Sahil has a very nice response to me on his blog, which I encourage everyone to read. I will reproduce it here with my original comments, to which he was responding. If you missed it, he wrote a piece in the Huffington Post about the difference between conservatism and liberalism, which you can find here. I put up my response to him on this blog yesterday.
First, I really want to thank Sahil for taking this debate seriously. While I clearly disagreed with his initial post, alas I think he was writing to his audience. Judging from his new post, we still have some key differences but I think we have some common ground. I think he's considered very seriously the issues I raised and has responded very thoughtfully. Original comments in bold, new comments in bold and italics:
This is just too juicy. Really? The core of conservative ideology does not lie in a thirst for heroes and villains; but many of us do tend to believe that good and evil exists in the world. Is that so wrong? Is it wrong to think that Saddam Hussein was a villain? Is it wrong to think that Hitler was evil? If you don’t think those things, then, well, there’s no real argument to fighting against what they did and believed. I certainly hope you wouldn’t take that view.
But more importantly, we don’t believe in good and evil simply; that you believe so is more indicative of the simplistic thinking of which you accuse us. Many religious conservatives do believe in good and evil, but one need not have a religious basis for the distinction. Many of us believe in natural rights, and natural law; that is, we believe that human beings can reason from nature what is by nature right and by nature “not right,” or rather, what is “against nature.” I will leave it at this for now – I’d only recommend that you pick up Aristotle or Locke for more on this topic.
Certainly good and evil exists in the world, and Saddam Hussein and Hitler were great examples. But in the modern unipolar world -- where fascism and communism have been largely defeated, where the strongest powers are mostly democracies -- we must define good and evil more thoughtfully, if we are to improve upon our condition. Good and evil resides within all of us. [In fact I completely agree with Sahil on this point regarding the nature of man. I think we disagree on the political ramifications. I think the nature of man means we should limit government power as much as possible, because that is the most concentrated form of power. Good and evil resides within all of us, indeed, but we also run governments. And we've seen what evil governments can do. I think this is a case for less government, not more.]
When I see dead bodies floating in New Orleans because a hack political appointee failed to act, that's evil to me. When I see the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street bankers who sank the economy and walked away with hundreds of millions in bonuses, that's evil to me. (Nothing wrong with making tons of money, but one must accomplish something positive first.) When I see the lies and deceit that precipitated the neo-con Mid-East policy, that's evil. [Fair enough, I suppose; but perhaps you are conflating incompetence with evil. I don't think anyone "lied" about Iraq intelligence, etc.; I think they genuinely believed that the intelligence they had was accurate. I'd add in any event that it was incumbent on Saddam to prove to the rest of the world that he was clean. He failed to do so, and the Bush Administration believed we couldn't ignore the possible risk.]
Moral clarity is a great thing and I don't think we disagree on the importance of natural rights; but defining good vs. evil as "us" vs. "them" largely diminishes the need to examine ourselves as well as others. The world is very complex today; we can't fix it with military might. Foreign relations must be dealt with in a more nuanced way, and that in no way requires sacrificing core values. There's a huge difference between engagement and appeasement. [Agreed!]
Obviously, tradition isn't inherently bad and change isn't inherently good. But 20th-century-onward conservatives have been blocking a plethora of important changes. They've worked cohesively to block health care reform for about a hundred years. They opposed Social Security (until public support for it became overwhelming), Medicare, Medicaid and every such attempt at insuring the uninsured since the early 1900s. Maybe they didn't like the methods progressives were espousing, but we never heard an alternative. Conservatives have actively worked to block environmental regulations for decades, and many continue to deny basic climate change realities that the entire rest of the world has accepted. [Here we get into a problem of labels. It seems that whoever opposed change you think is good you'll call "conservative." The Democrats were the racists in the South, let's not forget; but they were "conservative." And Republicans went after big business in the early 1900s than Democrats, ditto on conservation/environmental issues, but they weren't real conservatives. And of course Richard Nixon of all conservatives created the EPA and Endangered Species Act! So how can you argue conservatives have been working to block such regulations for decades? I suppose there's some truth to that, but ultimately you have to be careful of labeling conservatives as the ones to always oppose good public policy solutions. And finally, let's not forget public education: clear example of failed government policy, and the liberals are the ones refusing to implement innovative public policy solutions.]
Visceral resistance to change and rigid adherence to tradition? Conservatives would hardly adhere to the tradition of slavery! The institution of slavery, was, of course, by nature wrong, and thus conservatives should and did (
) oppose it. But of course, you yourself would have no way to establish that slavery was wrong in the first place, since you don’t believe in “heroes” or “villains.” Lincoln
Conservatives believe that tradition is important because it impacts the character of a people and the character of their politics. One cannot cast off tradition and expect the rest of society to come along responsibly and orderly. The main point here is that culture and tradition are important. For more on this, just read Burke.
I will add, however, that I find it ironic given your statements on tradition that you accuse us of a “tribal tendency to chastise those who are different.” In fact, we understand the importance of tradition to every society and would not dream of undermining, say, the important traditions of Islam while trying to promote democracy in the Islamic world. Which brings me back full circle: we respect tradition, but not if that tradition is “naturally” bad. Again, we wouldn’t hesitate to reject the status quo and push for “change” in a fascist society.
Essentially, your rejection of any grounds for determining what is good change or bad change, and what is good tradition or bad tradition, ruins your whole argument. You say we have a visceral resistance to change, but you never acknowledge that change can be bad.
