January 28, 2004

“Compassionate Conservative” or Neo-Con Con?
Posted by McQ

We’ve been batting the politics of pragmatism around for the last few days, and pointing out that pragmatism seems to be the rule of play in today’s politics. We saw Clinton use it masterfully and now, it seems Bush has taken a page from his playbook. The conventional wisdom, among conservatives and liberals alike is that George Bush is using the politics of pragmatism as his method of reelection. That is he’s taking issues from the left and by so doing, leaving his political opponents with few issues to really challenge him on. How else do you explain the departure from what is considered traditional conservatism with this spending spree, conservatives ask?

Then we see the SOTU (which in essence was the official beginning of the Bush run for his 2nd term) and then his proposal for “1% growth” in the next budget cycle. The conservative base take those as hopeful signs that Bush is planning on returning to the tradition of conservatism … smaller government and less spending. In fact, the buzz is that once the 2nd term is locked down, and he no longer has to tactically ensure his reelection, he’ll become the conservative president the Republicans have expected and the liberals dread.

Not so fast. That may not be the case.

The discussion of pragmatism reminded me of something I’d read not long ago. In a book of selected essays by Irving Kristol (“The Autobiography of an Idea: Neo-Conservatism – Selected Essays 1949-1995”), touted by many to be the father of the neo-conservative movement, I found some very interesting passages in a 1976 essay entitled “The Republican Future”.

In the essay, he asks, “[w]hy hasn’t the Republican Party been able to construct a [welfare] program of its own, in which the American people could have confidence?

“First, the party has never fully reconciled itself to the welfare state, and therefore has never given comprehensive thought to the question of what a conservative welfare state would look like.”

I’d point to this as an understatement of monumental proportions, simply because a welfare state is anathema to conservative orthodoxy. But rather than argue the point further and lose continuity here, let’s press on. Kristol further states:

”Second, because of their close historic association with the business community, Republican leaders tend to think like businessmen rather than like statesmen, and therefore bumble their way through their terms in office.

So Kristol says its time to consider a “conservative welfare state” and to quit approaching government like a business … got that Republicans? IOW, think like a Democrat. How else does one interpret this?

Kristol then elaborates:

“The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind if they are to cope with many of their problems: old age, illness, unemployment, etc. They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it?”

Again, the points on which I differ with Kristol here are many, but let’s focus on perhaps the most telling: What has he done, here?

He’s conceded the philosophical and moral fields to the opposition. He’s thrown away principle for practicality. He’s playing the politics of pragmatism. But remember … this is the father of neo-conservatism saying this. And knowing where neo-cons come from makes this much easier (though no less shocking) to understand than if it were coming from a traditional conservative. As you know, with the neo-con movement, the only thing "conservative" about them is in the name. But again, let’s not lose focus. Moving on, we see Kristol say:

”This is not a question the Republican Party has faced up to, because it still feels, deep down, that a welfare state is inconsistent with such traditional American virtues as self-reliance and individual liberty. Those virtues are real enough, and are a proper conservative concern. But the task to is to create the kind of welfare state which is consistent, to the largest possible degree.”

IOW, stick to principle if its politically useful, but if not, you have my permission to chuck it and pander. And of course, in a welfare state, we should all know what form that pandering would take … can you say “Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.” One has to wonder at the intellectual contortions necessary here to attempt linking the virtues of self-reliance and individual liberty with condoning a welfare state. But moving on, we shall see.

Back to Kristol:

“That is not an impossible task, though it would be foolish to pretend it is an easy one. It is a matter of relating means to ends. But before one can do that, one has to take the ends seriously. One has to believe that the American people really need some sort of medical insurance program, or old age assistance program. Because the Republican Party has never been able to make up its mind about this, it has left the initiative to liberal Democrats. It then finds itself in the position, when in office, of having to administer Democratic programs in the least extravagant way. That’s no way for a party to govern.”

