By Andrew Sullivan, 16 Jun 2011 09:57 PM
It’s funny that Fareed Zakaria and I are now seen as beyond the conservative pale. We were both Harvard immigrants at the same time and definitely right of center (although I always had more libertarian impulses). The core reason I became a conservative was government over-reach in my native land – try a 98 percent top tax rate and direct government ownership of entire industries and nearly every hospital. I thought this violated a core fact about human nature: that collectivism fails to generate the dynamism that individual freedom and ownership do.
But as I studied political philosophy more deeply, the core argument for conservatism was indeed that it was truer to humankind’s crooked timber; that it was more closely tethered to earth rather than heaven; that it accepted the nature of fallen man and did not try to permanently correct it, but to mitigate our worst instincts and encourage the best, with as light a touch as possible. Religion was for bishops, not presidents. Utopias were for liberals; progress was not inevitable; history did not lead in one obvious direction; we are all limited by epistemological failure and cultural bias.
So on taxes today, a conservative would ask: what have we learned about the impact of lower rates over the last two decades – now the lowest as a percentage of GDP since the 1950s? In healthcare, what have we learned about the largely private system the GOP wants to preserve? A conservative would look at home and abroad for empirical answers, acknowledging no ultimate solution but the need for constant reform because society is always changing. On gay rights, a classic social change, he’d ask what a society should do in integrating the emergence of so many openly gay people, couples and families. On foreign policy, he’d move on a case by case basis, not by way of a “doctrine.”
On these terms, today’s GOP could not be less conservative. I’d insist it’s less conservative than Obama. It does not present reality-based reform for emergent problems. It simply reiterates dogma and ruthlessly polices dissent or debate.
So no tax increases are allowed, period. Why? Because they “kill jobs”. So why do we have record unemployment after a period of unprecedentedly low taxation? No answer. If lower taxes have led to stagnation, the answer must always be: lower taxes some more. Why not end them all together?
On gays, we hear actually nothing about gays, our existence or our lives. We hear a tautological irrelevance: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” What do they propose positively for this emergent social reality that men like Burke or Lincoln or Disraeli would have seen as an opportunity for conservative reform? Nothing. No civil unions, no civil marriage, no military service … just nothing, but a piece of doctrine: gay is bad. On healthcare, have you yet heard a single practical proposal to help the uninsured? Or assist seniors with health needs in ways that don’t break the bank? Nope. But in a society that won’t let people die on the street, these are real and tough problems we cannot just wish away. The Ryan plan solves the problem the way leftists used to: by a radical ideological shift. It just cuts off aid at a certain level and says government is not responsible for the rest. This will never get past the public and would never actually cut costs. It simply places an arbitrary marker on when the government tells you you are on your own. Again, this works as dogma but not as politics.
Fareed is particularly sharp on this:
When considering health care, for example, Republicans confidently assert that their ideas will lower costs, when we simply do not have much evidence for this. What we do know is that of the world’s richest countries, the U.S. has by far the greatest involvement of free markets and the private sector in health care. It also consumes the largest share of GDP, with no significant gains in health on any measurable outcome. We need more market mechanisms to cut medical costs, but Republicans don’t bother to study existing health care systems anywhere else in the world. They resemble the old Marxists, who refused to look around at actual experience. “I know it works in practice,” the old saw goes, “but does it work in theory?”
Back in the 1980s, conservatism was a thrilling empirical, reality-based challenge to overweening government power and omniscient liberal utopianism. Today, alas, it has become a victim of its own success, reliving past glories rather than tackling current problems. It is part secular dogma – no taxes, no debt, more war – and part religious dogma – no Muslims need apply; amend the federal constitution to keep gays in their place; no abortions even for rape and incest; more settlements on the West Bank to prepare for the End-Times. Although there were inklings back then – Stockman was right; Iran-Contra should have been a warning – they were still balanced by empiricism. Reagan raised taxes, withdrew from Lebanon, hated war, and tried to abolish all nuclear weapons on earth. The first Bush was an under-rated deficit-cutter and diplomat, a legacy doubly squandered by his son.
Now it’s Levin-land: either total freedom or complete slavery and a rhetorical war based entirely on that binary ideological spectrum. In other words, ideological performance art: brain-dead, unaware of history, uninterested in policy detail, bored by empiricism, motivated primarily by sophistry, Manicheanism, and factional hatred. This is not without exceptions. Douthat, Brooks, Zakaria, Bacevich, Bartlett, Frum, Manzi, Salam, Lomborg, Mac Donald, et al. are still thinking. It’s just that many of them are now deemed – absurdly – to be liberals. And none will have or does have any real impact on the base of the party.
Why? Because these thinkers are prepared to believe that the conservatism of the 1980s might have run its course, that new times might require new ideas, that we have been wrong in some areas, while right in others, that it is not a crime to reverse course when events encourage it, that we have to live in the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, that we can learn from mistakes and base policy on shifting reality.
In contrast, today’s unconservative “conservatism” is a movement held together by cultural resentment and xenophobic panic. Until it wrests free of this trap, it deserves its Palinesque fate: an ideology wrapped in anachronism, and laced with venom.