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
Ive been unable to savor. I love and respect the Gray Lady.
Setting aside its editorial and
commentary pages, I dont 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. Im 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 papers
staff, but thats an internal matter. Readers have little cause to
Conservatives are as vague as
they are vociferous about the Timess 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
Chiefly, of course, its
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
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
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 states 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
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 years 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.