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7/13/2009
SOME NEW BLOOD FOR INTELLECTUAL CONSERVATISM

An interesting piece in yesterday’s Boston Globe by Drake Bennett on some youthful (so to speak) conservatives who are trying to inject some new blood into the right’s intellectual firmament that lately has seemed to be suffering from some kind of iron deficiency according to liberal critics.

To be sure, the idea that conservatism is “dead” (Tanenhaus), or “exhausted” (Borosage) has been a favorite hobby horse of liberals for a few years. But for purposes of dealing with the reality of what is happening with conservatism, I prefer the notion that we have simply lost our way - politically, intellectually, and as a social nexus.

Tanenhaus (who actually had some relevant thoughts about the too ideological nature of the conservative “movement”) believes that conservatism’s decline is actually a boon to the right because the philosophical framework had been hijacked by decidedly un-conservative forces.

This is actually recognized by a couple of Bennett’s up and comers:

Luigi Zingales says it’s time for conservatives to fall out of love with businesses, and fall back in love with the free market. In an argument that’s begun to catch the ear of a few conservative thinkers, Zingales suggests that it’s often business itself, rather than the government, that the market needs protection from.

“I’m very strongly pro-market and very strongly against business,” says the Italian-born economist, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Separating the support of free markets from the long Republican alliance with business isn’t easy, says Zingales, but it’s important. As he and colleague Raghuram Rajan laid out in their 2003 book, “Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists,” powerful companies, given the chance, work hand-in-glove with government officials to craft laws and regulations that protect them while limiting competition and transparency.

Many conservatives have been sensing this for years but either through cowardice or simple practical politics, refused to recognize the fact that corporations have become as supportive of statism as any far left Democrat you can name. In this way, they stifle competition, give themselves unfair advantage through regulation, and give money to candidates from both parties so that they can mitigate the effects of unfriendly legislation - usually through the earmark process but sometimes by their congressional lackey slipping an amendment into a bill in the dead of night when no one is noticing that favors them to the exclusion of others.

The Bush administration invited corporate lobbyists into government in order to regulate the businesses they most recently were employed by. Mr. Fox, meet Mrs. Hen. Zingales believes such a set up contributed to the financial meltdown last fall as financial corporations developed rules and regulations favorable to themselves and not necessarily good for regulating their activities.

The Zingales critique is not new but some of his solutions should raise eyebrows on the right, like helping “workers” instead of businesses during he current downturn and dispensing any stimulus based on an algorithmic solution rather than the kind of cronyism we have seen to date.

Four years ago I would have wondered what Zingales was smoking in order to call himself a conservative and not support business. But the Democratic takeover of congress should have convinced anyone on the right that big business cared little about markets and more about being able to control government for their individual aggrandizement. The latest example: Wal-Mart hopping aboard the Obamacare train before it left the station. By supporting the public option and the insurance mandate for companies to supply health insurance to their workers, Wal-Mart gets to influence the final package so that it is tailored more to their needs.

Bennett also explores the efficacy of the blogosphere in acting as a feeder program for conservative ideas - a function reserved in the past for the few conservative mags like NR and Human Events as well as some think tanks like AEI and Heritage. He uses as an example, the Atlantic’s excellent Megan McCardle as someone who has slipped into the role of gatekeeper and facilitator of conservative ideas:

“[Blogging] is decreasing the power of being part of the feeder system and feeder schools, and of being part of the ecosystem, which I certainly wasn’t,” says Megan McArdle.

McArdle, whose politics make her more a libertarian than a classic conservative, is one of the most prominent voices in the political blogosphere. Also an editor at the Atlantic Monthly, she came to both journalism and blogging somewhat sideways, after working at a series of failed Internet start-ups and going to business school.

[...]

McArdle and bloggers like her, in other words, have created their own intellectual ecosystem. William F. Buckley was widely admired for his determination and ability to bring a diversity of conservative voices into National Review, and similarly, McArdle’s blog is among the best at organizing the cacophony of the political blogosphere into something closer to a conversation. Blog posts on the Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination or the outlines of the stimulus package alternate with links to the insights of artificial-intelligence expert Jim Manzi, who writes on science and environmental policy, or Daniel Larison, a politically minded scholar of Byzantine history.

