Thursday, February 15, 2007

What Have Conservatives Gotten Right in the Last Fifty Years?

O.k., believe it or not, I sometimes defend conservatism against attacks by some of my friends and colleagues. But Colleague Across the Hall likes to assert the following in my direction: conservatives have been wrong about everything for the last fifty years.

Now, this does give me pause. If I think about the things that we have clear answers to and on which liberals and conservatives took clear positions...well...the scorecard looks like a blow-out.

Liberals were right about, e.g.:

Civil rights for blacks and other minorities
Equality of the sexes
Liberalizing sexual attitudes/mores (where here I'll include protecting the civil rights of unmarried people and homosexuals)

Conservatives might try to claim rectitude re: the seriousness of the Soviet threat, but mostly only considerably-left-of-liberal lefties really denied that, so it doesn't seem to count against mere liberals--though that might be a cheat.

I'd like to mention gun rights and the importance of self-reliance, but the former may be too controversial to meet the relevant criteria, while the latter...well, I guess it's just not clear yet what's going on there.

So, is Colleague Across the Hall right, or what?


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

To separate the ideas from the people and groups involved is difficult, and beyond most of us, it seems. Liberal, I suppose, means change, which is not always good. Conservative means status quo, which, since the world is not as good as it can be, is not always good.

But I think you're talking party here.

A higher percentage of the GOP voted for the civil rights acts than Democrats. You could look it up. It is also true that the Party of Lincoln took in the Dixiecrats when they left the Democratic Party thereafter. In so doing, they gained a measure of power, but they squandered this legacy, that of Sen. Everett Dirksen, who worked with LBJ to bring cloture and a vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It was perhaps the most decisive speech of the era, and among the most inspiring. I hope your readers will give it a look, WS, because it swung our history:

"Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come."

The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.

Edmund Burke, the philosophical godfather of conservatives, acknowledged the need for change as essential to the life of a nation or a people. Dirksen, as conservative as they came, worked with LBJ, who might have been too liberal when it came to Vietnam or the Great Society, to bring about an idea whose time had come.

Although the tension is often unbearable, change and status quo must remain in tension, so we may sort out babies and bathwater.

(I lean conservative not out of dogma, but because as Burke would note, once the baby's tossed, you seldom get it back...)

5:48 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Not talking party, talking liberal and conservative, just to make it clear.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like TVD's post. WS, I think you are making it a bit difficult, as "fiscal restraint" is a conservative ideal that is only practiced by...democrats (I would even say liberals). So, the idea of fiscal restraint is a good one, but has never been adopted by "conservatives."

I think Colleague Across the Hall is probably more right than not. Liberals have certainly screwed up a lot of things, but also done a lot of things that worked.

So, another clarification, please. Are we determining whether everything conservatives have done is wrong, or that the only things that went right are liberal, or that liberals are conservatives are both wrong, just conservatives are all the time while liberals sometimes manage to get it right?

No Child Left Behind and other federal instrusions have happened under "conservative" administrations, so you can see the problem here.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, thank you, Mr. Funk. By disposition, conservatives don't do anything, which is is their failing and their virtue.

They aren't creative towards the problems of our condition. Not progressive, if you will.

On the other hand, that's not their role. It's not fair to judge them on what they "do," but on what they, by persuasion or obstruction prevent, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

You might say conservatives are the condoms of the human race.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Tony D said...

I’ve been around awhile and being a conservative used to mean retaining a level of self reliance. The idea was that we as a people could do better for ourselves than the government ever could. From an ideological perspective I still believe that but I think the ideology has been taken too far. Government should have a much bigger role in societal evolution than the average Libertarian will admit. Sometimes like it or not well advised leaders need to take a stand, create a vision of what this country is about and LEAD. I think Reagan began this process with his shining city on the hill vision but he failed to follow through. By deferring to the marketplace he and the “conservatives” who followed have ceded the leadership of this country to the business community.

I can’t and don’t completely fault conservatives for the current state of the union but during the last 10 years when they dominated they continually got it wrong by repeatedly callings for tax cuts and deregulation (read subsidies) for big business and the ultra wealthy. This only gave more power to those whom they’ve ceded leadership. If that weren’t bad enough they devote the rest of their time driving wedge issues at home and golf balls on Scottish junkets which explains why they were too busy to perform their constitutional obligation of providing checks balances over an executive branch that from the beginning quite obviously needed oversight!

11:31 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Government should have a much bigger role in societal evolution than the average Libertarian will admit.

