Painting Conservatism Out of the Corner

Source: Painting Conservatism Out of the Corner
Tim Kowal
June 06, 2011

Andrew Sullivan’s recent apologia—or, perhaps, obituary—of conservatism makes at least one very good point: Modern conservatism has painted itself into a corner. Concerning the poor and uninsured, for example, Mr. Sullivan rightly observes that “in a society that won’t let people die on the street, these are real and tough problems we cannot just wish away.” Conservatives who attack the liberal welfare state often reject even the preliminary terms of negotiation. It is a well worn principle that a state cannot reasonably be expected to make meaningful concessions to an adversary who refuses to recognize its right to exist.

In his 2010 book Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, William Voegeli implores conservatives to recognize this reality. Against the shapelessness of liberal thinking that makes it so difficult to refute, Voegeli reluctantly acknowledges that conservatives are too enamored by the superiority of their principles to bother with a more pragmatic approach—specifically, Voegeli offers, stipulating to the existence of the welfare state while insisting it “actually produce the intended effect and do so at a reasonable cost.” Id. at 256-257. Until conservatives acknowledge the hopelessness of the fight against the concept of the welfare state, they will forfeit their seat at the table to discuss bringing about a sensible welfare state.

This does not mean, Voegeli assures us, that conservatives ought to abandon its critique of the New Deal. That legacy, Voegeli explains, is “liberalism’s gravest and defining error—the demolition of the legitimacy barriers existing in the pre-1937 Constitution and the refusal to erect any new ones in their place.” Id. at 267-268. The New Deal legacy, which remade the American founding upon History instead of Nature, has given us a polity in which “the government’s powers are protean rather than enumerated, the people’s rights subject to perpetual revision rather than inalienable, and the consent of the governed advisory rather than dispositive.” Id.

Some conservatives, like Mr. Sullivan, stand ready to meet Voegeli’s first challenge and accept the moral and political legitimacy of at least some version of a welfare state. However, the task requires sobriety. Like a game of “roller bowler,” over-eagerness to pass either test results in the same unhappy outcome. Mr. Sullivan’s acknowledgment of the legitimacy of certain welfare state projects fails to prescribe the conditions upon which he might ever reject any welfare state project. Here’s Mr. Sullivan:

So on taxes today, a conservative would ask: what have we learned about the impact of lower rates over the last two decades – now the lowest as a percentage of GDP since the 1950s? In healthcare, what have we learned about the largely private system the GOP wants to preserve? A conservative would look at home and abroad for empirical answers, acknowledging no ultimate solution but the need for constant reform because society is always changing. On gay rights, a classic social change, he’d ask what a society should do in integrating the emergence of so many openly gay people, couples and families. On foreign policy, he’d move on a case by case basis, not by way of a “doctrine.”

It is this cloak of “case-by-case” analysis that, for lack of any acknowledged principle, defines liberalism. Mr. Sullivan’s treatment thus sounds less like Calvin Coolidge (“About the Declaration [of Independence] there is a finality that is exceedingly restful”) than Woodrow Wilson (“If you want to understand the Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface”). FDR joined Wilson’s Progressive disparagement of the American founding based on Nature, explaining that “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights.” FDR asserted that “The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.”

However, FDR, like today’s liberals, simultaneously and inexplicably also invoked Coolidge’s sentiment about the finality of rights: “the old ‘rights of personal competency’—the right to read, to think, to speak, to choose and live a mode of life, must be respected at all hazards.” Concerning this bizarre inconsistency, Voegeli remarks:

This assertion seems to contradict FDR’s argument that rights need to be redefined according to new circumstances, especially changing economic circumstances. By positing that some rights are less malleable than others, however, and by including in the honor roll of rights that must be respected at all hazards the nebulous right to choose and live a mode of life, FDR seeks to secure enormous leverage for the government.

Voegeli at 72-74.