For all the connections she creates, McArdle is an often vehement disagreer as well, and a believer in the blogosphere’s power to kill off wrongheaded arguments on the way to something new and important. “It can take a long time,” she says, “but bad ideas do tend to die.”

No, McArdle is not a conservative in the classic sense but her blog is one of the best at collating right of center ideas and disbursing them around the internet. Her own analysis of economics is the best “plain English” explanations you can find - certainly better than any MSM business section writer and surpassing the Wall Street Journal by plenty. She has a first class mind and an excellent sense of being able to cut through the chaff and find the essence of an idea. A rare bird indeed.

Bennett hightlighted a couple of other “new” conservative thinkers but the only other one I was interested in is Reihan Salam, a former research assistant for David Brooks and someone whose writings have influenced me over the last few months.

It’s hard to peg Salam as a true “man of the right” for many ideological conservatives today. That’s because he is not in favor of repealing the Great Society and the New Deal.

He and I came to the same conclusion independently of one another; that a more pragmatic, realistic conservatism is necessary for political success; that conservatives should embrace government in order to reform it and make it as conservative as is practically possible.

If big government is necessary, Salam asks, and can even help create a society more agreeable to conservatives, then what should it be doing? Drawing in part on the work of scholars such as Wilcox, Salam and Douthat craft a vision of a government that is activist in a different way, putting priority on stability and responsibility, along with opportunity. They push for child-care subsidies, market-friendly healthcare reform, more affordable housing, and for wage subsidies to boost the incomes of poor young men and make them more eligible for marriage and stable fatherhood.

“The idea is, let’s actually reduce the scope of government in some areas, where it’s kind of pernicious, but let’s increase its role in some areas, insofar as increasing the role can actually increase freedom,” Salam says.

Under the Obama administration, Salam has continued to press the case for big-government conservativism in articles and as a blogger for both the National Review and the online Daily Beast.

Salam was an early Sarah Palin supporter which should give anyone pause about accusing him of being anything other than a pragmatic conservative. His argument is the same I have been making for many months on this site; the road back for conservatism is not through the ideological terrorists who have set themselves up as arbiters of conservative dogma, condemning those they determine to have strayed from their extraordinarily narrow minded and confining definition of conservatism.

Rather, it is through advocating the reasoned and pragmatic application of conservative principles to government as it exists today that will bring the right out of the darkness. And a couple of the conservatives mentioned in Bennett’s article will probably be leading the way.

By the way, that may be the first article I’ve read on conservatism in a while that made no mention of Ronald Reagan. Many ideological conservatives have deified Reagan while failing to recognize where The Gipper’s true genius lay.

Ronald Reagan did not create a conservative government during his 8 years in office. Government grew substantially (although at a slower rate than the previous decade) during his two terms as president. Neither did Reagan always stand fast on his principles as the 1986 tax increase proved - the largest tax increase in history at the time. He also made several other compromises including cutting deals on social security and numerous budget items.

When one considers that he ignored the vital principle of not negotiating with terrorists when he exchanged arms for hostages, it is difficult to understand why conservatives today can say that they wish contemporary politicians were “more like Reagan” in adhering to principled stands on issues in Congress.

Selective memory when it comes to Reagan and his actual governance gets in the way of returning to a more pragmatic conservatism that The Gipper supported in practice, even though his rhetoric sometimes belied his realistic approach to governing.

Ronald Reagan was a pragmatic ideologue who tried to make government as conservative as was possible during his time in office. Striving but falling far short of the kind of government those who invoke his name so reverently today envision as “true” conservative government. This continuously angered the conservative purists in and out of government - a fact long forgotten by those who see the historical Reagan as a civic saint and who believe conservative politicians should emulate everything from his personae to his agenda in order to find success at the polls.

The conservative mentioned in Bennett’s article - along with a few others like Conor Friedersdorf, Ross Douthat, (who collaborated with Salam in writing a book about how the right can make a comeback) and because he’d probably feel bad if I left him out, David Frum - are on the cusp of the new media’s attempt to recalibrate conservatism so that it reflects a more dynamic, and pragmatic, reality.

The ideologues dismiss their ideas at their own peril.

By: Rick Moran at 9:57 am
8 Responses to “SOME NEW BLOOD FOR INTELLECTUAL CONSERVATISM”
  1. 1
    Postagoras Said:
    11:15 am 

    Awesome post, Rick. This is a great start for some real political discussion. A wonderful alternative to the current political discussion, which is fundamentally “Who gets to slice the pie today?”