I would doubt that if the politically powerful began to move society in directions of which you disapprove, you'd still feel that way.

Does government have primacy over society? I think it is and should be the other way around. Montesquieu, too, FWIW.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Orlando C. Harn said...

The organization and planning of public housing was something liberals definitely got wrong. I don't think conservatives had an idea better than "Do not make any effort at all to provide new housing for poor people", but that might have been better than most of the housing projects of the 60s.

NOTE: This does not apply to the rest of the "Great Society" or "War on Poverty". It's more a reflection of conservatives' objectively superior and more practical opinions about architecture.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

What has troubled me about this is that there's a difference (to me, at least) between liberal and left. The Great Society is/was liberal for instance, where what Chavez is up to in Venezuela is leftist.

Conservative is routinely used in contradistinction to both, which lessens its accuracy. But by that standard, almost anything can become conservative. For instance, the radical Islamic revolutionary mullahs in Iran are now "right-wing" in the common media parlance. But "conservative" might be most accurately used in contradistinction to radicalism. The term breaks down.

I've made a conscious effort to use "left" for what I as a conservative oppose, i.e., statism. Liberalism as a philosophy, used in terms of freedom, is attractive to most everybody, except statists, who believe a better plan results in a better man, and therefore a better society.

(And BTW, many consider Richard Nixon more "liberal" than Bill Clinton. Nixon's wage and price controls were definitely more statist, so that's a monkey wrench of its own...)

3:55 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Also, what about the importance of the family? I mean, not the crazy use of "the family" as a stalking horse for e.g. anti-feminist and anti-gay agendas, but the sincere claim that we have an interest in maintaining strong families?

I worry about that--that's why I wondered whether I was cheating by deflecting some criticisms as being properly aimed at leftists not liberals.

On the other hand, American conservatism includes a strong extremist component, whereas American liberalism doesn't really. So criticisms of extremist positions seem appropriate in the one case and not the other.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Where conservative can become a catchall for all the imperfect or even bad in the status quo, liberalism can be a catchall for all things good.

Many conservatives think of themselves as classical liberals, and in economics, free markets and personal enterprise are often referred to as neo-liberal. The conservatives in Australia are known as the Liberal Party. Rhetorically, when liberal equals good, everybody wants to be a liberal.

It's clear that America as a whole has embraced the New Deal as a good and desirable safety net for the weakest among us, so liberalism in the FDR sense defines the center. The question becomes whether progressivism as a politics, when turned to the end of justice and not charity, saps its host society of its dynamism and cohesion.

I look at Europe's future and suspect it is so.

And it's relatively uncontroversial even in Black America that some facets of the Great Society made the father unnecessary in the family. So too, the sexual revolution, even among those who find it esthetically congenial, cannot be said to have resulted in an increase in stability. (Or in my view, even happiness.)

Perhaps family is another one of those noble lies, and we shall find a way to synthesize it with no harm done. Mebbe Toffler is right, and there will be no palpable difference between nature and the synthetic.

(BTW, conservativism, used in its best sense as not opposed to change but to radical change, must reject extremism in means or ends in any form, by definition. And as you know, whoever gets to define extreme wins the day rhetorically.)

3:20 PM  
Blogger Joe the Blogger said...

I think we can credit conservatives--and possibly Reaganism--for restraining "big government", or the excesses and inefficiencies of America's welfare system. That's not to say I agree with Reagan's specific policy proposals to achieve that goal--but the vision was correct. Clinton got the message, but it was a conservative message to begin with, and I think we're all better off for it. Along these lines, the Earned Income Tax Credit, which Clinton expanded, was originally an idea Milton Friedman came up with in the form of a negative tax as a way to provide an incentive for people to get off welfare.

1:25 AM  
Blogger Joe the Blogger said...

And I almost forgot to mention: the Earned Income Credit is the most effective federal program that brings families out of poverty.

1:30 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I think you're missing the point, Tom.

The question is:

Big, unsettled, still-controversial issues to the side--I.e. looking only at issues re: which we can now tell clearly who was right and who was wrong, what has conservatism gotten right in the last 50 years?

So far as I can tell, you're just hand-waving at possibilities and uncertainties.

We can point to several important cases in which liberalism was clearly right. But what issue can we point to in which conservatism was clearly right.

Well, actually Jared suggests some good contenders.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Mostly, you're begging the question. "Right" means things you agree with.

But opposing the expansion of communism, tax relief (especially on capital gains) that led to 20+ years of prosperity, stopping the statism of Hillarycare, and welfare reform will do for starters.

