Embrace Burke? No thanks, Mr. Dionne. I’ll take Coolidge instead.
In his never-ending campaign to weaken those who oppose a progressive state, E.J. Dionne has attempted to give American Conservatives (including, in his flawed formulation, libertarians) a new idol: Edmund Burke. Embracing Burke, Dionne posits, would “clip the wings of modern conservatives”:
It’s to Norman’s credit that he recognizes how “Burke also clips the wings of many contemporary conservatives.” While he “helped establish modern conceptions of nationhood and national allegiance,” he “rejected military adventures.” He “celebrated religious observance, but despised moral absolutism.”
Norman also sees Burke as implicitly offering “a profound critique of the market fundamentalism now prevalent in Western society.” He thinks that Burke would “note the extraordinary greed and self-dealing seen over the past decade by the modern nabobs of banking and finance in a series of cartels disguised as markets.” And a Burkean conservatism would be wary of any ideology that “causes people to lose sight of the real social sources of human well-being and to become more selfish and individualistic, by priming them with ideas of financial success and celebrity.”
The second paragraph is built on an entirely faulty assumption. It is simply beyond question that the FHA and its’ regulated GSEs were the key enabler of the housing bubble of the last decade in the US. These New Deal programs socialized the risk of mortgages while allowing private players to reap the profits. True market fundamentalists always railed against these distortions of markets. It is advocates of big government, such as Dionne himself, who are to blame for the situation.
Even without the factual error, Dionne’s quote from Norman on Burke’s belief is wrought with other problems. It requires one to believe that greed is linked to individualism and ignore the parade of collectivists who sought to use the machinery of Washington to exploit others for the own gain. (Sadly, too many people actually believe this, but that’s another story for another time.) It requires one to believe that conservatives care deeply about celebrity as a part of a core ideology. Dionne perhaps missed the right’s revulsion to the concept of Barack Obama as a savior and a light worker. Or maybe he didn’t and just assumed it was a symptom of bitter clinging. In any case, he overlooks the fact that the left has a monopoly on personalizing politics in this country.
Now that we have established that Dionne’s understanding of a conservative is already tenuous, at best, let’s read his vision of a model Burkean Conservative:
Burke’s conservatism was based on a proper understanding of that word. He believed in preserving the social order and respecting old habits. He persistently warned against the destructive character of radical change. He was wary of ideology and grand ideas, rejecting, as Norman puts it, “universal claims divorced from an actual social context.” Burke saw the well-ordered society as a “partnership of the dead, the living and the yet to be born,” a nice formula for a forward-looking traditionalism — and not a bad slogan for environmentalists.
Here, Dionne unwittingly uncovers a truth. Given that the modern social order in the US is built upon the legacy of the progressives and the New Deal, to be a Burkean conservative is to be a mainstream progressive. Libertarians are seen as radicals precisely because we want a social order that dispenses with the New Deal and its legacy. Meanwhile, modern Republicans play to shape a conservative social agenda using the rules and mechanisms put in place by the New Deal. Even the Constitution, the contract between the dead, the living, and the yet to be born in the United States, is interpreted through the ideology of the New Dealers.
This insight brings us to the most laughable of Dionne’s assertions:
Conservatism will flounder unless it remembers the imperative of addressing the interests of the many, not the few.
Progressives have never done anything but address the needs of the few. Which few and to what degree are always in question. The need for an underclass of highly productive but exploitable people is not. This underclass was referred to by William Graham Sumner as “The Forgotten Man”:
It is when we come to the proposed measures of relief for the evils which have caught public attention that we reach the real subject which deserves our attention. As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. As for A and B, who get a law to make themselves do for X what they are willing to do for him, we have nothing to say except that they might better have done it without any law, but what I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, social speculator and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which are laid upon him.
Sumner’s appellation notwithstanding, members of this productive underclass are not forgotten by progressives. On the contrary, they are known to be a vital component of any progressive plan for society. In the Affordable Care Act, for example, they are the young and healthy who must be conscripted into the health insurance market so that their premiums might benefit the old and sick. In Social Security, they are the workers who pay taxes in so that retirees may get benefits. In Affirmative Action, they are the whites and Asians who lose opportunities granted to other minorities on the basis of skin color.
For decades, progressives maintained the illusion that it was only a demonized few who bore the brunt of this exploitation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his political acumen to identify groups for benefit or demonization. He went so far in this endeavor as to hire photographers and writers to produce propaganda about those who benefited while launching vicious legal battles against innocent men just because they were in a group targeted for demonization. (This does have a familiar ring, doesn’t it?)
