The critique of contemporary conservativism.

While I don’t think it’s fair or even rational, I expect most of those reading this are familiar with critiques of the contemporary popular Left. In the interest of balance I’ll give the critique of the contemporary popular Right.

1.) The Women and Children First Axiom. Since the Sixties Left and Right have fallen into Mommy and Daddy archetypes.  This is fine and perhaps even salutary so far as one makes them co-equal originators of policy, but the whole point of the party system is to force the choice of one option to the exclusion of the other. If that’s the situation you force on persons, everyone picks Mom. Even Dad (cf. the sinking ship/ lifeboat problem).

2.) The Vacuity of “Big Government”. Big is meaningless apart from a judgment of what is appropriate or, in this case, just. Being against big government is therefore being against a government that is larger than is appropriate or just which is, of course, something everyone from Mussolini to Ayn Rand is against. The claim has no more content than that the government ought not to do what it ought not to do. Attempts on the popular Right to actually delineate, even vaguely, the appropriate reach of government fall somewhere on a continuum from politically impossible to the ridiculous. One can make a very good case for limited government by arguing for strict constitutionalism, but the popular conservative movement has never succeeded in doing this. Even the high-water mark of the Reagan presidency failed (in the formidable judgment of its definitive biographer) to be a constitutional movement.

3.) The Deregulation Paradox.  We deregulate out of a desire to stimulate competition, produce new entrepreneurial  initiative, facilitate creative destruction, and do all that other Adam Smith stuff. What we find is that it ends up creating monopolies from Standard Oil to Goldman Sachs who are capable of writing laws for their own advantage so as to crush competition, make all new initiative pointless, ensure that creative destruction will never occur, and open the door to all that Karl Marx stuff.

4.) The Questionable Re-Framing of Moral Problems. Many are conservative because it is the only way for them to be pro-life, pro-monogamy, etc. Leaving aside the vast swaths of agreement between Left and Right on most issues of chastity and sexual justice, the Right will still only allow for moral questions to be framed in a Right-appropropriate way, and it is not clear that this is the most appropriate way to frame them. To take the most significant issue, the Right treats abortion as a individual-rights problem, as though the baby is most analogous to Dred Scott. But there is something absurd in looking at an unborn child in this way, as though the point of ending abortion was to leave the child to its own wits as a free and independent citizen. His absolute dependence is obvious and unavoidable, the only question is whether there is some bond of justice and charity that demands that the bond be maintained. The Right’s tendency to be suspicious of personal dependence occludes something essential in the morality of abortion.


  1. Janet said,

    September 8, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    Overall, I like your post, but I have to disagree with your point #3 on the facts: deregulation doesn’t breed monopolies nearly so much as regulation (and a government willing and able to sway the market).

    Standard Oil was a “pre-regulation” phenomenon, not a deregulation phenomenon. It got so large, in large part, by using physical violence against its opponents and collusion with other companies to rig the market– not a regulation issue, so much as a pure violation of existing state laws (and natural law, of course). Goldman Sachs, by contrast, has grown largely because of its exceptional skills at manipulating regulations to its own (and, to a lesser extent, its clients’) benefit– as, for example, its ability to get its employees appointed to senior positions in the Treasury department, stock exchange, World Bank, etc. and then benefit from bailout largesse when its positions soured. By contrast, where “true” deregulation has actually happened– say, in the airline business– no such cartels or monopolies have formed. (It is true that “partial” deregulation, such as in the mortgage market, is dramatically more dangerous than heavy regulation, and that the “right wing” has not actually come to grips with this.)

    I think it’s a reasonable thing to say that the “right wing” can advocate deregulation (i.e. the government generally should not interfere in specific business details), but still support general market rules (such as preventing collusion, ensuring transparency in information flow, supporting a balance between workers’ and employers’ rights and duties, upholding contractual obligations, etc.)

    • September 8, 2016 at 11:14 pm

      I don’t have much interest in defending either the Left or the Right, but in the interest of keeping the conversation going I’ll see what might be said to your critique.

      My main response would be that point #3 wasn’t meant to describe a necessary outcome but a significant danger. But we agree that the deregulation of mortgages is a critique of the Right, and it is hard to treat this as a small outlier to an otherwise successful history of deregulation. It almost crashed the whole system.

      I picked Standard Oil and Goldman more to gesture towards a historical stretch of time than as a paradigm case of deregulation, but your point is well taken. The airline industry does count as a success, but I’m not sure if there aren’t significant accidental factors that kept that corporation relatively weak (it seems like a large part of the business model of airlines was “hit corporate accounts with outrageous prices and count on their accountants not to notice”. This gave them an extreme vulnerability that I just don’t see the equivalent of in the Banking industry or the Gilded-Age monopolies)

      While the Gilded Age monopolies pre-date deregulation they can still be taken as warnings about its latent dangers. It’s true that they violated existing rules, but nevertheless the fact that they could violate them with impunity proved that the Progressive response to this – that came to define the modern Left – was justified: magnify State power to the point where it could be an effective check against what we both agree is lawlessness. The Right wants to do away with this. Is it worth allowing for the evil that the power was meant to oppose? I doubt it. As Chomsky puts it, I at least have some hope of controlling who will be in charge of the state, but I have no way of voting for who will have control over GE.

      To your last paragraph: it’s hard to know where, say, Glass-Steagall or the regulation of derivatives fit in this distinction. Is the separation of the financial domains “interfering in specific business details” or a support of general market rules? Again, on my reading of Smith – the Patron saint of the Rightish economics – the goal of government policy should be maximization of competition, which is only going to occur with some pretty invasive policies to level the field (I think a paradigm case of what Smith wanted would be some analogue to the NFL salary cap). I don’t see the tools you allow to the Right to be enough to expect this to happen.

  2. September 9, 2016 at 8:36 pm

    These reasons are the main reasons why 6 years ago when I registered to vote, I ultimately went with “Independent”. There was much with the Republicans I could agree on but there wasn’t enough. As my views continue to develop, I still find myself identifying with the Independent sect primarily because Republicans continue to be individualistic thinking. We need a call-back to a more oligarchic structure.

    I find myself far more in favoritism to the Tea Party but there is still libertarian policies there. I favor much more an oligarchic structure if not monarchic.

    • September 9, 2016 at 9:31 pm

      “Independent” is either some platform or the assertion that one has rejected platforms or is confused by them. If it’s the first it will probably have all the same goods and bads as the Left and Right have; if it’s the second it’s not obvious to me that it’s better. I wonder something similar about “swing-voters” or “centrists” or “moderates”. If all they are is confused and unprincipled voters I don’t see why this is in any way preferable to those that are on the far wings. Being a moderate is just another political opinion – nothing more, nothing less.

      • September 9, 2016 at 11:05 pm

        I think I would agree. There is an advantage being party-affiliated primarily because you can also have influence in the primaries.

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