September 3, 2009


An Exaggerated Death: In proclaiming the death of conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus misses several marks. (Peter Berkowitz, 9/03/09, National Review)

To retain relevance in the ministerial role to which he believes history has consigned them, Tanenhaus counsels conservatives to renew their appreciation of classical conservatism. This apparently friendly suggestion will require an extreme change of course, because “the paradox of the modern Right” is that “its drive for power has steered it onto a path that has become profoundly and defiantly un-conservative — in its arguments and ideas, in its tactics and strategies, above all in its vision.” To the extent Tanenhaus is correct, this is less a paradox than a truism, and a conservative truism at that: Power tends to corrupt. More paradoxical, and certainly more perverse, is that the classical conservatism to which Tanenhaus invites conservatives to return is one he has bleached of its passion for conserving.

Genuine conservatism, according to Tanenhaus, is the classical conservatism of the great 18th-century Whig Edmund Burke and the great 19th-century Tory Benjamin Disraeli. It is distinguished, Tanenhaus maintains, by opposition to ideologies of all sorts and extremism of every kind, and a devotion to achieving political stability through prudent and balanced reform of the existing order. This is correct insofar as it goes, but it goes so little of the way toward saying what needs to be said about classical conservatism as to be deeply misleading.

Although rightly celebrating Burke and Disraeli as prudent reformers, Tanenhaus says next to nothing about the standards or the goods in the light of which they believed prudent reform must be carried out. He credits Disraeli for recognizing that modern conservatism must serve “the interests, needs, and rights of the entire population.” And he observes that for Burke “the task of statesmen was to maintain equilibrium between ‘the two principles of conservation and correction.’” Yet Tanenhaus does not maintain equilibrium in his analysis of these principles, attending sympathetically to conservatism’s correcting function while neglecting its conserving imperative. The religious faith, moral virtues, customary practices and associations, and limits on government power that conservatives, following Burke and Disraeli, seek to conserve barely figure in his book. Nor does Tanenhaus notice, much less explore, the crucial conviction, common to Burke and Disraeli, that the conservation of these goods is not only good in itself but essential to preserving liberty under law. And Tanenhaus’s presentation entirely overlooks the classic account in The Federalist of the principles of sound constitutional government, and Tocqueville’s classic account in Democracy in America of both the dangers to freedom posed by democratic manners and morals and the appropriate remedies consistent with democratic justice. Both these accounts are crucial to any balanced assessment of the sustaining sources of conservatism in America.

By means of these truncations and omissions, Tanenhaus performs the amazing feat of transforming classical conservatism into progressive pragmatism. This prepares the way for his sensational claim that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been the leading political embodiments over the last two decades of a Burkean or classically conservative sensibility. One might as well argue that since for Marx all human beings are by nature free conscious producers and since politics depends on economics, Milton Friedman belongs among the outstanding Marxist intellectuals of the past half-century.

What Mr. Tanenhaus can not accept about George W. Bush, nor Mr. Berkowitz about Bill Clinton, is that a straightish line runs from Milton Friedman through Bill Clinton and W. And while it is not unlikely to eventually connect up with Barack Obama, it doesn't yet.

Let us accept for the sake of argument that the Third Way, in practice, is nothing more than the acceptance by the Right that the social welfare net is a permanent feature of modern liberal democracy coupled with the acceptance by the Left that such a net will be stronger if achieved through free market mechanisms than if entirely administered by the State. It is the use of First Way means to achieve Second Way ends.

This makes the Third Way a rather broad church, not coincidentally one that includes every successful political leader of the past thirty years in the Anglosphere. But it more or less began in Chile, when Augusto Pinochet imported the "Chicago Boys," economists from the Friedman-influenced University of Chicago, to bring free market reforms to bear on his country's developing economy. They did everything from partially privatize the Chilean social security system to establish individual unemployment accounts. While the various policies have required significant jiggering over time, the entire panoply also gave Chile the strongest economy in Latin America and the 11th freest economy in the world.

In turn, the early '80s saw Margaret Thatcher in Britain, the Labour Government under David Lange in New Zealand, and the Hawke/Keating Labour Party in Australia all undertake massive shifts of their nations back from socialism towards capitalism and experimentation with a variety of Pinochet-like welfare reforms.

Oddly, America, which might have been expected to lead the reform movement, at that time had a conservative Republican president who was also a New Dealer, and so wedded emotionally to the Second Way. This meant that we largely sat out the initial era and joined in only after a curious set of circumstances converged. Ronald Reagan, who had saved FDR's Social Security program largely unchanged, was succeeded bu George H. W. Bush who was basically just a caretaker. Not least because of his caution and lack of any modernizing vision, he was defeated for re-election by Bill Clinton, who ran mainly on the idea of "ending Welfare as we know it." Whether or not the new president was sincere about the essential conservatism he ran on in '92, once in office he moved sharply to the Left and promptly lost both houses of Congress. Happily, this created a situation where we had a putatively reformist president of the Left and a radically reformist Congress of the Right. The result was that Welfare as we'd known it was indeed ended, though the two parties proved unable to move other reforms.

Just as Tony Blair made Labour Thatcherite and John Howard made Australia's Liberals Hawkish, George W. Bush was elected (more or less) in 2000 on a platform that embraced the Third Way. In office he was unable to get Social Security privatization past the filibuster, but did pass a NCLB plan that included education vouchers, a prescription drug plan that authorized HSAs, Welfare Reform reauthorization, housing vouchers, etc. He was exactly the sort of conservative that Sam Tanenhaus desires.

The big question now is: whither President Obama? Whereas Canada has seen first Stephen Harper on the Right and now Michael Ignatieff on the Left converge on the Third Way and David Cameron has made the Tories Thatcherite again and Australia has seen Kevin Rudd make his party a replica of John Howard's which aped Hawke/Keating and John Key in New Zealand has made its party of the Right over in a Third Way and even Israel has, in Bibi Netanyahu, an aggressively reformist leader, no one really knows in what direction the Unicorn Rider will head. Though the Democratic Party is so reactionary--even disavowing the Clinton years--that he had to oppose W's proposed SS reforms, he ran for office to John McCain's Right, especially on the question of taxes. But he seems determined to run his presidency aground on the issue of a thoroughly Second Way health care plan. It's hardly surprising that such a retrograde policy is meeting with broad disdain. It runs counter to the politics that pervades the Anglosphere today.

But, the very real possibility exists that he could be saved in the same way that Bill Clinton was. He's making his party so unpopular so fast that Democrats could get swept away again in the midterm election. This would provide him an opportunity, salvific even if unwanted, to work with Republicans rather than Democrats and to pass the remaining reforms from the Third Way package. If he's that fortunate, and we are, he'll be seen as a natural successor to Clinton and W and a typical Anglospheric leader of the era, rather than an aberration.

This would confuse critics on the Right and Left terribly, but make him the important historical figure he clearly longs to be, instead of the peculiar footnote he's fast becoming.

Call to privatise main roads (Jim Pickard and Gill Plimmer, August 24 2009, Financial Times)

Ministers have been urged to consider selling part of the road network to the private sector to improve its strategic management and raise up to £85bn for the government’s depleted public coffers.

The radical idea is one of several put forward by Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, which has discussed it with Whitehall officials in recent weeks.

Under the proposals by the motorists’ body, major roads and motorways run by the Highways Agency would be sold to a private company in much the same way that water and gas ­networks have been privatised.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 3, 2009 7:07 AM
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