Every man has his myth, self-generated of course. Mine is this: economic theory originally fashioned me as liberal. But -- after half a decade -- economic experience trumped theory, routing me to the right. Unlike present progressives, conversion to conservatism was a confirmation of history. So here's one (long-winded) reason why I became, and remain, a neo-con.
- Where are we?: As recently as the mid-1990, conservatives were in the majority, and neo-cons had ascended. The tide has turned, as detailed in the October 6-12th Economist:
Five years ago America was evenly divided by party identification: 43% for each party. This year the Democrats have a 50% to 35% advantage. Democratic presidential candidates have raised about 70% more than their Republican rivals. Ohio, Virginia and Colorado are leaning Democratic, and Pennsylvania has gone from a swing-state to a Democratic lock.Another Economist article, from the August 11th issue, shows sliding support from next generation voters:
The Republicans are doing particularly badly among independents (the fastest-growing group in the electorate) and younger voters. The proportion of 18-25-year-olds who identify with the Republican Party has declined from 55% in 1991 to 35% in 2006, according to Pew. Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, notes that the share of Republican voters aged 55 and over has increased from 28% in 1997 to 41% today, whereas the share aged 18-34 has fallen from 25% to 17%. No wonder Ken Mehlman, a former Republican Party chairman who oversaw George Bush's 2004 victory, is now advising hedge funds on how to deal with a Democratic-leaning America.Mehlman's career change [NOfP note: Mehlman is a friend and I worked indirectly for him during the 2004 campaign] starkly symbolizes why I've already conceded the '08 election. What changed my mind? For many, the answer is easy--President Bush:
In foreign policy, the man who sought to transform Iraq, the Middle East and America's reputation has indeed had revolutionary effects, though not the ones he was aiming for. Now something similar seems to be happening in domestic politics. The most conservative president in recent history, a man who sought to turn his victories of 2000 and 2004 into a Republican hegemony, may well end up driving the Western world's most impressive political machine off a cliff.That argument (also from the Economist) is gospel among an array of Bush-bashers, including the mainstream media (especially the NY Times), Euro elites, CIA insiders, Congressional Democrats, left-wing nut-roots--and disgruntled movement conservatives. Bush's failures -- principally, his inability to articulate and persuade -- are part of the problem, but not necessarily the explanation for the current cliff. Because although lefties tag the President as principal bad-guy, the blame's been broadened: almost every Bush-basher also decries neo-conservatives. Cleverly, conspiracy-minded lefties avoid choosing a single villain by painting Bush as so stupid to be controlled by neo-con advisors. (Current and former Administration officials sometimes identified as neo-cons include former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, first-term chairman of the Defense Policy Board; Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense; and David Wurmser, once Cheney's chief Middle East aide, and "maybe" Dick Cheney and his now disgraced ex-Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby.) So from net to newspapers, the anti-George gang seemingly hunt neo-cons for sport. I don't defend each Bush decision--and can't. Nor do I echo every neo-con notion. Yet -- challenged and cheated -- I remain right-of-center, a card-carrying Republican and a neo-con, even in the lame-duck portion of the present Presidency.
- What is a "neo-conservative" (neocon)?: Answering isn't easy because, as non-neocon Jonah Goldberg observes, "even the leaders of the "neoconservative movement" . . . [can] not agree on what neoconservatism is." Commonly cited founders include Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Melvin Lasky, and Albert Wohlstetter. Each started as lefties or even socialists "who moved right in reaction to the left's shift on cultural mores, personal responsibility and foreign policy." Hence Irving Kristol famously defining neocon as "a liberal mugged by reality."
More rigorously, Kristol outlined his approach in the The Weekly Standard (a leading neocon journal edited by Irving's son Bill) four years ago: The Neoconservative Persuasion identified three philosophic pillars (for what it's worth, Wikipedia adopts Kristol's definition):
- Encouraging economic growth enriches all and is the most effective anti-poverty program;
- Redirecting government from the "welfare state" to encouraging cultural and democratic virtues; and
- A foreign policy guided by "American exceptionalism," the notion that ours is a vibrant, immigrant-populated, rule-of-law driven nation; accordingly America is uniquely qualified and capable of fostering democratic globalization.
