The new Conservatism

Mickey Edwards explains why he didn’t go to CPAC, the annual Conservative self-lovefest, arguing that the traditional conservatism of America has been supplanted by a state-aggrandizing European-style conservatism. I’m not sure if the shift is even that intellectual, or if it’s simply that Conservatives — like members of any tribe facing an enemy tribe — are desperate to win, to crush their enemies, so much so that if their tribal leaders want to give the state enormous power, they will gleefully go along, and shout down anyone who opposes this, because, well, the people who oppose such measures are not in our tribe and therefore can’t be trusted. The rise of people like Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin as thought leaders is less, to me, evidence of an intellectual shift than a burning desire by tribe members for leaders who can sling the sharpest barbs at the people they despise.

A real American conservative, to me, is someone who understands that markets are the best means of allocating resources, that liberty is essential to human thriving, and that man is sinful and in desperate need of checking and elevating institutions like the Church and marriage and childrearing. A real American conservative believes in aspiring, at the very least, to truthfulness and humility and thoughtfulness, which means he can’t help but cringe when he hears the likes of an Ann Coulter bellowing about her enemies being traitors. A real American conservative understands that the ills of mankind will not go away if we could only just have a lower tax rate and less regulation. A real American conservative is not, I’ll submit to you, at home in the maneuvering and manipulation of state capitols, and certainly not in Washington, D.C. A real American conservative does not trust large government or mass democracy or even himself, certainly not himself, which is why he wants to keep undivided power out of any man’s hands, including his own.

By these lights, I suspect there are more American conservatives than we think. But I also suspect that they weren’t very well represented at CPAC.

Comments

  1. dustydog

    Whenever somebody complains about Coulter, I always wonder whether they read her work and disagree, or heard a liberal whining and decided to trust the liberal. Can you cite anything she’s written that is false and not and obvious joke?

  2. Donna B.

    Except that the writer endorsed Obama. That means that all the things he wrote about what conservatives *should* want, he didn’t consider important in the 2008 election.

    Man write with forked pen.

  3. Jan M.

    If you strike out the word “conservative” throughout the last paragraph, and re-read it, then you’ve revealed the genius of the American experiment. By including the word, you’ve underscored the pettiness of the political system which seeks to divide us (all too often successfully) into bitter partisans rather than the forward-leaning and aspirational community we fundamentally are.

  4. Chuck

    Woodlief, I love your post here. It’s a relief to read someone express much of what I’ve been thinking about conservatism, and to do it so well. I’m having a hard time reconciling your views with a vote for Obama, though. I can’t see any rational hope that Obama was ever, ever himself going to promote the conservative values you embrace more than McCain or Barr. The only reason I can see to have voted for O is to do your best to ensure that the GOP was spanked hard, which may not be a bad thing.

    Jan M., I think you’re wrong. Woodlief is a conservative because he wants to conserve the genius of the American experiment. That degree of conservatism at least is essential to the future success of the American experiment. That’s also want I want to conserve against all progressive attempts to erode it.

    dustydog, Coulter is supposed to have written this about Muslim countries in a column:

    “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

    Doesn’t look like a joke to me, but perhaps I’m missing something. If she’s serious about invading countries and converting the populations, then she’s an enemy of the Gospel in my view.

  5. Gray

    Fact one, not all Republicans are conservative. Fact two, many Republicans are politicians.

    One quote from your post got me,

    “I’m not sure if the shift is even that intellectual, or if it’s simply that Conservatives — like members of any tribe facing an enemy tribe — are desperate to win, to crush their enemies, so much so that if their tribal leaders want to give the state enormous power, they will gleefully go along, and shout down anyone who opposes this, because, well, the people who oppose such measures are not in our tribe and therefore can’t be trusted.”

