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A little help for the "conservative idea factory" (Part 2 of 2)

In my last entry, I talked about the sense of urgency and even crisis among some conservatives. The “ideas factory” is not as productive as it once was, it seems. By way of offering some advice from outside, as it were, I thought I would begin with the very metaphor used in this case to describe the current conditions of ossification and doubt.

The metaphor is in fact extremely apt. American conservatives indeed have a factory of ideas. The core “products” of that factory have been meant as a reflection on (and justification of) the modern economic order, as well as an explanation of the social dislocation caused by its dynamic, transformative forces. This economic order post-2008 went through a massive cratering and fragmentation, and so it’s not surprising that the ideological edifice surrounding and supporting that order also broke down. The problem for conservatives, however, is that they don’t seem to have the means to rebuild that system, that is, to reconstruct a vital and coherent vision to illuminate the post-2008 economic and social (dis)order. Their current attempts at reconstruction and translation have for the most part fallen on deaf ears.

To explain what I mean, consider the fragment from a speech recently delivered by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The topic of the speech concerned Christian virtues and economic systems:

"The cardinal sin of capitalism is greed, but the cardinal sin of socialism is power. I'm not sure there's a clear choice between those evils," Scalia said. "While I would not argue that capitalism as an economic system is inherently more Christian than socialism … it does seem to me that capitalism is more dependent on Christianity than socialism is. For in order for capitalism to work - in order for it to produce a good and a stable society - the traditional Christian virtues are essential." (http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/At-Ho...)

There is much here that is correct: recognizing that capitalism expresses certain Christian values is as old as Max Weber’s work. And yet embedded within these comments is an assumption that lays bare the current productivity problem within the conservative factory of ideas. When Scalia uses the term “power” here, he means “state power,” contrasted with the allegedly powerless power, the “invisible hand” of the free market (which is marred by the mere vice of greed). Ideological rigidity on this point of contrast doesn’t match up with everyday experience: for most of us, it doesn’t matter whether it comes from a public or a private source, from the federal government or a private bank or corporate head office. The experience of dislocation is the same. Power is power, public or private.

Nor is the primary purpose of capitalism to “produce a good and stable society” as Scalia puts it. If the Great Recession taught us anything, it’s that good and stable societies are often challenged and even catastrophically undermined by the tumultuous forces unleashed by financialized capital. Scalia seems to be living the pre-2008 economic world, while the rest of us – of necessity, perhaps disabused of our former ideas – have moved on.

Can conservatives catch up to the real world? Doing so would require an end to demonizing the state and deifying the market. Until that happens, its factory of ideas will be fated to produce intellectual commodities that fewer people want, which capture an ever-smaller market share, and which seem increasingly irrelevant to the demands of everyday life for the majority of Americans.

That's the diagnosis.

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Perhaps it's true that conservatives don't have many new ideas.  Part of it may just be our nature, as we tend to be fond of the timeless classics (including those outmoded notions of personal virtue and responsibility that seem so risible these days).  

On the other hand, it's indisputable that we're better at math.  We've taken Mr. Micawber's axiom to heart, "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and—and, in short, you are for ever floored." 

To be sure, math is boring, and so in the world of competitive ideas, it's a bit of a tough sale.  But math is necessary, and sooner or later, America will come around to its utility.

 

 

 

With all respect liberals can do math too.   And liberals do care about balancing income and spending:  we're just willing to do it (sometimes) by raising taxes on the high end earners, as Bill Clinton did.  (As a huge Dickens fan, I have to point out that Mr. Micawber did NOT practice what he preached .  David Copperfield had to visit him in a debtor's prison.)

The difference seems to me to be a difference core beliefs about the relationship of human beings and property.  Conservatives seem to believe that the right to property is absolute, and should be prioritized over (for example) feeding the hungry and providing health care to the sick.  Liberals recognize that property has to be stable- you can't have the state just confiscating everything a person has in an unpredictable manner- but also think that both morally and practically the right to property can be moderated by such concerns as solidarity with the poor and the need to keep money circulating throughout society.  (Unregulated capitalism tends to create massive inequality, with more and more of the wealth of society accumulating at the very top, as it did in the Gilded Age c. 1890.)  Thus, liberals accept the idea of limited but significant redistribution by taxes that go into social spending.

The conservative belief in the absolute piority of property seems to me to lack a sense of history.  Certainly, many people have become wealthy by producing something of value that other people want to buy, and producing it efficiently.  But many also obtained wealth through immoral laws and violence.  My maternal ancestors became destitute in the highland clearances for example- some English guy got rich off our stolen lands.  In the same context, there was slavery, the enclosures in Renaissance England, the theft of this country from the Native Americans, the violent supression of unions in the 19th century.  The reality of history seems to me to refute an Ayn Rand philosophy of property.

There actually are some thoughtful conservatives who are trying to create a more humane conservatism:   Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Rod Dreher are three of the best.  But  I don't see how any of their ideas are going to gain traction in the current political atmosphere where the Republican party seems determined to continue the pattern of taking away from the poor (continually cutting food stamps, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance) and giving the rich lower and lower tax rates.

“Part of it may just be our nature, as we tend to be fond of the timeless classics (including those outmoded notions of personal virtue and responsibility that seem so risible these days).”

Surely you are not saying that  liberals do not value personal virtue and responsibility. 

A good adjunct to this conversation is Christopher Hayes' "The Twilight of The Elites."

Surely you are not saying that  liberals do not value personal virtue and responsibility. 

To judge by the policies liberals support and the ideas their factories generate - apparently, not very much, if by personal virtues and responsiblity we mean such things as liberty, thrift, hard work, self improvement, chastity, respect for the law - and respect for life.

"(I)n order for capitalism to work - in order for it to produce a good and a stable society - the traditional Christian virtues are essential."