- What do I believe?: I've enthusiastically and repeatedly adopted and praised the third prong. I agree with parts of point two, though have a deeper dislike for paternalism enforced via state-power coercion and a stronger certainty that smaller government is better: hence Hayek as one touchstone in this blog's "sub-head." Max Boot and Michael Novak promote the primacy of the foreign policy plank. Given the war on terror, it's a fair point: In the modern globalized world, foreign affairs matters more than ever. It ever fascinates--prompting numerous NOfP posts; indeed, international law and regulation pay my mortgage. But this essay focuses on the first pillar--because pro-growth economics was the initial neoconservative idea I adopted. As a bonus, this post implicitly will explain the sub-head (fittingly, during baseball's playoffs).
- Was I always this way?: No. Like early neo-cons, I once was a leftist. While my family is neither as interesting nor as extreme as, say, David Horowitz's, I was raised in the liberal tradition: progressive grandparents; two liberal parents--both long-time Democrats, each politically active. Like many leftists, my story starts with soft socialism driving participation in politics and policy (but never student government). So I licked envelopes for McGovern; I protested and chanted outside an A&P (to shame suburbia into boycoting non-union grapes). Yet, unlike many classmates, my polestar wasn't Marx--his writings were unreadable. Rather, I was captivated by Rawls.
- What's Rawls got to do with it?: John Rawls is an unlikely object of teenage second-hand devotion. A political philosopher who taught at Cornell, MIT and -- beginning in 1982 -- Harvard until his death in 2002 at age 81, Rawls' work is considered "difficult for nonphilosophers to penetrate." From K-12th grade in public schools I was a terrible student (I graduated high school with a 2.7 GPA). Still, I imagined I understood Rawls' most celebrated work, "A Theory of Justice." First published in 1971, that essay alone earned Rawls consideration as "the most important political philosopher of the second half of the 20th century and a powerful advocate of the liberal perspective."
The simplest summary of Rawls' ToJ is: Justice as Fairness. At least in his "original position," Rawls believed in the injustice of unfairness, which he equated with inequality. His most memorable idea was that legitimate social contracts had to be designed by citizens who did not know what position they would occupy in the resulting society. Rawls called this "the veil of ignorance." Mom used a simpler phrase serving pie: "if you cut, your brother chooses."
Legal equality is essential to justice: it's central to the Declaration of Independence and codified in part in the Constitution's 14th Amendment. But Rawls insisted that a just social contract demands equality of ultimate social position, i.e., outcome. So for Rawls, rules resulting in differences in wealth or power were unjust and thus forbiddenper se. That, as well, was revolutionary:
In other words, the absolute economic well-being of most Americans matters less than their relative position. Legitimizing this spirit of envy . . . Rawls professed to summarize the requirements of institutional justice in two principles. The first principle mandated that the "equal basic liberties" of all citizens be maximized. The second (the "difference principle") ordained that inequalities in social and economic goods were allowable only to the extent that they improved the condition of the "least advantaged" members of society. Conferring the National Humanities Medal on Rawls in 1999, then-President Bill Clinton applauded the professor's having "placed our rights to liberty and justice upon a strong and brilliant new foundation of reason," thereby helping "a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself." Rawls's writings have played a major role in tilting the academic debate in favor of such policies as increasing inheritance taxes and narrowly restricting campaign contributions, so as to limit the supposedly unfair influence of the rich.According to Rawls, democracies act according to their underlying social contract only when leveling inequality. Back then, I compared public policy to surgery, believing nust be operated as should produce near-absolute equality. America, I thought, must be a nationwide Mom--passing out pie in perfect proportion.
- What changed?: Mostly coincidence--my first (college) course in economics coincided with Jimmy Carter's initial year as President.
