Further thoughts on conservatism

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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70 Responses

  1. zic says:

    E.D., as a bohemian who hangs out with artists, jazz musicians, actors, etc. I gotta say — you’re talking about a fantasy, not reality.

    Any art work worth bothering with, from the best jazz improvisation to a painting to a play, requires massive amounts of planning. It requires study, preparation, and discipline. It requires thousands of hours of skill building to be able to react in-the-moment, to make something that’s difficult look easy.

    Nice fantasy, fostered, I’ll admit, by folks who’ve spent the time doing the due diligence to make things look easy and simple. But reality is countless hours working to get to that ‘bohemian’ place. I’d prefer the same effort were applied to governing.Report

    • mike farmer in reply to zic says:

      Anyone who self-identifies as a bohemian, then goes into what it takes to be a bohemian, is not a bohemian. It’s not an identification, like — all the bohemians over here, and all the accountants over here — it’s a state of mind, certainly nothing to proclaim yourself as being — that would be silly.Report

      • zic in reply to mike farmer says:

        Did it make you feel good to attack me instead of my argument that most efforts to appear in-the-moment and spontaneous actually require a great deal of effort and planning, including tea parties?

        I hope so.

        Do you have anything constructive to offer in defense of Erik’s notion that tea parties are organic and spontaneous? After all, I wouldn’t want Ari Fleischer to loose his job, there difficult to come by these days. And I quite admire the masterful job he’s done thus far, distasteful as I find his objective.Report

  2. North says:

    So you want to means test and be highly gimlet eyed about social spending, slash defense spending, institute taxes that fund government but have the smallest impact, are indifferent to government dictating social policy, respect capitalism and wish to foster it but don’t fetishize it? Congrats E.D. you’re a neoliberal! Have a sticker! We meet in the drawing room every Tuesday at 7 PM thereabouts and take turns crank calling Rush and Michael Moore.Report

  3. “A conservatism that means what it says when it touts family values by understanding the family in terms of its relation to the larger community; and which understands that the power of the self-reliant individual rests as much on those things which support and surround him as upon his own natural talents.”

    The best family-friendly policies I have seen proposed in the last few years were in Grand New Party. They were conservative, yet progressive. They put the family first and used the government not to support them but to give them a special revered status and special privelages as the true center of our American culture. I just wish someone had the courage to pursue some of those ideas.Report

    • Bo in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      New entitlements! You’ll do well in Washington.Report

      • Douthat and Salam didn’t really propose any new entitlements. They just proposed using the tax code to help families. For instance, a stay-at-home mom should be getting props from conservatives who say we value families and the role of a mother. But they should also be getting some kind of credit for performing a job. So why not give them an additional tax credit? The only entitlement they proposed was one idea to give stay-at-home moms money towards a 401K. I don’t see how that is contrary to conservative doctrine at all.Report

  4. Freddie says:

    As I think you know, they are bound to disappoint you.

    Consider this post by Ross Douthat, if you would, Erik. Here we have a man, a bright man, who is talking about a conservative revolution. They’re all doing that, using the language of revolution to describe a conservative ascendancy. And that, more than anything else, is why they’re never going to make you happy. Because you can’t sweepingly change to an incrementalist system. You can’t utilize the language of revolutionary change, or greedily grab for power, and reach the evolutionary moves you prefer.

    I think you’re the best kind of conservative, Erik, I really do, an incrementalist and dispositional conservative in the mold of Whittaker Chambers. The cynics around here will tell you that I think that because we agree on some things. But, at the heart of things, I am a believer in revolution, and you are definitely not. The opposite, really, so I don’t think my admiration for your project comes from affinities in content.

    But that’s also why you’re going to be a man without a party. Because American conservatism has utterly given up on dispositional conservatism. They don’t want to wait; they don’t want to move slowly; they don’t want to enact an incremental vision of change. What they want is to sweep into power, stomp their enemies and enact broad change. Conservative change, or so they think, but change nonetheless. And you can’t get there, that way. You just can’t. I suppose that’s self-serving to say. But if my political journey has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t divorce content from process. You can’t get to real conservatism, stable conservatism, principled conservatism, with the rhetoric of eliminationism and total victory.

    And that’s the only way that Republican leadership knows. It’s utterly overtaken Republican values: total victory or no victory. Everything at once or not at all. It’s incredible to read a guy like Ross Douthat complain about liberal overreach while begging the Republicans to overreach. Men like John Boehner and Michael Steele will only be too happy to oblige them.

