Dissents Of The Day

Some remaining thoughts from readers about my back-and-forth with Rick Hertzberg. One writes:

I'm trying hard to make myself radically receptive to your arguments about conservatism, though I myself am instinctively liberal. (Isn't it funny how rarely people admit to the difficulty of dispassionately weighing opposing worldviews?) So help me out by clarifying the following.

Your latest defense of conservatism rests largely on the idea of decentralized social planning, that the messy but iterative wisdom of crowds (effectively harnessed by free markets) is superior to the rationalist but rigid wisdom of the ruling elite. So far I'm with you. Totally. But this where I start to lose the thread:

In general, money = power. The more of their own money people keep the more likely it is that the society will evolve the way its people want it to evolve, and not be coerced by some rationalist in government.

You go on to make some exceptions for coercive market practices ("ensure that the game is not rigged"), but this seems to evade the issue.

We live in a country of increasingly polarized wealth where the top 1%, the top 0.1% and particularly the top 0.01% control staggeringly large amounts of our collective wealth. Notwithstanding the Enrons and CDO scammers of the world, most of this wealth was gained by means both legal and socially sanctioned. Now isn't there a point where the market-based oligarchy achieves a level of control that's functionally indistinguishable from the government stranglehold on GDP? When do "the people" become "persons"? When is the distinction between "rationalists in government" and free-market finance moguls a pedantic distinction?

In so far as those moguls have no more right to enact legislation than you or I do, this extreme wealth does not, it seems to me, directly change other people's lives the way government can. They can spend the money - philanthropy on the Bill Gates model or lots of yachts - but I don't see the extreme success of a few as undermining the argument for conservatism. Even after Citizens United, the Democrats ended up raising and spending as much money as the GOP on the last election cycle. It may be, as I concede, that a conservative would be okay with higher taxes for these folks if social and income inequality seemed to be destabilizing the entire polity. But that's the only reason for a conservative to worry about such conspicuous success; for the most part, a conservative should celebrate it. Another writes:

The more local a vote, the easier it becomes for the majority to hold tyranny over the minority. America is only as free as it is today because, after the civil war, the nation made the restrictions applied to the central government applicable to the states where individual liberty was concerned. Without the incorporation clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, gays would still be imprisoned (or possibly even executed) in the South, and the poor and the non-white would still be denied the right to vote.

Concentrating power in local government is just as dangerous as concentrating it in national government- more so, because in practice abuse of local power is harder, not easier, to correct. How do you vote out a government that violates the rights of a minority when the majority of voters support and endorse those violations?

That's where the judiciary comes in, I think. And my defense of a robust judicial branch pushing back, if necessary, against executive and legislative power is another point where I disagree with today's "conservatism." I want power dispersed; they want the judicial branch's power neutered. Another:

You wrote, "[I]t is ... true (and this is where conservatism has gone off the rails in America) that it is the government's task to ensure that the game is not rigged, that private corporations do not gain too much power, that politics is not corrupted in this fashion, and that financial markets are robustly regulated and monopolies vigorously broken up."

This has been a fundamental of American liberalism since FDR. American liberalism is not dogmatic; it is founded on Aristotelian pragmatism. It works outward from reality and empirically seeks what works and what humans actually do. Both socialism and the strange belief of American movement conservatives in market anarchy are Platonic attempts to bend reality and human nature to preconceived ideals.

Socialism, by excising the spark of entrepreneurship from the political economies that have tried it, has always ended in catastrophe. But market anarchy has always failed to achieve full employment, driven down median real income, and blocked the rise of the working class into the middle class. American progressive capitalism, by placing markets under the rule of law, by making prudent public investments in physical and human infrastructure, and by providing a safety net, has created the greatest wealth for the greatest number. American liberalism created the middle class.

American liberals have no affinity for Old Labour. We were always the middle alternative (not the middle ground) between the twin disasters of socialism and market anarchy. Your repeated linkage of American liberalism's success in class mobility to Old Labour's pursuit of class warfare is a mild academic form of McCarthyism.

I'm, not sure you can have "a mild academic form of McCarthyism". But it's certainly true that my Toryism is forged and was forged against much more leftist forces than have prevailed in America. That's why an old Tory like Henry Fairlie so easily turned into a Democrat in the US. And I don't doubt that much of my pragmatic, modern Toryism could easily fit into the current Democratic party, and that it too, certainly in my adulthood, has been largely pragmatic and less ideological than the Republicans (the exception was the under-rated presidency of George HW Bush). I think Obama could easily be a Tory prime minister in many ways (though not of the Thatcherite hue; times change).

My problem is that I don't see a majority among the Democrats truly willing to tackle unaffordable entitlements the way the Tories seem to be in Britain. I don't see any excitement in seeing government pared back to a leaner model. And I don't see any clarity in Democratic goals for government that doesn't easily get overwhelmed by interest group pressure.