The Conservative Crackup

We Needn't Surrender Just Yet
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Nov. 6 2008 4:54 PM

The Conservative Crackup

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Doug and I appear to have read Christine's first post somewhat differently.

Doug  begins his reaction by saying:

Christine's thoughtful post with the reference to the "common good" is right on target, and I believe it answers her initial question about redistribution. No, phrased that way, America will see it as "theft"; indeed, it is commonplace for some Republicans to view all taxation as theft.

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I'm sure the last phrase is technically correct, in that at least two Republicans in this vast country "view all taxation as theft." But I don't think that this opinion characterizes more than a tiny minority of Republicans (or conservatives).

Economic conservatives believe in limited government and low taxes, accepting that "limited" and "low" vary by circumstance and are subject to lots of prudential debate. Further, economic conservatives (and presumably most rational people) believe that whatever tasks we properly delegate to the government should be executed efficiently and effectively. This view—a government with limited tasks that it performs very well—seems to be Christine's vision. It's certainly mine.

Any real-world government requires taxes. The people who have a lot of money will end up paying a share of these taxes disproportionate to their numbers under any nontyrannical regime. Further, any just real-world government will have at least some poor relief, by whatever name, for those unable to care for themselves. Therefore, at least some mild redistribution will be an incidental byproduct of a just and well-functioning government. Accepting these practical realities is very different from actual advocacy of redistribution as good in and of itself.

I think that one of Christine's points is that this week's election does not provide good evidence that the American electorate supports redistribution of wealth as a government policy. I think she's right about that.

Doug goes on to say:

But America is genuinely tired of the notion that "government is the problem." That was Reagan's line, and it worked because the need for collective action during most of the '80s was small, except for the military buildup (or, if you will, redistribution to military contractors).

Well, I remember the 1980s, and I don't seem to recall many on the left arguing that the "need for collective action was small" in domestic policy at the time. It seems like a pretty breathtaking thing to assert flatly and in passing; perhaps Doug can provide some evidence for what made the 1980s different from prior and subsequent decades in this respect.

Describing the Reagan military buildup as "redistribution for military contractors" strikes me as snide and uniformed, unless one believes that the actual intention and result of spending on the military buildup was not to contribute to the defeat of global totalitarianism, which is a point of view that Doug seems to directly contradict when he goes on to call this "money well spent."

Doug then says:

To what extent are Republicans prepared to collaborate with their Democratic counterparts to refine, as opposed to obstruct, reform and regulation of the financial markets, for example? … [T]he GOP can earn back some good will simply by improving Democratic health care and other initiatives with our cost-benefit know-how. … In short, without a big show of claiming credit, it should be our aim to improve needed regulatory initiatives undertaken by the Obama administration, rather than just obstructing them.

There is no better way to express this spirit of cooperation than by giving great deference to the new president's nominees for the executive. … [T]he GOP should guarantee a hearing, committee vote, and floor action in no more than a two-week process.

Without going into the details here, proper regulation of financial markets is not necessarily the same thing as "pretty much whatever Chuck Schumer and Barney Frank want, with some tinkering around the edges."

Maybe I'm misunderstanding it, but Doug's overall post reads to me as saying more or less this: "Look, conservatives just need to accept that the American people have rendered the judgment that conservatives are wrong on the important issues of the day, and surrender to the popular will embodied by President-elect Obama and the Democratic Congress." If so, I respectfully disagree.

Jim Manzi, chairman of an applied artificial-intelligence software company, is a contributing editor of National Review.