    I see Republicans more tribal than conservatives. In my conservatives are by nature independent minded and grounded. They don’t need to have the safety of the group and are much more likely to stand alone or in a smaller group on grounds of principal. My problem with Republicans is that they don’t’ want to win. They want to be liked. If you are right, there are times when you need to say it. If you are conservative and you want elites in the media to like you, you are going to die disappointed. The only good Republican to most media types are Republicans who agree with Democrats.

    Relating to Coulter and Beck, I see this as a straw man argument of sorts. Lets pick two people who’s job, who’s livelihood is to walk the line between truth and outrage. How about Krauthammer, George Will, James Taranto, Mona Charen and I could go on and on. Conservative comentators who are consistant and who no liberal/progressive/Democrat will seriously challenge in the arena of ideas rather than folks who make money by raising the blood pressure of Keith Oberman. (Shout out to John Hood of the John Locke foundation who was ‘Worst Person In the World’ a few weeks back.)

    Conservatism is not in peril, it is not waning, in fact it is in ascendancy. The majority of Americans in Polls over the last 6-8 months consider themselves conservative. Conservative is the baseline of the American culture. I guess that I just get tired of reading the pointy fingered rantings off of the ivory keyboards of whinny sudo conservatives who are threatened by the likes of Sarah Palin.

    As for you Tony, did you vote for Obama?

    Oh, and I still love ya man, even if you have become prone to a little ranting about folks who claim to be conservative but don’t pass the litmus test…

  6. Chuck

    @Gray

    Re: Coulter, Beck, etc. I like your characterization of them as “people who’s job, who’s livelihood is to walk the line between truth and outrage.” However, I get the sense that folks like them have a much larger role in today’s conservative discourse than they did in the conservative discourse of 30 years ago. As much as I might agree with Palin on many issues, the idea of her as a “thought leader” (in Woodlief’s phrase) saddens me.

    You are right that Republicans want to be liked, but I think they also want to win. In fact, I think they are too interested in short-term political success and not interested enough in thinking through a decent American conservatism and building on it for the medium and long term. Tony wrote “A real American conservative does not trust large government or mass democracy or even himself, certainly not himself, which is why he wants to keep undivided power out of any man’s hands, including his own.” That’s gold in my view. Any conservatism that doesn’t include honesty, thoughtfulness, and humility as core values is a non-starter for me.

    However Tony voted, I think his analysis above is right on the money.

  7. Post
    Author
    Woodlief

    Gray,

    Is this a Rush talking point, the threatened/scared of Palin thing? I’ve heard it elsewhere, and so I’m wondering.

    And no, I didn’t vote for Obama. The Woodlief policy is to withhold votes from anyone who favors the murder of children, born or unborn. And from socialists. And from people whose sole distinction is the ability to issue forth vacuous phrases. Which means he lost on all counts.

  8. TomInStL

    The elephant in the room (pardon the GOP pun) is the simple fact that Republicans are no longer the party of conservatism. Over the last several Republican administrations we have increased spending, decreased revenues, increased the size of government and used the government to interfere with private affairs. Despite the chosen line-up of speakers, the straw vote for Ron Paul revealed the real thoughts of the attendees at CPAC.

    For me, my brand of conservative honors the constitution, allows commerce to flow with only minimal government input for safety and fairness, and stays the heck out of my business. My conservatives don’t want to impose a religion on me, dictate my relationships, or legislate morality.

    SO, if at times I am faced with voting for an attempt to change a trend more than for a given candidate, and that MIGHT mean that I vote against the GOP of the last couple decades.

  9. libarbarian

    Gray,

    Relating to Coulter and Beck, I see this as a straw man argument of sorts. Lets pick two people who’s job, who’s livelihood is to walk the line between truth and outrage. How about Krauthammer, George Will, James Taranto, Mona Charen and I could go on and on.

    None of the people you mention have anywhere near the following that the Beck, Coulter, and the other entertainers have within the Conservative movement. Comparing the heft of Beck to Krauthammer within the conservative movment is like comparing heft of Hannah Montana and Sara Mclaughlin within the population of American 12 year old girls.

