Confusion About Conservatism

 

Respected Princetonian and adjunct Cato scholar Tim Lee has made a few revealing comments in the wake of liberaltarian duo Brink Lindsey’s and Will Wilkinson’s departure from Cato. Alas, they’re revealing only insofar as they dramatize how deeply confused even extremely smart people have become about conservatism in general and tea party conservatism in particular. Part of this confusion, I freely admit, is a consequence of the bad habits developed by too many Republicans at a time when the GOP was controlled, if only in the popular imagination, by the forces of conservatism. But I’m not sure anything excuses this:

Is the Tea Party “the most dynamic anti-big government political movement in modern American politics?” I think it’s helpful here to unpack the concept of “anti-big government,” because the right uses it in a peculiar and rather perverse fashion.

In the conservative (and fusionist) worldview, government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used. This has some unfortunate results. It means that cutting children’s health care spending is just as good as cutting a dollar from subsidies for wealthy corporations. And since wealthy corporations typically have lobbyists and poor children don’t, the way this works out in practice is that conservative politicians staunchly oppose the former while letting the latter slide.

Worse, mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass. Conservatives vociferously (and correctly) oppose giving the FCC expanded power over the Internet, but they actively supported the NSA’s much more comprehensive and intrusive scheme of domestic surveillance. Conservatives support a massive expansion of government power at our southern border to restrict the freedom of Mexican migrants. They seem unconcerned by the fact that we have more people in government-run prisons than any other nation on Earth.

Any analysis of the tea party that takes “the right” as its monolithic point of departure is foredoomed, and Lee’s dizzying remarks show why. To begin with, there is simply nothing in “the conservative worldview” (whatever precisely that may be) that “treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used.” You can tell this is true because “mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass.” Only, that’s not right either, because mainstream conservatives, unlike the tiny neocon cabal that seized power during the Bush years, are against blank-check nation-building and unsustainable public pensions. Confusing!

Worse (as Lee would put it), mainstream conservatives will laugh in the face of anyone who tells them that they believe a dollar spent on midnight basketball is “equally bad” as a dollar spent on implementing Obamacare. Mindbogglingly, conservatives will even disagree with each other on which federal expenditures (EPA funding! Fannie and Freddie bailouts! Foreign aid for birth control!) are worse than others.

It’s true that in the wake of 9/11 conservatives have grown more tolerant of expansive domestic surveillance powers. For the same reason, they’re disinclined to champion the ‘freedom of movement’ of undocumented noncitizens. But which conservatives are they, again, who remain “unconcerned” about the number of noncitizens committing crimes and occupying space in our prisons? What’s more, which conservatives blithely or blissfully accept high crime rates (crime, after all, being where prisoners come from)? I’m afraid I’m drawing a blank. Mainstream conservatives are much more inclined to view high incarceration rates as a grim necessity in a degenerate world.

Which brings us to the tea partiers. It’s tea partiers who are more likely than mainstream conservatives to view all government spending as suspect. It’s tea partiers who are more likely than mainstream conservatives to oppose Big Brother government. It’s tea partiers who are more likely than mainstream conservatives to question the whole logic and effectiveness of our criminal justice system. In part, that’s because tea partiers are more open to historically paleoconservative and paleolibertarian ideas than mainstream conservatives. One could argue that this makes them, technically speaking, more conservative than mainstream conservatives, but that’s hardly relevant here. What is relevant is that the tea party really is “the most dynamic anti-big government political movement in modern American politics,” and that Lee’s attempt to “unpack” this fact out of existence at once manages to misrepresent and confound the character of contemporary conservatism while leaving us more convinced than ever that tea partiers are serious about taking on big government.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    This pull-quote:

    Conservatives support a massive expansion of government power at our southern border to restrict the freedom of Mexican migrants. They seem unconcerned by the fact that we have more people in government-run prisons than any other nation on Earth.

    Is all we really need to know about Mr. Lee.

    He’s a liberal disguised as a Libertarian.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @GADean

    What a strange obsession with labels and simple categories. Tim Lee, like many others, seems convinced that people acquire and hold complex ideas in neat well-labeled packages, like “conservative” or ‘libertarian”. Of course, real people don’t work that way.

    There may be some conservatives who give military spending a “free pass”, but not all, or even “most”. And there may be libertarians who oppose all government activity, including defense, but I don’t know them.

    Whatever political label you apply to yourself, you will find others under the same banner with whom you disagree, sometimes significantly. Raging debates about who are the “real libertarians” or “real conservatives” are tiresome and pointless.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Midge

    Tim Lee

    In the conservative (and fusionist) worldview, government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used… Worse, mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass.