And that doesn't include all the other stupid "progressive" ideas that conservatives shot down over the years, which is their job anyway, as previously noted.

For 40 years, liberals have been running on the fumes of the Civil Rights Act, which without Everett Dirksen and the Republicans would never have been a reality anyway. Rewriting history isn't the same as making it.

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, exactly who did the heavy lifting in opposing the expansion of communism again? Who confronted the Chinese in Korea?Who freaked out so much that they invaded Vietnam? Armed the mujahadeen? Initiated exchange programs that Sakharov called the "Trojan Horse for the USSR"?

And if you think "tax relief", a Luntzism if I've ever heard one, led to 20 years of prosperity you first need to *define* prosperity, and whose prosperity you're talking about. Then tell me who's had better economic performance BY ANY METRIC:

Welfare reform is a genuine idea of the right for which it should get deserved credit.

As for Hillarycare, well the country wasn't ready for it yet, but single payer would have been the way to go. Instead she and Bill cooked up something way too complicated. The fact is that other developed nations get far better health outcomes while spending a much smaller share of their GDPs on health care, an opportunity cost that's even caught on with the reluctant Wal-Marts, GMs and GEs of the world.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

The above is why I wasn't all that anxious to get into it, WS. Fine, liberals defeated communism. Whatever.

For what it's worth I don't see Bush41 as all that conservative, nor Clinton (except for Hillarycare, for which he expended zero capital) as unconservative.

3:12 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

You're just swinging wildly, Tom. I'm in no way begging the question, and I'm in no way just saying that whatever I think is right is right. And the latter is not the same as the former.

The question isn't that hard:

Among the programs and policies that all sensible people can now see were right, which ones were liberal ones and which ones were conservative?

For example: Equality for women was obviously a position that was, in general, advanced by liberals and opposed by conservatives. Liberals were right, conservatives were wrong.

Civil rights for blacks was in general a liberal cause, in general opposed by conservatives. I don't care about party affiliation. Again in this case, liberals were right, conservatives were wrong. The civil rights movement was right and its opponents were wrong, and, again, every sensible person recognizes this.

YOU'RE trying to win an argument here. I'm not. I'm sure that there are similar cases for conservatives...I just want to identify them.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

You mean what progressive policies have conservatives enacted that are more progressive than the progressives'. That's begging the question, since the liberal project is to improve man's material estate, but the conservative one is preventing a functional society from going to hell in a handbasket.

You have a point about women's rights and mebbe in civil rights if we disregard the last 20 or 30 years. Otherwise, you're running on fumes, and disregarding all the societal dysfunction that progressivism has engendered since, in the name of relieving man's estate.

I'm not a laundry list guy, but surely you've heard about some of it. You refuse to speak my language (explained above), but intelligible discussion is impossible in yours, since it can only answer its own questions, which are necessarily limited in their scope.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, since what I asked for was a laundry list, and since you're not a laundry list kind of guy, I'm not sure what the point of all this is.

Nobody's ignoring the last 20 or 30 years re: civil rights, nobody's begging the question, nobody's doing anything but, well, asking for a laundry list of things conservatives were obviously right about.

The actual point of this was to have a list of things to point to when my liberal friends get too liberal on me. So far, though, I don't have much to point to...

3:32 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

The point to your colleague across the hall is that more important than the right answers is asking the right questions, and he is not.

He might as well ask why a dog doesn't meow.

It's your colleague who's making it an argument, a this or that, not me. The true equation is a tension, the baby and the bathwater. If progressivism wants to claim credit for all positive change, it must also absorb responsibility for whatever carnage it leaves behind.

If it wants to claim credit for black rights, then it must also look at the shape of the black family after the welfare system and the fracturing of sexual norms got done with it.

And although I'd agree affirmative action is "right," in light of the historic discrimination against black people, my experience as a headhunter also indicates that it leaves genuine black achievement and qualification under a cloud.

Which is why, once issues are brought in, the landscape gets shifty. Where it might be leftist to want to end our involvement in Iraq, it was the conservatives in the 1950s who called off the Korean War. (Would that such a half a loaf solution were available in Iraq.)

And although progressivism may rightfully claim credit for desegregating the schools, its opposition to school vouchers obstructs dismantling their current resegregation. So too, where conservatives want to fix the Ponzi scheme of social security, it's the progressives who obstruct any change whatsoever.

The equation and philosophy of classical liberalism is to maximize freedom without destroying order. Both sides say they agree on that end; they often swap sides on the means.

