Tag: National Review

The Closing of the Conservative Mind

If you’re unclear what’s wrong with conservatism these days, I urge you to check out the tragicomic dustup accidentally provoked last week by my colleague Jerry Taylor at National Review Online’s “The Corner” blog.

I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow recount of the fracas, but happily a convenient compendium of the relevant links is provided here. Go read the whole thing; you’ll be entertained, that’s for sure. For present purposes, suffice it to say that Jerry made two basic points: (1) talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are not popular outside the conservative movement; and (2) the two have a habit of making “dodgy” arguments even when their positions are sound. He might have added that the sky is blue and A comes before Z. For his effrontery Jerry was verbally beaten to a pulp by his fellow Cornerites.

The whole thing seems like an updated version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, except this time the crowd turns on the truth-telling kid and gives him the Rodney King treatment. And that response to Jerry’s innocent and obvious points captures the essence of what has gone wrong with the conservative movement. That the flagship publication of the movement will brook no criticism of demagogic blowhards like Limbaugh and Hannity says it all:  A movement founded on the premise that “ideas have consequences” has suffered a calamitous decline in intellectual standards.

Richard Posner agrees. In a recent blog post, he offered this withering assessment of the state of the conservative mind:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of managment and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

I don’t endorse every detail of Posner’s bill of indictment, but the broad thrust is correct. Movement conservatism has regressed to something like the days before National Review was founded – back when Lionel Trilling could say that conservatism consisted of nothing but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” And as Jerry’s trip to the woodshed demonstrates, those gestures can be very irritable indeed! Conservatism today has degenerated into a species of especially unattractive populism, pandering to the pro-torture-and-wiretapping, anti-gay-and-Mexican prejudices of a dwindling, increasingly sectarian, increasingly regional “base.”

Some who sympathize with libertarian and free-market causes are cheered by the anti-government rhetoric and Tea Party theatrics now increasingly in evidence on the right. Perhaps, they think, the old Goldwater-Reagan conservatism is making a comeback. Sorry, but I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, I worry that good free-market ideas are going to get tainted by association with an increasingly brutish identity politics for angry white guys and the women who love them.

In order to make gains for the cause of limited government, we need to convince smart people that we are right. We need to win the battle of ideas in the intellectual realm by making better arguments than our opponents, and we need to educate the public so that it is less susceptible over time to “rational irrationality.” None of this can be accomplished by consorting with and apologizing for merchants of intellectual junk food, or by making common cause with some of the ugliest cultural attitudes in contemporary America. Greater economic freedom will not come with pitchforks and torches; it will come, as it has in the past, by reshaping the elite consensus.

New at Cato

  • Will Wilkinson warns of problems with Obama’s budget on Marketplace.
  • Richard Rahn explains why the current tax system needs to be overhauled and replaced in The Washington Times.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Swaminathan Aiyar discusses the future of the dollar.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a round-up of bloggers who are writing about Cato research and commentary:

  • QandO’s Michael Wade offered his own thoughts on the New York Times blogger who said Cato’s voice against bailouts has not met her “expectations of adequate noise.”
  • The Atlantic’s Clive Crook reviewed the new Cato book, The Beautiful Tree, which explains how private education efforts are empowering children in Third World nations.
  • Blogging on Tax Day, Jacob Grier cited Charlotte Twight’s essay in Cato Journal on the history of income tax withholding in the United States.
Topics:

Demand for Subsidies

My op-ed on National Review Online today provided new information about the increasing number of federal subsidy programs. The federal welfare state is expanding rapidly.

One friendly reader emailed me:

Ever cross your mind that there’s a reason government programs increase over time? I’ll clue you in: Programs increase because of public demand.

It’s not rocket science, people want more services. Period. Somebody’s got to pay for them. Hences taxes. Or perhaps borrowing. Or a combination of both. In any event, there’s no evidence people are willing to get along with fewer services.

The situation seems simple to me; so why can’t you ideologues on the far right understand what’s going on. Instead, you simply go on bemoaning the existence of programs and taxes you don’t like.

There are numerous problems with this reader’s views, including constitutional problems. But one thing that strikes me is the underlying assumption of the “public interest theory of government,” or the idea that democracies and bureaucracies operate to efficiently provide “services.”

In reality, there are structural problems in government that bias policymakers toward fiscal irresponsibility, as our current $1.8 trillion federal deficit indicates. The issue is not ideology, it is scientific: Does the government actually work as the optimists, like this reader, believe? I think the empirical evidence is in on that question.

There Ain’t No Such Thing as Market-Based Universal Coverage

Over at The Corner, Harvard Business School professor and Manhattan Institute scholar Regina Herzlinger urges conservatives to support universal coverage – but in a market-oriented way. That is an absurdity. Once the government adopts a policy of universal health insurance coverage, a free market is impossible and the casualties begin to mount.

As a model, Herzlinger points to Switzerland, “which enables universal coverage without any governmental insurance through this system.” Switzerland requires all residents to purchase “private” health insurance; dictates the content of that insurance; and dictates the price. As I explain in a recent Cato paper, once the government controls those decisions, you’ve got socialized medicine.

My colleague Mike Tanner observes that the Swiss government’s power to control the content of “private” health insurance allows special interests to lard up people’s health insurance with their services – whether Swiss consumers want them or not:

The expansion of benefits has driven up the cost of insurance…As Uwe Reinhardt has noted, “Over time, the growth in compulsory benefits has absorbed an increasing fraction of the consumers’ payment, thus compromising the consumer-driven aspects of the Swiss system.”

Tanner also reports that the government’s power to dictate health insurance premiums is harming the sickest Swiss:

Evidence shows that the community rating requirements are…leading to the over-provision of care to the healthy and the under-provision of care to the sick. In addition, the prohibition on risk management discourages the development of new and innovative products.

In this Cato paper, University of Chicago business school professor John Cochrane explains how such price controls harm sick patients and suppress innovative new products.

Herzlinger is an extremely passionate and knowledgeable advocate of market-based health care. But when it comes to universal coverage, readers of National Review are better counseled by the magazine’s editors, who write:

to achieve universal coverage would require either having the government provide it to everyone or forcing everyone to buy it. The first option, national health insurance in some form or other, would either bust the budget or cripple medical innovation, and possibly have both effects. Mandatory health insurance, meanwhile, would entail a governmental definition of a minimum package of benefits that insurance has to cover…

Republicans should go in a different direction, proposing market reforms that make insurance more affordable and portable. If such reforms are implemented, more people will have insurance.

Some people, especially young and healthy people, may choose not to buy health insurance even when it is cheaper. Contrary to popular belief, such people do not cause everyone else to pay much higher premiums. Forcing them to get insurance would, on the other hand, lead to a worse health-care system for everyone because it would necessitate so much more government intervention. So what should the government do about the holdouts? Leave them alone. It’s a free country.

Herzlinger is correct that “it is 2009, not 1992.” If we want America to remain a free country in 2009 and beyond, we must reject universal coverage.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

  • While running an online poll on Sanjay Gupta’s appointment, Ann Althouse quotes Michael D. Tanner on his views about the office of surgeon general.
  • Jason Shafrin cites a December Cato forum in which panelists Glen Whitman and Ezra Klein debated the state of the nation’s health care. A podcast from the forum, “Does America’s Health Care Sector Produce More Health?” is available here.

  • Insider Online contributor Alex Adrianson blogs about the most recent edition of Cato Journal, with an article by J.R. Clark and Dwight R. Lee that examines the relationship between government interference in the market and censorship.