  10. Korey

    Woodlief,
    The hyperbole in your last comment is unfortunate. Was it to make it clear you are unequivocally no Obama supporter? Or maybe you really believe it. He “favors” murdering children? He’s a socialist? His sole distinction is to issue forth vacuous phrases?

    Just to be clear, are you arguing that anyone who does not favor outlawing abortion favors murdering children? Do you think he advocates government control of the means of production and abandoning private property? Did you hear his speech on race? All his comments are vacuous?

  11. Tony

    Yes, Korey, a bit of unfortunate hyperbole on my part. He doesn’t favor murdering children, he simply supports policies that allow it. He doesn’t favor government control of the means of production, except in certain instances, with considerable regulation of the rest whenever the forces of capitalism yield results his base finds unfavorable. And not every phrase he utters is vacuous, but his primary claim to fame coming into the Democratic primaries was that he had made a pretty speech on national television.

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  14. beejeez

    So a liberal does not believe …

    … That liberty is essential to human thriving

    … in “aspiring, at the very least, to truthfulness and humility and thoughtfulness, which means he can’t help but cringe when he hears the likes of an Ann Coulter bellowing about her enemies being traitors.”

    … “that the ills of mankind will not go away if we could only just have a lower tax rate and less regulation.”

    … in “keeping undivided power out of any man’s hands, including his own.”

    So liberals believe in slavery, arrogance, low taxes and despotism. OK, got it.

  15. Post
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  16. beejeez

    If he’s going to assert that “there are more American conservatives than we think” by citing this template for what “conservatives” believe in, shouldn’t the author list only characteristics that distinguish conservatives from liberals?

  17. Tony

    You’re cherry-picking phrases from the post and then positing that I think a liberal must therefore believe in the polar opposite of these principles. If you can find me a modern liberal who advocates a Jeffersonian sense of liberty and a limited, divided government, I’ll give you a conservative who has been mislabeled.

  18. Tari

    Tony,

    You write:

    “A real American conservative is not, I’ll submit to you, at home in the maneuvering and manipulation of state capitols, and certainly not in Washington, D.C. A real American conservative does not trust large government or mass democracy or even himself, certainly not himself, which is why he wants to keep undivided power out of any man’s hands, including his own.”

    This would seem to preclude all of your convervatives from serving in government (politics being a lot like sausage making, unfortunately). While I’m sure this idea delights the NYT, I don’t think we should make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    Tari

  19. Post
    Author
    Woodlief

    Tari,

    What I have in mind are people who would go to Washington or their state capitals, speak truth, thereby agitating both their political colleagues and we voters who want our bread and circuses for free, and then come home to their real jobs and lives before losing their souls. A far stretch, I know.

  20. Tari

    I’d like those people to serve in government too, on both sides of the aisle, but I don’t know how on earth you accomplish it. Politics calls to the worst in everyone – at this point the fact you want to run for an office almost disqualifies you from holding it. And our government is still better than every other in existence, IMO.

  21. dsimon

    “A real American conservative, to me, is someone who understands that markets are the best means of allocating resources…”

    That’s not a philosophical assertion, it’s an empirical one. If it had said “usually the best means,” I might agree with it. But why should it be assumed that markets are always the best means?

    We like markets because of the results they usually produce: higher quality at lower prices. But when markets do not produce those outcomes, then what reason is there to slavishly adhere to market mechanisms except out of some fetish for markets-for-market’s sake?

    Markets have not held down the costs of higher education as competition among institutions bid up the costs of faculty and facilities. Markets do not hold down the costs of professional sports teams as franchises bid up the costs of acquiring players. Markets do not seem to hold down the costs of health care either; when one hospital gets a fancy new scanner, the others in the area have an incentive to get one too in order to “compete” whether there is adequate demand or not, and then doctors have an incentive to use those scanners to justify their purchase whether they’re needed or not, driving up price without increasing quality.