BTW, did you know Reagan was a liberal, after all? True fact.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Joe the Blogger said...

I think I understand your point, TVD, in saying it's incorrect to ask conservatives what their policy achievements are when conservatism is all about preserving the status quo.

But there are two problems with your argument if you are trying to defend conservatives. If conservatives are about maintaining the status quo, then conservatives ideologically should have been against a lot of the positive achievements that we can credit liberals with that WS mentioned, to which we can add labor laws, social security and medicare.

But also, I think you're wrong about conservativism: it's just incorrect to think that conservatives want to maintain the status quo, whatever the status quo may be. Your link to Rich Lowry's article makes my point where he writes: "American conservatives like Reagan have always sought instead to conserve the habits and institutions of classical liberalism." The "habits and institutions of classical liberalism" means free markets and low taxes. And "conserve" has often meant in American history, "actively promote" using even radical means if necessary. See Kevin Phillips's book Wealth and Democracy if you want a glimpse of what conservatives have done to the country on economic policy to help business and the wealthy in American history. Or you can just look at the Bush tax cuts. That looks to nearly all liberals like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Above, per Burke, I note that change is necessary. The idea is to limit unforeseen consequences.

Both Burke, and apparently Reagan, are no mere reactionaries.

But we're getting on the same page, at least, Jared, for which I'm thankful.

As for the Bush tax cuts and coeval deficits, and the desirability (or possibility!) of liberating capital to create plenty for all, it requires a scalpel. Forgive me if I don't consider Phillips' sharp enough. I prefer yours.

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Social Security neither needs fixing, nor is it a *Ponzi scheme*. If not for the Social Security trust fund, the right wing's fiscal irresponsibity would be laid even more bare, as the 'on budget' deficit would be even bigger.

The fact of the matter is that it is healthier financially than the General Fund.

You really should make the effort to educate yourself before you go quoting right wing talking points. You can start here, where he links to actual trustees' reports showing the dates of trust fund negative growth and depletion RECEDING in each of the past five years:

10:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the Bush tax cuts were exactly targeted in the wrong area. Given the overinvestment in the 90s, what was needed was middle class demand to soak up the unused capacity and idle inventories built up. That would have been the logical place for stimulus, rather than blindly following the true believers' religious belief in Voodoo economics, something even David Stockman admitted was bullshit.

As far as economic stimulus that matters, the fact that job growth and real wages have grown more slowly during the current expansion than any other post-War expansion, I think its fair to say that whatever growth in the economy Bush's policies might have helped create, its benefits are inuring to an extremely narrow part of the populace. It's important to remember that the economy and participants in the economy are not identical.

And if you want to unleash productive capital, a better place would be to address the dead weight we're carrying in the health care sector, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

And you should really make the effort to get a screenname/pseudonym (having the guts to sign your real name is far too much to ask) so when I provide links that conclusively prove just how far your head is up your ass, as I have several times already, you might have the honor or shame to either acknowledge it or get lost. Either of which would please me. I know you don't give a hoot what I think, because I'm the comfortable enemy, but you care very much what everybody else thinks.

You're not the least bit interested in convincing me, or even communicating with me, as evidenced by your links to the unauthoritative left-wing sources you parrot. You make no effort at all to speak my language.

When somebody shows me the least bit of daylight, I usually meet them more than halfway. If I ignore your challenges in the future, which I will, I want to be on record why. If I want to exchange banalities on the internet, I might as well go directly to Glenn Greenwald or MJ Rosenberg or whoever the hell bruceweb is and spend my time productively. Man up or piss off, anonymous. The internet, and the world, is lousy with people who shoot from the safety of the duck blind, because the ducks can't shoot back.

1:07 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


I'm having a hard time seeing how you aren't simply dodging the question and muddying the waters.

Even if conservatives aim at preserving the status quo (something about which, with Jared, I'm skeptical), then you should point to things that liberals tried to change that conservatives tried to stop, and such that the latter were *clearly right*.

We've got a list of things liberals were clearly right about. Still none for conservatives.

Just typing more words doesn't make you right. As far as I can tell, you're just sunk on this one, but refuse to admit it.

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shorter Tom Van Dyke: when confronted with direct evidence that I'm wrong, I'll just stomp my feet, dismiss the data merely because of the address it's posted at (even though it comes from links to official BLS, CBO, SS trustees or other direct source) and whine because the person confronting me with the data doesn't use a *pseudonym*.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Sorry, WS, I keep forgetting that your experience with non-leftist history and thought is limited. There is much I take for granted. A few things, then:

---That the constantly rising tide of taxation needed to be reversed, as it stifles hard work, entrepreneurship, innovation, and ultimately, prosperity.

