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Irving Kristol and the Future of Conservatism How About Those "Chick-Cons?"

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The Perils of a "Policy" President

by Christopher Chantrill
September 30, 2009 at 5:31 pm

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THE LAST three Democratic presidents are similar. They are policy presidents: they all believe in the rational, systemic approach to governance. That’s what David S. Broder, dean of the Washington press corps, has noticed. And he realizes that it’s a problem.

Of course, liberal Broder did not come up with this on his own. He got it from the inaugural issue of a new conservative magazine, National Affairs, and an article “Obama and the Policy Approach” written by a conservative thinker, William Schambra, from a conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute.

Schambra sees... that "Obama is emphatically a ’policy approach’ president. For him, governing means not just addressing discrete challenges as they arise, but formulating comprehensive policies aimed at giving large social systems — and indeed society itself — more rational and coherent forms and functions. In this view, the long-term, systemic problems of health care, education, and the environment cannot be solved in small pieces. They must be taken on in whole."

In Schambra’s view the policy approach goes back to the Progressive movement that, a century ago, tried to tame the tribal conflicts of democratic politics by applying “the new wisdom of the social sciences to the art of government,” and rising above the narrow and the parochial.

Unfortunately the Progressive approach does not work. That’s what Schambra argues, and what Broder dimly underatands when he writes:

Obama, budget director Peter Orszag and health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle grasp the intricacies of the health-care system as well as any three humans, and they could write a law to make it far more efficient.

But as soon as their rational plan hits the Congress it gets torn apart by special interests and factional rivalries. Reality is not quite as rational as Obama and his czars want to think.

It’s good that David Broder has finally come to the party. Conservatives have been trying for at least half a century to teach liberals that the one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work. It was 1944 when F.A. Hayek argued this in The Road to Serfdom.

In the dim light of dawn, Broder prudently shelters his readers from the full force of Scharma’s argument. Obama is bound to fail, according to Scharma, just like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Our constitutional system is constructed on [an] understanding of the limits of reason and of the goals of politics. Every effort to impose the policy approach upon it has so far ended in failure and disappointment, and done much lasting harm.

Let us rehearse the conservative critique of the “policy approach” to government:

  1. Different people bring different moral systems “rooted in many centuries of experience and wisdom” to society’s problems. If you treat society as a problem to be solved, you are privileging one moral system over the others.
  2. Government is force. If you have a single, system-wide government program for education, for health care, and for the relief of the poor, you are doing it with force. Is force really necessary?
  3. Hayek’s Law. Thirty-five policy experts “czars” and their staffs cannot beat the knowledge of 300 million Americans on how to make the country work.
  4. Graves’ Law. “Damn it all, a person has a right to be who he is.”
  5. Even if you could come up with the perfect health-care system for today, and get it through Congress, what about tomorrow? How does your brilliant idea get to adapt to changing circumstances?
  6. What about the Law of Unintended Consequences?

If that is all too complicated, here is the issue between conservatives and liberals in a nutshell.

From Daniel Henninger quoting Victor Fuchs: “Every time the state assumes an additional function such as health insurance, child care or benefits for the aged, the need for close family ties becomes weaker.” You get charts like this:

The chart shows that Fuchs’ statement is not strictly true. It needs a qualifier. With each government program “the need for close family ties becomes weaker,” starting with the poor. The problem with rational, systemic liberal government is that it hurts the poor first and hardest. When 40 percent of children born to high-school dropouts do not live with both parents, there is only one thing to say. This is wrong.

For conservatives, Barack Obama’s career in “the non-profits, advocacy coalitions, and foundations” of Chicago, his faith in policy professionals and social science all symbolize the failed liberal experiments of the last century. To liberals like Cass Sunstein, Obama may be an “’anti-Bush’ from whom we will see ‘a rigorously evidence-based government.’” To conservatives, Obama represents fantasy-based government.

What liberals fail to see is that their cozy world of non-profits, advocacy coalitions, and foundations is utterly self-serving and corrupt. It is a world in which rigorous evidence and big money are passed from insider to insider in a derivatives trading scheme.

Some day, a conservative activist is going to figure out how to explain this to the American people. Maybe his name is Andrew Breitbart, and he already did.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican


Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State


Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self


US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008


Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006


Never Trust Experts

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Lord Salisbury, “Letter to Lord Lytton”


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


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