    Yes, I like markets. Usually. But there is also such a thing as market failure. Markets are “best” if they produce the results we want; they’re not “best” just because they’re markets, and there’s no reason to assume that they always get those results. In fact, there are many fields providing evidence that they don’t.

  22. Post
    Author
    Woodlief

    I’m certainly a consequentialist, and hold to markets only insofar as they are a better means of encouraging entrepreneurship, value creation, and prosperity. But your examples of market failure are higher ed, pro sports, and health care. Two heavily dominated by government spending and regulation, and the other a government-protected monopoly. This is not atypical — many “market failures” that people point to are precisely those areas where use of local knowledge, property rights, rule of law, and incentives have been radically distorted by government interference. Then, like the drunk on Sunday morning, they prescribe the hair of the dog to fix it.

    I can’t even agree with your general point. Markets are not best by virtue of producing the results we want. This is because what we want, at least in privileged parts of the world, is a set of outcomes more consistent with utopia than any known system of economic rules, namely, plenty of good things for everyone who wants them, at minimal cost.

    The question is never whether an economic system yields outcomes we all want, it is simply this: which system yields the greatest prosperity, health, and human happiness for the greatest number of people over time? The answer, indisputably so, is free-market capitalism. This doesn’t mean we should have no government, of course. But we should be clear-headed about what constitutes “market failure,” and what are instead the consequences of pernicious interventions in market processes.

  23. dsimon

    “Markets are not best by virtue of producing the results we want….

    “The question is never whether an economic system yields outcomes we all want, it is simply this: which system yields the greatest prosperity, health, and human happiness for the greatest number of people over time? The answer, indisputably so, is free-market capitalism.”

    I don’t think those two claims are coherent. If the question isn’t about results, then why assume that the goal is “the greatest prosperity, health, and human happiness for the greatest number of people over time”? If that’s the goal, then that’s “what we want,” and we should evaluate whether markets are the best way of producing that result in each field. As I’ve argued, in general the answer will be yes, but in individual cases the answer may be no. And if that answer is occasionally no, then why stick to markets in those cases?

    My examples are not of “market failure.” They are examples of the fact that markets do not always drive down costs while maintaining or improving quality.

    Higher ed at at private institutions is not heavily regulated by the government, and yet costs rise far faster than inflation. Nor are pro sports; only baseball has an anti-trust exemption, and neither it nor the other sports are “heavily” regulated. They decided to regulate themselves after free agency–a free market reform–started driving up expenses to the point where franchises were going to bankrupt or fall into uncompetitive oblivion.

    Health care is regulated to some degree, but it’s regulated because a completely free market simply wouldn’t get the outcomes we want as a society. Indeed, it is regulated because of the outcomes a true free market was producing. First, there is no evidence that it would hold down costs (is there a counter to my example of the fancy new scanner?). The evidence from all of our peer nations is that more government regulation holds down costs more than ours does (without sacrificing comparable health outcomes to our system). Second, there is no evidence that a free market would result in insurance premiums that would be affordable for many people. If the “outcome” we want is affordable access to health care, then there at least would have to be government subsidies–which would violate the principle that free markets are always “best.”

    Similarly, a true free market would not provide basic education for those who can’t afford the resulting market price. But since we seem to think everyone should have access to a basic education, we provide it directly through government services or indirectly through subsidies. Indeed, government intervention would not have been required if the market could have fulfilled this need on its own.

    I don’t want government manufacturing setting prices for furniture or TVs or apples. The market seems to put incentives in the right places for those purposes. But leaving everything to the market would seem to require that those who can’t afford the resulting market price for certain outcomes that we consider essential–like education, or police and fire protection, or (some believe) health care–should just have to do without. And that’s not an outcome we seem to think is just or tolerable. As you say, they don’t produce the greatest human happiness for the greatest number of people because too many people would be left out. And that makes markets not the “best” mechanism for achieving that result.