However, that illusion has cracked in recent years. Eventually, millions of members of the productive underclass realized exactly what was going on. So born was the Tea Party, a so-called conservative movement. Distressingly for Dionne, this movement is far from the conservatism Burke preached and Dionne practices daily. It is radical, seeking to smash a social order built upon exploiting its members for the benefit of others.
The radical nature of the Tea Party prompted fear among the establishment. Both major parties in America are essentially progressive in mechanics, if not agenda. The angry, dismissive reaction from the Republicans and the downright punitive reaction from the Democrats highlighted how radical the idea of declaring one “taxed enough already” truly is. Since the Wilson administration, Washington has decided who was taxed enough already and who could pay more.
The Tea Party, for all the good it has done in revealing the corruption in Washington (much through its own victimhood at the hands of the IRS), is still a movement lacking a positive idea. It is essentially a movement pushing for a cessation of activity. This will cause many to ask what shall be done instead. The Tea Party has no answer for this.
Neither, it seems, do most libertarians. We tend to focus on the “no” too often as well. Government should stop doing this and not start doing that. We’re seen as a force of negativity. Unfortunately, in a world where we are opposed to both major parties and the mainstream media apparatus designed to enforce the status quo, negativity doesn’t sell.
Respect and stability, however, do. Enter Calvin Coolidge. The concept of normalcy embraced by Harding and Coolidge is both simple and elegant. Here is a description of the concept by Amity Shlaes in an interview with Ed Driscoll:
Ed, what did you learn normalcy was in school? I learned it was something kind of dull, right? Like the — normalcy doesn’t sound elevated or wonderful and that was the Harding motto.
But what they meant by normalcy is not we should all be normal and cogs. Right? What they meant is the environment should be normal so that we can have fun and play with new ideas, which is something very different. Predictability, the reduction of uncertainty. Coolidge as a candidate even used the phrase “uncertainty” which you hear so much today and which is also the subject of Forgotten Man. It’s less uncertainty, please. He really — it’s a theme all the way to the end of his life. You can find it in his columns post-presidency. He spoke of uncertainty.
If you’re reading this, you’re taking advantage of Coolidge’s concept of normalcy in a very different context. The internet is built on normalcy. Packets are packets, traffic is traffic, and different application protocols expect lower-level protocols to act as specified at all times. The creation built upon these simple ideas, upon normalcy, is easily humanity’s largest by a vast margin. Yet there is no edifice called “The Internet”, no building that makes it all work. It is a distributed network of components all playing by the same rules.*
So it was with the American economy under Coolidge. After a decade of tumult resulting from progressive leadership, the US economy got eight blessed years of normalcy. With this diminished uncertainty, companies were free to invest. The economy boomed and even the poor man was better off in 1928 than in 1920.
Then, in response to the crash of 1929, a round of “bold experiments” (to borrow FDR’s phrase) were undertaken upon the economy by Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Congresses of the era for the next decade and a half. These experiments caused untold economic devastation by distorting markets, increasing uncertainty, and causing those who had capital to hoard and protect it, eventually causing Roosevelt to pursue an undistributed profits tax to shake this capital loose from unwilling businesses. Even during the Second World War, while the US was not statistically in a depression, the standard of living was still poor in comparison to the normalcy of the 1920s.
The experiments, in every empirical sense, were a failure. But with the help of writers like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (who Dionne quotes approvingly as an admirer of Burke), these failures were pawned off on the American people as successes and the role that predictability and normalcy play in prosperity forgotten.
Today, we face an economic crisis built upon government interventions into and distortions of the private economy. Despite the Obama administration focusing on jobs, there has been no improvement for the millions who have been chronically unemployed for years. The Democrats’ bold experiment with banking, the Dodd-Frank law, has driven the poor away from banks as they killed off free services. The Democrats’ bold experiment with health care is already driving up costs for millions while making full-time jobs hard to come by for hourly workers. Look at any problem in the US economy today and at its root you will find a bold experiment from Washington, D.C.
The message I have for all Americans is to ignore Dionne (good advice in any case) and his plea to embrace Burke. It’s time to embrace Coolidge and pursue a course of radical normalcy.
*For those who don’t remember, one of the major arguments against SOPA and PIPA were that they legislated a change in the architecture of the internet that broke the DNS protocol. This endangered the functioning of the entire network by disrupting the rules upon which countless other technologies depended. A perfect illustration of the need for normalcy in a complex, distributed system.