Is America Better Off Without Conservatives?

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There really is no making Paul Krugman happy. The Republican establishment is down on its knees and conservative luminaries are despondent, with Richard Posner publicly bemoaning the state of Hayek and Buckley's conservatism. But Krugman would prefer to excommunicate reformed conservatives than listen to them as they flock to his side -- with a couple suggestions. "Why, exactly, should we listen to people who by their own admission completely missed the story?" he writes. Jeez, I thought smart, intellectually honest people were a good thing.


Richard Posner's* post -- a thoughtful explanation of the fall of conservatism over the last 50 years -- concludes that, although conservatism is at its half-century nadir, "there are signs and portents of liberal excess in the policies and plans of the new administration." I think that's exactly right. Conservatism right now is a bit like the red matter in the latest Star Trek film: it's vacuous to the point of consuming itself, it wants to send us back in time, and if unleashed, it would probably destroy the planet. But today's economic philosophy is dominated by a very liberal sense of fiscal policy, and if we excommunicate anybody who has ever self-identified as a fiscal conservative, that's a really good way to ensure that the liberal movement goes too far.

Instead, Krugman's saying: If conservatives talk conservative, we shouldn't listen to them, because they're wrong; and if conservatives flock to our side with suggestions, we shouldn't listen to them, because they used to be wrong. Two paragraphs later, Krugman's talking about the 1940s, as though we shouldn't listen to fiscal conservatives because their elders used to dine with people who thought "Franco was the savior of Spanish civilization."

This is a little crazy and more than a little dangerous. First, this perverted "poison the well" tautology that everything conservatives have to offer is wrong because William Buckley was a racist is so unhelpful. All the answers in the world cannot possibly come from the group that has permanently self-identified as liberal.

Second, Krugman's harsh assessment is eerily reminiscent of the attitude during the triumphant years of the Bush administration -- that small tent, zero-dissent, with-us-or-against-us mentality -- that ultimately helped Republicans choke the party with their own hands and stomp on the country while they did it. It is distressing to see that months removed from an era where I thought we concluded that hyperpartisan line-drawing was the problem, the solution is, of course, hyperpartisan line-drawing (but this time it will be smarter!).

One last point. Here's a quote from Paul Krugman's Economics textbook, 2006 ed:

"Macroeconomics has always been a contentious field, much more so than microeconomics. There will always be debates about appropriate policies. But the striking thing about current debates is how modest the differences among macroeconomists really are. The clean little secret of modern macroeconomics is how much consensus economists have reached over the past 70 years."

That's not a gotcha. It's a gut-check. If macroeconomists reached a consensus over the last 70s years, then face it: We were all wrong. Some of us (like this guy) were more wrong than others (like this guy), but really, what's the cut-off? Today's challenges don't need ideological purity. They just need answers. Krugman of all people should know that a honest and wicked-smart opposition, whether loyal or opposing (he's been both), is something to cherish rather than condemn.

*Full disclosure: Richard Posner is a new Correspondent for theatlantic.com, but the article in question comes from his personal blog.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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