    If one concedes that we need to have some government to achieve these goals, then it would also seem to me a concession that markets are not always the answer–even if they usually are. And I don’t think it should disqualify a person from being a “conservative” to admit it.

  24. Tony

    Dsimon,
    I’ll try to say this more simply. There is often a difference between what we want, and the best we can get. I am arguing, like you, at the level of results. Markets are an amazing way of allocating resources in the vast majority, if not almost all, instances. A reading of F.A. Hayek will help you understand why. Start with “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” I also recommend PBS’s Commanding Heights series, available from your local library.

    So let’s be clear going forward that this is very much a discussion about results. Markets tend to yield results more in keeping with the wide range of outcomes we desire than any alternate means of economic organization. In your first note you seem to imply that a combination of declining cost and rising quality is the measure of whether a market is working properly. These are frequent results of market processes over time, but there’s no reason to think they are always the most desirable result, given other tradeoffs and possibilities. If innovation in an industry continually drives up quality but also cost, for example, that may, for a time, be more desirable than declining cost and steady quality. Think designer coffees, for example. Or films. These are not evidence of market failure, but rather of innovations that meet widespread demand for higher quality (as defined by subjective value).

    So let’s start with higher ed. Clearly costs have risen over time, but has quality gone up as well? In many areas it clearly has. The vast majority of patents generated at universities are generated at American universities, for example. And they remain by a wide margin the destinations chosen by most students who seek an education outside their home countries. There’s evidence that at the level of basic education and in a number of degrees, on the other hand, universities do a poor job of teaching.

    Regardless of our conclusion about higher ed results, however, it’s incontrovertible that government spending in higher education is a very large portion of total spending. We have decided as a matter of national policy that everyone with half a brain should go to college, and we throw tons of resources at making this happen, and so naturally prices rise. This is not proof of an untrammeled free market run amuck.

    Government spending is a significant factor in major sports as well, when you factor in facilities and infrastructure (both at the pro level, and at their “feeder” organizations, which are often government-controlled or financed organizations, i.e., universities). And while baseball is the only official monopoly, the permitting process alone serves to reinforce an informal monopoly. Try to get approval from a major city to build a stadium for a team to compete with their locally subsidized favorite and see how far you get.

    But again, we have to question your premise that rising costs in this industry have not been associated with rising quality. More records are being broken per decade now than in early decades of these sports, on all fronts — performance as well as viewership. They appear to be delivering more quality, in other words, to more people. Again, this is not evidence of some kind of failure by markets, but rather evidence of what happens when millions of people freely poor their money into a form of entertainment.

    As for health care, you commit precisely the error that drives economists crazy, which is to look at a system riddled with interventions and assume that the flaws you observe necessitate more intervention. Are you familiar, for example, with the wide slate of state-level mandates loaded onto any company that wants to sell health insurance? It’s like telling a car company it can only sell cars in one state if they all include seat-warmers, and in another state if the wheels are made of titanium alloy, and so on. This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course, because you have federal tax policy biasing employers toward functioning as health care payers (please keep in mind the difference between health coverage and health insurance), and again, the federal government serving as a significant purchaser, via Medicaid, Medicare, and the VA system.

    My point is that the current health care system is in no way the consequence of unregulated market forces. Further, a great many of the results we don’t like are arguably driven by the very sort of intervention you seem to favor. Finally, you have to remember that declining cost is not the only goal. Yes, lots of scanners exist in the U.S. But you also don’t have to wait six months for surgery here.

    Look, all I’m saying is that free markets are a proven means of allocating resources more efficiently, and in ways that produce more significant and valuable innovations, than any other means of economic organization. If a person understand WHY this is, then a person can’t really diagnose, when assessing an industry, whether the outcomes he dislikes are a result of failed markets, or a result of some kind of interference with the regular functioning of markets. This is why I recommend Hayek, because you simply aren’t in a position to talk about where markets are failing if you don’t understand why they succeed in the first place.

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