Thursday, September 16, 2010

In the wake of the primaries: the real American debate

This is actually a debate that's been going on for a while now, but the Republican primaries have brought it into the open in a way it really hasn't been previously. For one thing, virtually the whole of the liberal-left, including the whole of the Democratic Party, has been, and remains, largely irrelevant to it. Perhaps out of shock at how quickly what looked like their epochal 2008 victory has dissipated, or exhaustion trying to defend widely disliked legislation on healthcare and the stimulus, they've been stuck in a purely reactive mode for a long time now, reduced to little more than making repetitive charges of racism.

But some of that has been mirrored on the conservative-right as well, as we see the old conservative and Republican establishments, concerned to retain their tolerated niches within the liberal elite, making condescending, even sneering remarks about, e.g., the Tea Party phenomenon or the Palin-Beck-Limbaugh triumvirate. The Tuesday primaries, though, may have been enough of a shock to that establishment that they're finally realizing they need to actually confront the upstarts on an intellectual plane. In any case, we can see David Brooks (one of the "two mighty Davids of conservative intellect") now trying to make an argument, as opposed to a snark, in favor of what he calls "limited but energetic government". He doesn't do much of a job explaining just what that is (he uses FDR's New Deal as an example), or how it might differ from the liberal-left's simpler "energetic government"  -- but, hey, at least he's putting some cards on the table.

What makes his attempt particularly interesting, though, is that you can see the other side quite plainly -- it's a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Arthur C. Brooks and Paul Ryan, the latter one of the lights of the Republican Party, accurately entitled "The Size of Government and the Choice This Fall". Unlike Brooks, in other words, they clearly sound the "choice not an echo" theme, and moreover, they focus this choice on exactly the right issue -- the size of government. Here's where you can see the contrast between David Brooks' efforts to obscure that issue, and theirs to clarify it -- first Brooks' almost comic litany of despair:
The social fabric is fraying. Human capital is being squandered. Society is segmenting. The labor markets are ill. Wages are lagging. Inequality is increasing. The nation is overconsuming and underinnovating. China and India are surging. Not all of these challenges can be addressed by the spontaneous healing powers of the market.
The last statement is tacked on as an article of faith, I suppose, and he gives no indication that at least some of his "challenges" might be due to the inadvertent infecting powers of the state (and some might not  necessarily even be seen as "challenges"). Ryan and the other Brooks, on the other hand, present alternatives in a fairly straightforward way:
Data support the proposition that Americans like generous government programs and don't want to lose them. So while 70% of Americans told pollsters at the Pew Research Center in 2009 they agreed that "people are better off in a free market economy, even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time," large majorities favor keeping our social insurance programs intact. This leads conventional thinkers to claim that a welfare state is what we truly want, regardless of whether or not we mouth platitudes about "freedom" and "entrepreneurship."
But these claims miss the point. What we must choose is our aspiration, not whether we want to zero out the state. Nobody wants to privatize the Army or take away Grandma's Social Security check. Even Friedrich Hayek in his famous book, "The Road to Serfdom," reminded us that the state has legitimate—and critical—functions, from rectifying market failures to securing some minimum standard of living.
However, finding the right level of government for Americans is simply impossible unless we decide which ideal we prefer: a free enterprise society with a solid but limited safety net, or a cradle-to-grave, redistributive welfare state. Most Americans believe in assisting those temporarily down on their luck and those who cannot help themselves, as well as a public-private system of pensions for a secure retirement. But a clear majority believes that income redistribution and government care should be the exception and not the rule.
What's key to the above is the idea that what needs to be decided upon is an aspiration or aim, and this is what Reihan Salam, in a short article that compares the two essays above and tries to play peace-maker, focuses upon as well:
Politics is not always about highly technical debates concerning progressive price indexing. It is often about shaping our shared normative understandings, and, as Ryan and Brooks argue in their Wall Street Journal essay, our shared aspirations for the kind of society we’d like to live in. And on those grounds, at least, Ryan and Brooks are offering an attractive alternative to a society that looks first to the federal government to solve problems.
Salam, I think, tries to keep a foot in both worlds -- conservative establishment, and Tea Partyish insurgents -- but in this article we can maybe see his weight starting to shift. In any case, though, the engagement of all three pieces  in real and far-reaching political themes is at least an indication of the kind of thoughtful ferment taking place on the right now, in marked contrast to the left.


  1. Brooks (Davey, not Arthur or Mel) sounds nearly reasonable for a change. It's election time, and so the conservatives are now engaging in their usual anti-statist ranting and raving, but Brooks reminds us that American govt. has always relied on energetic state intervention when necessary. Market forces will not likely produce any solutions, except those which benefit the wealthy few.

