Krugman Misunderstands Conservatism

Paul Krugman declares that, contrary to those who think the Republican party has lost its way in the Bush years, President Bush is “the very model of a modern movement conservative.”

Maybe he’s talking about me, since I’ve criticized Bush’s policies as ”a far cry from the less-government, ‘leave us alone’ conservatism of Ronald Reagan.” I also wrote a whole book distinguishing libertarianism from both liberalism and conservatism, so I’m no spokesman for movement conservatism. But I can see the weaknesses in Krugman’s case. Krugman has a new book out titled The Conscience of a Liberal, but he doesn’t seem to have read – or at least understood – The Conscience of a Conservative.

Krugman writes:

People claim to be shocked by Mr. Bush’s general fiscal irresponsibility. But conservative intellectuals, by their own account, abandoned fiscal responsibility 30 years ago. Here’s how Irving Kristol, then the editor of The Public Interest, explained his embrace of supply-side economics in the 1970s: He had a “rather cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or fiscal problems” because “the task, as I saw it, was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority — so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.”

But Irving Kristol is hardly a conservative standard-bearer. As Ed Crane has been pointing out for years, the neoconservatives brought big-government ideas into the limited-government movement of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr., and the supply-siders ducked the issue of government spending to focus strictly on tax cuts. Bush may be the ultimate supply-side neocon, but that doesn’t make him a model conservative.

Krugman also writes:

People claim to be shocked by the Bush administration’s general incompetence. But disinterest in good government has long been a principle of modern conservatism. In “The Conscience of a Conservative,” published in 1960, Barry Goldwater wrote that “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”

But Bush didn’t reduce government’s size. He increased it by one trillion dollars in six years. Seems like Bush and Krugman both sort of missed Goldwater’s point.

Krugman writes:

People claim to be shocked at the Bush administration’s attempts — which, for a time, were all too successful — to intimidate the press. But this administration’s media tactics, and to a large extent the people implementing those tactics, come straight out of the Nixon administration.

But Nixon was no movement conservative, much less an advocate of limited government. In 1971 the main leaders of the conservative movement, led by Buckley, announced that they were “suspend[ing] support” for the Nixon administration, and many of them supported the insurgent candidacy of Rep. John Ashbrook in the Republican primaries the next year.

Conservatives have been responsible for many sins and errors of judgment over the years. (Whether any of them were as appalling as the left’s support for Stalin is a question for another day.) But Bush’s centralizing, federalizing, big-spending, imprudent policies hardly reflect the movement conservatism of Goldwater, Buckley, and Reagan.

Which does raise one question, the question I asked in my first blog post 18 months ago: Why do conservatives like Bush? If Krugman had asked that question – why do conservatives rally so firmly behind a president who has jettisoned virtually all of their principles? – he might have had an interesting column. This one, alas, is just one more raising that other interesting question, What happened to the insightful young scholar who used to be Paul Krugman?