05 October, 2008

What is Conservatism?

In the comments to one of his posts, Clemens asks me

But here is the real question if we accept what you say:what is the Conservative movement today? Is there a 'conservative' party? If the two Bushes were not conservatives, then how effective is the movement in projecting its agenda? …I think you regard yourself as a 'true' conservative, mainly on fiscal matters but also social matters. Where do folks like you fit in? Or can you make the argument that a McCain/Palin administration would actually be that rare beast, a Conservative enterprise?
I'll do my best to answer briefly, but out of order. I'll also say a bit more besides, in my pseudo-scholarly habit of preferring the pedantic to the plain-spoken. [In review, I fear the pedantic and the personal obscure the substantive. I've spent too much time on this by now to delete it.]

1) The question of my political identity is interesting. My political identity is this: I am confused.

I do not consider myself a conservative, much less a "true" conservative. The fact that I dreamed wistfully for a President McCain during most of the past 8 years, while "true" conservatives invested energy into vicious and grossly unfair attacks reminiscent more of the mainstream media than of Buckley's wit, will hopefully clarify that.

I did consider myself a conservative many years ago. I'm sure most people would label me a conservative. I have conservative instincts, but becoming a Catholic tempered these instincts. I might like to call myself a believer in Christian Democracy but the more I read of the Christian Democrat parties, the less enamored I become of the term.

I do know that I am not a liberal, not even an "enlightened" liberal, as my father calls himself. I also don't think of myself as either moderate or libertarian.

The only identity I've much held to is Catholicism, but I don't think most Catholics would recognize me as one of them, and a priest once told me that I had a "Lutheran" view of human nature.* Anyway, the point is that I try to let my Catholicism inform, and "convert", my politics. That doesn't mean that I succeed!

2) Is there a "conservative party"? In New York there is one, and you see how effective they've been. Likewise the Green Party and the Libertarians. There is no surer guarantee of political irrelevance than building a political party that is ideologically "pure". This isn't Europe, after all.

People who describe themselves as "true" conservatives are like people who describe themselves as "true" Christians: self-aggrandizing liars who succeed only in besmirching the brand.** It's a miracle McCain runs within 10% of Obama according to current polls, considering that every other column by George Will seeks to depict him as unfit for public office, every other rant by Rush Limbaugh excoriates him as a Republican In Name Only, half the comments on National Review effectively roll eyes at him, and the media has done its best to portray him as wanting to continue the policies of the current president. On the one hand, the conservative media discourages conservatives from voting for him; on the other hand, the moderate media discourages moderates from voting for him. As I wrote some time ago, I considered myself a "true" conservative twenty years ago, but I don't think I would have comprehended how so many conservatives fell over themselves to praise Jesse Helms, who loved earmarks and corporate welfare and opposed free trade, and hold their nose at John McCain, who supports free trade, opposed earmarks so strenuously that he has never requested one, and opposes corporate welfare. Unfortunately Buckley has passed on, so we'll never know his feelings.

3) I am not sure that an increasingly hypothetical McCain/Palin administration would be a "Conservative" enterprise. Most conservative complaints about McCain are ignorant (pretty much anything on immigration—and I say that even though I disagree with McCain on immigration), but some conservatives have good, principled complaints (Will on campaign finance reform). I do think a McCain administration would be far different from the Bush/Cheney administration, and certainly more conservative.

4) Why do I say that? At a minimum, a "conservative" president would support a major new entitlement at any level of government only with reluctance. This separates both Presidents Bush from President Reagan.
  • The first Bush believed in a "thousand points of light", a "kinder, gentler government", and all that other rot. He wanted to be known as "the Education President" (the conservative Congress of a few years later tried unsuccessfully to abolish the Department of Education).
  • The second President Bush campaigned on "compassionate conservatism" and advocated vigorous government involvement in many sectors, including (but not limited to) health care and education. He has eagerly created new entitlements and expanded government intervention. I have a hard time squaring this with any aspects of conservatism.
  • I also don't recall McCain's ever having advocated a new entitlement, which in my opinion is the best sign that he is a conservative, but I could be wrong.

5) What is conservatism, anyway? Should a conservative identify with cutting taxes or cutting the deficit? With pro-life and socially conservative policies, or libertarianism? With unlimited gun rights, or with quiet streets? With an aggressive foreign policy that incorporates nation-building, with realpolitik, or with isolationism?

Historically there has been much tension between conservatives on any of these questions, and conservatives once debated these ideas spiritedly. Buckley favored legalization of marijuana and perhaps even discarding the war on drugs; while one NR author (I forget who exactly) advocated legalizing homosexual marriage fifteen years ago.

