The Decline of Conservative Thought
Once the party of ideas, the GOP now polices political correctness.
The current dominance of Donald Trump—and to a lesser extent Ted Cruz and Ben Carson in the Republican presidential primary–has led to considerable angst among some Republican intellectuals. In a recent New York Times op ed entitled Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump, Peter Wehner, who served President Reagan and both President Bushes, lamented the decline of Republican ideas:
In these pages in July 1980, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic senator from New York, declared, “Of a sudden, the G.O.P. has become a party of ideas.” If Mr. Trump wins the nomination, the G.O.P. will become the party of anti-reason.
Moynihan was right. At the time he was writing, the left’s answer to most problems was more money and more regulation. He himself experienced the left’s intellectual rigidity when he wrote about the plight of the black family and was viciously attacked for it.
During the period Moynihan was writing, a number of intellectuals on the right started developing market-based solutions to problems. These included a negative income tax to replace most welfare programs, an idea proposed by the Nixon administration and eventually leading to the earned income tax credit. The economist Milton Friedman was probably the best known, but he was only one of many proposing market-based solutions.
Several of these ideas have since entered the mainstream and became the basis of policies endorsed not just by conservatives, but the Clinton and Obama administrations as well. Here are three examples:
Environmental protection. When market-based solutions for pollution, such as pollution taxes or marketable pollution credits (cap and trade), were first proposed as a substitute for regulation, many environmentalists dismissed them as a “license to pollute.” Today market-based solutions are widely credited for the success in the rapid reduction in sulfur emissions from power plants. They are also part of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gases.
Where practical, such market-based approaches to pollution have a number of advantages over the traditional approach of setting limits based on technology or output standards (command and control regulation): they encourage the greatest reduction in pollution for a given cost to society, they shift cost-benefit judgments from government employees to industry, they create an incentive for continuous improvement, and offer more certainty for those making investment decisions.
Urban policy. There was increasing recognition that many federal standards and subsidies, such as building standards for federally-guaranteed mortgages and subsidies for road building—but not other forms of transportation—hurt cities. This helped lead to New Urbanism and a deeper appreciation of local control and diversity in land-use regulations.
Universal health insurance. In 1989 the Heritage Foundation published a booklet describing an alternative, called “The Heritage Plan,” to health care plans offered by Hillary Clinton and others. It consisted of four points: (1) treat employer health care benefits as taxable income to the employee, (2) “mandate all households to obtain adequate insurance,” (3) “provide help to those who cannot afford protection,” and (4) reform Medicare. The first three points are widely regarded as a prototype to the Affordable Care Act. The Heritage Plan was authored by Stuart Butler, its Director of Domestic Policy Studies.
The Earned Income Tax Credit. This grew out of the Nixon administration’s search for an alternative to traditional welfare programs viewed as creating incentives that discouraged workers.
In the past 30 years, the pool of ideas from conservative thinkers has largely dried up. If Moynihan were to return today, he would shocked at the dearth of interesting ideas they now offer. Yet the same period has seen an explosion of conservative think tanks and foundations.
Start with health care insurance. Rather than celebrating ObamaCare as a triumph of its scholarship, the Heritage tries to thoroughly distance itself from the very thought that any of its ideas led to the Affordable Care Act. Here is the attempt by Butler to disown his baby. Butler’s attempt to draw distinctions between his plan and what was enacted 20 years later are unconvincing. For example, he claims he has since become convinced that the individual mandate is not needed. Yet those challenging the individual mandate, hoped that the Supreme Court, in striking it down, would break the ACA.
Butler defends himself by pointing out that many conservative icons shared his views at the time:
My view was shared at the time by many conservative experts, including American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholars, as well as most non-conservative analysts. Even libertarian-conservative icon Milton Friedman, in a 1991 Wall Street Journal article, advocated replacing Medicare and Medicaid “with a requirement that every U.S. family unit have a major medical insurance policy.”
Inadvertently Butler has placed his finger on a key reason that original thought has dried up among conservative intellectuals: a fear of being branded a heretic straying from conservative orthodoxy.
The evolution of a friend of mine from graduate school days illustrates what happened in many cases. A liberal and environmentalist, he left grad school to join the Environmental Protection Agency as a policy analyst. He became convinced that pollution charges offered a better solution than technology mandates for controlling pollution. He spent considerable time with congressional staff members trying to convince them to look at market- based solutions like cap and trade.
There are several reasons for the current lack of interesting ideas on the right. One is the ascendancy of money. My friend’s organization, according to its web site, has a staff of 38. Supporting such a staff is no small feat and means the organization must be careful not to offend major funders, whether foundations, companies, or wealthy individuals. This means that, even it wanted to, praising the EPA’s plan as a market-based approach to the challenge of global warming could put the organization at risk.
With the infusion of Koch money, the Cato Foundation has become much more a defender of business and less interested in showing a libertarian skepticism to government subsidies to oil and gas interests.
Tom Edsall of the New York Times puts his finger on another reason. It is dangerous to diverge from the party line:
In a successful effort to secure compliance, the right has institutionalized enforcement through such groups as Americans for Tax Reform, Freedom Works, the Club for Growth and the network of national and local Tea Party organizations. These watchdog groups ensure that Republicans toe the line, ready to foster — and finance — primary challenges against those who deviate from the party line.
Another factor may be the growing tendency of conservatives to talk only to like-minded people. This means they accept each other’s conclusions uncritically.
Here is the moderate conservative, New York Times columnist David Brooks talking about global warming,
on this issue the G.O.P. has come to resemble a Soviet dictatorship — a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation.
Here is Brooks on the State of the campaign:
Members of the Republican governing class are like cowering freshmen at halftime of a high school football game. Some are part of the Surrender Caucus, sitting sullenly on their stools resigned to the likelihood that their team is going to get crushed. Some are thinking of jumping ship to the Trump campaign with an alacrity that would make rats admire and applaud.
Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush’s speech writer and policy assistant, argues that for the sake of the Republican party, both Trump and Cruz must lose.
Cruz represents the arrival of tea party ideology at the presidential level. He espouses a “constitutionalism” that would disqualify much of modern government, and a belief that Republican elites are badly, even mainly, at fault for accommodating cultural and economic liberalism. Trump has adopted an ethno-nationalism in which the constraints of “political correctness” are lifted to express frankly nativist sentiments: that many illegal immigrants are criminals and rapists who threaten American jobs, and that Muslims are foreign, suspicious and potentially dangerous.
Even Milwaukee’s own Christian Schneider, usually a staunch defender of whatever Republicans do, recently questioned the conservative antipathy towards cities in a column entitled Republicans shouldn’t give up on cities. From a logical viewpoint, conservatives should skeptical of federal and state programs that promote urban sprawl. Yet when it comes to cars, conservatives are socialists with only a few exceptions. (See, for example, the American Conservative: New Urbanism section.)
Looking at the bright side, the success of Trump and Cruz may have the beneficial effect of causing some conservative intellectuals to break their shackles. Perhaps this creates an opportunity for original thought on the right. It is not healthy for the nation when only one party is interested in solving problems.