What the Right Gets Right
By THOMAS B. EDSALL
(New York Times, January 15, 2012, 9:00 pm)
With the competitors for the Republican presidential nomination engaged in an intriguing and unexpected debate over the dangers of capitalism’s “creative destruction,” this is the appropriate moment to explore the question: What does the right get right?
What insights, principles, and analyses does this movement have to offer that liberals and Democrats might want to take into account?
I recently posed a question to conservative think tanks: If given a free hand, how would conservatives deal with the unemployed, those dependent on government benefits (food stamps, Medicaid), and, more generally, those who are losers in the new economy — those hurt by corporate restructuring, globalization and declining manufacturing employment?
The Heritage Foundation, rather than answer the question, sent me links to the following papers: “Extended Unemployment Insurance Payments Do Not Benefit the Economy,” “A Free Enterprise Prescription: Unleashing Entrepreneurs to Create Jobs,” “Confronting the Unsustainable Growth of Welfare Entitlements: Principles of Reform and the Next Steps,” and “An Effective Washington Jobs Program: Do Less Harm.”
A conservative policy intellectual from a different think tank sent me an email suggesting that I read Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, “The Path to Prosperity: Restoring America’s Promise.”
All the answers evaded the question posed and, in my view, amounted to ideological pap.
I decided it might be better to ask liberals what they liked about conservatism. I submitted a new question to a small group of academics and activists on the left: what does the right get right?
The answers they gave describing the strengths the right has were illuminating and help to explain why the Republican Party has won seven of the last eleven presidential elections; controlled the Senate from 1981 to 1987 and from 1995 to 2007; and controlled the House from 1996 to 2006 and 2011 to 2013.
Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union (one of our era’s few highly successful labor organizations) and now a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Richman Center, made five points about conservatives in an email to me:
“They appreciate more instinctively the need for fiscal balance.”
“They understand people’s more innate belief in hard work and individual responsibility and see government as too often lacking that understanding.”
“They are more suspicious from a philosophical point of view of big government as an answer to many issues and are suspicious of Wall Street institutionally and not just their high salaries, and bad practices.”
“They respect the need for private sector economic growth (although their prescription is lacking).”
“They are more pro-small business.”
Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, is the author of “A Divider, Not a Uniter,” a harsh critique of the presidency of George W. Bush, whom Jacobson treats as a conservative apostate. Genuine conservatism, in Jacobson’s view, has a number of strengths:
It recognizes “the importance of material incentives in shaping behavior, and the difficulty in keeping bureaucracies under control and responsive to citizens.”
It is skeptical of “the application of social science theories to real world problems” and cognizant of “human fallibility/corruptibility.”
It places a high value on “liberty/autonomy.”
It places a similarly high value on “good parenting.”
It acknowledges “the superiority of market systems for encouraging efficient use of resources.”
Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is a liberal Democrat who has spent much of the past decade exploring the competitive strengths of conservatism. In his new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which will be published in March, Haidt makes several points. Conservatives, he argues, “are closer to traditional ideas of liberty” like “the right to be left alone, and they often resent liberal programs that use government to infringe on their liberties in order to protect the groups that liberals care most about.”
“Everyone gets angry when people take more than they deserve. But conservatives care more,” Haidt writes. And social conservatives favor a vision of society “in which the basic social unit is the family, rather than the individual, and in which order, hierarchy, and tradition are highly valued.”
What’s more, conservatives
detect threats to moral capital that liberals cannot perceive. They do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family). Preserving those institutions and traditions is their most sacred value.
Haidt is sharply critical of some aspects of liberalism. Liberals’ determination to help victims often leads them “to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital.” For example, “the urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families,” he suggests. “It’s as though liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive.”
Haidt, Jacobson and Stern described the positive or “flattering” view of conservatism; they were not asked about their opinions of conservatism’s shortcomings.
Much of the 2012 general election campaign will be taken up by the struggle between Obama and Romney — and, more broadly, between Democrats and Republicans — to define conservatism and the Republican Party in either favorable or hostile terms.
Two scholars, Philip E. Tetlock, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Gregory Mitchell, a professor of law at the University of Virginia, have done provocative and useful work analyzing the pluses and minuses of liberalism and conservatism.
In “Liberal and Conservative Approaches to Justice: Conflicting Psychological Portraits,” Tetlock and Mitchell argue that the liabilities of conservatism include the following:
“Conservatives are too prone to engage in zero-sum thinking (either I keep my money or the government takes it). They fail to appreciate the possibility of positive sum solutions to social conflicts.”
Conservatives hold “the laissez-faire ‘minimal-state’ view that, although we have a moral obligation to refrain from hurting others, we have no obligation to help others. Conservatives cling to the comforting moral illusion that there is a sharp distinction between allowing people to suffer and making people suffer.”
“Conservatives fail to recognize that even if each transaction in a free market meets their standards of fairness (exchanges between competent adults who have not been coerced or tricked into contracts), the cumulative results could be colossally unfair.”
“Conservatives do not understand how prevalent situational constraints on achievement are and thus commit the fundamental attribution error when they hold the poor responsible for poverty.”
“Conservatives overgeneralize: From a few cases of poor persons who exploit the system, they draw sweeping conclusions about all poor persons.”
“Chance happenings play a much greater role in success or failure than conservatives realize. People often do not control their own destinies.”
The tensions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ conservatism have already surfaced in the controversy over the corporate acquisition practices of Bain Capital when Mitt Romney was C.E.O. Both Romney and the firm are proponents of capitalism’s “gale of creative destruction.” The question is, has Bain produced enough creation to justify the destruction?
The ideological war has begun in earnest, even a little early. It pits the right, seeking to depict a conservatism that is essentially good and a liberalism that is essentially bad, against a left attempting just the opposite. Looked at another way, the two sides are fighting over what the role of government in redistributing resources from the affluent to the needy should and shouldn’t be.
While neither Romney nor Obama fits comfortably into the role of doctrinaire standard bearer, they have both been shaped by political and economic pressures that have forced them into philosophical confrontation. Political campaigns, especially re-election campaigns, are highly ideological, and this one will be no exception as the nominees try to determine the direction the country will take over the next decade.
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Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of the book “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics,” which was published earlier this month.
Bun Gladieux, president of the Presssure Positive Company, has a blog with an interesting series of topics.
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