The Problem With Conservatism Is Conservatism

George Packer's New Yorker piece, "The Fall of Conservatism," and the reactions to it among leading thinkers on the right leave little doubt that the patient under scrutiny is indeed gravely ill. But the wide assortment of sometimes contradictory diagnoses and cures suggested by various despondent conservatives in Packer's article and elsewhere all seem to miss the central problem: The main idea that propelled the conservative movement's political success -- that replacing the government with free-market forces would make everyone better off -- simply hasn't worked in practice.

Since the Reagan administration, we have seen time and again that curtailing the government's role to unleash market forces doesn't solve much of anything and in some cases makes things worse. In practice, virtually the only beneficiaries of conservative policies have been the same wealthy families and corporate executives who bankrolled the Republican Party and the conservative movement's elaborate anti-government network. Throughout a period of soaring economic inequality, stagnating wages, the deterioration of the medical-insurance system, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the Katrina debacle, global warming, and so on, the government sat on its hands while hewing to the mantra that free markets work best. In each case, the problems festered and worsened. Those real-world failures, combined with the right's deeply entrenched hostility toward regulations, civil servants, and even successful government programs, now leaves them without an agenda that will plausibly deliver greater economic security, better health care, a cleaner environment, improved schools, and lower public-health and safety risks.

Sundry conservative thinkers, including some cited in Packer's article, have been churning out books, articles, and op-eds putting forward their ideas for, as the subtitle to former Bush speechwriter David Frum's new book puts it: "conservatism that can win again." They argue for emphasizing a wide range of different themes: e.g., problem solving (Frum), "leave us alone" (Grover Norquist), bureaucracy busting (Newt Gingrich), embracing America's ideals (Michael Gerson), courting the working class (Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam), and reforming public institutions (Yuval Levin).

But beyond the variety of rhetorical flourishes and areas of emphasis that such authors endorse, their policy agendas more or less remain tethered to a minimal role for government and reliance on market forces to address challenges. So most of them support some combination of tax cuts, injecting more financial incentives into the health-care system, "tort reform," school vouchers, contracting out government activities, Social Security privatization, deregulation, and cuts in "entitlement programs" generally. Invariably, they argue that such policies will improve the lives of everyone, notwithstanding abundant evidence to the contrary.

In essence, they are selecting from the same government-bad-markets-good domestic policy menu that George W. Bush used to order up few broadly shared benefits but a great deal of unpopularity. A further illustration of how boxed-in the right's ideology has become was The New York Times reporting without irony last week, "Conservative Republicans in the House plan to urge their colleagues to rally behind a new manifesto that mixes anti-spending initiatives and tighter restrictions on government benefits as the party seeks a fresh message after a string of election defeats."

Packer notes that some conservative reformists recognize that one of the right's underlying problems has been "a doctrinaire failure to adapt to new circumstances, new problems." But as long as even those reformists presume that government interventions into markets are inherently counterproductive, regardless of what empirical evidence may show, they deserve the same doctrinaire label. Indeed, abandoning that stance amounts to abandoning what conservatism has become.

Ross Douthat, who is among the most moderate of conservatives, wrote in response to Packer's piece: "An essential modesty about the scope of government and its ability to 'solve' the great problems of the day is crucial to conservatism." That sense of humility, though, was absent in the many grand promises made by people like Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Martin Feldstein, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Jack Kemp, and the good folks at the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute about how reducing the scope of government would indeed "solve" all kinds of problems.

Americans looking for genuine modesty are much more likely to find it in progressives who believe that government, however imperfect, has a constructive role to play in making progress against public challenges -- a belief grounded in experience and empiricism as opposed to ideology. Pragmatically building on historical successes, while avoiding unintended consequences and a repetition of past failures, is the basic policy-making approach progressives have adopted to advance the common good. Most conservatives still haven't begun to come to grips with the consequences -- intended and unintended -- of their own policies, no doubt because their anti-government, pro-market rhetoric worked so well for so long politically. So they continue to approach virtually every issue from the standpoint of minimizing government's role.

