March 30, 2007

Re: Conservative Political Methods

Marc Comtois

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.

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Frank Zappa of all people opened my eyes and mind by defining in simple terms the difference between Liberal and Conservative. As a high school senior my political leanings were far to the left. In my simplistic view of the world, Liberal, by definition meant more freedom and tolerance, Conservative, less. In an eloquent presentation Mr. Zappa simply stated the difference between the two idealogies. "Liberal," meaning "a lot" more government, and with that more rules and less freedom, "Conservative" meaning "less" government, more freedom. I thought about Zappa's words for a long time. In 1980 I voted for Ronald Reagan and have never looked back. A surprizing number of young people are misguided by the label of "Liberal" versus "Conservative."

Posted by: Michael Morse at March 31, 2007 8:04 AM

Very interesting post. Seriously. This is considered and thought-provoking, and a serious question for the times.

A couple of (hopefully) non-ideological points. I am seeking clarifications here, not (for once) engaging in polemics.

I frankly do not understand the more/less freedom thing. Conservatives, but choosing more security, are almost necessarily giving up freedom. Think: probable cause, habeas corpus, warrantless wiretapping, etc. The fallacy of the conservative position on this has always been, IMHO (and I'm willing to listen on this) that you believe the old: if you haven't done anything wrong, you've got nothing to hide.

Similarly, the conservative position on abortion and gay marriage, sodomy laws, are restrictive rather than liberating. Or, am I confusing the labels here? If so, please to clarify.

The area where conservatives most liberating tends to be in business, minimal regulation being the overriding theme.

To me, the distinction between liberal & conservative has (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) been whether you support freedom in the bedroom or the boardroom.

Again, gross simplifications, but I'm trying to get ideas across in shorthand.

This is where I see real libetarians straddling left & right: personal, as well as economic freedom.

Finally, I have a question (when don't I?) Is small gov't really even possible in this day and age? Isn't it somewhat naive to think we can turn the clock back on gov't? And what really happens? Gov't grew because it needed to grow. That is, it solved real problems.

Elderly poverty has been cut by 80 or 90% due to gov't programs like SS & Medicare. Do you really want to cut those? The grim fact of life is that half the country earns less that $44k per year. Do the math: take out food, rent, car, and what do you have left over for saving for retirement? Not a lot. And tax cuts won't help these people because most of them are paying only minimal taxes (outside of payroll taxes).

Bush tried to re-vamp SS and ran into a buzz saw. People like it.

Which brings me to my last point: can conservatives ever be a majority party, given the popularity of SS, Medicare, etc? If not, then this is all an intellectual exercise, isn't it? If you can't control the levers of gov't, how are you going to implement your program
of reducing gov't?

Contrary to my MO (Justin) I will not demand answers. However, these are the sorts of questions you'd better be asking yourselves. Is ideological consistency or purity more important than popularity? If so, you are relegating yourself to perpetual minority status.

Because my beef with conservatism is that it basically works for the chosen few at the top of the economic pyramid. Wealth never has, and probably never will "trickle down" in sufficient quantity to benefit the vast majority of the populace. Rather, what happens is that wealth becomes increasingly concentrated.

Again, am I confusing my labels? The last time I tried to do some level-setting on "conservative" beliefs, one of you wrote a ridiculous post about how I was totally miscontruing what conservatives stood for, and how he "set me straight."

You don't have to answer me, but you will have to answer to the populace. Why did Steve Laffey lose the primary?
That, I beleive, is an excellent question to begin your contemplation.

Posted by: klaus at March 31, 2007 11:25 AM

Michael, are you thinking of Zappa's line about "If conservatism is about keeping government small and taxes low, then I'm a conservative"?
If that held true (bless Frank's soul), a lot more of us would be conservatives. Unfortunately, conservatism went in a different direction (his little scrap with Tipper Gore was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak).

Posted by: Rhody at March 31, 2007 5:25 PM

Thanks. This is indeed a thought-provoking and serious discussion. It's also one that--to my mind--is sometimes hard to have on a blog and the comments. One other thing to remember is that there is a difference between conservatives and libertarians, as you've noted. Anyway, here are, hopefully, some answeres to some specific points:

1) The freedom vs. security thing is a constantly bounding ball with which conservatives continue to wrestle as particular circumstances arise. Perhaps the best answer is that (I believe) the majority of conservatives make a distinction--and thus have more or less tolerance for more invasive security--whether or not there is a threat to the national security. (I know that that is a separate debate, at least contemporarily). Implicit in that is that, eventually, the threat will go away and so will the need for the heightened security (and hence, "less" freedom).

As for the law-and-order side of things, I think you've actually hit it a bit with the "nothing to hide" thing, whether you think it's legitimate or not. However, to look at it a bit more abstractly, it's probably because conservatives are wary of being taken advantage of due to a desired, but unwise, misplaced trust in their fellow man.

