Friday, May 30, 2008

The Case for Conservatism and Ideas

Remember when Gabriel over at Ace of Spades said "if you're anything like me, [this is] really going to make you mad"? He was talking about how pissed-off he gets at widespread and despicable left-wing extremism and inanity.

It seems like I've been getting angrier every day, frankly, at the sheer
vacuity that's so common among those who are supposed to be the highly acclaimed opinion-setters of the Democratic left.

An outstanding case in point is the recent entry from "Kathy G" at Matthew Yglesias' page, "
Are "Ideas" the Cure to What Ails Conservatism?." Here's the introduction, plus a couple of key passages:

Lately, we've heard a lot about how conservatives are allegedly "out of ideas." Lack of ideas is supposedly the reason conservatives have recently been losing a slew of elections and scoring low ratings in public opinion polls, and why George Bush is the most hated president since the final days of Richard Nixon. What conservatives need, say some, are "new ideas." That's the ticket! Then their fortunes, currently in such spectacular free fall, will rally once again and stage a dramatic comeback.

I confess that talk of ideas in the context of American electoral politics long puzzled me....

Then I finally got it. By "ideas," by and large the pundits seem to mean a boutique-y marketing of a political agenda to the policy-making elites. As the historian David Greenberg once
wrote, the main task of the Heritage Foundation (and I would argue, of other think tanks as well) is to "flood politicians and editorialists with ready-made policies and easy-to-digest talking points." Many political "ideas" amount to changing the packaging, but not the basic product. Old wine in new bottles and all that. Because I don't believe there really are any big "new ideas" in politics. It's just the same old ideas dressed up in a fancy new set of clothes.

For example, an old idea that conservatives have is that markets pretty much always work better than the public sector. So they thought up school vouchers as a way to strengthen the private school system and weaken the public school system. They don't like government programs, so they've been trying, for years now, to privatize Social Security. They don't like progressive taxation, so they've advocated a flat tax. And on and on.

Conservative "ideas" tend to amount to policies that transfer resources out of the public sector and into private hands. On the other side of the coin, liberal "ideas" do the reverse: they take money out of private hands and put it into the public sector, for the purpose of helping the less advantaged or solving social problems. Often, liberal "new ideas" take the form of new government programs. For example, several years ago when Tim Russert
asked Rahm Emanuel what the Democrats' "new ideas" were, Emanuel mentioned enacting universal health care, significantly increasing subsidies so that more people can attend college, and creating a national institute for science and technology research.

The distribution of money and power in our society is basically what liberals and conservatives fight over. Liberals tend to want the money and power to be more equally shared, while conservatives want it to be concentrated in the hands of the corporations and the rich. But it's considered rude to speak publicly of things so vulgar as money and power, so when attempting to persuade elites, both sides find it helpful to talk about "ideas." That makes these things a lot more comfortable for all concerned -- we can all pretend that we're have a high-minded debate about ideals, instead of a grubby, down-and-dirty fight about power.

Greenberg noted that "In American politics, liberalism and radicalism have been the preferred ideologies of the intellectuals." With the glut of liberal intellectuals around, coming up with "ideas" -- new programs and policies -- has not been much of a problem for the left. Those ideas may not have been fashionable, and some of them -- like universal health care, for example -- are very, very old. But "ideas" have always been there.

Conservatives have had more of a challenge along these lines. For one thing, once upon a time there were very few conservative American intellectuals. As Greenberg points out, "So insignificant was conservatism a half-century ago that Lionel Trilling could claim there were no true conservative ideas in our culture, only 'irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.''' But it's not only that conservatives tend to attract fewer eggheads to their cause; while it's easy to frame a new government program as an idea, it's much harder to make dismantling such a program sound like an idea.

Half a century ago, at the dawn of the conservative movement, conservatives faced another, even deeper problem: their political aims were viewed with distaste by many of the elites -- policymakers, middle- and high-brow journalists -- that they were trying to appeal to. Racism and class warfare have an ugly edge to them, after all. So it was all the more important that conservatives come up with some high-minded "ideas" to sanitize their more controversial and unsavory goals.