    So I feel for your position, Erik, I really do. You might agree with more of their platform, but the Republicans, and the great mass of angry American conservatism, has nothing for you.Report

    • I’m REALLY curious what the details of this Republican overreach would look like? What huge agenda do we want to pursue?Report

      • This is the other thing, of course: we argue about liberal realities, and only conservative dreams.Report

        • You aren’t answering the question: What would this big Republican agenda look like? How radically different from the liberal agenda would it be?Report

          • zic in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

            See US history, 2001 to 2006 for a full disclosure.Report

            • So the big Republican plans are tax cuts and war. Anything else?Report

              • You want me to copy and paste the official Republican platform for you? Don’t be coy, Mike. It doesn’t suit you.Report

              • zic in reply to Freddie says:

                And I almost forgot, don’t teach kids about their reproductive organs and deny women the right to control their reproductive organs so that we can overpopulate faster.Report

              • Not to derail the main theme of this post but just to be clear, the US is in zero danger of becoming overpopulated and women have complete control over their reproductive organs. We just don’t agree that they have complete control over the life they carry after they use those organs irresponsibly.Report

              • North in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                I thought conservatives believed in property rights Mike. Sure if a landlord leaves his back door unlocked he’s behaving irresponsibly but if he wakes up the next morning with someone squatting in his basement store room he’s still allowed to evict them.Report

              • North in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                No, but if we’re talking first or second trimester abortions (the overwhelming majority of abortions) then all that’s happening is eviction.

                Now with third trimester abortions yes the shooting analogy works. But in the case of the vast majority of third trimester abortions you’re looking at it happening because A) the mothers life is endangered, B) the fetus is deformed and will either die painfully or be born dead or C) the mother was a victim of incest/rape scenarios. So there’re mitigating factors.Report

              • Bo in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                I don’t think there’s much chance of pregnancy from women, ahem, ‘leaving the back door unlocked.’Report

              • North – I think you know that you’re venturing into an area of extreme disagreement. I admire you speaking with such conviction but I think you also know that many of us believe the shooting analogy works during the first trimester as well.Report

              • North in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                Mike, I agree whole heartedly that it’s a subject where the sides usually end up basically talking past each other because they disagree on the fundamentals. Whether for instance the life of a microscopic human fetus trumps the rights of the Mother in whom it grows and so on and so forth.

                But in the abortion instance I’m always bemused by how the principles of conservatives invert as soon as they enter into this realm. Take campaign finance reform (a topic where I agree with conservatives on). The conversation between the conservative and the liberal goes;
                L: Those horrible corporations and rich people are corrupting our politics with their massive financial clout! We need campaign finance law to stop them but the evil courts just struck them down!
                C: Well first off corporations and people have rights to free speech so we shouldn’t be passing laws that restrict their right to participate in the give and take of politics. It’s an expansion and intrusion of government on basic rights.
                L: You are supporting corruption and the removal of power from the hands of the people into the hands of the wealthy few! We need rules like McCain-Feingold to preserve the integrity of our electoral government!
                C: Setting aside the principles (where we disagree) what you are advocating for won’t even work. Wealthy corporations and individuals just get around McCain-Feingold using clever well paid analysts to evade the outgunned government regulators. In the end all these rules do it make it so that ordinary people can’t form advocacy groups while the truly rich just evade the laws and advocate anyhow.
                L: CORPORO-FACIST!!!!

                But with abortion the narrative inverts and the principles stand on their heads.
                C: Those horrible easy women are having sex, degrading our moral character, empowering sexual deviants and killing babies. We need abortion laws to stop them but the evil courts keep striking them down!
                L: Well women have a right to control their own bodies. We don’t have any business telling them whether to have sex nor do we have any business telling them whether they must or must not carry pregnancies to term. It’s an expansion and intrusion of government on basic rights!
                C: You’re supporting murder and moral depravity. If women don’t want babies they should just not have sex before marriage like proper women in the 50’s. Where do they get off acting like men? We need anti abortion rules to preserve the integrity of the wombs of our country’s women!
                L: Setting aside the principles (on which we vehemently disagree) what you are advocating won’t even work. If you outlaw legal abortion them rich women will merely travel to countries where it’s permitted (like the rest of the western world) and poor women will resort to poisons or back alley abortions which still end the pregnancies but often kill the mothers as well. The babies still die but the mothers die as well.
                C: BABY-MURDERER!!!!Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                Interesting… I’ve always seen analogies to slavery and animal-rights.