Clearly, FDR did not really mean what he said about rights which “must be respected at all hazards.” Instead, the “hazard” that justifies disregarding individual rights, FDR explained, is the possibility that respecting those rights might “deprive others of those elemental rights.” Government’s job, FDR continued, is the “maintenance of balance.”

Yet, he did not explain how or in whose favor that balance will be maintained. In 1940, Alvin Hansen, one of Roosevelt’s most influential economic advisors, was asked whether “the basic principle of the New Deal [is] economically sound,” to which Hansen replied: “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.” Voegeli recounts the memoirs of another New Dealer, Raymond Moley, stating: “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.” Voegeli at 98.

The American Prospect indicated in January 2005 that today’s liberals still don’t know what liberalism “stands for.” Liberal columnist Michael Tomasky likewise wrote in 2010 that Democrats “have usually tried to hide those beliefs, or change the conversation when the subject arose.” For his own part, Mr. Tomasky’s explanation of liberalism and its delineation between the two big competing ideas of political theory—liberty and security—leaves much to be desired:

Anybody familiar with Liberalism 101 grasps that there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. . . . [W]here that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals—I mean liberals who know something about liberalism—get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.”

Mr. Tomasky’s self-validating definition of liberalism is too clever by half, suggesting liberals need not explain how they know where the “line” between legitimate and illegitimate government action is—they just know. As Voegeli observes, though spirited, Mr. Tomasky “has nothing more to tell us about the ‘something deep within liberalism’ that makes liberals play nice.” Voegeli at 68-69. “A government of laws,” Voegeli goes on, “needs to justify its actions with arguments more compelling and respectful to the governed than such ‘because we say so’ pronouncements.” Id. at 120.

Still, however, some liberals resent the implication that liberalism need offer more than its say so. Predating conservative blogger Mr. Sullivan’s remark to the same effect, liberal columnist Jonathan Chait explained, “For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.” And so on? As Voegeli correctly observes, Mr. Chait’s coda suggests continuation in a direction—that a general rule may be readily discerned by examining the preceding list of particulars. “But if there are only political particulars, there is no direction, and nothing to be said about how liberalism relates one policy to another or settles conflicts between competing goals.” Voegeli at 147. Mr. Chait’s definition of liberalism is simply that general rules are unnecessary or, at least, obstructive and undesirable: if the list of particulars suggests any shared commonalities, it is coincidental and irrelevant. If adherence to principle forces us to conclude that the sort of government that must provide things we want it to provide (education, health care) must also provide things we don’t want it to provide (blue jeans), then should principle be cast into the flames. For liberalism, the tradition of showing a decent respect to the opinions of mankind is not worth keeping if it obstructs deeply desired policy objectives.

As a result, liberalism’s rejection of principle makes it “impossible to say which means liberalism will employ; more precisely, it’s impossible to say which ones it will foreswear to avoid violating individuals’ rights or exceeding government’s proper sphere.” Id. at 102.

Whatever conservatives’ folly in taking a hardline approach against the welfare state, then, American politics cannot suffer the loss of the only mainstream ideology that offers any limiting principle whatsoever. Conservatives must not abandon its affinity for big ideas even while they must make allowances for certain big government programs. A conservatism so reformed, Voegeli argues, will find a greater sway with a schizophrenic populace who is “more liberal when answering questionnaires than when casting ballots.” Id. at 158.

Specifically, Voegeli argues conservatism can beat liberalism at its own “case-by-case” game on issues like affirmative action, education, rent control, housing, and wage laws:

Does affirmative action place minority students in colleges where they’re likely to fail while depriving other applicants of the chance to attend the most challenging schools where they are capable of succeeding? Does rent control drive up the cost of housing, depriving property owners of the same opportunity to profit as any other investor while driving down the quality and quantity of the housing stock? Do minimum wage laws reduce the number of entry-level jobs, making it harder to escape from poverty? Because compassion, by its nature, subordinates doing good to feeling good, these are questions the warm-hearted rarely pursue.

