"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Is it Heroic or Not?

An article by John Hulsman today at OpinionJournal takes on Michael Gerson’s “heroic conservatism.” It is by far the most concise and most devastating critique of compassionate/big government/heroic conservatism I’ve yet seen. I’m convinced that the big split in conservatism is not between social/religious conservatives and whatever we call the other side, but between limited and big government conservatives. To give you some indication of where I come down on this; it is very difficult for me to type the words “big government” next to the word conservative. In my mind they are mutually exclusive, oxymoronic and inherently at war with one another.

I love the way Hulsman draws the distinctions, which are incredibly important and need to be made over and over again. I'll take out a few paragraphs for your rumination.

What about the longtime conservative belief that limited, accountable government works best--that it is the form of government least likely to squander resources, thwart private initiative, impinge on freedom and avoid harmful, unintended consequences? Unheroic, says Mr. Gerson. What about the quaint notion that government should live within its means? Short-sighted when people are suffering, says Mr. Gerson. Little wonder that Mr. Gerson's co-workers in the White House (from which he retired earlier this year) called him, only half-jokingly, "the Christian Socialist." As it happens, Christian socialism--going back to R.H. Tawney and Tolstoy--has an honorable intellectual tradition. But its tenets are an awkward fit for America in general and for the Republican Party in particular.

The U.S. government has been pouring billions and billions of dollars into the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, with results so wayward that, for decades now, a cottage industry has grown up among policy intellectuals to document all the disappointing results and ill effects. The welfare reform of Bill Clinton's first term grew out of such a critique. Still, Mr. Gerson equates "caring" with government spending, as though, self-evidently, yet more "visionary" programs are the best way of dealing with poverty, addiction and children at risk.

To the traditional conservative, it is more heroic--that is, more honest and realistic--to acknowledge that such problems are too deeply ingrained to be solved by a far-away Washington bureaucracy. Traditional conservatives since Edmund Burke have put their faith in the organic forces of society--family, community, civic institutions. In America, such faith has made common cause with commercial dynamism and the opportunities it creates for upward mobility.

Mr. Gerson will have none of it. Siding with FDR and Woodrow Wilson, his acknowledged heroes, he assumes that traditional conservatives do not care about American society's problems. He never stops to ponder whether traditional conservatives disagree with his statist prescriptions precisely because they do care.
Spot on! The self-righteousness of these big government types is a perfect contrast with the inefficacy of their supposed solutions. Yet it’s we limited government types who are heard hearted Scrooges who don’t care about the poor. Clearly we have a more difficult time making the case for limited government, because it’s easier to demonize and spew platitudes, as big government types tend to do. Americans are also more easily persuaded that big government isn’t a threat to our way of life. Of course that is only true until it's too late. And self-government and personal responsibility are just tougher sells, but sell we must.


Jay D. Homnick said...

Excellent referral, great piece, thanks.

The proof against Gerson's pudding is in the fact that small-government conservatives give more charity.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I'm in the minority here, which is the way I like it.

We can litigate a term too heavily, and certainly there's nothing "heroic" about a liberal calling for tax increases for somebody else to finance a government program to relieve man's estate.

And I'll not embrace Gerson's sympathy for big government solutions without qualification.

However, a conservative might be quite "heroic" in urging fellow conservatives, despite their disdain if not condemnation, to get creative in addressing the real problems of real people.

Because not even the great Adam Smith believed that markets, governments and societies run without thought, care or guidance [even aided by charities, Mr. Homnick] can cover the cracks that real human beings fall through.

And we conservatives should acknowledge that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society agenda resulted in an immediate and permanent reduction of the US poverty rate from 20+% to around 13%, where it's remained now for some 40 years.

The Great Society wasn't all bad. You could look it up.

[And my original post was about Adam Smith, the godfather of capitalism, remarking on man's innate moral sense. He was the godfather of capitalism surely, but even he recognized a God of the Gaps.]

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Tom, how about what the Great Society did to decimate the black family? Was that worth bringing the poverty rate down? It may not have been all bad, but it certainly did a very lot of bad. Unintended consequences my friend are a government staple.

Conservatives certainly need to get creative in addressing problems of real people, but I'm not convinced that a transfer of government wealth from not real to real people is the answer. Maybe if we got more specific about what exactly "real" is, and what exactly you might propose to address such issues. Just talking generalities here isn't really helpful. Big vs. Small, public vs. private, what does that all mean?

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Just as I finished leaving my comment I see the LA Times editorial calling the GOP's conservatism "compassionless". They say that in Wednesday's debate the candidates were trying to take the title of "meanest candidate." And get this, they speak highly of George W. Bush! Imaging that. I knew that when Bush attached "compassionate" to conservative it would not be a good thing. As if conservative needed a qualifier, and as if the rest of us were, just as the Times says, compassionless.

Huckabee, Gerson and others who take this tack play right into the liberal playbook. Limited government conservatism is defacto heard-hearted, mean-spirited, compassion-less. Unless you believe government programs are the answer you are not "heroic." After all, didn't Newt want to starve children back in '95 because he wanted to cut the RATE OF GROWTH of school lunch programs? I expect nothing less from the LA Times, but wittingly or not, these guys are becoming allies with liberals in the war against conservative values.

Tom Van Dyke said...

True, Mike, but please don't lose sight of the bigger picture. Free market solutions to people's problems are indeed [largely] the best way, but per Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments," conservatives need to show that they have a genuine interest in addressing those problems, that we share the same ends as the careless liberals, and differ only on the means.

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Well said, Tom, but let us not change the very nature of conservatism in the process. That is exactly what Gerson, et al, are doing.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I like Gerson's rhetoric, which I think is important and invaluable, not necessarily his politics.

Conservatism must discuss its ends, not merely its means. "Small government," etc. is the means, but we must directly address how it will fulfill the ends, especially when it comes to the unfortunates who plainly slip through the cracks.

I don't want to live in a society that forgets them as it offends my innate moral sense, and that's clearly a near-universal sentiment, except among the hardheaded and hardhearted.

Evanston2 said...

Mona Charen posted another critique of Gerson's book, on Townhall.
The kindest remarks I've seen anywhere (besides TVD's) are by Yuval Levin, with a link posted at NRO's The Corner blog.

Levin's main point is that Gerson misses the middle, essentially that he is an ideological extremist and ignores/insults those who know assert that progress is often slow. Gerson uses a civil war analogy to explain what we need to do as a society, while an incremental version (Cold War, anyone?) could be more appropos.

Both Charen and Levin are worth reading...