This will be a bit of mad ramble, I’m afraid – and probably go on to prove a larger point -but in a spare moment today, I read George Will’s op-ed in the WaPo on “The Case for Conservatism“:
Conservatism’s recovery of its intellectual equilibrium requires a confident explanation of why America has two parties and why the conservative one is preferable. Today’s political argument involves perennial themes that give it more seriousness than many participants understand. The argument, like Western political philosophy generally, is about the meaning of, and the proper adjustment of the tension between, two important political goals — freedom and equality.
Today conservatives tend to favor freedom, and consequently are inclined to be somewhat sanguine about inequalities of outcomes. Liberals are more concerned with equality, understood, they insist, primarily as equality of opportunity, not of outcome.
And so on, etc. Anyone who considers him or herself the least bit conservative will find little to disagree with in Will’s tacit evocation of the spirits of Hayek, Kirk and Strauss (Although Strauss a little less, this is George Will after all).
But, unsatisfied with merely buttressing my own prejudices, I ran about the blogosphere for a bit, looking for the thoughtful analysis from the other side. Trying to broaden my horizons, like.
In this, as usual, I was disappointed. Under a heading “Shorter Will,” Ms. Hardin Smith of Firedoglake summarizes thus:
“Ask what you can do to help yourself, and screw everyone else. Do unto others and grab as much as you can along the way, before they get around to doing unto you, that’s the conservative way.”
I’d like to propose that henceforward, no matter how tight the timeline, everyone avoid the temptation to reduce a thoughtful and earnest essay – even one they disagree with – into a “Shorter (fill in the blank).” It’s not just hopelessly reductive, but the kind of people who’d agree with that sort of thing are no thinking person’s natural ally.
Yes, I know it’s hopeless. Still.
Then over to the TPMCafe – where, despite the instinctively oppositional slant on all things conservative, real thought is often found. “Mort” starts off by supplying us with a reasonably accurate recapitulation on the development of modern conservative thought in the post-World War II era. This treatment goes on for a goodly length – others might have called it self-indulgent, or even self-important – I have to admit that my own eyes did tend to skip ahead a verse or two, brother. All the moreso, since it seemed designed to serve not so much as a primer for the target audience – Behold, the American Conservative! – as a vehicle to Bush-bash for a bit.
Eventually Mort climbs down off the soap box and gets to the matter at hand:
I was eager to see how Will, a Reagan-era conservative aristocrat, would argue for returning to conservatism’s roots. I was disappointed, to put it lightly. This column reads as though it was written in 1979, when these ideas were somewhat fresh, not 2007, when those ideas have been totally discredited.
I don’t know about you, but to me it seems scarcely fair to flail at a conservative for the fact that his call to return to conservative roots is somehow insufficiently progressive. Nor is it remotely clear that the ideas themselves have been discredited, and Mort doesn’t bother trying – you either understand or you don’t, I guess.
Later in the same post Mort writes:
(S)cales have only fallen off the eyes of those whose allegiance was always to conservative puritanism; that is the ideals of the movement. They see that George W. Bush is not a conservative and has in fact done the opposite of what a pure conservative would do.
And then only a little later on:
Bush is the culmination of the conservative political movement and for Will to ignore that fact is effectively for him to deny it.
Which has a certain admirable consistency in inveterate animus, if not in rational thought: Not only is it difficult to believe that Mort honestly thinks both of those statements can be simultaneously true, Will never said a word about Bush anywhere in his article. Wasn’t what he was talking about. Not a particular fan.
Eighteen more months of “all Bush, all the time” and these folks are going to have to find a new schtick. You?
You’ll still have sea stories.
But you sigh, and you move along. This is the blogosphere, and time is at a premium, for those who write, for those who read. Over to “The BooMan Tribune” then, where the analysis focuses on the fact that Will is an idiot, apparently. Because of wire tapping and the war on drugs and stuff.
At this point I ran a little out of gas on my Quest for the Other, truth be told. Needing a bit of a bath, I headed over to Betsy’s Page, where Betsy – conservative that she is, the dear heart – could be counted on to agree with Will, even if she didn’t add much more to the substance of the discussion than, “These are good ideas.”
We all do that of course, “here’s a good read, give it a look.”
Not everyone agreed with her of course, and somehow the discussion broke down into one of the classic “politics of class envy” memes. In fact, one of the comments was nearly a word-for-word recitation of a discussion I had with a fellow godbotherer when we were down working on that clinic in Tijuana back in March.
I was talking to him about my theory of “found wealth,” and how it was nearly always a moral disaster for the societies that stumble on to it. Countries that have been propelled to sudden prominence through the export of oil, for example, enrich themselves at very little effort. Many of them depend on the assistance of foreigners to actually pull it from the ground for them, reaping the profit of happy circumstance with no social effort or industry. Everywhere I looked that did not already have robust democratic institutions, I said, such wealth seemed more of a curse than an advantage – regimes so enabled are free to act thuggishly, or spend precious intellectual capital on the pursuit of toxic philosophies, or to buy bread and circuses for an impoverished populace without respecting their political rights.
Yeah, my interlocutor replied, just like Paris Hilton.
No, no, he continued. It’s exactly the same. She has all that money that she doesn’t work for, and look what she’s doing with it (ed. this was all before Ms. Hilton was remanded to custody, mind).
Now, I told my man that I had no particular love for Paris Hilton, nor her lifestyle either, but that we already had a system of inheritance tax in place, one that tends to afflict the merely comfortable – small business owners and family farmers, say – far more than it ever would the ultra-rich. Besides, wasn’t all of that commendable economic activity that Baron Hilton engaged in both taxable at the time it was earned, and socially useful for those it employed?
If he couldn’t have accumulated the wealth invested in trusts for his kids, I went on, mightn’t he have spent it more profligately – and less wisely – on personal consumption? Or, since no one could personally consume those kinds of sums, might he not even have forbore the risk and effort of making it at all? Would that have been better for the economy?
Too, I added, I just don’t much love the notion of the government telling you what to do with your property after you’ve earned it, or bureaucrats deciding how much of it you should get to pass on to your children when your time’s up. (And I’ll point out that this is purely disinterested policy, as my own children have very little to worry about on this particular score.)
OK, he said, but $100 million is an absurd sum. Take $90 million away, and leave her with $10 million – that should be enough for anyone.
Alright, said I – $90 million dollars for the rest of us! There are 300 million of us in the country: Having looted Ms. Hilton’s trust fund, what are you going to do with your 33 cents?
Let the record show that we rode home in separate cars.