Id. at 140-141. A system of political thought that accounts for sentiment, then, is implicitly preferable to one that offers nothing but.

Similarly, and symptomatic of liberalism’s failure to define its terms, liberalism cannot offer a clear picture of what “poverty” is or how to know when it has been successfully ameliorated. Kenneth Minogue in The Liberal Mind explained that the word “has been transmogrified into ‘relative deprivation,’ which assumes that happiness and well-being depend on having most of the things other people have.” Voegeli recounts that according to Matt Bai writing in the New York Times, “the average income of an American taxpayer in 1929, using today’s dollars, was about $16,000 a year; the entire middle class, in other words, was poor by modern standards.” Voegeli at 53. The welfare state by 2007, however, adjusted for inflation and changes in population, spent 15.3 times the amount spent during the New Deal in 1940. Its proponents ought to offer some indication when its principal objectives can be deemed achieved.

Again, however, liberals might suggest that there is no need to define the end point when economic theory provides an effectively endless supply of revenue. Lavish government spending on programs is supposedly founded on Keynesian economics, which teaches that pumping government money into the economy increases demand and thus stabilizes prices and stimulates growth, employment, and investment. However, “[s]pending as much money as possible,” Voegeli explains, “was, in fact, faithful to only one-half of Keynesian theory.”

Macro-economic policy was supposed to be counter-cyclical. Spending furiously was a good idea when the economy was going into a recession, but exactly the wrong remedy when a boom was threatening to cause inflation. The other, expansionary phase of the business cycle needed to be moderated by a combination of higher taxes and lower government spending. This fasting-and-penance part of the Keynesian faith, however, was never as popular with the voting public as the Mardi Gras part and, not coincidentally, has never had any champions among liberal politicians and writers.

Voegeli at 171-172. This is reason enough to distrust macroeconomic theory in a democracy. There are always sound enough reasons to spend money on things we like. When along comes the part of the cycle that demands austerity, however, it seems just as sound for present purposes to elect adherents of a macroeconomic philosophy that pushes austerity further still into the future. Lord, give us austerity, but not yet.

Liberal macroeconomists have, for the better part of century, sought to render economics inscrutable and beyond the American public’s understanding. They have done this precisely for the purpose of de-politicizing some of the most important political questions, making politicians unaccountable for running up massive deficits, and generating greater need for ever greater taxes. All this has resulted in a massive shift of political power to Congress. (Because every US state other than Vermont has some form of balanced budget amendment, this macroeconomic mojo is less effective at the state level.)

In The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward, conservative economist Bruce Bartlett notes that Keynes had enormous confidence in his ability to manipulate public opinion, and that this was a driving motivation of his work. As a result, Keynes was not concerned with consistency in his approach to economics: if the approach he advocated to meet one political challenge was inapposite to another, he showed little reluctance in making the necessary adjustments without regard to consistency among the approaches. Bartlett explains:

Through the years, many economists have puzzled over the contradictions in Keynes’s work. But there is one thing that ties it all together: his intense desire to influence public policy. As Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky put it, “He invented theory to justify what he wanted to do.” If one goes through the 30 volumes of his collected works, the vast bulk of the material is not technical economics, but articles for newspapers and popular magazines, as well as memoranda and policy papers for government officials. “He was an opportunist who reacted to events immediately and directly, and his reaction was to produce an answer, to write a memorandum, and to publish at once, economist Elizabeth Johnson explains.

. . . .

It is clear that Keynes would often put forward proposals because he thought they would be helpful at a particular moment in time, knowing full well that it would be highly undesirable for them to be maintained for the long term. . . .

The Keynesian model was never meant for consumption by voters. It was meant to confuse and disorient them so political leaders could govern without having to make their macroeconomic policies economically defensible. When Dwight Eisenhower’s press secretary expressed concern how the President ought to respond to a sensitive subject, Eisenhower responded “Don’t worry, Jim. If that comes up, I’ll just confuse them.” One wonders if this is not the approach in much of Washington politics today.