The eagerness with which self-described "true" conservatives hold any stain of compromise in disdain makes them ignore legitimate debates within the conservative movement itself. The obsession with lowering taxes has led them to argue that one proof that McCain is not a conservative is that he opposed the Bush tax cuts. The fact that he favored another set of tax cuts appears to be immaterial. I recently heard Rush Limbaugh deride Ross Douthat's proposals in Grand New Party as surrendering to the liberals, accompanied with the trademark sounds he uses to indicate his disdain: balling up paper and tapping impatiently on the table (or perhaps on the microphone, but it sounds as if he's tapping on the table).

Coupled with this is convenient memory loss. Of course all sides tend towards this (progressives with eugenics and their fascist tendencies, for example) but I find it odd that today conservatives criticize the president of South Africa for questioning whether HIV causes AIDS. If memory serves, twenty years ago National Review published articles siding with that point of view.

6) I will try to answer the question posed at the beginning of (5). In the American context, conservatism has generally meant primarily:
  • Federalism. The Federal government should not try to solve every problem. In fact, it cannot. Very often, the Federal government makes things worse by meddling. My father (who would not describe himself as a conservative) exhibits this attitude very well when he criticizes the progressive instinct on public housing, welfare, and the rest with words to this effect:
    When you spend thirty years throwing trillions of dollars at a problem, and the problem only worsens, then the most you can say for those government programs is that they did nothing. What is more likely is that they made the problem worse.
    I myself would criticize a similar progressive instinct this way:
    We should not measure compassion by how many dollars are spent, but by how many people are freed from their burdens. Whose policies made our country richer and freer: LBJ's or Clinton's?
    I use "Clinton" because (this may surprise you) I think that the last 6 years of the Clinton administration was one of the more conservative administrations of our time. Clinton takes pride, for example, in his successful reform of Welfare, etc., but it wasn't even on his radar until a conservative Congress forced him to do it, much of it using an idea that conservatives were really big on back then: block grants to the States.

    Many problems are best left to communities that can adapt and experiment more quickly: state or local levels, churches, etc. Based on this, a lot of conservatives have opposed in principle the actions of Republican presidents: high military spending, the War on Drugs, Medicare Part D, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Iraq War(s). (I myself did not support the second Iraq War, but we're talking about conservatives, not about me.) Similarly, I support a minimum wage, but oppose it at the federal level. After all, the cost of living in Los Angeles is not the same as the cost of living in Hattiesburg. The minimum wage should be set by states, or better yet by localities. Otherwise we find ourselves in the current situation where the minimum wage is set far too low for someone working in Los Angeles, although it may be a living wage for people in parts of Mississippi. Since it's too low for LA, everyone makes a complaint that I consider ridiculous: the federal government should raise the minimum wage.
  • Small government. Even when government action is the most appropriate venue for a certain challenge, it should not overreach, especially at the federal level.

    "Small" government does not mean "incompetent" government, even if the Bush administration did its best to conflate the two ideas. The Clinton administration, for example, declared (again, once it faced a conservative Congress) that "the era of big government is over", and set about streamlining government, shrinking the bureacracy, and in general co-operating with ideas Reagan had been unable to implement due to a Congress that believed strongly that the purpose of government was re-election, which required massive spending.

    The larger a government grows, the larger the potential for incompetence and corruption. "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely," as Lord Acton famously remarked. People talk a lot about the incompetence and corruption of the Bush administration, but what amazes me about it is how it made us forget the incompetence and corruption of the Clinton administration. For starters, the Secretary of the Interior was held in contempt of court, the Secretary of HUD was indicted for something I forget, and a great deal besides.

    A lot depends on the transparence of the bureaucracy, of the legislative process, etc., but the bigger the government, the harder it is to maintain this transparence.
  • Economic liberty. If government must intervene, it should do so in such a way as to minimize the effect on personal liberty. We don't need to slide into a Soviet-style centralism in any sector of public life, yet I see this happening in many sectors. Conservatives advanced a lot of good, solid ideas on how government could act without impairing economic liberty:
    • Individual retirement accounts. Many of the elderly depend on Social Security and Medicare. If they had any retirement accounts, these were maintained by their employer. God forbid the employer should, through bad management decisions, encounter financial trouble (hello, General Motors), or defraud employees of their pensions. Government privileged this relationship by taxing such employers less. Employees were dependent on the employer, and now are dependent on the federal government's "compact between generations" which approaches financial disaster.