For those too young to remember the Carter economy: malaise. Though he touted his economic credentials,
after four years of the Carter presidency, both inflation and unemployment were considerably worse than at the time of his inauguration. The annual inflation rate rose from 4.8% in 1976 to 6.8% in 1977, 9% in 1978, 11% in 1979, and hovered around 12% at the time of the 1980 election campaign. Although Carter had pledged to eliminate federal deficits, the deficit for the fiscal year 1979 totaled $27.7 billion, and that for 1980 was nearly $59 billion. With approximately 8 million people out of work, the unemployment rate had leveled off to a nationwide average of about 7.7% by the time of the election campaign, but it was considerably higher in some industrial states.When Carter exited, courtesy of Ronald Reagan, GDP growth had turned negative and the "prime" interest rate hit its historical peak of 21.5 percent (for comparison, it's 7.75 percent today). As our economy cratered, I saw the inherent injustice of equality--why should we peg all strati to its least fortunate? Aren't we individuals? Is free will dead? Carter and Rawls seem to say: "Better to beggar all than to sanction some success. No one should have to rely on self-reliance; that's what government's for!" And I realized that equating inequality with injustice necessitates steep increases in transaction costs that inveribly would reduce both incentive and ability captured in the wise Copyright and Patent Constitutional clause.
Put differently: in a meritocracy, wouldn't most, even behind veil of ignorance, favor a system where sweat or smarts were rewarded? Initially an engineering major, it seemed obvious to me that human ingenuity had advanced civilization and citizens, but that exalting equality could dampen the impetus for progress.But the key insight came from trade economics: wealth need not be a zero-sum game:
trade and commerce create wealth for both parties to the transaction. [E]very voluntary exchange is motivated by the expectation of increased value. If one person only has cloth, and he trades with another person who only has wine (the example used by David Ricardo, a personal hero of mine, in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817)), than the each party winds up with both cloth and wine--and pleased by prospect. This is known as "Comparative Advantage"--the foundation for free trade.And for political philosophy, observes Ryan Anderson in the September 24th Weekly Standard:
To the central economic question--how to deal with a scarcity of resources--there are three possible answers: force, altruism, or exchange. Because men ought not be beasts, and are not angels, scarcity is best resolved by exchange in the market economy. Against the mistaken notion that "one person's commercial gain is another person's loss," Gregg argues that exchange is mutually beneficial because economic value is subjective. I love music but have baseball tickets; you love sports but have opera tickets. Since we value our goods differently, trade would leave us both better off. So the market reflects the nature of humans and their ability to be self-directing, free choosers.So trade and commerce create wealth (the two in Anderson's example) for the individuals involved and for others (think agribiz feeding millions).
- What does Ricardo mean for Rawls?: Rawls was obsessed with allocating equally society's wealth, resources and political power. In other words, dividing up the pie. Rawls paid comparatively little attention to the pie itself: how large? is it equally useful to all?
But if Ricardo is right, the economic "pie" isn't static. In truth as Arnold Kling argues, it's not even a pie:
The often-used phrase "distribution of income" suggests the metaphor of a pie. I believe that a more accurate metaphor would be an escalator. The pie metaphor treats income as static, thereby ignoring one of the most important facts about the standard of living, which is its rise over time. . . In 1975, many of the families surveyed were young families or new immigrants, and they were near the bottom of the escalator. After fifteen years on the escalator, many of them reached the top half of the escalator. When you came back and surveyed the same families in 1991, most of them were near the top of the escalator. That is, they were in the top income categories relative to all families in 1991.What does that mean? If the pie is expanding, production grows to meet the demand, increasing employment opportunities and production in a "virtius cycle" of expanded products (think Sony products) at lower prices (think Sony products before the Supreme Court found. market and mass production allow all to expand service offerings, upping output and increasing valuation and to increased valuation sometime wealth can better be created in marketplace change This result should not shock: Should this conclusion suprise you, doesn't that suggest U.S. finance policies This re-works the same Malthusian mistake made by enviro alarmists like Paul Ehrlich:
