Monday, March 15, 2010

Book Selection of the Month: "The Death of Conservatism" by Sam Tanenhaus Book Selection of the Month (March 2010): The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus

When Ali Kokmen gave me a copy of this book, I was suspicious because it’s only 118 pages long, basically an extended version of the author’s New Republic article by the same title, but at that length, I figured I may as well give it a gander. I suspect Tanenhaus wrote it as quickly as J. Michael Straczynski wrote last year’s action film Ninja Assassin (two days, reportedly) — but he’s New York Times books editor, so rather than sound too skeptical, I’ll just say, may we all one day be so influential that we can dash something off like this and have it sell.

In one form or another, the thesis is always popular with the left that the right is at its best when it stops behaving conservatively and gets “realistic” (i.e., liberal). Tanenhaus’s premise is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement could be very useful counterweights to liberal excess if only they weren’t so prone to abandon pragmatism and behave in rigidly ideological ways. The epigram in the front pages is Pat Moynihan’s “God preserve me from ideologues.” But is there a Republican Party that behaves in rigidly ideological ways, presumably eliminating government to create a society guided by unalloyed free markets and tradition? I must have overlooked that party while instead observing the train wreck of the real Republican Party for the past three non-ideological, pragmatically-mushy decades — a party that wouldn’t know “ideology” from a hole in the ground if not for some idealistic young low-level congressional staffer occasionally slipping a phrase from some philosopher or historical figure into a speech or two.

Tanenhaus admits briefly in Chapter 1 that the George W. Bush years were not, in the minds of real conservative ideologues, a test of “small government” conservatism — but like Thomas Frank, Tanenhaus somehow evades the implications of that crucial point by the non-sequitur of saying, well, the public doesn’t want small government anyway, so…the massive government growth of the past decade is as close as you’ll ever get to shrinking government…so… somehow this was a period that counts as a disastrous trial-run of small-government principles. Really? This convinces intelligent people? Or do they just write their books and columns too quickly for the feeling of guilt from intellectual chicanery to fully sink in?

Consistent fellow that I am, I’m actually sympathetic to real Marxist anarchists who say the statism of the Soviet Union was not the kind of communism they had in mind — but at least over there, the politicians claimed to be following Marx, so anti-statist Marxists might arguably bear some responsibility for making the regime seem morally acceptable. Did the Bush administration even claim that it was shrinking government in accordance with the principles of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, et al? If not, how did the ideas of those economists get implicated in the train wreck at all, save by those desperate to find some excuse to discredit them (much like Naomi Klein literally blaming everything from torture under Pinochet to massacres under Red China on distant connections between those regimes and Chicago School economic thinking, like a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon)?


Tanenhaus really has to tie himself into knots to maintain his thesis that the GOP flourishes when it abandons ideology. You can’t point to principled National Review as the backbone of an American political epoch, as he does, and at the same time claim it’s evidence for your ideology-doesn’t-succeed thesis. He also claims repeatedly and condescendingly that conservatism triumphs when engaged in reality, not when pushing “movement conservative” principle — yet he admits Goldwater and Reagan were great victories, and so he has to remake Reagan as an unphilosophical pragmatist, dismiss Gingrich’s 1994 successes, call Nixon’s criminal excesses ideology-fueled (???), etc. Tanenhaus must attribute successes to pragmatism and failures to conservative ideology at every turn, even when it means unconvincingly calling Reagan a pragmatist and Nixon an ideologue — sometimes mere pages after describing them the other way around, as strategically needed to explain away Reagan missteps or rare Nixon successes.

Tanenhaus spends pages praising Nixon, in essence for being unprincipled — but then somehow manages to pin Watergate on “revanchism” and ideology, as if (A) selling out to the Chinese and Soviets, expanding the welfare state, creating the EPA, and effectively creating affirmative action were wise, pragmatic deeds that advanced realistic conservatism, while (B) condoning burglary was the result of too much high-minded philosophy. Ridiculous. One begins to suspect that only a New York Times editor could vomit out this short, unfootnoted, inaccurate rant and get it slapped between book covers — but then again, Thomas Frank probably has a similar volume in the works.