2) Truthfully, I don't know many conservatives who are hung up on sodomy laws (but I know there are some). Yet gay marriage and abortion are issues that are viewed through the lens of faith. And though you or others may not think it genuine when conservatives say, "love the sinner, not the sin", that is really the case. Again, I don't want to get into specifics.

The conservative position on a lot of the social issues that you bring up can be explained by the fact that conservatives trust the institutions and traditions that, in their current form, are proven and have helped stabilize society. To preserve those traditions is important because they help families and societies raise the next generation. They are the solid building blocks from whence children can grow up and exercise their freedom. (Social contract theory explains part of this, but I'm not going to get into this that deep!)

3) Conservatives and libertarians agree on smaller government, though I'm not sure about degrees. However, conservatives--as well as most Americans--believe in a social safety net. I think that you are falling to stereotype on this one. There is no desire to turn back the clock and screw the poor and old and kids. Instead, conservatives think that there is a more efficient, probably local (yes, often religious), way to deal with the issues.

Conservatives think that non-government institutions have a role to play and can often be more effective. This is a natural corollary to the conservative belief that local anything is more effective than a disembodied governmental bureaucracy. Despite all that, conservatives also realize that not everyone will be tapped into their community, so government has to play a role. We just want it to be smaller and more efficient. Again, conservatives do have compassion. (Which is why so many bristle at the "compassionate conservative" thing.)

3) Finally, conservatives do realize that it is through politics that their ideas get implemented. Like other idea movements, conservatives seek to have their thoughts and plans in place for the time when the nation decides it needs to do something about a particular problem. Welfare reform comes to mind. Conservatives had talked about it for a while and a Democratic President and Republican Congress implemented it.

But what happens when no one is around to really do the implementation? (For instance, for many of us, that's what happened in the RI '06 Senate race). Well, then you wait. You still talk about your ideas and, who knows, maybe they'll get implemented from an unexpected quarter (like a Democrat legislature implementing tax relief).

The point of Goldberg's piece and mine is that we recognize that "conservatism" per se isn't a political party. An ideological movement? Yes. Do we sometimes get more influence and sometimes less? Yes. In short, we're "idea" people. Just like the progressives or the libertarians.

Ideas are the heart and soul of any ideology. Politics is the way that ideas get implemented, but ideological purity shouldn't stand in the way of implementing things that may be a "step in the right direction." It's a cliche, but "don't make the perfect the enemy of the good." That being said, there is only so much that an ideologue will sacrifice before they reassess whether the minute gains are worth the degree of compromise necessary. Ideology is not set in stone, but it's less flexible than politics.

This has all been off the top of my head and I've kind of run on a bit. I'll continue to "think on it" though.

Thanks for the sincere engagement.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at March 31, 2007 7:44 PM


Without getting caught up in labels and restrictive definitions of what a conservative is, my concept of conservatism is just as you quoted Frank, keeping government small and taxes low. I don't have the time or inclination to debate all the details, I just know I prefer a government that delivers low taxes with less government interference while providing acceptable security and a social safety net. Government should serve the people and protect us from anything that stands in our way of the pursuit of happiness. It drives me crazy when I hear religion and conservatism tied to the same princables. Each are their own seperate entities. We have the right to take conservatism in any direction we choose.

Posted by: Michael Morse at March 31, 2007 9:48 PM

Frank liked a government that stayed out of our pockets...and out of our bedrooms. Unfortunately, conservatives that ultimately claimed power decided to go after freedom of expression, gays, authors, musicians, entertainers...

Posted by: Rhody at March 31, 2007 10:42 PM


When did Tipper Gore become the vanguard of conservatism?

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 1, 2007 8:18 AM

Marc, thanks for the response.

Can I just ask where/how you think that gov't could be made smaller? The so-called entitlements--SS, Medicare--and, to a lesser extent, the military are the huge maws that swallow most of our tax dollars.

Which do you advocate that we cut? That's why I brought up the bad old days; it's not a reversion to stereotype, but an awareness of what cutting some of these things would mean, because of what it did mean.

And I am very keenly aware of the difference between social conservatism and economic conservatism. I also notice that Roe v Wade has sort of a dual meaning for many conservatives: the obvious moral objection to abortion per se, but also what is considered the expanded role of the judiciary, which is somehow seen as bad. Where do you stand on the second part?

As for the local or private idea of assistance....Again, I go back to before. The fact of the matter is that local/private relief or assistance (or welfare) wasn't always effective. In fact, it fell well short of need. And most importantly, if fell the furthest short when the need was greatest, as in the Depression. How do you reconcile that with your conception?

I also have a problem with relying on the private sector. As many corporations have found, to their dismay, that outsourcing can save money for 1-3 years. After than, when your capacity to perform the outsourced function has disappeared, and the company has suffered a lot of stress and inefficiency generated by trying to make the new arrangement work, the vendor doing the work suddenly starts jacking prices. Competition isn't always the answer, because that would mean another inefficient period of adjustment. Plus, no guarantee that the price won't go up again when the contract runs out.

Having seen this in the private sector, I'm skeptical about it's purported efficiency in the public.

