The polarized politics of our time, joined with an appetite for pigeonholing, exert pressure on everyone to categorize themselves. Sometimes people declare themselves for “isms” that they have not plumbed. An example in point is conservatism. The politicians who now travel under the banner of “conservatism” happen to espouse views and methods that, so we shall see, are incompatible with the philosophy bearing that name. Meanwhile members of the opposing political party have imbibed a dose of the wisdom conveyed by conservatism. This includes a cautious disposition to welcome expert reasoning about economic policy, reasoning of the sort desperately needed for recovery. As the details of this become clear in the following, so do voters’ alternatives in the forthcoming election.
Conservatism, as eloquently introduced by Edmund Burke (1729–1797), advocates esteem for government and established institutions. It holds that within them lies an accumulated wisdom that citizens and their leaders should respect and consult. Revering the established order, its constitution, and its history, conservatism cultivates a cautious disposition. Legislators should proceed by careful deliberation guided by the counsel of prudence. Policy should change incrementally. When government errs, all citizens should, in Burke’s words, “approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”
The Pseudoconservative Radical Attack
Today’s Republican Party consists of pseudoconservatives, wearers of the “conservative” mantle who repudiate conservatism. Rather than esteeming government, they disdain it. They seem to delight in ridiculing government’s failings. To their candidates, one might put the question, if you despise government, why do you want government jobs? But let us leave aside their personal ambitions, and consider their views and methods.
Since the Reagan administration, Republicans have vented their dislike for government by, in their words, “starving the beast.” In this explicitly avowed scheme, they contrive first to reduce taxes (mostly for corporations and the rich) so as to deprive the federal government of revenue, then invoke the diminished revenue as the pretense for insisting that expenditures must be slashed (especially for social programs) on pain of increasing the deficit. They insist on the expenditure reductions regardless of the contractionary effect on national income, the direct increase in unemployment (as if millions of government employees weren’t employees) and the indirect increase in the private sector, and regardless of the hardships for program beneficiaries.
To force execution of this scheme, last year the pseudoconservatives wielded the hammer of refusing to increase the debt ceiling and threatening to shut down the government again. That brinkmanship damaged the credit of the U.S. Because of the terms on which the starvationists reluctantly later agreed at the witching hour to raise the debt ceiling, there now looms “the fiscal cliff.” Even though their spate of deregulation contributed to a near financial meltdown, they urge deregulation once again.
The pseudoconservatives presently propose to reduce taxes further, this in the guise of a fiscal stimulus. They would include high-income taxpayers in this relief, suggesting that doing so will boost consumer spending. That suggestion is belied by the rich’s low marginal propensity to consume. That low propensity would allow a tax increase for those taxpayers to reduce the deficit without dampening spending. But the starvationists refuse, since that would feed “the beast.” The starvationists have also trained their sights on decimating the welfare state and on transforming Social Security and Medicare by privatizing them.
The foregoing are not incremental changes. Nor the fruits of respect for government and its embodied wisdom. They are radical.
In respect of government, Burke admonished that one “should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion.” Yet during the Great Recession, the pseudoconservatives have practiced “Republican economic sabotage,” this as part of the systematic obstruction of virtually all substantive action in Congress. Evidently they imagine that contriving ruin will induce voters to put them in charge. That they stoop to deliberately harming the country in quest of power gives the lie to any pretense of prudence or good judgment. Respect for government would lead a genuine conservative, with Burke, “to look with horror on those children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces . . . in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution.”
The pseudoconservatives evidently believe that the Constitution needs them to fix it. At any given time the Republicans advocate a plethora of amendments—reportedly more than 40 in the current Congress alone. They would amend to prohibit abortion, repeal the Sixteenth Amendment (or if that fails, require a two-thirds majority to increase taxes), repeal the Seventeenth Amendment, impose term limits, prohibit same-sex marriage, and on and on. Their short-sighted “balanced budget” amendment, so Kenneth Arrow and other Nobel laureates in economics have objected, “would mandate perverse actions in the face of recessions.” Were that straitjacket to have been imposed during the Great Depression, the U.S. would not have had the means by which it recovered.
A genuine conservative also studies and reveres the law. Burke was renowned for legal erudition. But often when today’s pseudoconservatives hear of a judicial decision whose conclusion does not jibe with their preconceptions, they leap within moments of the news to condemn the decision. They do not first (or perhaps ever) read it, hence do not know its reasoning. This manifests disrespect for the legal and judicial system.
The more the pseudoconservatives learn about our system of government, the less they seem to like it. When they urge that judges “interpret the law rather than make it,” they reveal misunderstanding of a common law system, wherein more law is made in judicial opinions than in statutes. So much is apparent from a mere glance at the stacks of a law library. The only appellate judges who do not make law are on vacation.
The last Republican administration defied the rule of law—by presidential declarations that the president is not bound by statute, by appointments to the judiciary of subscribers to that preposterous claim, by wiretapping citizens without warrants, and by torturing prisoners. While the terrorists thought that on September 11, 2001 they had destroyed buildings, the impetuous reaction shook our legal institutions. Bruce Fein, associate deputy attorney general under Reagan, testified before Congress that the last Republican administration “vandalized the constitution every bit as much as the barbarians sacked Rome in 410 A.D.” The Iraq war was commenced on the basis of misrepresentations and in the absence of any actual or imminent attack by Iraq on any state, thus ostensibly violating international law as established in the Charter of the United Nations. The U.N., a bedrock of the international order that took two world wars to establish, has been scoffed at by pseudoconservatives, who have even blocked payment of U.S. dues. Antigovernment vitriol taken to extremes has even resulted in domestic violence (e.g., the bombing in Oklahoma City). It is at least a mercy that the radical claim that the president is not bound by the law is now dead for lack of a proponent—unless, that is, a pseudoconservative were elected president.