                The pro-choice people sound like people defending the institution of slavery. Property and privacy and the limits of government intervention into either.

                The anti-womens’ right to control their own sexual destinies and keep them barefoot and pregnant just like in the dark ages people, however, sound like the Animal/Earth Liberation Front guys on animal testing when it comes to abortion.Report

              • You’re grossly over-simplifying. If a conservative believes 1st trimester abortion is murder then that trumps everything else. Free speech, while protected, has gradations. Some speech is protected, some isn’t.

                I would also point out that the abortion rate for ‘rich women’ is quite low. But so is the instances of unwed and unwanted pregnancies (Hollywood aside). You mention the rest of the western world – most countries have far less liberal abortion laws than we do and that includes england and france. In those countries ‘social reasons’ are not enough to get an abortion. So I’m not sure they could help your hypothetical rich mothers.Report

              • North in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                Of course I am simplifying it Mike, I am talking about the principles involved as compared to say campaign finance reform not the overall debate which has been done to death. Nor in your counterpoint do you address the very basic truism that outlawing abortion will not even come close to eliminating it, merely make it more lethal.

                As for the USA vs. the rest of the world I agree whole heartedly. But since hell will freeze over before the pro-choice trusts the pro-life side enough to make such concessions; and since hell will freeze over twice over before the pro-life side ever agrees to be content with just the restrictions that exist in the rest of the world the impasse goes on. Frankly I think technology will break the logjam sooner than the debate will play itself out. Sooner or later either an extremely effective contraception will be developed or a safe simple abortificant will be created and the argument will subdue.Report

              • Laws against any number of crimes don’t make them less-likely to happen. We still believe that laws are necessary.Report

              • North in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                Yes but since abortion is a clear cut crime only if you subscribe to a set of beliefs that place hypothetical/potential persons on the same footing as actual persons the issue remains divided and most societies, happily, have come down more or less on the side of the freedom of actual people and against the ability of hypothetical/potential people. This is not to soft peddle the unfortunate nature of abortion and I do not deny the intrinsic humanity of that spark that is being extinguished by the procedure. Nevertheless I believe firmly in the right of a woman to choose both whether to have sex and also to choose if that choice should result in nine months of biological servitude to a nascent life.
                On that we’ll probably just have to agree to disagree.Report

              • I’m not trying to be. But I think a lot of liberals don’t really know what Republicans would do if they were back in power. So they fantasize about great and terrible things. So I’d just like to hear about some of these things. To hear you tell it there is this enormous overreach in the works if the GOP gets back into power. What would it would look like? We know they like low taxes. We know they like defense spending. What else? I remember hearing during the Bush years that we planned a theocracy and a police state. For some reason that never materialized. So what can we expect now.

                I think the lack of details you guys are willing to provide is sort of telling.Report

              • zic in reply to Freddie says:

                Sorry, Freddie, this was meant as a reply to Mike at the Big Stick.Report

              • zic in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                Amend the constitution to define marriage.

                And sell insurance across state lines. (I always wonder about this, for rules that allowed banking across state lines is one of those things that led to the build up of to-big-to-fail bans.)

                Drill in ANWR and anyplace else there might be a smidgen of oil.

                And my fav, though it mostly goes unnoticed, make gov.-funded research unavailable to citizens but give it to corporations so that citizens have to pay for it to use it.Report

              • Well since marriage is a legal constryct, shouldn’t we define marriage? And to be clear, gay marriage proponents want marriage defined in the constitution as well. They just want to be ncluded in the definition.

                Why is ANWR off-limits? What is so special about it that isn’t special about the Gulf of Mexico or the oilfields of Texas?Report

              • Again, there is an official Republican party platform.


              • Okay – so these items…

                The family is the most powerful influence on a child’s ability to succeed. As such, parents are our children’s first and foremost teachers. We support family literacy, which improves the literacy, language, and life skills of both parents and children along with the continued improvement of early childhood programs, such as Head Start, from low-income families. We reaffirm our support for the child care tax credit that helps parents choose the care best for their family.

                American innovation has twin engines: technology and small business, employing over half the private-sector work force. The synergy of our technology and small business drove a world-wide economic transformation of the last quarter-century. To maintain our global leadership, we need to encourage innovators by reforming and making permanent the Research and Development Tax Credit as part of the overall agenda outlined in this platform.