In fact it is indeed an impossible task, if, in principle, you oppose a welfare state because you believe in “self-reliance” and “individual liberty”. So, lip service to the contrary, those traits are not what is important.

What is important? Governing, aka power. The purpose of the Republicans is to “govern”. Not have an ideology based on principles. Simply: do what is necessary “to govern”.

So we’re now approaching the money quote and we’re approaching the current “Republican” or should we say, “administration” game plan. Here’s how the Republicans can have their cake and eat it too, per Kristol … here’s how they can administer their own programs, instead of Democratic programs, when they govern:

”The basic principle behind a conservative welfare state ought to be a simple one: Wherever possible, people should be allowed to keep their own money – rather than having it transferred (via taxes) to the state – on condition that they put it to defined uses. Thus, the Republican Party should be demanding that individual’s medical insurance premiums be made tax-deductible. It should be insisting that individuals ought to be free to make additional contributions to their Social Security or pension funds, that all such contributions should be tax-deductible. (One would then, of course, tax all retirement income, but this would be no great hardship.) It should be demanding that life insurance premiums be made tax-deductible, at least up to a specific point. Policies such as these have the obvious advantage of reconciling the purposes of the welfare state with the maximum degree of individual independence and the least bureaucratic coercion. It would also have the advantage of being quite popular.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I have tremendous problems with the entire premise of this concept, however, what is crystal clear to me is this is the present “Republican” game plan. Essentially it is a repudiation of traditional conservative principles for the politics of pragmatism. It is a method to power, not based on principles held dear by conservatives and individualists, but by collectivists. The Republican party is being co-opted. It’s becoming the “lite” brand of Democrat beer … less filling, but still beer. And it further means the sled to hell is being pulled more slowly by an elephant vs. the rocket sled the Democrats would have us ride.

It appears, at least to me, that compassionate conservatism is simply a code phrase for neo-con, and that if you believe in individualism or even traditional conservatism, you're in the middle of one hell of a con job. All this to say, if George Bush wins reelection, don’t hold your breath thinking there’ll be less spending and less government. You might turn very, very blue.



Frankly I expect more big government spending if Bush is re-elected. I see Bush as a continuation of Clinton's policies domestically. It is what he hasn't done that frightens me allowing Clinton's fiats to continue, his failure to reign in the courts or provide real tax relief. I suspect we can see more affirmative action, more illegal immigration and more PC nostrums.

Posted by: James Longstreet at January 28, 2004 02:53 AM

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it's hard to disagree with this: "they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it?"

One wonders if the Republican Party would eventually go the way of the Libertarian Party by refusing to dispense bread and circuses?

Posted by: Jon Henke at January 28, 2004 06:18 AM

Excellent, McQ. Depressing as hell, but excellent.

Posted by: Mike at January 28, 2004 07:44 AM

James ... most likely you're correct. So, as usual, you're effectively reduced to the "lesser of two evils" option vs. being able to vote your convictions/principles, aren't you?

Anyone else tired of this?

Jon ... no, "bread and circuses" are de riguer in today's political climate. In my opinion we've evolved past elimination of such being a viable option for today's major political parties.

Mike ... thanks and yes, I agree ... depressing as hell.

Posted by: McQ at January 28, 2004 09:27 AM

"In my opinion we've evolved past elimination of such being a viable option for today's major political parties."

- - -If that's so, doesn't that make libertarians an anaochronism? Comparable to those who demand we revert to a Habbesian sovereignty? You know....irrelevant.

And if so, what then?

Posted by: Jon Henke at January 28, 2004 03:09 PM

Jon ... see key word "major" as in "major political parties".

Posted by: McQ at January 28, 2004 07:37 PM

I didn't mean Libertarians...I meant libertarians. What I'm getting at is this: If the power of government to grow larger and larger is so consistent - short of violent revolution - what use is it to insist on libertarian ideals? Isn't that a bit like arguing that gravity is a bad idea and we should do something about it?

