A Response to Cocktail Conservatism
What Are "Reformist Republicans" Drinking And Where Can I Get Some?
By: Charles Johnson
Posted: 3/4/10Every political group tries to claim the middle ground by labeling its opponents the extremes. To Jefferson, the Hamiltonians were all monarchists; to Hamilton, the Jeffersonians were all mobocrats. To such thinking, Lincoln becomes an abolitionist, and Douglas is pro-slavery - crude simplifications which fail to capture the depth of each man's political thought. Labels of "extreme" are therefore entirely unhelpful, though Ilan Wurman, an editor emeritus of this publication, certainly indulges in quite a bit of it, as he tries to write the economic right out of the Republican Party.
Wurman, in his last article for this publication, has laid forth a vision for what I would like to call "cocktail conservatism." It may appear smooth when it goes down, but indulging it too much can lead to bad consequences the morning after. Currently, Americans are all recovering from the morning after and while we no longer have to deal with our latest enabler-in-chief, we have a new one that is much worse. It is, after all, a good thing that Republicans are starting to realize that their party is in needed of dire reform. Maybe we can help them see the folly of their ways by asking them a few direct questions.
Do reformist Republicans, believe, as Ilan Wurman's old boss, George W. Bush, would have it, that everyone deserves - no, is entitled! - to a home? The housing bubble showed how that line of thinking turned out. In the city of Palo Alto, where Ilan lives, median home prices still sit just north of $1.3 million and an operating budget of $127 million is spent on a mere 70,000 residents, who still enjoy 53 tennis courts and five libraries. But most of America has painfully felt the blowback of those ill-conceived policies.
We've walked these roads before, but at least "compassionate conservatism" was honest, trying in vain to bring compassion to the status of a virtue - a flawed project, but a hopeful one. So-called reformist republicanism is merely compassionate conservatism by another name - the effect will be much the same: an unstable republic, loaded with more debt and more false hope.
Instead of thanking those of us who have toiled to bring the conservative movement around to its senses, Ilan builds his home for straw men arguments. He writes: "The veiled libertarianism of some campus 'conservatives' would, however, abolish the public education system altogether, and eliminate social security, health care, and taxes entirely."
The drinks are on me, if Ilan can credibly produce such a campus conservative! More likely, as we've had conversations on this score, he is referring to me, as he suggests that I, like other libertarians on campus, believe the phrase "limited" government means no government at all - contorting language itself as he builds his argument on the backs of straw men.
A libertarian is not an anarchist; limited government means limited government. Full stop. And no, "progressivism" did not save capitalism from itself. Capitalism, during the booming years of the 1920s - growth the likes of which we have never seen - made its flaws uneconomical. Child labor had long been on the decline throughout the nation, before the lawmakers took it up as their cause célèbre. The stroke of a pen did not abolish it, but the very capitalism that Ilan says would lead to a Hobbesian state of nature, did (and also led to fewer women forced to work, because men made more and so they could afford to stay at home). The Hobbesian state of nature occurs in those places where capitalism is the least present, not where it is most present. Somalia is not Wall Street - notwithstanding Jesse Jackson's attack during his Ath talk on the "banksters."
On taxes, Wurman favors Milton Friedman's "negative income tax," but as Friedman made clear, that was only because the federal government was already in the process of wealth redistribution. Friedman favored a flat tax, because he believed in the importance of an equality of sacrifice.
Although he doesn't say it outright, Ilan really believes that conservatives should adopt the New Deal, tinkering on the margins to promote this or that conservative end, but leaving the whole largely intact. In so doing, he falls prey to Hayek's - and George W. Bush's - fatal conceit: that conservatives might violate the Constitution and thereby save it. They plan to outmaneuver the Left by taking for themselves the mantle of social justice. The devil, though, is in the details as we'll see in a moment.
In the specifics, Ilan is at his best, but even here he disappoints. I shall take each in turn.
On education, he says that "more school choice includes charter schools and can include a partial voucher system." What does Wurman have to say about all those charter schools becoming unionized, thereby defeating the whole purpose of a charter school in the first place? Why partial voucher, anyways? Shouldn't each student get back the money we would spend on her? No, Ilan thinks, because the state "has an interest in the education of its citizenry." Oh, but what a lack of interest it has displayed! Few states have gifted and talented programs and education budgets are slashed in suburb after suburb now that the housing meltdown has depreciated home prices. Small wonder, then, that the amateurs, that is to say the home schoolers, do much better even on those strong standards of accountability that Ilan mentions. Incredibly, Ilan suggests that parents would "take advantage" of more choice by teaching their kids false science or "perhaps racism" and worries that some people would be "left behind in a total privatization of the public system."