                The gravest threat we face – nuclear terrorism – demands a comprehensive strategy for reducing the world’s nuclear stockpiles and preventing proliferation. The U.S. should lead that effort by reducing the size of our nuclear arsenal to the lowest number consistent with our security requirements and working with other nuclear powers to do the same. In cooperation with other nations, we should end the production of weapons-grade fissile material, improve our collective ability to interdict the spread of weapons of mass destruction and related materials, and ensure the highest possible security standards for existing nuclear materials wherever they may be located.

                … are part of the Horrible, Terrible, GOP Agenda you guys are so scared of?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

      If the next year goes the way the last year went, I look forward to your essay denying that the democrats hold you in as much contempt as the GOP holds for E.D.

      Here’s some phrases you may wish to start polishing:

      It’s the Republicans’ fault.
      It’s the GOP’s fault.
      It’s the conservatives’ fault.
      It’s the moderates’ fault.
      It’s the blue dogs’ fault.
      And, of course
      It’s the libertarians’ fault.Report

    • Koz in reply to Freddie says:

      “You can’t utilize the language of revolutionary change, or greedily grab for power, and reach the evolutionary moves you prefer.”

      Well, Erik might not be happy about, but if the tea-leaf readers are right, the GOP just won a huge victory on health care to preserve the status quo.Report

  5. sam says:

    “We should be moving toward competitive federalism, not toward further centralization in Washington D.C. ”

    I once read someone who said that the difference between liberals and conservatives is that the former thinks the government has every right to tell you how to run your business and no right to tell you how to run your life. The latter thinks the government has every right to tell you how to run your life and no right to tell you how to run your business.

    With those mindsets, not sure how we can achieve competitive federalism.Report

  6. Rufus says:

    I’d be okay with a VAT. I’d love to see a flat tax on income. Absent that ever happening, I’d just be happy with political leaders who respond to public clamoring for grandiose projects to “create jobs” or save them from Mexicans by telling them exactly what these projects will cost and that, first, they will have to pay that cost in new taxes, and here’s the exact price each of them will have to pay in those taxes. Instead, the norm is to give the public whatever they want and tell them not to worry their pretty little heads about the bill. Thus, many people I find are both opposed to any taxes, and can be easily persuaded on any spending. There’s a difference between starving the beast and gorging the beast, but just stiffing the next generation on the food bill.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Rufus says:

      I’m a “tax only corporations” guy, myself. Individual citizens have rights… but fictions created by consensus do not. Tax corporations in exchange for limited liability. I think that a VAT would be good too…

      But this income stuff… man, that totally violates privacy.Report

      • Rufus in reply to Jaybird says:

        I’m actually surprised that nobody has put forth a “tax the Chinese” bill.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Rufus says:

          A tariff?Report

          • Rufus in reply to Jaybird says:

            Oh yeah- Obama already did that with the tires! Beautiful idea in the middle of a recession. No, I was thinking more just old fashioned grandstanding- appealing to nationalism and hatred of taxes. Someone should run on the slogan: “You can have whatever you want- we’ll go tax the Chinese and the Mexicans!” Then, when it proves impossible to do, they can claim the other side lacks the will or hates America. The beauty part is it works for politicians from either party.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Rufus says:

              I think I have fallen in love with this idea. Could you tie in “The Children”?Report

            • North in reply to Rufus says:

              He slapped a tax on tires? That blows, why wasn’t a bigger deal made about this? Or is this that one where the WTO said that China was dumping and thus authorized it? I’m foggy on the specifics. I hadn’t realized that Obama was Obamaing all over trade.Report

              • Kyle in reply to North says:

                Yeah, it was roundly condemned by the Chinese government last September and uh…here ya go: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/14/business/global/14trade.htmlReport

              • Rufus in reply to North says:

                North: Yeah, the Economist did a cover story on it, but there was not a lot of coverage otherwise. It’s just not exciting stuff. In September, the US put a 35% tariff on tires imported from China, mainly as a sop to US tire manufacturers. (and, of course, anyone else in the world who makes tires) China talked about filing a complaint with the WTO, although I don’t know if they have. They did retaliate with a tariff on chicken parts imported from the US, which was pretty amusing; no word on who would tax tires made from chicken meat.

                Living in a Southern Ontario steel town that sends most of what we make to the US, we’ve a lot of gripes about the “buy American” provisions in the stimulus bill, and saw this as an extension of that. These sorts of measures are great politics, but not really a smart idea when you’re in a global economy struggling to get out of a recession.