(Also: sorry, that should have read "Hobbesian", not "Habbesian")

Posted by: Jon Henke at January 28, 2004 07:54 PM

Great ideas grow from great concepts, principles, ideas, and premises. Sometimes, before they'll be considered, the pendulum just has to swing. Pragmatism and pandering are great when you're being pragmatic and a recipient of the pandering. But we're running out of payors and stocking up on payees.

It stands to reason that the group standing there with the principles, premises and concept that offer a viable alternative when Atlas actually does shrug might get a serious look. But you have to stand on those principles, premises and concepts for that to happen. It gets lonely sometimes while you're waiting. ;)

Posted by: McQ at January 28, 2004 08:40 PM

So, it's sort of a Kantian Categorical Imperative of politics. Act is you think everybody should act at all times.

That's a very principled way to die, it seems to me. Understand, I'm very sympathetic to it...I just don't know that it's an objective analysis of our current options.

It's the guy who says "well, I'd LIKE to tell the guy with a gun that I have no money, but that would be a lie...and lying is wrong".

Yeah, sometimes it is. It depends on the cost/benefit analysis.

What about the future? Will it eventually happen? It strikes me that a swing towards libertarianism could only really happen after some sort of crisis or revolution...and then only briefly. Only until things calm down again, and people desire safety ahead of liberty.

In other words, liberty can never be assured...just maximized. The pendulum may swing briefly towards libertarianism, but only briefly. The trick may be to moderate the swings...never too far towards libertarianism, but never too far away.

I wish I had more of a solution, but so far all I have is questions.

Posted by: Jon Henke at January 28, 2004 08:54 PM

Yes, Bruce: I'm bloody sick and tired of it. But you knew that ten years ago.

In the Nixon administration, my now-sainted father told me, "Son, if you think this administration is bad, just wait'll you see the next one."

For thirty years -- all my adult life -- that man was never wrong about this.

Long before the SCOTUS decided the Florida vote hematoma, I wrote: "Bush is going to be a spectacularly rotten president. Not especially evil, I think, but spectacularly rotten." And: "The Clintonism is seeped now, and I ain't counting on Dubya to ward it off."

(You can read the whole article here.)

And I'll say here something that you've heard me say before: until people in this country develop an authentic grip on principles nothing is going to change.

Nobody who does not understand that fact has anything really serious to say.

Posted by: Billy Beck at January 28, 2004 09:41 PM

Ah Von Beck ... good to see you banging around the halls here. Yes, we agree.

To Jon ... a little, well not so little, quote from a hero of mine ... F.A.Hayek, from a collection of essays "Individualism and Economic Order" and an essay entitled "Individualism: True and False". It was written in 1948 and is addressing the previous 30 years:

"After the experience of the last thirty years, there is perhaps not much need to emphasize that without principles we drift. The pragmatic attitude which has been dominant during that period, far from increasing our command over developments, has in fact led us to a state of affairs which nobody wanted; and the only result of our disregard of principles seems to be that we are governed by a logic of events which we are vainly attempting to ignore. The question now is not whether we need principles to guide us but rather whether there still exists a body of principles capable of general application which we could follow if we wished. Where can we still find a set of precepts which will give us definite guidance in the solution of the problems of our time? Is there anywhere a consistent philosophy to be found which supplies us not merely with the moral aims but with an adequate method for their achievement?"

I'll again refer you to the title and let you guess what that philosophy is.

As you well know, as an economist, Hayek was reviled and ridiculed while he lived, but he stuck by his principles, and, now we see him being vindicated. He could have been pragmatic about it all and changed a little here and a little there, but he didn't and we know the result. Sticking to your principles doesn't have to be a death sentence, Jon ... the whole point of having them is they're something you believe in and by which you choose to live your life. Individualism doesn't require you impose those values on others ... it simply requires you live the principles, because by doing so you are the strongest advertisement FOR your principles and philosophy. Of course, it doesn't hurt to talk about 'em a little too. ;)

Posted by: McQ at January 28, 2004 10:26 PM