George Will on What is Conservative?

Over the years, I watched as US political actors claimed to be “re-defining conservatism”.  What have they been dithering about?

The first thing you need to understand about this is that American conservatism is different than European conservatism. Europe’s conservatives historically have protected traditional interests that were vested in ruling groups. They are suspicious of change and nostalgic for old ways to impose order. In the old days, American conservatives were not that different. But things changed.

How?  Going back to the 1980’s certain conservatives made it their mission to persuade the world that conservatism is about limited government and free markets. They argued that this was the “right answer” to maximizing social welfare because government could not be trusted. Individuals could be trusted on their own to go about their business. We can call that pursuing enlightened self-interest. Or we might call it pursuing happiness (a phrase from the Declaration of Independence).

The folks who now are labeled progressives were horrified. In their view, society was in need of reform because powerful self-interested institutions (like big companies) damaged social welfare (for example by polluting): Only powerful government, constrained by values, could contend with that sort of problem. And advocating for no government or limited government boiled down to playing the stooge for private actors who had no respect for the public good. To make government stronger, progressives have appealed to disenfranchised voters to stand up for themselves FDR did that successfully. You might say that Jimmy Carter was less successful. And you might argue that Bil Clinton deviated from that point of view. He was more the crafty deal maker, or chameleon, looking either like a conservative or a progressive as he felt the situation required.

George Will has been one of the conservative pundits who pushed this form of conservatism. To his credit, George has not wavered from it. And George makes an interesting point in his new book. The conservative intellectual adventure has an argument to make about how society should look. The progressive intellectual adventure has its argument as well. And that tension between the two views is not necessarily a bad thing.

That sounds nice. But there is a problem. To gain power, conservatives have pitched a view of the world that ignores a good chunk of reality. So Ronald Reagan pitched that lowering taxes would actually increase government revenue (the so called Laffer Curve): And now Donald Trump pitches that immigrants cause crime  and are not loyal Americans.

Progressives argue that they have a more realistic understanding of how society works. But in fact, the policies embraced by the Democratic Party are essentially the same as those developed in the 1930’s, There is little recognition that society has changed and is changing ever faster. For example, labor policy focusing on blue collar worker rights might need to take into account that the whole idea of “work” is being re-defined by automation.

So I am a bit less than thrilled by George’s political philosophy. Why? Because it embraces gridlock when we need ways to move critical issues beyond gridlock. Like providing a more affordable health care system and dealing with climate change and better managing world affairs via diplomacy.

The bottom line is that building trust is not as simple as George would have it. There is no reason to trust private self-interest more than concerted majority rule as a rule. Government that is formed by majorities that are inspired by worthy goals can be trusted to work towards achieving those goals. So Lincoln, for example, believed in strong and active government to invest in infrastructure building. Why? Because there was no other way to get that job done.

The problem, in my hunble view, is that conservatives and progressives do not offer a message that is sufficiently future oriented. The conservative chant to “trust markets” is long in the tooth. No one wants to abandon markets, but we have seen too clearly what abdicating  policy thinking to markets means. The progressive chant to respect rights is also long in the tooth. No one wants a return to fascism, but we see that obsessing on individual rights clouds our thinking about getting stuff done.

What do you think?

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