27 June, 2009

Conservativism I could live with

Jonathan Rauch , in a review of a book by Allitt that's going on my wish list, examines the rise and decline of the conservative movement into today's "zombie party." And what's that?

We know what happens when movements or parties continue to stagger forward after running out of ideas: They become zombies. Zombie parties are a recurrent feature of electoral democracies. Unable to articulate any coherent or workable governing philosophy, they mindlessly jab at cultural hot buttons, mechanically repeat hardwired tropes ("cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes"), nurse tribal resentments, ostracize independent thinkers. Above all, they feel positively proud of their doggedness. You can’t talk them out of it. Think of the Republicans in the FDR years, the Democrats in the Reagan years, the British Labour Party in the Thatcher period, and the British Conservative Party in the Blair period. Think of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party for most of the past half-century, or France’s Socialists today. To get a new brain, zombie parties usually need to spend years out of power or wait until a new generation rises to leadership.

The current Republican Party--and, I dare say, the Libertarians (the Party, not philosophy)--could get a shamble-on part in the next George Romero movie.

"The refusal of so many of my fellow conservatives in the United States to adapt their thinking to facts and realities does not demonstrate their adherence to principle," David Frum recently wrote in Canada’s National Post. "It demonstrates a frivolous indifference to the responsibilities of political leadership." But Frum will tell you that his admonitions fall on deaf ears. "These days," he writes, "the question I hear most from political comrades is: ‘What the hell happened to you?’ " There are smart, modern people in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. But the movement is in no mood to listen to them.

History looks a little different from this perspective. For example, the Civil War is " 'a conflict between two types of conservatism.' Southern conservatives fought to conserve the South’s distinctive society, its time-honored traditions; northern ones, to conserve an indivisible, democratic nation-state." In our era "conservatives," in all their variety, were only able to keep it together as long as they did because of the fear of communism and the papering over of real ideological rifts.

The paper's gotten too thin. Tax cuts aren't always the solution. The growth of government probably can't be reversed, because for the most part people want a big government--so long as it is doing the right things.

Some conservatives do have ideas: Bruce Bartlett champions the idea of a Value-Added Tax (VAT) because, as well as raising funds, it can get government out of the micromanagement-by-taxation system (with all its inequities, inefficiencies, lobbyists, and corruption). Charles Murray builds on Milton's Friedman's call for a negative income tax, suggesting that all federal government transfer programs be cashed out and replaced by direct checks for $10,000 to every non-incarcerated American over the age of 21. Call it socialism, as I'm sure some conservatives will. Call it a Guaranteed Annual Income. Call it a Social Dividend (as Robert Heinlein alluded to in several of his novels). Labels don't matter. Getting a foundation of support to everyone, as a benefit of citizenship, equally, gets government out of the business of managing lives and playing political games with people's survival. Would it be perfect? Hell, no. This is politics. But it's certainly worth a look. And maybe, when the Republicans (or the Libertarians) have been wandering in the desert long enough, they'll find the courage to consider it.

Conservatism: Attack of the Zombie Party

No comments: