — anything it sees as related to the kind of outcome it aspires to. The list is potentially limitless, because anything people do, even their pastimes and hobbies, can affect the state’s desired outcome.

This also means that anything people do may be potentially subversive of that outcome. So the teleocratic state is apt to censor and criminalize many spontaneous activities. The Soviet Union rigidly controlled education and the arts, abolished private property, tried to crush religion, taught children to inform on their parents, and turned ordinary exchanges of goods and money into “economic crimes.” It all seems wildly excessive to us, but it flows from the logic of teleocracy.

During the socialist era, Western states tried to fuse their traditional nomocratic forms of law with teleocratic visions. It was, and remains, an awkward mix. But by now we are all, liberal and conservative alike, used to it.

Today, generally speaking, liberals and conservatives are both teleocratic in their politics. They merely have different and conflicting ends for the state to pursue. The liberal wants the state to achieve “social equality” of some sort; the conservative is more apt to urge “national security.” Either way, the result is a large role for government, with high taxes to support it.

Since conservatives no longer question a large role for a central government in principle, they ought to recognize that the “bias” of the New York Times (and the liberal press in general) is not against teleocracy itself, but merely against the supposedly “conservative” form of teleocracy they themselves happen to favor.

Our nominally conservative president is a confirmed teleocrat. He has big goals for this country. But he has no trouble doing business with liberal Democrats and making generous concessions to their goals, as witness the colossal Federal spending (next year’s projected deficit: $455 billion) he is willing to do in order to keep everyone content.

After all, even liberal Democrats are his fellow teleocrats. Both sides find their differences negotiable, because they agree in principle.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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