      Thirty years ago or so, Congress fought over, and finally approved, the Individual Retirement Account, which allows companies to place an employee's pension in a tax-privileged account. The employee can manage it, carry the money with him to another employer, and in general not worry that upper management's penchant for multiple mansions, airplanes, and big birthday bashes will endanger his pension. I would call the IRA a conservative idea because of the economic freedom involved and the minimal bureaucracy needed to implement it, but it was introduced before conservative ideas had gained much publicity.
    • Health savings accounts. In a manner similar to pensions, employers often cover their employees' health insurance, partly as a recruitment tool, and partly as a tax advantage. USM offers me two options: a traditional plan or a health savings account. I've chosen the latter. In this circumstance, I maintain an account at my credit union where I save money for health expenses. The interest is tax-free and I can deduct the contributions from my taxes (but not from my income). If I choose to leave my employer, I keep the money and can use it with any health insurance plan of this sort.

      Regardless of my choice, however, I have a tax incentive to choose my employer's plan instead of a private plan on the open market. Why? The amount I pay in premiums for my wife and children magically disappears from my income. That's a lot of money that no longer counts as taxes (unlike the contributions I make to my Health Savings Account). If however I want to choose another health plan that is more efficient and costs me less, but which my employer won't subsidize, the amount I pay in premiums for my wife and children magically reappears in my income. I suddenly earn more money and owe more taxes. That form of government intervention makes it a lot harder for me to choose work elsewhere.

      In fact, government intervention has made me a slave to my employer, fearful of speaking out or doing anything that might risk my job. (Not me personally, btw, but you get the idea I hope.) Suppose I lose my job. In the intervening period, how do I pay for health insurance? COBRA helps a little, but I have to pay the premiums my employer used to pay for me. If I were free to choose my own health insurance, without the government's favoring my employer's plan for no reason better than that it's my employer's plan, then the same problem would not appear if I lost my job. I would have more "economic liberty".

      I'm lucky enough that my employer offers an HSA plan; many don't. I'd prefer someone else's HSA plan, to tell the truth, but I can't choose it under current tax law, because my employer only offers the State of Mississippi's health insurance. I hope we don't get sick outside of Mississippi; that's considered out-of-network. With the insurer I'd prefer, I wouldn't face this problem.

      One of McCain's proposals, which comes straight out of the conservative movement, and which Obama's campaign has criticized to the point of being intentionally misleading, would remove the privilege that is given to employer-provided insurance, placing it on the same level as private insurance. Under McCain's plan, I would have more economic freedom: a classical idea of American conservatism.
    • School vouchers. Our public universities are the best in the world, despite the fact that they have to compete for federal funds with private universities and colleges. A math professor at Catholic University or Notre Dame is no less likely to win a research grant than I am, despite the fact that their universities are run by churches. Likewise a bright student at Catholic University or Notre Dame is no less likely to win federal tuition assistance than a student at the University of Southern Mississippi.

      In contrast, our public schools are laughed at in the industrialized world, despite the fact that they have a near-monopoly on public funds for education. I cannot understand the reasoning that dictates that my son can receive federal funds to attend Catholic University or Notre Dame, but cannot receive any public assistance to attend Sacred Heart High School. I don't even receive a discount on my taxes, despite the fact that by sending him to a private school I have relieved the public schools of a burden. Appeals to the establishment clause of the Constitution make no sense when no one raises them in the context of higher education. Here, again, it has been conservatives who have sought to expand my economic freedom, while progressives have fought tooth and nail to restrict it. The same progressives who believe in public education—Obama and Biden—send their children to expensive private schools.
  • Respect for the rule of law: Many of the freedoms and conveniences we take for granted are based on a respect for the rule of law. In many European countries it is generally accepted that laws are made primarily for the benefit of the governors, not of the governed, and the consequent erosion of civic sentiment, coupled with a glorification of lawbreaking, is devastating. Southern Italy and Russia come to mind.

    Thus conservatives tend to favor serious law enforcement, and object to activist judges' and trial lawyers' disrespect for the democratic process and the rule of law. Eroding the plain meaning of the law, whether by deciding to interpret it differently in the future according to evolved societal norms, or even to disregard it altogether, likewise erodes people's respect for the law. You can't rely on contracts (which are legal documents); you can't rely on regulators (who are bound to implement the laws and confirm that companies follow them); and so forth.
For a substantial amount of the Bush administration, Republicans acted against these principles. Many of the more ideological conservatives in Congress voluntarily renounced office, adhering to their promises of serving only two or three terms in Congress. They were replaced by people who had less disinterest, and as for the ones who broke their promises to serve only two or three terms: a few of them are now fighting in the courts.

The Republican Party sought to use government to establish a "permanent Republican majority", cozied up to lobbyists, increased entitlements, and abandoned fiscal restraint. "True" conservatives invested a lot of energy into defending men like Tom Delay, and to what end? Loyalty and patronage—a feature of corrupt politics, such as Southern politics and Democratic city machines in Chicago and Tammany Hall-era New York—outweighed good governance, and positions in the Civil Service were awarded to someone supported the President or played nice with other Republicans, not to someone actually qualified for the position.

