Re: Conservative Political Methods
Justin jumped in ahead of me on this one (hey, it happens with us non-coordinating bloggers). Here’s a little more background. NY Times columnist David Brooks ($ required) started it off, and Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat and Jonah Goldberg have all weighed in thus far. The acute argument being had is between Sullivan and Douthat/Brooks. Brooks (and Douthat through his defense of the former) is advocating for a more populist/conservative Republicanism while Sullivan–who believes Brooks has sold-out to the Bush “christianist” neo-whatever–is arguing for smaller government and “liberty vs. power” / “security before liberty” conservatism. It’s higher-level, political theory stuff and a good read (if you can get over Sullivan’s Bush-paranoia hyperbole).
As Justin points out, it’s Goldberg’s observation that is probably most interesting and important, especially for Anchor Rising readers. It helps to explain why we Anchor Rising contributors–to differing degrees–identify ourselves more as conservatives than Republicans (if I may presume to speak for the others). It also explains why I suspect some RI Republicans may get frustrated with us from time to time. We genuinely believe that conservative ideas and solutions are better and are less inclined to forsake our ideals for short-term solutions. That isn’t to say that we don’t compromise, just that we are predisposed not to.
Brooks has apparently taken his cue from libertarian Tyler Cowen. Cowen believes that, while libertarian economic theory has largely triumphed–inflation and taxes are down since the 70s and economic freedom has been spreading worldwide–libertarians have to acknowledge that they have an epistemological problem:
Libertarian ideas…have…brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism.
If less government is better and more efficient, if it does the job better, then it becomes more attractive to the average citizen. Cowen thinks libertarianism needs to become more “pragmatic” to deal with this problem by not rejecting big-government out of hand–it’s what the consumers want!–and this is essentially what Brooks is saying, too.
Both Cowen and Brooks believe that the old “liberty vs. power” paradigm–in which power is equated to large, intrusive government–is outdated. From this, you can see them working toward a new justification for embracing old-fashioned, big government populism–though with conservative trappings. Brooks says as much:
Normal, nonideological people are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena [Islamic extremism, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation]. The ‘liberty vs. power’ paradigm is less germane. It’s been replaced in the public consciousness with a ‘security leads to freedom’ paradigm. People with a secure base are more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world.
Thus, according to this line of thinking, this new “security leads to freedom” paradigm makes a benevolent and big state necessary. As Sullivan points out, conservatism has always been concerned with the “security leads to freedom” paradigm, too. That’s why conservatives generally support law and order and military spending. But that’s not the type of security Brooks is referring to. No, he’s talking more societal safety net stuff. Translation: so-called big government conservatism.
Which leads to a question. Where will we be as a nation if both conservatives and libertarian’s join liberals and progressives in espousing their own bigger-is-better-and-we-know-best big-government programs? There really isn’t any sort of conservative or libertarian tradition in that approach. But Brooks and Cowen seem to be sublimating their political principles for the sake of being politically attractive to the masses, so they’re trying to redefine “conservatism” and “libertarianism” to appeal to more people. It’s sort of ideology-by-poll. That’s not to say that Republicans shouldn’t go ahead an try to re-define themselves. I say, “have at it.” But don’t call it “conservative” (nor, I suspect, libertarian).
As Goldberg points out:
Where is it written that conservatives have to have new popular ideas? If we can’t make our existing ideas popular, is it really so terrible that conservatism become unpopular? Or does conservatism have to become a de facto political party of its own, constantly churning out new ideas that will get swing voters to call themselves “conservatives” not by converting them to conservatism, but by converting conservatism into some rightwing progressive agenda?
…By all means conservatism needs to change because reality changes. But conservatives are the last people in the world who should be terrified at the idea that our ideas are momentarily unpopular…
Finally, its my contention that, despite what Brooks and Cowen believe, the “liberty vs. power” formulation is still appropriate and instructive. It has helped to describe events in the 1770s, 1830s, the 1930s/40s and the 1960s/70s. If there is one constant, it’s that it’s easier to grow government than to shrink it (and we know this all too well, don’t we fellow Rhode Islanders?). With that growth, the government–often imperceptibly–grabs more power over the lives of everyday people. At the time, it may seem benign, even noble, but eventually it transforms into something more arbitrary and, yes, even heartless. Bigger isn’t better and it’s frighteningly impersonal. It’s an old but apt joke: do you want all of the compassion found in the DMV making decisions about your Healthcare?
In other words, just because government may be more efficient now (debatable), doesn’t mean it will always be so (hardly). If we are faced with the paradox that shrinking government has ultimately led to growing government again and that this is all very “pragmatic”, then we will find ourselves–eventually–back where we were in the 1970s. In fact, as we Rhode Islanders know, some of us have never left. It may take longer, it may take shorter, but we’ll get there.
It is up to conservatives (and libertarians) to remember their history and stand athwart it and yell “Stop!” Lean and efficient government can provide for the security of US citizens without having to penetrate so thoroughly into their daily lives. Large government is an abstraction that should be feared and watched. That is one of the missions with which conservatives and libertarians should concern themselves, regardless of which political party may oppose them.