Repeating the mistakes of Thomas Malthus, Ehrlich's estimates consistently understate technological change that "did more with less." He never properly modeled the scarcity safeguards implicit in market supply and demand. In combination, his approach employed a relatively static model, with finite resources and infinitely increasing needs. These omissions led Ehrlich to the same dead end as philosopher John Rawls: whether considering the economy or resources, the "pie" isn't fixed--it gets bigger.Rawls concentrated on redistribution of the rewards of civil society; yet, "It would seem fairly straightforward to explain that taking money from your left pocket and putting it into your right pocket doesn’t make you any richer." But Recardo's method -- the t-shirt reads "Hey, I got this valuable diamond and all I had to trade was green paper -- recognizes that, in a free market, any performed contract per force augments pre-transaction total society wealth as well as the wealth of both parties to the exchange! So, if Ricardo is right, trade and growth increase wealth of rich and poor alike. And if inequality is a reward to merit, doesn't mean that, with brains, sweat and briefcases, Kling argues, "anyone can grow up to be rich and successful." There are numerous additional critiques of Rawls, including his doubtful omniscience of bureaucrats and politicians (compare James Earl Carter with Ronald Wilson Reagan) and practical limits to state power coercion in the service of transforming historical human instincts (compare Carternomics with Reaganomics). A recent WSJ piece concluded:
[F]ew of those influenced by Rawls have given his arguments a properly critical look, or recognized how far his doctrine strayed from liberalism as it has traditionally been understood. Unlike the great political philosophers of the Western tradition from Aristotle to Locke to Rousseau, Rawls did not ground his account of justice in an empirical examination of human nature or political life. He also left his principles of justice at such an extreme level of generality that they pointed to no specific political conclusions, certainly not the ones attributed to them by his followers. Rawls's precept that "liberty may be restricted only for the sake of liberty" offered no guidance as to how different forms of liberty (say, Americans' right to freedom from terror attacks compared with the ostensible right to privacy) should be balanced against one another. Nor could Rawls demonstrate that any particular level of economic inequality violated his difference principle: If (as may well be the case) allowing corporate executives to earn annual incomes of tens of millions of dollars helps to generate the economic dynamism that raises Americans' living standards, including those of the poor, such inequalities are allowable. What Rawls contributed to the political education of American intellectuals was not any sort of rigorous analysis, but an overall spirit or outlook detrimental to freedom. He coined a doctrine of what he called "excusable envy," according to which it is rational to envy people whose superiority in wealth exceeds certain (unspecified) limits, and to act on that passion. He cancelled out his ostensible prioritization of liberty by holding that liberty must first be given its "fair value," meaning that political liberties, including freedom of the press, may need to be restricted so as to ensure that the political process yields legislation that is "fair" to the poor. In his later writings, increasingly deferential to the Marxist critique of liberalism, Rawls wrote that securing people's equal rights and liberties must be preceded by government's first having ensured that their "basic needs" for economic goods were met -- thus sanctioning the alibis offered by assorted despots for violating their subjects' elemental rights to free speech, the freedom from arbitrary arrest, and the security of individual life and property. John Rawls's intellectual legacy for American politics was an unfortunate one. Then again, he disparaged our political regime as only an "allegedly" democratic one anyway, and grew increasingly bitter in his last years, according to his closest associates, over our failure to institute the policies he happened to favor -- such as severe campaign-finance restrictions and universal health insurance. Whatever one's views on such issues, neither Rawls's principles nor his spirit offer a promising approach for addressing them.Through good fortune prompted by coincidence, I reconsidered Rawls in 1977. Belatedly, I realized that -- while government must maximize equality of merit opportunity -- inequality of outcome wasn't always unjust. And so I understood that had Ricardo played in today's "live ball era," his ever-increasing output and error-free defense would overwhelm the overreaching, excitable Rawls.
America's strengths--the melting pot, the reinvention, the absence of class boundaries, the esprit--have overcome the vast majority of its racial issues. We tackled the beast with typical American directness and gusto, and are on the path to eradicate racism altogether. So, why do I favor the conservative approach? Simple: I'm a conservative because so much in America is worth conserving.That light-hearted explanation is true. But economics, not race, made me neo-conservative before I knew the term. It happened because I broke-up with Rawls--to go steady with reason. That was prompted once I understood experience supported Ricardo's theory. Neocons were among the first to re-imagine the pie as an escalator. Conservatives (including neos) are dedicated to defending every American's right to climb aboard. That's why I became, and remain, a neocon--their pro-growth platform doubles the plays. Going up? MORE: James Kirchick in City Journal:
Today, no other political label gets thrown around as frequently, or with as much reckless abandon, as “neocon.” The most popular liberal blogs name and shame neocons, real or imagined, on a daily basis. The term is used in a fashion similar to the way “communist” was during the 1950s—an all-encompassing indictment—this time indicating an imperialistic and “warmongering,” even an “insane,” worldview. The anti-neocon fervor has reached truly McCarthyite proportions: just a few months ago, Steve Clemons of the left-wing New America Foundation argued in favor of “Purging the Neocons from the American Soul.”