I'd risk the racists, if we could do something about the abysmal failure our schools have become. Detroit public schools, to cite just one of dozens of potential examples, have a graduation rate of 25%. The country seems to have turned out just fine without us lavishing billions on public sector bureaucrats in the face of these astounding failures - just ask Edison, Franklin, Lincoln, or any of the other great men who decided to self-teach.
On taxation, Ilan assumes that some campus libertarians do not want any taxes at all. He favors making the tax code "fairer and simpler," but these are normative words. What would he do? The tax code is complex because auditors, government officials, and accountants have an interest in making it complex with its myriad deductions. Along the way, Wurman confuses the negative income tax with the flat tax. Friedman favored the latter because it dealt with an equality of sacrifice and was more efficient; the first he suggested only if the government were going to be doing redistribution, something he opposed.
On medical policy, Wurman favors "personal health savings accounts," that would "further bring the cost down." Why not just purchase health, the same way one purchases all sorts of other goods, through the private market? Naturally a conservative approach would allow people to buy, and borrowing a page from CMC Economics Professor Eric Helland's new research, we could have serious tort reform - but the real issue here is costs. Ilan's plan would have the costs, but not the accessibility.
At times, Wurman's arguments are just not well thought out at all. He tells us that he "believe[s] in transitional assistance to help employees laid off due to globalization get more education and new job training" - as if one could really prove that he lost his job to globalization, that government could know what the jobs of the future might be in deciding training, or that this "transitional assistance," will be well, "transitional." Getting the bounce right on Ilan's "safety trampoline," will prove a lot more difficult than he lets on.
He writes further, "I believe that the government does have a right, and an obligation, to preserve and protect the environment. There's nothing fundamentally immoral about using public resources - to which everyone contributes - to promote a truly public good." Very well, but from what does this right emanate? In California, safeguarding the environment has meant ordinances that restrict building on lands, and it has meant pricing out the middle class. A right ought to be accessible at all times and places, but defending the environment, which everyone can agree to in principle, ought to be a discussion of trade offs, rather than "rights". When viewed from this angle, the "public good," becomes a lot harder to discern, to say nothing of the wisdom - or lack thereof - of entrusting government alone to determine how those resources are allocated.
Wurman concludes with some rather ridiculous questions: "Do we want to improve equal opportunity? Do we want to heal the sick in our society who can't afford health care for themselves? Do we want to give our children the best education possible?" - as if some campus conservatives were really opposed to these kind of things. These ends aren't achieved because we want them, they are the product of serious trade offs made by the body politic through their representatives. The people cannot always afford clean air, however much they may want it, and there are optimal levels of pollution, but questions remain as to what is optimal.
Our role as Republicans should not be to make law, but to discover laws that are in accordance with nature. We are not to be a Grand New Party, but to remember and preserve. Here Ilan is at his weakest, remembering only a partial history. Ilan claims that the Founders intended for us to be an agrarian republic, but he ignores Hamilton's Report on Manufactures or the city slicker life and public service of Benjamin Franklin, hanging his argument instead on Jefferson's thoughts on schooling. But the beauty of quoting a Founding Father, especially one as dilettante with his finances as Jefferson, means that you can contort whatever he said to suit your ends. He was hardly "the patron saint of limited government." Despite Jefferson's plans, it's worth noting that none - save the university - came to pass.
Further, Wurman's citation of the Preamble to the Constitution is hazy. The Founders wanted to promote the general welfare, not provide specific welfare, as he seems to take it. The states could not "legislate as they saw fit," the federal government can - and did - ban lynching, because to do so would not threaten a republican form of government. But what is a republican form of government is the premise - that all men are created equal.
The Founders did not mean that the young should be enslaved to the old, as social security would have it; or that the rich should be to the poor, in what currently passes for our national health care system. Indeed, as Ilan knows full well, Jefferson - there I go citing him again! - believed that a constitution should be discontinued every generation or so, so that no generation would be bound to another. But most of all, they did not mean, as Lincoln reminded us and as Wurman should take note, that these men were equal in all respects - only in their political rights, grounded upon natural law. Efforts at equality were not license for Leviathan.
We get the government we deserve, after all - that much the founders knew well. Yes, the government can inculcate virtue, but who is the government, but us? Why does Ilan think that the government of the people can bestow virtues on a people that lacks them? It would be more efficient for our civil society to inculcate those virtues long before we trust them to the federal or state government. One of the great defenders against tyranny, de Tocqueville knew well, was local government, but where is local government in Ilan's vision of conservatism? It is where Republicans have always placed it, but an afterthought - and that is where Republicans, tea-partying away, have the greatest chance to take back the country from the Left and cocktail conservatives alike.
Charles Johnson CMC '11 is editor emeritus of the Claremont Independent. His blog, the Claremont Conservative, can be found at www.claremontconservative.com.
© Copyright 2010 Claremont Independent
Sunday, March 7, 2010
By Charles Johnson at 2:33 AM