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Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America

What Explains the Conservative Movement's Political Success?

As I read them, our British authors, the sharp and witty Washington-based editors of the weekly London-based Economist, are modern-day if imperfect Alexis de Tocquevilles, updating Democracy in America by some 165 years. Recall the shrewd Tocqueville’s prescience in seeing how America, then but 45 years old and supposedly constrained by the Constitution, could wax via democracy into Big Government and the vast welfare-warfare state we witness today.

This is the state on which our authors focus. They aren’t much interested in either praising or condemning the conservative movement, but seek to explain its political success over the last several decades. They do that very well indeed. Micklethwait and Wooldridge thoroughly cover the whole spectrum of conservative politics, from the ground troops of the Republican Party to the brigades of analysts and policy wonks in the various rightist and free-market think tanks. (But sorry to say, FEE doesn’t get a mention.)

Micklethwait and Wooldridge take Western Europe as a counterpoint, a sort of leftish benchmark, and note that America is conservative in a relative way—and in a bipartisan way. Even “liberal” Democrats here are “conservative” in comparison with European leftists, something that the authors attribute to the “effectiveness” of the conservative movement.

Where I take major exception with the authors is precisely that—American conservatism is “effective.” Effective, how? Maybe in slowing down the progress of government expansion a tiny bit. We aren’t quite as bad off as, say, Sweden, but the main contours of America are not much different than they were when Nixon took office. And now we have a huge new federal entitlement in prescription drugs, courtesy of a “conservative” president.

Our authors note that America is the only developed nation without a full government-supported health-care system; that it is the only Western democracy that does not furnish child support to all families; that it is ready to be the only OECD nation (of 30—Australia seems about to give up being the only other holdout) to deny paid maternity leave. In this sense are we “the right nation,” one with “conservative power,” but I’m not inclined to see any remarkable conservative power in the fact that the United States hasn’t bitten on some of the worst ideas meddlesome politicians have come up with.

When the authors talk about “conservative power in America,” I say this could well be the very power that Milton Friedman put down as “the tyranny of the status quo.” Few conservative politicians have the nerve to challenge the deeply ingrained collectivist notions that many Americans hold, ranging from “public education” to eminent domain. The great conservative movement has done precious little to shake people out of those ideas, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that many conservative leaders today don’t even care to try. It reminds one that F. A. Hayek took pains to explain why he was not a conservative.

A particular blind spot for Micklethwait and Wooldridge is the phenomenon of rent-seeking. In their index, they give 12 citations to Milton Friedman and ten to Hayek, yet none to another Nobel economist, James Buchanan. Yet it was Buchanan who, with Gordon Tullock, came up with the idea of Public Choice, the explanation for why the modern democratic state inevitably gets caught up in the favor-granting business. Here special interests press our vote-and-campaign-money-hungry politicians for favors including subsidies and manifold tax-and-import protectionism.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge correctly charge the Bush White House with kowtowing to special interests, letting federal spending (defense and nondefense) skyrocket, federalizing airport security with tens of thousands of new government employees, slapping tariffs on imported steel, signing the biggest farm bill on record, and, by the way, casting not a single veto on a spending or any other bill. What they apparently fail to see is that the federal juggernaut is a systemic problem that conservatism has done nothing to solve.

Back in 1835, Tocqueville foresaw today’s democratic state, where all too often “The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting; such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, til each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Dear Freeman reader, look out. Make way for more shepherded “progress.” Messrs. Micklethwaite and Wooldridge amuse and edify us on today’s Politicized America, but do so in an ephemeral way. They silently endorse government interventionism as a given and conservatism as a means of protecting the status quo. This a pity.