In this respect, Milton Friedman was God's gift to the conservative movement. Friedman was a great economist and a world-class intellectual who, like the conservatives, believed in a radically deregulated state and in free markets as the best (or least bad) solution to virtually every social or political problem. Better yet, his ideology implied that screwing over the working class was not only the most economically efficient way to run our society, but conformed to the highest ideals of cosmic justice.

Eureka! in Friedman-style economics, conservatives had at last found their "ideas." Friedman-omics provided the figleaf of intellectual respectability which covered the moral depravity of much of their politics. Friedmanesque ideologues began to prevail in economics departments across the country, so many of the policy elites the conservatives sought to influence were already thoroughly schooled in the "magic of the market." Economics-based appeals flattered the elites by making them feel smart, and also by implying that their worldly success was entirely deserved, earned by the dint of their hard work and "human capital," and not by the luck of the draw of what class they happened to be born into.

No doubt that, once conservatives captured the policymakers and the elite opinion-making journals like The New Republic, it became much easier to get their policies enacted. Why, all the right-thinking people were united in their belief that dismantling the welfare state was the way to go; it was so uncool, so déclassé, so retro to believe otherwise. Only those dirty f**king hippies at The Nation would disagree.

It's a mistake, though, to believe that conservatives, or liberals, win elections because of "ideas." I've long believed that the power of "ideas" in politics to be way overrated...

There's lots more at the post, but the basic gist really does confirm the left's pedestrian logic that conservatism can be broken-down to economic greed. This is truly a case of postmodern reductionist nihilism.

This reductionism to be expected or lamented - as Matthew Yglesias is a trained philosopher, from Harvard - so either he completely endorses "Kathy G's" essential claim that ideational progess has reached some final endpoint - that debates on ideas are really just jockeying to better package archaic notions of static right or justice - or his break from blogging's ending up totally giving away the store.

As Captain Ed notes in a post tonight on conservatism, dicussions of the philosophy of ideas really need to begin with first principles. The Captain gets right into a discussion of such basic points of classical conservatism as the notion of limited government, and he goes on to suggest, essentially, that calls for being "compassionate" ineluctably tend to expand the scope of government, rather than limit its reach and protect the rights of the individual.

This is good, but according to "Kathy G's" basic point, conservatism versus liberalism's alleged to be more about the distribution of wealth and social obligation. Certainly there's that element in ideological debates over equity and opportunity, but that's not a first principle in the sense of ideological fundamentals (conservatives, in wanting to limit the state, essentially keep property rights as basic to human freedom, and thus to be conservative is accordingly to limit the confiscatory power of goverment, which inherently threatens liberty).

So, when we talk about political ideologies, when we get down to first prerequisites, the key concern is the pace and scope of change.

Liberals and conservatives can be placed along a continuum of ideological orientations as those positions correlate to demands on the pace and reach of social transformation. The continuum is more complicated if we include the major ideological concepts of radicals, liberals, moderates, conservatives, and reactionaries. We move from left to right when discussing these terms, and the further to the left one places oneself on the spectrum the more radical (essentially revolutionary) is the degree of change (contemporary groups like the Stalinist
International ANSWER would be placed at the extreme left).

At the other end of the continuum are the forces of reaction, who are opposed to change in its own right, and who would like to take society back to an earlier period in history - indeed, some of the extremist fringes of reaction often seek some kind of
millenarian utopianism, often identified in racialist terms (Germany's Nazi Party, and its obsession with early Germanic mysticism or Teutonic Aryanism, is the obvious example of such extreme right-wing millenarianism, but even today's neo-confederate ideology can be characterized as such to some degree).

Everyday conservatives, on the other hand, support incremental change in the social order, changes that reflect custom and traditions preserved through the ages, but accepting of progress when the preservation of human, universal right is at stake.

Thus it's extremely simple and condescending to refer to modern conservatives as a bunch of "Archie Bunkers," crass simpletons insistent on holding their place greedily in some placement of lumpen working class identity.