    That said, conservative spinmeisters may be winning the media battle but that has little to do with actual politics or economic policies, but with dare we say "framing."
    Limbaugh merely has to open his mouth about "Imam" Obama and he has millions of yokels ditto'ing him--same for Sarah Klondike, for the most part (really an embarrassment even for the GOP).

    US politics has, for a few decades, had little to do with reasoned arguments, but with image, marketing, spin--even Davey Brooks' Hume-lite schtick is not likely to appeal to many in Consumerland.

  2. Brooks (Davey, not Arthur or Mel) sounds nearly reasonable for a change.

    Because, to a liberal-lefty of course, anybody who sounds like them sounds "reasonable". Anybody who doesn't sound like them is a "yokel", and that's about as "reasoned" an argument as they're capable of.

    It's why reasonable people -- i.e., the lefties' "yokels" -- are increasingly just ignoring the left.

  3. No--that's another of your non sequiturs. Brooks sounds reasonable (and hardly leftist) because he correctly points out that American politicians--from the very start of the USA--have at times resorted to various types of govt. intervention in hopes of rectifying economic issues.

    It's the tea-bagger populists who simply reject that out of hand, without any reasonable justification whatsoever and inconsistently as well, since they generally love the US Military, as Big Govt. as any that ever existed. Even Miss Ayn at times dissed the DoD budget (and was not always friendly towards the libertarian....yokels).

  4. Just because American politicians have resorted to something is not a reason why that something is right. American politicians may have at times resorted to graft and corruption too, but that doesn't mean its something that needs to continue.

    And, of course, the whole point of A Brooks and Ryan's piece is to point out that, while government intervention is sometimes necessary, we need to make a choice about "which ideal we prefer: a free enterprise society with a solid but limited safety net, or a cradle-to-grave, redistributive welfare state." That's probably too subtle a point for the liberal-left elite and their herd of followers, but then that wasn't their audience.

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  6. True--their audience probably consists of a few hundred MBA students in private colleges across the USA, and shouldn't be considered representative. David Brooks's a moderate and was hardly supporting the cradle to grave model anyway (that is, the US Military, or cops, or firemen model---generally all GOPers anyway).

    That said, the right's rhetoric often is more subtle than many naive democrats realize. For instance, when rightists bless "free enterprise" that generally means, "lets make sure govt. doesn't prevent us keeping our inherited wealth-- by any means necessary; and let's get rid of all those nasty costly regulations--whether environmental, or work-related, etc. And slash taxes....and let's keep the union rabble down as well."

    There's an entire complex involved with the praise of free enterprise, m!--sort of the implications of Newt Gingrich crypto-klansman speak. Po' white boys, hardly as sophisticated as the Newtster, are a bit more honest--they just tattoo some swastikas and lightning stripes across their arms, torso, and necks

  7. There's an entire complex involved with the praise of free enterprise, m!--sort of the implications of Newt Gingrich crypto-klansman speak.

    Wow -- that's pretty convincing, J. Why, I bet if you read deeply enough into the Newtster's crypto speak you'd find out that Katrina, just like 9/11, was an inside job!

    When did those aliens last probe you, by the way?

  8. Your typical silly non-sequitur. Gingrich has documented ties with white nationalist groups. As do many GOPers, and Limbaugh. But who cares? The right's not about telling the truth (and honestly, neither are most leftists). It's about...winning, by any means necessary.

    You said you were a canadian. Ergo, I don't think you are that acquainted with American right-wingers, especially southern WASP types, metamorf.

  9. J, every conspiracy nut in the world claims "documented ties" for their pet paranoia. For that matter, so does every paranoid. You're right that I'm not American, and not a southerner, but politics is often a messy, sordid business all over, with lies and counter-lies and lies to counter lies all around. My point is that it doesn't help your position just to wallow in these mud pits, except I guess with other swine. If you're not running for office yourself -- or even if you are -- it's a lot more persuasive or at least interesting to make a case that doesn't rely on crude insults or stereotypes.

  10. Again, you're the one avoiding the issue. It's not at all a "conspiracy" theory--ala UFOs, or JFK's death, 9-11, etc---to assert that some politician has ties to the radical right, any more than your accusations of people (like David Brooks!) having ties to the radical left. It's a claim. So one marshalls evidence to confirm the claim (and in the case of Gingrich and Limbaugh, the evidence can be found).

    Now, a Gingrich is a clever right-wing nut and covers his tracks well---if he decides to run for Prez in the next few months, however, his connections will be exposed (not that that will bother the WASP right too much, any more than Sarah Klondike does).


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