Conservatism vs. Liberalism — And The Future

Ken AshfordDemocrats, RepublicansLeave a Comment

This is so good, I’m reprinting (almost) the whole thing.  From the Anonymous Liberal:

Over at The Corner today, Jonah Goldberg wrote the following:

Now, I don’t say any of this because I’m particularly bullish on conservatism’s immediate future. It’s got problems. But they’re not as fundamental as the problems liberalism faces. Conservatism has a problem putting its ideas into action. Liberalism has a problem figuring out what it’s ideas are. Taking the liberal mish-mash and simply declaring it a "new politics" doesn’t make it so.

It’s entirely understandable and predictable that in the wake of this election liberals would go into wishful thinking mode and declare that they’ve escaped history. But that doesn’t make it any less absurd.

Now I’ll readily admit that this election, however lopsided, does not spell the end of "conservatism." The conservative movement, in some form or other, will always be a potent force in American politics. We have a bipolar system and the debate is always shifting; the parties are constantly realigning around new issues.

That said, I have to take issue with Jonah’s suggestion that "conservatism has a problem putting its ideas into action" while "liberalism has a problem figuring out what its ideas are."

Let’s consider his first statement. I think he’s certainly right that conservatives have had a tough time implementing their ideas. But why is that? After all, the Republicans have controlled all the branches of government for the last six years.

Well, I think the explanation is actually pretty simple. Many of the most prominent conservative policy ideas are either 1) very unpopular, 2) totally unrealistic and unworkable, or 3) both. That’s why we haven’t privatized social security or created individualized health savings accounts. These are just bad ideas; they are policies crafted to fit a pre-conceived ideology, not to solve real world problems.

The most fundamental problem with the conservative approach to governing is that it encourages its adherents to approach all problems with ideological blinders on. The range of potential solutions to any given problem is always very limited because so much is taken off the table before the discussion even begins. This approach leads conservatives to endorse policy ideas that are at best sub-optimal and at worst disastrously ill-advised.

Which brings me to Jonah’s suggestion that "liberalism has a problem figuring out what its ideas are." It’s not surprising that a conservative like Jonah would think this. But as I’ve written a number of times before (and as the Bertrand Russell quote in the masthead illustrates) liberalism is better understood as a way of approaching problems, not as a rigid set of substantive principles. In other words, what Jonah points to as a bug is actually a feature of liberalism; indeed, I’d argue it’s the defining feature.

For instance, liberals are not interested in big government for big government’s sake. If a problem can better be addressed through a market-based approach, they’re all for it. It is certainly true that there are a number of policies which most liberals support. But the reason they support these policies is because they believe they have been demonstrated, through argument or experience, to be superior to the alternatives. And most liberals aren’t afraid to re-examine their policy preferences should experience and empirical data suggest that something else would work better.

The problem with conservatism is that it discourages this sort of periodic re-examination of policy preferences and the premises underlying them. The Democratic candidates who won on Tuesday are not a homogeneous bunch and they will almost certainly come to the table with different ideas and different policy preferences. But I think what they largely have in common is a determination to reach sensible solutions to pressing problems. At least I hope so, because that’s what liberalism is supposed to be about. It’s about having an open-minded and outcome-oriented approach to governance.

Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.