Conservative Philosophers, Liberal Wonks?

By Luke Brinker

Ezra Klein flags a National Review piece by Carl Bogus, a liberal law professor with a forthcoming biography of conservative intellectual icon and National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. Here’s the part of  Bogus’s self-interview that Klein deems noteworthy:

Q. What is different between conservative and liberal literature?

A. One striking difference is that the iconic conservative works are about ideology. By contrast, the most influential liberal books of the era are about policy issues. Those works are Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), The Other America by Michael Harrington (1962), The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), and Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (1965), which helped launch the environmental, anti-poverty, feminist, and consumer movements, respectively. Some prominent liberal books of the time were about ideology — such as The Vital Center by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1949) and The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith (1958) — but these are exceptions to the rule.

Klein largely agrees:

I’ve noticed this as well. My conservative friends are very motivated by philosophical arguments. My liberal friends are very motivated by policy analysis. This can occasionally cause some confusion for the liberals who will look at past conservative legislation or current conservative proposals and note that they seem to have quite a lot in common with current liberal ideas.

President Obama’s health-care reform law was, of course, based on Mitt Romney’s reforms in Massachusetts which was, in turn, based on proposals developed by conservative think tanks and legislators in the 1990s. Cap-and-trade was, similarly, pioneered by George H.W. Bush as a way to curb sulfur dioxide emissions in the early ’90s and was promoted as a solution to global warming by no less a conservative authority than Newt Gingrich. But as soon as liberals embraced those proposals, conservatives turned on them.

I tend to chalk this up to the incentives of partisanship and the psychological pull ofmotivated skepticism. But a more generous interpretation is that because conservatives are more concerned with philosophy, they see the motivations of the legislators as much more important than liberals do.

So when liberals celebrate a liberal policy proposal coming from a conservative president — note the Democrats who joined with President Bush on No Child Left Behind and, until the conference committee shenanigans, Medicare Part D — it’s because their analysis is focused on the proposal. If the proposal lines up with their ideas, they support it. When conservatives turn on a onetime conservative proposal that’s been embraced by a more liberal president, it’s because they’re looking behind the policy to the philosophies of whoever is championing it. For them to feel comfortable supporting it, the philosophy of whoever is proposing it has to line up with their philosophy, too.

For the record, I still think my more cynical interpretation is right.

Klein is on to something here, although I think he misses a larger point. Setting aside past conservative support for cap-and-trade programs and the individual mandate, it’s worth pointing out that at the heart of conservatism is a fundamental skepticism about human nature. In his 1953 The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (admittedly, not exactly a Tea Party tome), conservative intellectual Russell Kirk distinguished conservatives, with their beliefs about the limitations of progress and human agency, from liberal and progressives, individuals marked by optimistic views about the potential for human endeavor to solve deep-rooted social problems. Conservative philosophy preaches caution about government schemes to regulate the economy, provide welfare, and the like because conservatives see complex cultural forces at work – forces that, despite our sincerest wishes, are often beyond human control. Liberals, confident that government can be a force for positive change, naturally turn their focus toward policies that can solve big problems.

In light of their skeptical attitude toward human nature, it’s unsurprising that conservative thinkers have historically supported cap-and-trade and the individual mandate. Both policies represent reforms that aim to solve pressing problems with the minimum amount of social and economic upheaval; that is to say, both cap-and-trade and the health care mandate are market-based solutions. That’s a lot different from what most liberals would like to see – more assertive measures like a carbon tax to solve climate change, a single-payer system to reform health care. The fact that cap-and-trade and the individual mandate are now Democratic Party policy indicates just how much the political climate has shifted in the right’s favor in the Age of Reagan. Now that a Democratic president is in the White House, though, the conservative roots of those policies don’t matter to the Tea Party crowd. That’s where Klein’s “cynical interpretation” comes in.

Lastly, I’d note that philosophy informs much of the contemporary liberal project. For instance, the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls championed egalitarianism and inveighed against inequality in his groundbreaking A Theory of Justice, sounding themes appropriated by Occupy Wall Street activists. Moreover, the even liberal wonkery has philosophical origins, especially in the utilitarian and pragmatic work of liberal philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Richard Rorty. Overarching philosophical principles – the injustice of systemic inequality, the ability of human agency to solve social problems, and the need to find practical solutions in the here-and-now – are liberalism’s starting point. The outpouring of wonkish books and policy papers are its natural consequence.


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