Throughout, Tanenhaus makes the common mistake of writers overly focused on Washington and its politicians: gauging success in purely electoral or at most political terms without really addressing the broader impact of policies on national life (remember those 300 million other Americans not directly involved in Washington politics?). If the “evidence” for Nixon’s success, for instance, is mainly just his reelection, we should not even bother with books on changes in economic conditions or lifestyles, let alone changes in ideology and political philosophy — we should just declare whoever won the last election a model for us all (hail Obama!). Looking at the real-world fallout beyond DC reveals the nightmarish effects of, for instance, Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls, perhaps the closest thing to a deathblow the free market has ever been dealt by any American politician (and, not coincidentally, the inspiration for dissident free-marketeers to bolt the GOP and start the Libertarian Party). Imposing wage and price controls was neither a pragmatic success nor an act of conservative principle. It was simply wrong.

And the real insight of conservatism and libertarianism, after all, is the recognition that there is far more to life than politics and far more to the U.S. than Washington and elections (thus the successes of markets, tradition, and anarchic initiative, whether individualist or cooperative, and the chronic failures of regulation and government spending). Since Tanenhaus begins by lamenting that conservatives do not fully accept the usefulness and permanent value of government, it is unsurprising that he ends up thinking that whatever tactic wins the political horserace is thereby morally vindicated. It’s the leftist equivalent of an amoral businessman saying of an act of fraud, “Hey, it got me rich, didn’t it?”

Tanenhaus presumably thinks that signs of a resurgent libertarian-conservative movement focused on basic economic and constitutional principles, primarily the Tea Parties, are a sure sign of disaster, but luckily there are plenty of us who recognize it as the right’s — and the economically-connected globe’s — best hope at this late, debt-wracked juncture.

P.S. If you want evidence that conservatism isn’t dead, don’t look to Tanenhaus for guidance, look to politicians with the foresight to address Tea Party rallies, like my friend Dan Greenberg (now running for Arkansas state senate, with a primary in two months, and actively blogging) and to folks like the New York media-ensconced conservatives and libertarians you’ll meet if you come to our St. Patrick’s Day (6:30pm) gathering of the Manhattan Project at the bar/restaurant Merchants NY East in two days. The road to victory is not paved with mush but with philosophy (and alcohol).


david said...

Todd, I’m with you on this entry, but your sympathy for Marxists who say of the Soviet Union “that wasn’t really what we had in mind” is telling. Do you ever have concerns that an ideologically pure society of the right is just as much in conflict with human nature (and the realities of politics) as an ideologically pure society of the left?

Todd Seavey said...

Not at all, and this is precisely my point. Marxism as its most naive defenders envision it cannot exist because it unwittingly defies the laws of economics and depicts people wholly unlike those who actually populate the planet. Fiscally conservative/libertarian policies jibe neatly with economics and human nature and would be far more easily sustained than this ongoing, impossible farce called welfare-statist democracy. The problem with the left’s principles is that they are false. The problem with the right’s is only that they are unpopular.

Now, if you want to say that _being unpopular_ is a problem in some sense comparable to being at odds with economic reality, you may have a point, but the two problems are extremely different ones, the first being far less severe and merely raising questions of how to handle media messages differently (something very few people have even attempted to do in the service of pro-free-market ends, in the grand scheme of things), whereas the latter is the sort of problem you only solve by rewriting the fundamental logical rules of the universe.

An intermediary position might be the contention that the fiscal right’s ideas are _inevitably and permanently unpopular_ due to, say, basic intuitive structures in the human brain, but I don’t think we can plausibly say anything that pessimistic when we’ve seen how fired up people can get over, say, the American Revolution, Rand, Tea Parties, etc.

To put it more simply: Marxism cannot work _regardless of whether it has truly been tried_. Free markets do work, and we merely have to convince more people to try them. That’s no small difference. Do not indulge in pessimism.

And I for one will do my small part by being even more overtly capitalist at New York social gatherings, since “government overreach” is no longer something that any sane person needs explained to them in a purely hypothetical way — it is rapidly destroying the nation right outside our windows, and cocktail party liberals must now bid farewell to the days when they could at least pretend to have the moral or intellectual high ground and a few decades left to chat about it all before the shit hits the fan.

david said...

The laws of economics are really descriptions of human behavior. One can at least imagine a point at which actual human behavior has deviated from those laws (or maybe postulates) long enough and often enough to cause one to wonder if we’ve got the laws right. As much as we love the image of the world described by these laws and systems, if it just never comes to pass, or continuously gets tugged off the rails, one has to wonder.