    That is self-contradictory. You can’t say conservatives treat every dollar of government spending as equal in one sentence and then say conservatives give a “free pass” to other sorts of government spending right after that. Both cannot be true. Either every dollar is equal or it isn’t. Sheesh!

    James Poulos, Ed.: Mindbogglingly, conservatives will even disagree with each other on which federal expenditures (EPA funding! Fannie and Freddie bailouts! Foreign aid for birth control!) are worse than others.

    Now this is more like it. We conservatives can while away hours bickering about what should get the ax first, and how. I also don’t know any Tea Partier who’s thrilled by corporate subsidies and special protections. Tim Lee ought to study us more carefully and learn our habits better.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @NathanielWright

    Add my name to the list of those who find the flippant use of the term ‘neo-con’ to be less than useful. I would recommend that the users of the term read the excellent book NEOCONSERVATISM by Irving Kristol. Most of those styled to be neoconservative by the Press aren’t.

    There was no sercretive ceremony where neoconservaties were all forced to pledge our undying support of a particular interpretation of Francis Fukuyama’s book THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    Kenneth, I refer to your well-known distaste for foreign military activities that do not flatten the battlefields. I, as a reborn nation-builder, have taken issue with “more rubble, less trouble” and the cartoon that Derbyshire has sadly become as he shrinks from three to two dimensions before our very eyes, and proudly stand as a neocon, embracing all of the pejorative implications placed on it.

    Nathaniel, sometimes you just have to take their attempts at insult and refuse to be insulted. There is nothing whatever wrong with being a neocon. The fact is, in my view, Kristol, Podhoretz (World War IV), Rummy, PNAC, etc. are absolutely correct. And Fukuyama never was part of it, nor was his book particularly enlightening.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos

    1. That’s sarcasm, there, Jimmie and Nathaniel! I’m still waiting for someone to invent a sarcastic-face emoticon. Point is, all too often those who paint the right as a vast right wing conspiracy then turn around and attack the neoconservatives for orchestrating a not very vast conspiracy. They can’t have it both ways.

    2. In response to the above at AmSpec’s Joseph Lawler’s reactions, Tim Lee has updated his post here.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Midge

    James Poulos, Ed.: 1. That’s sarcasm, there, Jimmie and Nathaniel! I’m still waiting for someone to invent a sarcastic-face emoticon.

    >;-P

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Duane Oyen: Kenneth, I refer to your well-known distaste for foreign military activities that do not flatten the battlefields. I, as a reborn nation-builder, have taken issue with “more rubble, less trouble” and the cartoon that Derbyshire has sadly become as he shrinks from three to two dimensions before our very eyes, and proudly stand as a neocon, embracing all of the pejorative implications placed on it.

    Nathaniel, sometimes you just have to take their attempts at insult and refuse to be insulted. There is nothing whatever wrong with being a neocon. The fact is, in my view, Kristol, Podhoretz (World War IV), Rummy, PNAC, etc. are absolutely correct. And Fukuyama never was part of it, nor was his book particularly enlightening. · Aug 27 at 1:45pm

    Flatten the battlefields? You do know how to sweet-talk a boy.

    But that’s just the beginning: I wanna slaughter all their cattle and burn their crops. Stomp all over their cherished cultural artifacts. Poison their wells, sow salt in their fields.

    When I’m done, there won’t be nothin’ but a single 3-legged dog wandering ’round a benighted wasteland. Now that’s what I call peace!

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    Well, as a charter member, viva la Tiny Neocon Cabal! (sorry, Kenneth)

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Duane Oyen: Well, as a charter member, viva la Tiny Neocon Cabal! (sorry, Kenneth) · Aug 27 at 12:10pm

    I’m not sure what that means.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @
    James Poulos, Ed.: Only, that’s not right either, because mainstream conservatives, unlike the tiny neocon cabal that seized power during the Bush years, are against blank-check nation-building and unsustainable public pensions.

    Goodness, Mr. Poulos! May I get you another roll of tin foil to bolster that cleverly-concealed hat you’re wearing?

    First, no one “seized” power during the Bush years. We had elections and the American people, with full knowledge of the administration’s desire to engage in so-called “blank-check nation building” (which in itself is an assertion that falls apart when brushed lightly by reality) returned that “cabal” to power. I’m sure you recall how often key members of that cabal — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Emperor Foozar II of the Mole People, the Knight Commander of the Masonic Templars, et. al. — were in the public eye. Well, okay, except for Emperor Foozar II, because all the bright lights hurt his eyes something awful.

    Still, I’m disappointed in you for casually tossing out that hackneyed and largely unsupportable smeal (you do know how the left uses the word “neo-con”, yes?).

    • #11

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