Brooks on Economic Conservatism

David Brooks had an interesting column in yesterday's paper on the imbalance within the modern conservative movement. He starts out by identifying the various elements of the conservative coalition of the 1980s, as he saw it:

When I joined the staff of National Review as a lowly associate in 1984, the magazine, and the conservative movement itself, was a fusion of two different mentalities.On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didnt see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.

He then discusses how a radical economic libertarian conservatism has overtaken that more balanced model:

In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.Its not so much that todays Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They dont even know it exists. There are few people on the conservative side whod be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels.

Brooks does not offer much by way of explanation for how it is that economic libertarians have taken over from the traditional conservatives, except for his opaque reference to the "polarized political conflict with liberalism." That conflict may explain a great deal, but I would go a little farther and say that a significant part of the blame lies with the narrow embrace of the classic culture war issues by those whom Brooks identifies as traditional conservatives. Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novack, et al., along with their allies in the Catholic hierarchy, have worked tirelessly to convey the message that issues surrounding sexuality -- abortion, gay marriage, and, more recently, contraception -- are beyond dispute and should have central importance in Catholics' political deliberation. In contrast, the concerns of economic justice that Brooks identifies as missing from contemporary conservatism are matters of prudential judgment about which reasonable Catholics can disagree, these Catholic conservatives never tire of telling us.Just as a for instance, here is Cardinal Dolan on Paul Ryan (per the National Review):

Cardinal Dolan summed up his end of the exchange, saying: And I wrote back and said, Youve got a good point. And, I said, let me applaud some of the things you are doing, namely your call for financial accountability and restraint and a balanced budget...and . . . let me also applaud your obvious solicitude for the poor.Once again it comes down to that prudential judgment. How are we going to do it? Dolan stressed that he was not trying to be an apologist for Ryan:He and I had a good, heated conversation and I offered some criticism which he was gracious in accepting. . . . [Ryan said he believes it is] probably time to ask a big question . . . whether so-called entitlement programs are the best way to help the poor. . . . Im for the entitlement programs. We always have to have a vigorous safety net. But if we dont do something to save them, our huge entitlement programs, like Medicare and Social Security to which he is committed, by the way are going to flounder. So Im kind of the only one saying what weve got to do to save them. Please dont say to me that Im the one about to undo them. Actually, if we dont do this, theyre going to be undone.So I admire him. Hes honest. Hes refreshing. Do I agree with everything? No, but...Im anxious to see him in action.

And here is Bishop Chaput in NCR on why he (apparently) intends to vote for Romney:

I can only speak in terms of my own personal views. I certainly cant vote for somebody whos either pro-choice or pro-abortion.Im not a Republican and Im not a Democrat. Im registered as an independent, because I dont think the church should be identified with one party or another. As an individual and voter I have deep personal concerns about any party that supports changing the definition of marriage, supports abortion in all circumstances, wants to restrict the traditional understanding of religious freedom. Those kinds of issues cause me a great deal of uneasiness.What about the wing of the church that says a party that supports the Ryan budget also ought to cause concern?Jesus tells us very clearly that if we dont help the poor, were going to go to hell. Period. Theres just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didnt say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I cant make as a Catholic. ... You cant say that somebodys not Christian because they want to limit taxation. Again, Im speaking only for myself, but I think thats a legitimate position. It may not be the correct one, but its certainly a legitimate Catholic position; and to say that its somehow intrinsically evil like abortion doesnt make any sense at all.That said, do you find the Ryan budget troubling?The Ryan budget isnt the budget I would write. I think hes trying to deal with the same issue in the government Im dealing with here locally, which is spending more than we bring in. I admire the courage of anyone whos actually trying to solve the problems rather than paper over them. I think a vigorous debate about the issues, rather than the personalities, is the way through this problem. Its immoral for us to continue to spend money we dont have. I think that those persons who dont want to deal with the issue are, in some ways, doing wrong by putting it off for their own political protection or the protection of their party.

The result of this kind of talk has been a failure by those most likely to have some influence with the conservative movement to challenge the rising tide of economic libertarianism. If Catholic Social Thought cannot offer any definitive opinion as between the Ryan budget and Obama's economic policies, should we be surprised about its marginalization in contemporary discussions on the right?

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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