But note further the language deployed by "Kathy G": Conservatives are seen as promoting markets to weaken the social realm, to "transfer" resources out of the "public sector into public hands." Nothing better illustrates the mindset of today's American left-wing than its orientation toward society's wealth. The "public sector" does not produce resources - private markets do. This is not an argument against governmental intervention or a strong state, for as economists like
Douglass North have shown, private markets can become too anarchic and Darwinian in the absence of legal frameworks of regulatory and institutional norms.

The contemporary left, as seen in countless
blog posts and articles in journals like the American Prospect, advocates a dramatically interventionist domestic agenda, one that seeks to move the United States more toward the European social democratic model, and with leftist calls for trade protection and multilateralism in interanational security, modern day "progressives" have shifted even closer to the radical position on the continuum than left-liberals of the 1970s and 1980s.

What's interesting is how "Kathy G's" notion of "ideas" consists essentially of expanding the ways to enhance state power and increase distribution. Indeed, those things she lists as novel (and moral) - Emanuel's universal health care, greater subsidies to education, and money for R&D in science and technology - are not new.

The fact is that conservatives are not out of ideas. Greater reliance on markets has shown in recent decades to be a far superior approach to expanding fairness and opportunity than have been efforts to resurrect the paternalistic liberalism of the great society. Take social policy, for example. In the last twelve years the notion driving anti-poverty policy is that people should work rather than rely on the state for support. That is, the traditional solutions to poverty as supporting workfare over welfare, and liberating the classic individualism of self-sufficiency, has been far superior to straight cash handouts to the poor or disadvantaged.

Take social policy further, the GOP can be faulted for not pushing well-enough an incentive-based approach to helping the poor. Society needs to find ways to provide incentives for purposive behavior, like getting kids to school on time, establishing consistent patterns of attendance, or paying the rent on time. We are seeing some "incentive-based" programs at the state level, for example, in the "
Pathways to Rewards" initiatives, currently being used in cities like Chicago. Programs like this, also used to assist to the poor transitioning to work, have shown real results.

In international relations one of the most powerful ideas offered this season is the notion of the league of democracies. Think about it: John McCain has borrowed
strands from both sides of the political spectrum in offering a new and different approach to great-power organization compared to anything we're seeing from the Democratic candidates. This is fresh thinking, seeking the establishment of international institutions that can be unshackled from the 60-year straightjacket of the United Nations, to work toward a new concert of interests working together among the great powers to effect real change internationally, either independently of existing multilateral organizations, or in tandem with them when traditional power politics doesn't impede cooperation.

Leftist foreign policy writers and bloggers
routinely attack to notion of a concert of democratic powers, frankly, because it really is new, and it would shake up the radical shibboleths that American power needs to be restrained and "legitimized" by suffocating it within overlapping institutions and norms of a liberal international order.

I imagine I could go on - precisely because there are so many good ideas! But wait! Social Security privatization? We need it, but it won't be coming soon, not because it's a bad idea, but because the safety net of America's social democratic state is indeed entrenched. President Bush was onto something with his calls for private retirement accounts, as part of his vision toward reorienting American politics to an "opportunity society." If a Democratic president, say, Bill Clinton, had proposed such a program, we might not see the same kind of vitriol and utter demonization that we see in the type of commentary found in the "Kathy G" essay.

But let me close with Milton Freidman, since "Kathy G" makes him out as a foil for evil conservative venality. In the YouTube below, Freidman leaves far-left talk show host Phil Donahue utterly helpless, completely flummoxed in his inability to respond to the simple logic of market rationality:

Liberals and conservatives fight over way more than the "distribution of money and power."

In addition to the rationality of markets - and the personal moral authority of individual responsibilty - conservatives respect tradition as the way societies preserve historical goodness and, frankly, the divine right guaranteeing that all men are created equal.

In a post discussing far left-wing foreign policy,
Mere Rhetoric suggested that "spoiled liberal Ivy kids are not ready to talk to adults yet."

I'd add that they're not ready to talk like political philosophers either.