Or here’s another way to think about it: perhaps the ideal libertarian society is in keeping with economic laws – that is, principles descriptive of human nature in a strictly economic sense – and that’s the society that ought to be in economic terms, but that “political laws” – realities of human nature in the political realm – inevitably screw it up.

In more colloquial terms, how many times does the Republican party have to F everything up before one throws up one’s hands and says “to hell with it all”?

Todd Seavey said...

Intuitively appealing as this question may seem, I think it’s actually about four non-quite-related questions.

Economics properly understood is a set of generalizations about human behavior, and they hold up extremely well.

Law — in the sense of what laws are on the books — is a separate matter, and the law may well say “there will be upwardly-sloping demand curves” and “free sausages will rain from the skies in time of need,” but that’s not a problem with the laws of economics, just with the law.

I hardly think we can conclude humans _inevitably_ screw up economies if they’ve done as well as they have despite _virtually no one_ consciously promoting free-market-based law, which I strongly suggest more people start doing before declaring all variations on the human experiment a failure.

The Republicans aren’t instituting laissez-faire laws, but then they don’t claim to be. This is a problem with Republicans but not a problem with the laws of economics. It might be reason to give up on the Republicans (though a separate, contestable, argument could be made that they’re still the best available vehicle for advancing market-based policies under current political constraints) but not a reason to give up on attempts to institute market-based policies in general.

If places more nearly approximating free markets such as Hong Kong under the British kept proving to be disasters for unforeseen reasons, there’d be greater reason for pessimism of the sort you’re suggesting. Instead of reason to think markets unworkable or even uninstitutable, we are left with the more tiring but more promising situation of what is simply _ a tough ongoing fight_.

And I can’t even offer the solace of saying it’s safe to sit back and watch how long-term trends play out because the current healthcare battle is yet another example of how even one seat in Congress — which can hinge on one media scandal or unexpected turn of events — can decide the fate of nations. Scary, eh?

david said...

Todd, I’m not confused about definitions of the word law. I’m suggesting human behavior in the political realm tends to screw with each markets so pervasively and repeatedly as to get me down, and wonder whether there are aspects of human nature evident in political behavior that prevent truly free makets from being a reality.

For example, “laws” of economics (observations of human behavior) tell us that competition tends to drive prices down, and increasing demand tends to stimulate increases in supply, etc….

…but observation of human political behavior tells us that – nearly as universally, it seems – people tend to seek protectionism and favoritism and generally game the market for their perceived economic gain through the political process. Enough to make me wonder whether human nature as expressed in politics renders human nature as expressed in economics inevitably compromised. That is, perhaps there’s a contradiction between lessons from human behavior in economics and lessoms from human behavior in politics.

And yes, this is all basically just a libertarian’s pessimism.

But enough about all this.

I’m not arguing against free markets; I’m pessimistic about their odds in suceeding in the politicla arena, in their surviving the political process.

I’m not suggesting the free markets of Hong Kong wouldn’t or didn’t work. I’m lamenting their rarity, and wondering if there aren’t other nigh-on-unavoidable facts of human nature that lead to them getting screwed with.

Todd Seavey said...

I think we basically agree, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that the situation as you describe it in your most recent comment is akin to saying “We can’t entirely eliminate violent crime because some people will always see it as advantageous” — which merely entails that we must keep fighting — as opposed to saying “An anti-violent crime system is unworkable due to human nature and thus naive in a fashion analogous to the Soviet regime.”

Or to put it another way, the answer to the question “Do you have any better ideas?” when asked of attempting to institute free-market laws remains no, the answer when asked of the Soviets or socialism or government in general remains a resounding yes, which is a fundamental difference.

There’s no question that getting people to like markets is tricky, though, and I’d say the reason ultimately (as Hayek, Jeffrey Friedman, and numerous others have lamented) is that we evolved to pay attention to families and tribes and small villages, making us strongly tempted to treat even complex extended social orders and global markets as if they are as amenable to simple solutions, emotional appeals, one-size-fits-all tactics, quick and easily-understood resource allocation, and unity-inducing speeches heard by all.

Everything from the seductive but false appeal of democracy to socialism and the inclination to think there’s a Father in the sky stems from this tragic inherited flaw, I think. All we can do is fight it and educate, until we grow adept at rewriting instinct with biotech and cybernetics someday, I suppose — not that markets don’t work until human nature’s rewritten, only politics.