I hope this explains why I say that McCain is the most conservative nominee for the presidency we have had since Reagan. I think it also explains why the Republican establishment, and the media conservatives, hate him: he never played nice, called them out when they abandoned their principles, fought corruption (including earmarks), etc.

I'd like to work on this more, but I don't have time, energy, or even interest. I hope it gives you a better insight into what I'm thinking though.

*I would sniff that my view is "Augustinian", not Lutheran, but since American Catholics have spent most of the last 40 years attempting to exorcise Augustine's spirit from the Catholic Church, to the point that "Augustinian" is, in many circles, a byword for backwards thinking and sexual repression, that won't help me.

**You will never read me referring to myself as even a "good" Christian, let a lone a "true" one. I do believe in "true" Christianity, but that's the place I hope to travel to, not the place where I find myself.


Clemens said...

Thanks for this Jack! Sorry I took so long to comment but I needed to set aside some time to read it through carefully at one go. We probably agree on most of this, though I flop closer to the liberal side. A lot of that has to do with growing up in the south during the Civil Rights era and remembering vividly what went before.

I agree with your critique of the Bushies (as I suspect you already knew) and it has always appalled me that Conservatives weren't more fed up with it than liberals. I think the Bush admin has stopped a strong movement to the right dead in its tracks.

There was a time when I liked and respected McCain but not anymore. We could probably argue about that no end, but the choice of Palin and his attempts to justify it have pretty much turned me off.

I am not very ideological and prefer not to think of myself as either a liberal or a progressive, though I once did. Perhaps we are both drifting either toward the middle, or towards a more pragmatic technocratic politics.

As for religion - well, I like to think of myself as a "practicing Christian." And believe me I need the practice. There is obviously a place in all public discourse for the religious, but the way it is used now is not it.

Augustinian? Ha. When I was in grad school one of my fellow students was a genuine monk. He thought Augustine had warped Catholicism in a pernicious way and was hoping to overthrow the Augustinian world view. I haven't yet heard that he succeeded.

But, Augustinian is probably better than a Lutheran view of human nature! Whatever that means.

But back to the main point. I don't see any real 'conservative' movement for precisely the reasons you advance. It is all too diffuse and we are not a people who go in for too much 'philosophical' thought. That leaves both 'conservative' and 'liberal' as simple flags of convenience for self-serving careerists. So.

(but people have always been slaves to their bosses Jack. The only thing I know that prevents it is a strong and nasty union!)

jack perry said...

Thanks for taking the time to think about it.

It has occurred to me that people's views of "conservatism" and "liberalism" can vary widely depending on when they grew up. I came of age in the Reagan era, when conservatism more or less shined. Even during the Clinton era one could say that conservatism had a luster, although Clinton made liberalism look good, too. Most of my students now have come of age in the Bush era, when the notion of "conservatism" seems to have a meaning very different from the one I outlined above. "Low or no taxes" is not quite the same as "economic freedom".

I don't think of myself as a "practicing" Christian, although I understand the sentiment.

Your fellow grad student, along with a great many colleagues, went a long way towards emptying Augustinian thought from the churches. I had a seminary professor who explicitly denied original sin, which you would think placed him outside the Catholic faith. If not, that incident, along with a survey of many Catholic periodicals, certainly suggests that people like your colleague succeeded in making anti-Augustinianism not merely respectable, but quite possibly mainstream in "pop" Catholicism at least.

I meant "slave" to the boss in a different sense: it's harder to leave a job due to the economic hardships.

Clemens said...

Yep - that's pretty much what I meant by slave to the boss too.

I used to think that original sin was the most pernicious belief possible, but now it has become about the only religious belief I believe in 100%. We are what we are born: an utterly selfish, self centered little human creature (albeit adorable) and we mature into something worse - or perhaps better if we work at it. Too many don't.

But then I get that far and retreat back to the eleventh century or earlier.

Clemens said...

Another thing: as I have had a chance to see generations of students come and go, it has been educational to see what their formative era does to them.

For me, as I said, it was era before Civil Rights that I remember, and the struggle to get past it. What I most remember after that is the profound disillusionment of the 60s with Vietnam and too many assassinations, and then Nixon, Watergate, and worst of all for me personally, the so-called Southern Strategy. That must have been where you came on stage, just after that.

jack perry said...

I used to think that original sin was the most pernicious belief possible, but now it has become about the only religious belief I believe in 100%.

For me, "original sin" is one of those "conservative instincts" I think I have.