Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Conservatism Running On Empty

I reference here, with some reluctance, George Packer's vicious, nearly gleeful article on the decline of conservatism. Since Packer starts from the standpoint that conservatism is merely Evil looking for a justification, its probative value is somewhat, uh, diminished.

But the central point can't be denied. Conservatism is out of ideas, mostly because it succeeded in achieving many of the most important ideas it had. Here's a laundry list:
  • Anti-communism. More than just defeating the Soviet Union, the most important idea here was that an ideology can be dangerous if for no other reason than it competes with our ideology for resources and share-of-mind. Status: achieved.

  • Strengthen defense. Conservatism was able to reconstruct the military following the Vietnam debacle by making the case for a hawkish foreign policy and concentrating on achievable, high-tech, reduced-manpower missions. Two flies in the ointment, though: First, the military is still learning (albeit extremely quickly) about how to do counter-insurgency. Second, the "peace dividend" cut the military back too far and conservatives get at least half the blame for allowing it to happen. Status: Mostly achieved.

  • Reduce taxes. US growth rates over the past 25 years are a pretty good indication that supply-side ideas were valid when marginal rates were over 70%. Nobody's talking about going back to those kinds of tax rates. But we're pretty obviously on the other side of the Laffer curve now, which gives liberal tax policy a chance to probe where the optimum point really is. Status: achieved, for now.

  • Promote free foreign trade. This has been a stunning success and is the single most important factor in the explosive growth of the developing world. Other than a lunatic fringe, this debate is over. Status: Stunningly successful.

  • Reduce the size and growth of government. Conservatism has always talked a good game here, but the results are mixed. Yes, the growth of government has been impeded, and the size of the federal government as a percentage of GDP has dropped modestly. But the size of the federal government continues to to increase, as does its mission. The best the conservatives could do was to throw sand in the gears, rather than make the case that government should actually do less. Since sabotage and efficiency don't mix well, conservatism got a well-deserved black eye without accruing much benefit. Status: Not quite a failure, but certainly not a success.

  • Reduce the impact of the courts. Court-packing, a favorite sport of our democracy since its founding, continues unabated. After 25 years of largely conservative executives, the courts are certainly more conservative, but it doesn't seem that they're substantially less activist. Still, one can only wonder what we'd have under a solidly liberal judiciary. Status: Modest success.

  • Restore traditional culture/values. Always a hot topic with both the intellectual and anti-intellectual wings of the conservative movement, the vast majority of folks just continued to live their lives and tried to adapt to an onslaught of new technology and new ideas as best as they could. Conservatism failed to re-impose antiquated cultural values, but it successfully resisted the imposition of any other top-down cultural values as well, allowing the culture to evolve largely unimpeded. I view this as a good thing, since I'm all about the self-organization, but from a conservative standpoint... Status: Largely a failure.

  • Eliminate abortion. They huffed and they puffed, but they failed to get the issue addressed in the courts. It's hard to dismiss this issue as unimportant; how societies define human life and under what circumstances they deem the taking of it as justified are key philosophical questions. But we certainly have wasted a lot of intellectual capital on the issue to wind up where we are. Status: Failed.

So the obvious ideas got implemented and accepted into mainstream political thought. The hinky ideas got ignored or the debate continues.

But conservatism will not thrive if its sole agenda are to ram through the outlier ideas that the American public as resisted so successfully for the last 25 years. Still, it's hard to say that liberalism is going to triumph if the core of their platform is merely to undo what the conservatives did so successfully.

Meanwhile, neither philosophy appears to have answers for my four big questions:
  • How do we provide energy for the 21st and 22nd centuries?

  • How do we survive in a world where non-state actors are as powerful--and considerably crazier--than traditional governments?

  • How do we produce a global economy where everybody can make a living?

  • In the face of explosive change in medical technology, how do we define the value of human life, quantify the evil of human suffering, and then act on those values in a way that won't bankrupt us?
To that list, I think I'd add a few more issues:
  • How do we keep democracy healthy in the face of overwhelming changes in information and media technology and an attendant exponential increase in those seeking "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" (that's lobbying, folks)? In other words, how do we deal with the squeaky wheels, and how do we detect signs of stress on the majority of well-oiled ones?

  • In the competition for natural resources, are there limits on the level of ruthlessness and, if so, how can those limits be enforced globally?

  • I think that the debate over the size of government needs to continue. It's a old, boring idea, but failing to resist the growth of government will allow it to metastasize.

  • Finally, how do we value government investment in infrastructure, research, and human capital? What's the proper division between private and public? What's the proper allocation between entitlements and investment?
Any political philosophy or party that can answer these questions in a simple, coherent fashion is viable.

So here's the opportunity for conservatism--and liberalism, for that matter: These are all complex issues. Whoever boils them down to their essentials (i.e. whoever can explain the grand sweep of the problems through a small set of particulars) wins.

Ready, set, go.

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