Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Douthatism, once more

Ross Douthat is laboring mightily to undermine the credibility of mutual friends who swear to me that Douthat is really a good guy. To wit:
[I]s opposition to wealth-spreading in principle really now a litmus test for being a conservative? I thought that being on the right meant that you wanted a welfare state that's small in size and limited in scope - that's what I signed up for, at least - and the most just and reasonable way to shrink and/or restrain the American welfare state that I can see is to make it more redistributive, rather than less so.
Over at AmSpecBlog, Phil Klein retorts:
Despite the best efforts of Douthat to turn conservatism into a watered-down form of progressivism, the term "conservative welfare state" is contradictory. Conservatism, at its core, abhors the welfare state . . .
Hear, hear! And I add my own commentary:
A very instructive phrase -- "that's what I signed up for" -- naturally leads to the question, when did Douthat sign up? Where? And with whom?
Douthat's problem is that he feels the need to describe a hypothetical condition, conservative governance as an ideal finished product: Exactly this much of a social welfare state, and no more.
Politics doesn't work that way. Politics is Newtonian, establishing an equilibrium between competing interests. Vis-a-vis the size-of-goverrnment question, you take your place on either side of the tug-of-war -- the federal government is either too big or too small -- and you start pulling as hard as you can.
I stand resolutely on the side of those who say the federal government is too big, too powerful, too expensive. It doesn't matter how small, weak or cheap I think the ideal government would be, since in living memory it has only grown, and grown, and grown. (One notices that progressive Democrats have never specified a final destination of "progress.")
If ever any meaningful reductions were made in the size, authority and expense of the federal government, then conservatives could argue over whether the next proposed round of reductions might be going too far. Since everything is now going in exactly the opposite direction, Douthat's hand-wringing over the ideal size of the social welfare state is moot.
It's too big now, and that's all that matters in practical political terms -- not that Douthat has anything useful to say about practical politics.
Since Burke first denounced the French Revolution, conservatism has always been a philosophy of opposition. and it looks like we'll be getting back to our roots soon enough. Jacobinism is once more triumphant, and if you listen closely, you can hear the tumbrels beginning to roll.

UPDATE: On reflection, I suppose this rant returns to my idea of how "Libertarian Populism" could appeal to Ordinary Americans. The argument that the federal government is too big and too expensive and too wasteful has the virtue of simplicity.

Since the federal government has been continually expanding since the 1930s, liberals essentially argue that government has not expanded fast enough or far enough. But every adult can remember a time when the government had not taken charge of some function that it now exercises.

Was life really so bad back then? Does the Ordinary American think that this increased federal role has really made an overall improvement in his daily life? Or, rather, does he sense that the federal government has generally made a botch of things?

There is a coherent argument to be made against the overgrown authority of Washington, D.C. This argument is both intellectually respectable and politically potent. When the conservative movement puts forward persuasive spokesmen to articulate this argument, the movement grows and succeeds. However, when the spokesmen are inarticulate or unpersuasive -- or when prominent spokesmen describing themselves as "conservative" begin making apologies for big government -- the movement weakens and fails.

If big government is "conservative," then exactly what is the conservative critique of liberalism? Where is the fundamental substance of disagreement? When conservatives abandon their critique of big government, the debate with liberalism becomes complex and confusing. Ordinary Americans are no longer presented with a conservative politics that is simple and coherent, and are easily attracted to another simple and coherent argument: Gimme, gimme, gimme.

The failure of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is that, in abandoning a critique of big government, Republicans were left with no domestic-policy argument except cultural squabbles (e.g., Terri Schiavo) and, "Hey, isn't the economy great?" It's interesting to ponder whether this stance would have failed sooner, had it not been for 9/11, which allowed the GOP to win the 2002 and 2004 elections on the question of which party could best fight Islamic terrorism. But as the public wearied of (or changed its mind about) that issue, and as the economy soured, the GOP discovered it had no domestic argument at all.

If we are going to have big government no matter who wins the election, why not vote for the party that has been advocating big government all along?

Grover Norquist likes to talk about the "Leave Us Alone Coalition" -- that solid conservative constituency which stands resolutely against big government. The task of conservative commentators ought to be to persuade more people to join the "Leave Us Alone Coalition." If Ross Douthat wants to attack the "Leave Us Alone Coalition," he thereby makes himself an enemy of the only conservatism that can ever hope to exercise influence in American politics.

1 comment:

  1. There's a distinction though -- about which Douthat is not explicit: "redistribution as a result" and "redistribution as an ideal."

    As long as the tax system is progressive at all (the input end of government), and as long as social safety nets and entitlement and benefit programs are means-tested at all or targeted at the least among us at all (the output end of government) ... then the government will, broadly speaking, be redistributing wealth. And since at least I think both of those "as long as" clauses are moral requirements for a wealthy society, I have no problem with "spreading the wealth around" as a matter of fact or effect.

    What I do think is much more morally problematic and can be meaningfully compared to socialism is an explicit bid to "spread the wealth around" as some sort of social good -- either serving as (1) an absolute moral end ("wealth inequality is unjust per se"), (2) an attempt to kick-start the overall economy, or (3) simple rent-seeking to one's own constituencies. Democrats do tend to believe in redistribution in those senses; the radicals more in the first sense; the neolibs more in the second; and the unions and working-class-Dems more in the third. All three rationales are deeply problematic -- the first and third are little better than apologias for theft.

    The difference between an effect and act, though, is pretty basic moral vocabulary, and it's a pity a Catholic convert like Douthat doesn't think to make it, though I'm convinced it underlies his thought (though I can't speak for him obviously. Still I daresay I'm more sympathetic to what he's saying than you are.)