---That the constantly rising tide of regulation needed to be halted, as compliance begins to elbow out actual production.

---That deregulation largely results in lower prices for consumers (energy, telephones, airlines).

---That communism was an ideological tyranny, an enemy of of freedom and of man's spirit, and needed to be opposed and rolled back at every opportunity. (The Strategic Defense Initiative, "Star Wars," drove liberals nuts but drove the Soviet Union to suicide.)

---That, per Washington's Farewell Address, religion is not an enemy, but an irreplacable ally for any republic that depends first and foremost on self-governance.

---That the family is the core platoon of society (there is a provable higher incidence of almost every social pathology in its absence), and that the welfare system was destroying it and individual initiative as well.

---That affirmative action is at best neutral in the short term, that its greater access is offset by things like lower graduation rates and suspicion of minorities' genuine achievement.

---That in the long term, emphasizing the discrimination against groups as trumping individual effort and achievement has resulted in an epidemic hopelessness and a destructive racial divide.

---That choice in schools (vouchers) is the only real solution to resegregation. (One can be sure that if conservatives had such a monopoly on the schools and the education establishment [without whose money and volunteers the Democratic Party would die], good liberals everywhere would be in favor of such freedom.)

---That despite the flaws of things like Three Strikes, locking up pathologically habitual offenders keeps them off the streets and it's a mathematical certainty, borne out by the stats, that crime rates decrease.

---That the 55 mile an hour speed limit sucked.

And as Jared notes, the earned Income Credit is a beautiful thing, where if you work harder (or work at all), you have more money. What a concept.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Now we're getting somewhere...

Of course many of these don't meet the criteria, because it isn't clear that they're right.

Still, progress. Thanks.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Actually, more than a cursory glance shows that this list is highly problematic.


"That communism was an ideological tyranny, an enemy of of freedom and of man's spirit, and needed to be opposed and rolled back at every opportunity. (The Strategic Defense Initiative, "Star Wars," drove liberals nuts but drove the Soviet Union to suicide.)"

No, Star Wars didn't drive the Soviet union to suicide (unless you mean the movie...and that's a synecdoche for capitalism or something...).

First, most liberals (a.o.t. leftists--again, a suspect distinction here...) agreed that the Soviet Union had to be opposed. Second, the right was wrong that it had to be "rolled back at every opportunity." Rather, there are opportunities and there are opportunities. The right not only committed atrocities by jumping at every "opportunity" (in Central America), but it also made our strategic situation worse in the long run (in, e.g. , the Middle East).

The right showed that it was willing to kill and oppress non-Americans in order to maybe possibly kinda sorta roll back the Soviets in any way. They were wrong, morally AND strategically.

Today we're paying the price for their mistakes.

So, an inauspicious beginning for the list...but still, something.

The point about imprisoning violent criminals is clearly right.

(It may be more than balanced by the right's tendency to also imprison *non-violent* quasi-criminals (e.g. drug offenders)...but that's a different point.)

11:17 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Also school choice NOT EVEN CLOSE to being clear.

Maybe I wasn't clear enough about what I was asking:

I KNOW that there are many things that liberals and conservatives disagree about, and I know that there are many things that conservatives might end up being right about.

What I'm asking is this:
What have conservatives been *obviously* right about in the last 50 years?

11:20 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Congratulations, WS. We made the big time. I was as clear as I could be, so I'm not sure the muddiness can be traced to its source.

An expanded version of our dialogue was picked up by today's edition of American Spectator Online. You were acknowledged, but left anonymous, as is your preference.

It seems like I write here in order to pick a fight, but it's to clarify my thinking and make myself more honest, in front of an unsympathetic (and frequently hostile) audience. If I want to be heard out, I need to use non-pejorative language (sorry for the Luntzism of "tax relief"---it came from a desire for brevity), and signing my real name obliges me to keep a civil tongue.

Anyway, thanks to you and all those here gathered who hone and grind on me. If you want to try your own luck away from your home field, please email AmSpec, since the editor thought the piece might spark some additions to my list, and perhaps some dialogue. You'll have to bring your "A" game, but they print dissenting voices, and the exercise will give you some idea of what it feels like to be me.

12:59 AM  
Blogger Tony D said...

Bob Nelson was right, "the mind IS a terrible thing!"

9:27 PM  

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