A Platform on Stilts
Pseudoconservatives cling to the label “conservatism” in the belief that they have invented a new version. In modern history, usage of “conservative” and “liberal” have sometimes nearly reversed from one era to another. But in light of that very history, “conservative” rings hollow for a view stridently opposed to government and fostering radical change by schemes as reckless as crippling and shutting down the government.
Regardless, labels disguise detail. What matters is whether a labeled platform is supported by convincing reasoning. The pseudoconservative platform, by dint of self-contradiction, collapses for lack of a foundation. We see this by first scanning some of the contradictions.
Government is an ill (Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, EPA, SEC, et al.); government is not an ill (Defense, CIA, Homeland Security, FBI, Commerce, et al.). Government should not enlarge (the safety net for the poor); government should enlarge (a near doubling of defense expenditures). Government should not intrude (financial industry, gun ownership, oil exploration, corporate spending on elections, regulation in general); government should intrude (abortion, collective bargaining by public employees, same-sex marriage, surveillance and wiretapping of citizens without warrants). Government does not create jobs; there are too many government employees. Sacrificing human life is impermissible (abortion, embryonic stem cell research); sacrificing human life is permissible (capital punishment). Government should not subsidize persons who can fend for themselves (the poor); government should subsidize persons who can fend for themselves (oil companies). The federal government should not determine a matter traditionally left to the states (in general); the federal government should determine a matter traditionally left to the states (prohibition of abortion, definition of marriage). Government should not use tax incentives to induce behavior (purchase of medical insurance); government should use tax incentives to induce behavior (oil depletion allowance).
How did this cornucopia of contradiction originate? For pseudoconservatives, specific policies (e.g., deregulation of the financial industry) evidently came first. Then the pseudoconservatives devised more general claims (e.g., “government should not intrude”) to serve as reasons for policies, these for use in political discussion. Thereafter they have been content to leave the general claims in contradiction.
What is so bad, a pseudoconservative may ask, about self-contradiction? After all, contradiction can be amusing. Yogi Berra once said of a restaurant, “No one goes there any more; it’s too crowded.”
But the absurdity of believing contradictory propositions is demonstrated by the theorem of logic that, if given two contradictory premises, one could (by a disjunctive syllogism) prove anything—“the moon is made of green cheese,” you name it. Because contradictory premises cannot both be true, and each refutes the other, any speaker who asserts contradictory premises succeeds only in demonstrating that the speaker is not credible.
Pseudoconservatism, being composed of contradictions, cannot possess a true foundation, since a truth cannot logically imply a contradiction. Hence pseudoconservatism collapses into a prejudice, i.e., a stance adopted without a cogent foundation, then held despite even self-contradiction. Rational listeners have no reason to vote for an unfounded position, and every reason to reject a self-contradictory one.
A Voter’s Perspective in the Great Recession
Various self-described “mavericks” will protest that they do not subscribe to each of the planks of the pseudoconservative platform. In former times, such a stance might interest a voter declaring, “I vote for the person, not the party.” But today we observe that at least on major issues, members of Congress consistently hew to a party line. Any congressional candidate that we elect is an almost guaranteed vote for a party’s legislative agenda. Formalizing their commitment to “starving the beast,” almost every Republican member of Congress has signed a pledge that they will never vote for any tax increase.
Having discovered that the Republicans repudiate conservatism and are mired in self-contradiction, we may next ask, has anyone else taken on board the wisdom bequeathed by conservatism?
As the pseudoconservatives are wont to complain, it happens that the Democrats esteem government. They propose incremental changes with an eye toward effects on program beneficiaries, take counsel from the history of economic policy during the Depression and New Deal, and oppose starvation schemes and imprudent deregulation. They seem content with the Constitution save for rare consensus amendments, and pay respect to our common law system, the United Nations, and the established order.
The Democrats also have a long history of heeding advice from leading lights of the economics profession, in part because both assign high priority to full employment of resources and economic growth. Economists generally recommend gradual fiscal policy changes, this to avoid untoward effects when perturbing a complex national economy not fully understood. To this cautious disposition, conservatism lends its support. To avoid contracting the economy before it has recovered, and to avoid hardships for the needy, the current Democratic administration would effect deficit reduction by decreasing expenditures over time, supporting programs that enhance productivity, and increasing marginal rates for high-income taxpayers. (As noted, their consumer purchasing is relatively insensitive to tax rates.) In opposition to any such economic reasoning, the engine of pseudoconservatism is fueled by high-octane anti-intellectualism, a mien dismissing universities as “gulags with libraries.”
In Part II hereof, appearing here tomorrow, we shall see how prudent and fair economic policies flow from a fusion of mainstream economic advice, wisdom gleaned from traditional conservatism, and some analytical reasoning taken from philosophical liberalism. We may understand this fusion as a conservative–liberal alternative. It will be clear which party lends it support.
Louis M. Guenin is Lecturer on Ethics in Science, Harvard Medical School. His research concerns moral philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science. His writings include The Morality of Embryo Use (Cambridge University Press), honored as Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2009, and “Intellectual Honesty,” an account of the duty of truthfulness in scholarship and public discourse.