The main resistance to change I see today is the GOP's inability to grow up beyond the outmoded Reagan philosophy of 'government is the problem.' Maybe in 1980 this principle reflected the problems of the day, but I don't see how anyone can argue that today's issues are a result of too much government. Even unabashed conservative David Frum said the Reagan ship has sailed and the GOP must move on.
But between Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, Mark Sanford and the incoherent ramblings of Boehner, Cantor and McConnell -- the party shows no signs of adapting to the times. Michael Steele argued against Keynsian economics by making the brilliant distinction that government doesn't create "jobs" -- it creates "work." The party's weaknesses are mostly because of a power vaccuum and a lack of leadership, but the reality remains -- the conservative movement is still clinging to dated principles that don't reflect the sentiments of any more than a small minority of Americans today.
Conservative voices like Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity have slowly but surely come to define the movement. For a while nobody cared about them because they were just nutcases making background noise, but the conservative remnants of the new Obama age have sadly moved in their direction. It's very troubling because these individuals consistently display a pathological lack of empathy and compassion and arguably contempt for those who do.
This all sounds great, except conservatives don’t believe in any of what you are implying. Of course we would support helping the son of the crack addict get on his feet, in the form of treatment programs and job programs. But after that, it’s up to him. Of course conservatives don’t believe in zero environmental regulations. We live on this planet too. But we seem to understand precisely what you accuse us of not understanding: nuance. We understand that business growth is also important, and that we have to strike a balance. Our thinking on this matter is not simplistic at all. And of course we wouldn’t support stopping the checks from reaching your grandmother. Once we promised it to her, we have little choice.Despite the dogma of unregulated markets bringing about a crisis almost comparable to the Great Depression, we haven't witnessed a change in tone on conservative economic philosophy. We're still hearing more of the same nonsense about how government is the problem. No, it was a lack of government regulation and a lack of oversight that was the problem. [Debatable on the causes of the crisis. And FDR/Keynes didn't get us out of the Depression, while Reagan most certainly DID get us out of stagflation.]
Per my comments above: can you elaborate on what exactly this “complex and multidimensional” understanding of reality is? You haven’t given one iota of description.
Government is not categorically bad. It’s essential for national security. But it’s certainly NOT essential for health care or education. Let’s not forget how crappy decades of government-run schools have fared. But while you brought up the financial crisis, let’s not forget the government’s role in encouraging bad loans. What do you make of Fannie and Freddie?
Since 2000, the average American is working more hours and is earning a smaller real wage. Poverty has risen, inequality has risen, a larger percentage of Americans can't afford health care and greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed. I don't know what else one can conclude from that except that the concept of unscathed, unregulated markets is simply not working for the country as a whole. But conservative leaders are singing the same old songs about how awesome freedom is. I don't see the nuance or balance in that; it sounds like a rigid adherence to tradition. This is what I mean when I refer to reality being too complex to reduce to pleasant catchphrases. [This is probably your best argument on conservative policy, and I'm not knowledgeable enough on economics to be able to answer it authoritatively. But to my knowledge inequality is not much of an issue: cheaper food and products, better health care, larger homes, more leisure time (I think there is disputed data on this) today all lead to better standards of living even if wages haven’t increased as much. The bulk of inequality has actually been caused by educational stratification, not the Bush policies! See Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat's book Grand New Party for more on this. I agree that there's more inequality, but the cause is the question, as is the ramification. It might not be so bad. As far as Health Insurance, you are right on the statistics but exaggerate the significance. It's about 1.5% lower now than in 2000, but we're already talking high 80s. Short of universal (crappy) government care, or some new free market mechanisms (HSAs, Out of state insurance, etc.) I don't see the number fluctuating very much. But yes, I would agree that Bush did not do much on Health Care. But he tried with the HSAs; a Republican Congress shot him down no less.]
On education: this is an area the government must invest more resources. As David Axelrod recently said, "the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." The private sector isn't going to solve this one, although I think the vouchers debate is worth having. It'll also help considerably to dismantle the teachers unions, which in my judgment are causing much more harm than good.
As for Fannie and Freddie, there's a lot of sin to go around, but as far as this discussion goes it isn't worth getting into; my point was not that government is perfect but that there exists good and evil in both government and corporations.
But I think conservatives would agree that children should support their parents, and then we’d have fewer problems with social security. But then again, not everyone believes in family values.This was a sleight of hand, my friend. 47 million Americans (many of which are conservatives) can't afford health insurance for themselves. How many do you think can afford to support their parents when their income is lowest and their medical/financial needs highest? [Agreed. But again, I think you mischaracterize the average conservative voter. The poorest should always receive some form of help, especially if they are old and literally cannot help themselves. The question is always whether one CAN help oneself. But I do not disagree here.]
And since you brought up family values, I'd just like to point out that divorce rates and teen pregnancy rates are highest in the conservative red states, which leads me to conclude that their claim to this concept is superficial at best and disingenuous at worst. [Granted, that's always been a slight hitch. But you might be mistaking cause and effect. Quite frankly, maybe the reason these red states are so adamant about family values is because they see first-hand what happens when they are neglected! I think it's been argued in Grand New Party that lower-income Americans are more affected by the dislocations and disarray that followed the Sexual Revolution and have responded by embracing a conservative politics that puts family first.]
I will say, Ilan -- you unfortunately don't represent today's mainstream conservative voice. I wish you did, because based on the discussions we've had I think your ideas are coherent and reasonable, agree or disagree with them. My gripes aren't so much with what you've espoused as with what mainstream conservatism seems to have become in the Obama era. Bush and Cheney radicalized the conservative movement and it has thus far shown no signs of recovering.
[Thanks, Sahil, for the compliment. This was very enjoyable, and hopefully such private debates will start characterizing the broader public debates.]