The Substance of Gersonism

Josh Patashnik, critiquing my review of Heroic Conservatism:

The problem is that ... like most other conservative responses to Gerson, [Douthat's is] a qualitative assessment of his philosophy, when what's needed is some quantitative sense. Debates about the role of government are fruitless without numbers: what percentage of GDP should we spend on poverty alleviation? What should the foreign aid budget be? To label Gerson a big-government liberal just because he says nice things about government doesn't help very much.

To be fair, Gerson contributes to this problem--his book says very little about what specific policies he favors to try to achieve the goals he lays out. But all indications are that his actual agenda is hardly revolutionary. He likes S-CHIP, but not, in his words, "government-run universal health care"; he wants more racial reconciliation, but eschews grand '70s-era social engineering schemes like forced busing. He has no apparent interest in Nixon-era wage and price controls. His favorite programs are ones like Bush's 2003 AIDS initiative--whose price tag of $3 billion a year isn't exactly busting the budget. (He did support one truly massive endeavor--the Iraq war--but now he's ambivalent about it, and in any case conservatives seem willing to forgive him for that one.)

Gerson doesn't want a massive new federal effort to combat social injustice; he wants a modest effort, but one imbued with an awesome new sense of moral purpose. It's Tommy Thompson's ideology wrapped in RFK's rhetoric. One can question whether this is really a unique political philosophy meriting a big book deal, but Great Society liberalism it ain't.

I see where Josh is coming from in his initial complaint, but I think the rest of his post gets at precisely why conservative reviewers, myself included, are focusing on the philosophy more than the policy - because Gerson's arguments basically demand to be analyzed in those terms. With some significant exceptions, many of the policies he champions do tend toward the small-bore and the relatively inexpensive, and if the entirety of his vision were, say, that the GOP should be less tightfisted when it comes to fighting AIDS and malaria overseas, I'd probably sign up - though like Josh, I'd question whether the argument merited a book. But Gerson doesn't just make the case for a few specific humanitarian policies; he argues that the ideal of humanitarianism, at home and abroad, should become the center of a new conservative governing philosophy. The breadth and potential radicalism of this argument, to my mind at least, makes it appropriate to treat the RFK rhetoric, rather than the more modest policy proposals, as the real substance of Gersonism. This means drawing out implications that aren't explicit in the text of the book: hence my comparison of Gerson's politics to those of LBJ, which he would doubtless consider ridiculous. But given Heroic Conservatism's professed ambitions, I think teasing out the broader implications of Gerson's vision is a fair way to approach the book.

Put another way - to the extent that Gerson's claims are more modest than his book makes them out to be, I think that conservatives should listen to him; to the extent that they're as ambitious as he suggests they are, I think they shouldn't.