By rejecting an ideology to determine what government properly should do, and in an age of affluence that obviated the need to determine what government could do, government was free to provide anything else “worth having.” In 1964, The New Republic stated “If ballet is worth having, as we earlier decided public libraries were worth having, go ahead and provide for ballet, even though there is not sufficient ‘demand’ to make it ‘economic.’ This attitude can obviously be extended from ballet to beautifying the country-side, and in a dozen other different directions. With all this wealth we can afford to try.” Politicians like Pat Brown agreed. During the 1960s, California declined to choose whether to spend on infrastructure or education and heavily invested in both. When Californians enacted Proposition 13 in 1978 in revolt against skyrocketing property taxes, politicians were once again forced to choose. The necessity of something drastic like Prop 13 cannot be underestimated: in a political culture that preaches all things are possible through government, there is little basis for denying any beneficent-sounding thing. This is a lesson that had not been unlearned by 2008 as the federal government continued to advertise that home ownership could be made available to every American through federal policies forcing interests rates down and home prices up. Without an ideology to tell us when the government should stop pandering to our desires, reality serves as our only backstop, harsh though it is.

In addition to obfuscation through macro-economic policy, Voegeli describes how liberal economics further relies on “turning the skies black with criss-crossing dollars.” As he explained in the Claremont Review in Spring 2005:

As more and more dollars fly around, the confusion about where all of them start out and end up increases. The dollars often arrive ostentatiously (Social Security checks in the mailbox) but depart surreptitiously (payroll withholding and employer “contributions” to Social Security). This contrast makes it easy for each household to regard itself as a net importer rather than a net exporter of the dollars that make up this green tornado. The ultimate goal is to leave people believing an impossibility: that an enormous but nevertheless finite number of dollars can be vacuumed up and airdropped in such a way that the vast majority of people wind up gaining more than they lose.

Dark skies aid perception management. While it is not possible for every jurisdiction in the nation to come out ahead in the federal pork lottery, it is possible for them to seem to come out ahead—as Voegeli puts it, “for all of them to look like importers rather than exporters.” The task is to ensure that the dollars “arrive more conspicuously than they depart.” Voegeli at 195. The easiest way to accomplish this is through complexity and confusion. “[Clarity] is the enemy and confusion the friend of the welfare state. The goal, accordingly, is to make the welfare state as complex as possible.” Id. at 195-196.

The chaotic maelstrom of dollars explains why so many middle-class Americans support Social Security, a fundamentally crummy retirement program relative to what most middle-class Americans could purchase privately: They have been dazed and confused into believing they actually benefit from it. However, “[a] simple program to help poor people,” Voegeli explains, “would make it easy to distinguish the households that are net exporters of dollars from the ones that are net importers. Liberals don’t want to run that risk. They don’t trust the prosperous citizens in the net exporter households to be generous and public-spirited enough to keep voting for welfare programs once it becomes clear to them that they are financing benefits bestowed on others.” Id. at 197. Accordingly, “[t]he government provides Social Security and Medicare to people who don’t need them for the sake of people who do.” Id. at 199.

Both conservatism and liberalism in their modern iterations are fundamentally naïve. Conservatism preaches that political man can survive on doctrine alone, while liberalism relies on sentiment. Neither makes sufficient allowance for the fact that he needs both—that man is fundamentally doctrinal and sentimental; rational and moral; metaphysical and empirical. Conservatism, James Q. Wilson argues, should present “not an argument for a small government or a weak government or a government indifferent to the poor . . . [but] an argument for a fair and competent government.” Liberalism, for its part, “must abandon the belief that everything is good to do.” Voegeli at 256. There is nothing in conservatism that compels its adherents to oppose every government program with a noble purpose. Once that is accepted, conservatives can more effectively impress upon liberals that, as Wilson puts it, “[i]t is not enough that a program have a noble purpose or a laudable motive; to warrant a claim on resources, it should actually produce the intended effect and do so at a reasonable cost.”

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