Anyway, my biggest difference, I suspect, is the economic issues and the role of gov't. And what is your stance on economic regulation?

Posted by: klaus at April 1, 2007 10:02 AM

Trying to keep it short:

1) As far as "cutting" government, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that I think we can reduce the amount of growth. Only in the Beltway is a reduction of a forecast increase in spending considered a cut. Instead of growing government programs by 7-8%, why not grow them by 3%? (Or whatever is necessary to maintain COLA, etc) Responsible growth vs. bloat.

You also left out the efforts to make government more efficient. I believe Al Gore spearheaded that drive back in the '90s with some success. In other words, government needs to be more fiscally responsible and vigilant. I'm not saying it's easy, just that conservatives are always mindful (and "re-mindful"?) that we need to hold politicians accountable. Porkbusters is a good example.

2)The expanded role of the judiciary is a complicated issue, for sure. It all depends on whose activism is being propogated, right? I tend to fall on the side of contextualism w/ a bit of structuralist, which is slightly different than original intent. Overall, Roe v. Wade is viewed as bad law by many on both sides of the argument, so I don't think it's a good example. Maybe the New London eminent domain case would be more appropriate as an example of overreach. Or the Mass. Supreme Court's finding on gay marriage in which the legalized gay marriage because no one from the 1770s to the 1990s thought it necessary to stipulate what was taken for granted.

2) I recognize that the private sector isn't the end all be all, but I do think that keeping it local is more efficient and effective than trying to help via a centralized bureaucracy. That's why I probably support block grants, for instance. But keeping it local also depends on a degree of "civic virtue" in those who will be managing things at the local level. I'm realistic enough to recognize that not all will be guided by morality, but virtue can be substituted by self-interest (whether it be political or for personal reputation) to help make things work. Local accountability is easier to maintain than remote.

Regardless, whether control is local or not, oversight (regulation) is necessary. Yet, if you consolidate programs and keep it simple, regulation will also be easier. But, of course, the more complicated it is, the more work there is for politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers, right?

Conservatives recognize the need for the same things you do, but think they can be done simpler. Conservatives (or classical liberals) have a fundamental distrust of government and view it only as a necessary evil, not a benevolent or empathetic helping hand. As such, they try to look past the stated goals of government (admirable as they may sound) and illuminate the possible unintended consequences. Government should offer a helping hand, but it shouldn't be a way of life for able-bodied citizens.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at April 1, 2007 11:32 AM

Short, yes. Honestly, there are too many topics here; anything I neglected was more due to space than intent.

Actually, I don't disagree with most of what you've said. Or, rather, the amount of distance between our beliefs on a lot of this is well within the parameters of reasonable disagreement.

A couple of things. One problem with the local level is that the potential for corruption & favoritism is much higher. Bureaucracy, even when it gums up the works, can provide safeguards and checks on the process. And, the smaller the level, the easier it is to bully. For example, businesses will "complain" about having 50 sets of regulations, but they can often push around a city or state gov't to a degree not possible on a nat'l level.

That is the issue with block grants; a large employer can blackmail a state or local gov't into spending money on its priorities. Think exits from a highway that benefit a business, spending on a school in a area where the big shots live, etc.

Also, I find a bit of a contradiction in your law & order thing. You talk about overweening gov't, and then acquiesce in more intrusive practices. Yes, they are going after "bad guys," bur who is defining "bad." And power once taken is rarely given up willingly. And then what happens when the power changes electorally, and those practices are directed at you because the people wielding power have a different definition of "bad." However, this may be a libertarian vs conservative thing.

I distrust gov't. But I distrust everyone. And I find that business is harder to corral than gov't officials, who--theoretically anyway-- can be voted out of office. That said, I marvel at the "system" of gov't here in RI, where the Speaker of the House has way too much power.

Too, while no one *wants* to go back to the bad old days, if we remove the safeguards, why won't those conditions re-appear? As it is, business spends billions of dollard trying to circumvent the law. Write a law, they have their lawyers look for ways to get around it. So, if you remove some of the safeguard regulations (as we've been doing) why won't business revert to the behavior that made those laws necessary.

There is a level of paranoia here, but as I keep saying, it's not just money. Money is power, and power will try to grow. That is why I believe that redistribution of income is not only a valid activity of gov't, but a necessary one.

I rather suspect that is a point on which we will disagree quite vigorously.

Anyway, I've enjoyed the chat. What I would find entertaining is to take some of your numbered points and expand them. Otherwise, we're all over the map trying to keep all of these different sub-topics in place. I rarely have time to check the site during the week, so my absence is not from lack of interest, but from lack of time. Two kids, you know, and I'm an involved dad. They come first, second, third, and fouth.

Posted by: klaus at April 1, 2007 4:43 PM

I agree, tough to keep a handle on conversations this way and many topics are better left to their own extended treatment. I also have two kids, work and other involvement besides the blog (believe it or not!). Anyway, thanks for the discussion. I'm sure I'll see you around.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at April 2, 2007 8:40 AM
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