The tipping point for conservatism's downfall occurred in September 2005, when the government's appalling response to Hurricane Katrina coincided with a growing recognition that the Iraq War, by then widely understood to have been launched under false pretenses, was going poorly. Both FEMA's ineptitude and the Iraq invasion were largely the consequences of pursuing right-wing ideology. In the case of FEMA, the Bush administration took an agency that had been successfully reformed during the Clinton years and decimated it by following the right-wing game plan of politicizing, privatizing, devolving, and cutting.

Anyone with a serious interest today in restoring the agency to its formerly effective condition would presumably want to pursue Clinton FEMA director James Lee Witt's earlier reforms, which amounted to the inverse of the conservative approach to government management: promoting highly experienced career professionals while sidelining political ideologues; accepting a leadership role at the federal level while drawing clear lines of responsibility with states; actively overseeing relationships with private contractors; and building on successful innovations. Are conservative reformers prepared to respect and take seriously the experience and expertise of civil servants? None as yet seem willing to do so, which would defy another of the signature principles of modern conservatism.

Most people associate the term "deregulation" with the past curtailment of government oversight toward industries like the airlines, trucking, banking, and telecommunications -- policies that were generally supported by both parties and which produced mixed results. But the conservative movement deserves full responsibility for neutering the federal agencies assigned to protect public health, safety, and the environment. The right argued that those changes would liberate corporations from job-killing government oversight without causing public harms, because market forces supply sufficient incentives for companies to police themselves.

Beginning with Reagan, and resuming with Newt Gingrich's rise to House speaker in 1994, and then again with George W. Bush's all-out assault for the past seven-plus years, those agencies have become increasingly incapacitated through budget cuts and corporate-friendly leadership and policies. The Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other government offices responsible for policing the private sector have all reconceptualized their raison d'etre as "serving" their corporate "customers." Their capacity and willingness to enforce regulations in ways that would punish law violators has become negligible. And the consequences for the public in heightened health, safety, and environmental risks have been documented extensively in journalistic accounts and piles of studies and reports. But again, none of the leading conservative reformers (aside from Yuval Levin's tepid proposals) are embracing renewed investment and vigor in the decimated regulatory agencies.

Of course, the Bush administration deviated from free-market dogma in countless ways when it came to offering favored treatment to particular industries, companies, and wealthy individuals. Particularly when Republicans held both houses of Congress, conservatives in power engaged in unprecedented generosity in lavishing tax breaks, subsidies, government contracts, and legal protections upon their faithful contributors. But as much as such hypocrisy often rankled the right-wing purists in the think tanks and academia, all that wastefulness and abuse of taxpayer dollars in some sense follows logically from the mind-set of hostility toward government pushed by the conservative movement. Once in power, keeping funders happy seems of utmost importance to staying in power, especially for those who worship the marketplace, where the only value that matters is "every man for himself."

Most ominously for the conservative movement, the public seems to be catching on to the failures of the right's belief system. In a New York Times/CBS News poll last month, which found that 81 percent of respondents believe that "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track" (up from 69 percent a year earlier), a significantly higher share blamed regulators and banks than home buyers for the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Forty percent said regulators were mostly to blame, compared to 28 percent naming lenders, and 14 percent borrowers. Presumably, the 68 percent who hold either the regulators or mortgage lenders responsible recognize that the free market won't prevent a recurrence of the same sort of crisis in the future. Not coincidentally, the same poll found that 43 percent would prefer a larger government that provided more services -- tied for the highest number since the question was first asked in 1991.

Speaking in Detroit last week, John McCain said, "In all of my reforms, the goal is not to denigrate government but to make it better, not to deride government but to restore its good name." But while McCain might recognize that the public has lost its enthusiasm for denigrating and deriding government, his policy proposals remain consistent with the conservative agenda of hacking away at it. That will reassure the movement's funders, whose mission was precisely to undercut the image and effectiveness of government while prospering from that process. Conservative policies couldn't have worked better for the financial supporters of the right. But for virtually everyone else, conservatism has nothing left to offer.

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