                JB: While we’re at it, we could promise each family their own Brinks security system and a free bike for every child. To escape from a vaguely-defined existential threat.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Rufus says:

                Escape? Hell, pass a “stand your ground” law and mandate open carry.Report

              • North in reply to North says:

                What a pity. Well there goes that rhetorical point then. Stupid Obama. *grumbles*Report

      • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

        I actually like this notion, Jaybird. Have to give it some thought.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to zic says:

          Belief in a “Right to privacy” can take you down some weird rabbit-holes.Report

          • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

            I wrote prototype systems to detect welfare fraud by welfare recipients in the early 1980’s. I’ve been worried about privacy ever since.

            The overwhelming amount of information surprises me, offers some cover, like being lost in a crowd. But we’re all the emperor in his new suit for a hacker with data to mine.Report

    • Kyle in reply to Rufus says:

      I actually think the most appealing part about the flat tax is that instead of treating income tax like a revenue raiser (which it is) we would treat it as a shared national obligation.

      There are so many ways to game the system that it seems like a game. How much of my money can I keep from being taken from me. However, the point that some out there liberals make is that it isn’t properly your money, it’s your money in the context of our shared commitment to an environment that helps you make it. That idea, I think is better served by a mandatory baseline contribution than by soaking the rich sentiments.

      Not that I agree that most of the money one makes the community has some right to but I do think it’s fair to say that money isn’t made in a vacuum.

      Conservatives point to the story of the Little Red Hen and I think we’d view the story differently if the “lazy” animals had been protecting the farm and field rather than just lying about.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Kyle says:

        I actually think the most appealing part about the flat tax is that instead of treating income tax like a revenue raiser (which it is) we would treat it as a shared national obligation.

        Yes. Absolutely. “We’re all in this together” will mean something every time taxes go up or down (ideally they will all go up or down together and proportionally).Report

  7. North says:

    Oh and ED, if you get a chance you or one of the other League gents should tell us what you thought of the SOTU. If for no other reason than to give us another thread to squabble in.Report

  8. Kyle says:

    I’m going to sidestep the doldrums of “ooh look the GOP is morally bankrupt” and “ooh look a supermajority of Democrats can’t even change a lightbulb.” Tabling for the moment politics as is, I do think that taxes issue is really interesting.

    On one hand, VAT’s are notoriously efficient revenue raisers so that bodes well for the bottom line. On the other hand conceptually I hate the idea of adding in a tax at every point value is added to an item. As a worker, I see my time and resources, improving something, creating something and right there is Uncle Sam asking for a cut. At the philosophical justification level, yes, the main reason I can work well in the first place is because the government uses national security and the rule of law to create an environment where I can work. Still, even though the justification is there, I think emotionally it’s a tough pill to swallow. While some might say suck it up, the fact that the emotion is discouragement and then resentment is itself significant.

    Personally, I think this nation could use a fiscal wake up call. I wish for one year – an off year with no elections, we should institute a flat rate across all income brackets of a percentage that would close either completely or mostly our annual deficit. No tax breaks, no write offs. The nation’s tab paid in full. I think if middle class families and the poor were slapped with 35% 40% income tax rates for one year, we’d be – as a country – far more thoughtful about levels of government spending. We talk about the disconnect between spending and revenue but that’s not the GOP’s fault or the Democrats fault, it’s our collective fault for using borrowed money to subsidize government services that people have no idea how much they cost (kind of like health care when you think about it).Report

  9. steve says:

    If you want a flat tax, then you should tax total compensation, including health insurance. In order to really make it work, it should also include state taxes somehow as they are a bit regressive. I would prefer a consumption rather than an income tax.

    Contra comments above, I would get rid of the corporate tax entirely. We do not really get that big a percentage of our revenue from corporations and, it is at the interface of government and business that we have an awful lot of our problems. Ridding ourselves of that tax should reduce crony capitalism and some rent seeking.Report

  10. Art Deco says:

    Contra comments above, I would get rid of the corporate tax entirely.

    I think if the owners of a commercial enterprise would like to avail themselves of the limited-liability that comes from defining the enterprise as a person, the bloody ‘person’ can pay taxes at the same mean rate as every other person (i.e. at about 35% of net profits). If they do not wish to pay the bloody tax, re-organize as a partnership and load up on insurance.Report

  11. zic says:

    Are Republicans conservative?

    The Senate took a vote on extending the federal debt ceiling — without which the United States would go into default. All 40 Republicans voted no.

    The Senate took a vote on requiring Congress not to pass legislation that it can’t pay for. All 40 Republicans voted no.

    The Senate took a final vote on passing the overall plan. Thirty-nine Republicans voted no.Report