Oh, absolutely. But the same is essential for socialism to produce a good and stable society. Trying to get along without traditional Christian virtues is what did in the communist systems. But we can see in Scandanavia that with basic (if residual) Christian values, like solidarity, socialism can be made to work. The error of Justice Scalia is to hope for an economic system that will make all people good and great. (Sort of like the invisible hand administering spankings at appropriate times.) Never happen. In today's first reading St. Paul mentions "the greed that is idolatry." That is the capitalist idolatry. (The socialists have a different one.)

Jim,

There are two problems with that axiom: First, there are plenty of good reasons to temporarily spend more than one is currently earning. Buying a car, buying a house, going to college, and responding to emergencies all require spending more than one's current income, whether that involves taking money from savings or taking out a loan. Second, a society as a whole can't spend more or less than it earns. Everyone's spending is someone else's income if everyone tries to spend less than they earn at the same, everyone will find that their incomes have fallen and they have to spend even less.

Furthermore, it isn't clear to me that conservatives care about deficits. They seem to be far more concerned about cutting taxes, and the deficit is relevant only to the extent that larger deficits make additional tax cuts more difficult politically.

Jim:

Liberty is a conservative value? Sounds like a liberal value to me?

Thrift is a conservative value? Come on. Let’s promote a free unregulated market that promotes greed.

Hard work is a conservative value? Tell that to my liberal friends who are helping immigrants to support their families and people who have lost their jobs in this economy.

Chastity, a conservative value? Are you saying that conservatives are more chaste? I say prove it.

Self improvement, a conservative value? Sounds a bit self-centered. (OK, a bit of a stretch on my part.)

Respect for the law, a conservative value? Like the second amendment with no sensible regulation?

Pro-life?  Well, you may make the argument that pro-choice is not pro-life and I can understand that but pro-life encompasses so much more.

You usually have good points to contribute on this blog, but this time, you've missed the boat, IMHO.

Ryan: and let's not forget that everyne starts in life with a big debt - how else would we make it past the newborn stage, if not by receiving things for free from the society of people around us?

Helen: Jim P. has two personalities. When he talks about religion, he makes sense and typically strives for dialogue and compromise. When he talks about politics, all bets are off. His Republican loyalty takes precedence over his usual common sense.

Jim P: all I can say is: hmpf.

 

 

"To judge by the policies liberals support and the ideas their factories generate - apparently, not very much, if by personal virtues and responsiblity we mean such things as liberty, thrift, hard work, self improvement, chastity, respect for the law - and respect for life."

Jim P. ==

You seem to have no understanding whatsoever of what it is like to be without the means to live a normal middle-class life.

Liberty?  To the degree that you are poor to begin with you do not have the means to take the actions you need to take (e.g., buy food, buy medicine) are free only to suffer.  You don't even have carfare sufficient to look for jobs.

Thrift?  If you have no assets, thrift is irrelevant.

Hard word?  When there are no jobs or none an ignorant person qualifies for or close enough to get to, a poor person can't work.

Self-improvement?  When you have no means and start from nothing, improvement is impossible.

Chastity?  What does this have to do with money or lack thereof?  Anyone can be undisciplined.

Respect for law?  When the law ignores you, why respect it?

Respect for life?  One does not respect life when one does not respect the living, when one sees  the poor living in squallor and expects them to overcome it all by themselves.

Now let's talk about generosity and greed .  .  .  

  

 

About liberals not understanding math.  What a generalization!!!  Maynard Keynes, that paradigm of economic liberals, was a brillian math major, did major original work in probability theory,  and had to be pursuaged by the great economist Alfred Marshall to go into economics rather than math.  

If any group is shy of math, it's the conservative economists who persist in using outworn, over-simple mathmatical formulae, though, I grant you, the greedy conservatives do seem to be awfully good at counting up the value their misbegotten assets.  (How's that for some hasty generalizations?)

Ann, nicely done :-).  Claire, the Americanized spelling is "harrumph!".  I suppose I haven't changed many hearts and minds?  Ah, well.

Big surprise, Jim. I disagree with you but have no desire to change your heart and mind.

jim p

dickens never dde the math for:

"Annual income zero, annual exprnditure, eating, result Death

What is engaging about this post is that it doesn't contain a shred of the condescension or smarminess you usually see when liberals offer advice to conservatives.

Jim P.--

Thank you.  But I must add that while your heart doesn't need changing (it's obvious that you are a kindly man) your mind has a long way to go before it sees what life for a very poor person is like.  

Or maybe your problem is that you think there aren't really many very poor Americans?  Maybe that's why you aren't a Democrat?

Or how do you define "very poor"? 

Mark Proska:

“What is engaging about this post is that it doesn't contain a shred of the condescension or smarminess you usually see when liberals offer advice to conservatives.”

"Fess up". - Is this a backhanded compliment or are you being sarcastic?

 Helen—

Well, let’s see, there’s this:

…the current conditions of ossification and doubt…

And this:

Can conservatives catch up to the real world?

And isn’t that title just adorable with the cute little scare quotes?

The author pretends not to notice the machinations of a certain political party in creating the post-2008 “massive cratering and fragmentation”

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aSKSoiNbnQY0

All this from an idea factory that, every day, refuses to do what it must to protect innocent human life.   Matthew 7:3-5

Mark:

Interesting article. Yet, I would have preferred that you had cited an article by more objective economist, not one who was economic adviser to the presidential campaigns of McCain (2000 and 2008) and Romney.

 Helen—

Clarity trumps objectivity any day.   Plus, if objectivity were all that mattered, you’d never listen to anything I had to say—imagine the void in your life.

I'm have difficulty imagining the void in my life.  Perhaps, you could be a bit clearer.