    The challenge is, if the Republicans adopt a position of being market-friendly versus business-friendly, then where will the funding come from for their campaigns? That’s how we got into this mess, because the only people who got elected were the ones who took $$$ for the corporations.

    It’s really up to the grass roots to mobilize- so your post is just what is needed.

  2. 2
    Eddie Said:
    12:16 pm 

    We need to hear more about Reagan’s pragmatism in the coming years, if only because that is the most applicable aspect of his legacy to our modern and future political functions.

    I had not heard about Wilcox before reading this. When I consider the troubled attitudes and outlooks of many of the eighteen and nineteen year olds that were my responsibility as a supervisor in the Navy, the issue with the single-parent families and broken homes really comes to light and makes more sense. I think there is a place for Wilcox’s ideas in a conservative agenda that can “win again”.

  3. 3
    funny man Said:
    12:37 pm 

    Great post indeed! I saw the article and also thought ‘what a great way to start a discussion’. I’ll have to think about it a bit so just wanted to congratulate you for your choice.

  4. 4
    gregdn Said:
    1:23 pm 

    Thank you for the rational assessment of Reagan. I always likened him to a great card player- when he had a strong hand as he did with our economy vis a vis the Soviet Union, he doubled down. In Lebanon 1983 though,he realized that he only held a pair of twos and quietly folded.

  5. 5
    Commie Stooge Said:
    8:48 pm 

    Haven’t we had enough of both the “free market” (which it isn’t); and worshipping corporate America?

    After I graduated College I went to work for a division of American Express that was run like a 3rd world banana republic: managers promoted based on favoritism rather than ability; some employees were favored above others. Everything was a crisis; nothing ran smoothly. After 3 years I left for Coke and a $3K raise.

    This was my rude awakening to Corp America; and it’s no wonder why the Japs ran rings around us in the 80s & 90s.

    Let’s see: free market. Does that include Microsoft bringing in thousands of foreign IT workers on H1-B as American programmers collected unemployment?

    And the mortgage fiasco where everybody passed the buck on bad loans so they could get a piece of the pie?

    Please!

  6. 6
    Gayle Miller Said:
    1:40 pm 

    I am one of those conservatives who were brought into the fold by Mr. Buckley. And my gratitude and love for the man continues to this day. Being a conservative has brought me friends, quiet satisfaction (during the Reagan years) and a neverending state of astonishment at the antics of the Left!

    Dear commiestooge, are you utterly unschooled in the history of the mortgage fiasco? Or do you have as poor a memory as Barney Frank who is living proof that every village MUST have an idiot. Apparently so, since Barney Frank, poster child for economic ignorance has not learned a tiny little bit from the destruction that liberal/Democrat/left-wing policies can cause. It was the Dems who forced lending institutions to make sub-prime loans and insisted on both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do so. And Frank is trying to jolly those institutions into doing it again! Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it - and Barney Frank is living proof! What I do not understand is how he keeps being reelected? Surely his state can produce better than him?

  7. 7
    Surabaya Stew Said:
    10:22 pm 

    Thanks for the article Rick; properly separating the roles and importance between business and markets is something that commentators of all political strips have a hard time doing. I (broadly) agree with you on the excellence of Megan McArdle; I remember reading her when she was something of a bomb-thrower as “Jane Galt” and she has improved since then to capturing major news scoops. Oh, and kudos on daring to tell the truth about Reagan!

    The above commentators are also correct in calling attention the the inept and/or corrupt practices of corporate firms. This is something I never understood until several positions (including my own), were terminated at my previous (medium-sized) firm last April. The amount of wasted money and lost productivity as a result of terrible business decisions was something to truly behold! Having previously worked for sole proprietors failed to train me for the fact that business is just about as inefficient as government.

  8. 8
    A week without a conservative. Said:
    1:42 pm 

    A week without a conservative.

    Wait and see what we have coming up! From July 30 to August 5, America will see what it’s like to have to fend for itself without the contribution of conservative Americans. You’ve heard of a “day without a Mexican,” well we are going to have a WEEK without a conservative.

    If you are a TRUE conservative call in sick from July 30 to August 5. Do not go to work, do not go to the store, do not contribute to the economy in any way. Then they will see what happens to a country that laughs off conservative values!

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