Has 21st century conservatism contributed anything useful at all ?

(Dan here…lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts)

by Robert Waldmann

Has 21st century conservatism contributed anything useful at all ?

This is a question I haven’t asked myself. I have long looked for reasonable and reasonably honest conservatives. It is frustrating, because I have found many, but few are still conservative. I don’t want to get distracted from my distraction; but there is a pattern of me finding a conservative whom I consider reasonable, then that guy breaks with the conservative movement within a year.The new topic is conservative ideas. The question is, is there any conservative thought which is worth consideration, which they hadn’t already written and which not been said by 1900. I suppose this might be considered an unfair question, since I demand something new from a school centered on suspicion of the new. However, they have embraced many new and worthless ideas and proposals (see below) so I don’t think I am being unfair.

This is a long very self indulgent post. It is twitter overload. I am going to:

1) bring a twitter discussion over here,

2) try to think of worthwhile 21st century conservative ideas, and

3) try to think of worthwhile 21st century non-conservative ideas (to be fair — it might just be that my effort under 2 fails because of my ignorance or my interpretation of “worthwhile” and “2st century”).

OK the twitter thread (which will make it painfully clear why I surfed over to blogger I mean “4.1/3” really ???).

It starts with this very interesting post on challenges to liberalism and liberals’ responses.

Ross Douthat asked a constructive and interesting (implied) question

Ross Douthat @DouthatNYT


The question I’m left with at the end of this interesting @zackbeauchamp crisis-of-liberalism survey is whether he thinks there’s anything that liberalism can learn or drawn on from the *right* in order to survive and flourish anew?

I replied @robertwaldmann

Obviously the reason you are left with that question is that neither he nor you can think of anything useful that anyone can learn from conservatives. The reason is that all alleged conservative insights have been disproven by massive evidence.

In fact I challenge you. I suspect the answer will be to claim for conservatism universal values and widespread beliefs or to pretend that the only alternative to conservatism is something like Marxism. I say conservatism has the same epistemic standing as astrology.

Dilan Esper contributed reasonable thoughts aiming for constructive discussion. I want to thank Dilan Esper for being helpful and constructive. I fear my tone on twitter and here does not communicate my sincere appreciation of a good faith effort. Also MuchTL:DR , his effort confirms my prediction.





When you get away from electoral politics and into more abstract areas, I can think of some conservative ideas that have quite a lot of epistemic value.

Examples  .    .    .   the law of unintended consequences; foreign policy realism; the importance of developers in cities; etc.

I overflowed

Robert Waldmann @robertwaldmann

1/3)The law of unintended consequences has, I think, always been universally recognized (in theory often by people who ignore it). This is one of many examples of conservatives claiming as their own ideas, which belong to everyone.

2/3) I have never understood what “foreign policy realism” means. I note that neoconservatives are conservatives too. I think realism vs whatever else is possible is a division among conservatives and non conservatives.

2.1/3) If there is a yes or no question, both conservatives and non conservatives are divided, and the correct answer is yes, that answer is not a contribution of conservatism to thought.

3/3) I agree you can’t have decent housing without developers. Just look what a hell hole Singapore is. I think your point is that there are NIMBYs who argue against development because developers seek profit. Not all people who accept profit as non/theft are conservative.

4/3) I think we can agree that FDR was not a conservative. In foreign policy, he worked with Stalin and the Mafia. Realists have nothing to teach him. He also worked with profit seeking developers. He was a human being so he knew of the risk of unintended consequences.

4.1/3). Give me an explanation of what useful thought conservatives have contributed which does not imply that F. D. Roosevelt was a conservative?

Also, My question here was about the 21st century conservative thought. “I guess this isn’t the place to ask for an indication of any useful contribution of 21st century conservatism, but I ask here too.”

What has conservatism done for anyone in the past 19 years ?

Ooops I asked it only there and not on twitter. Anyway it’s the question I address here.

To go on even longer on the twitter thread, I really think conservatives regularly claim that ideas, principles, and values which are widely to universally shared belong to conservatism. This is a form of the straw man argument. I think of Tom Lehrer on the folk song army “join the folk song army .   .   . We’re against poverty war and injustice/ unlike the rest of you squares.” I note in passing that, for a penetrating critique of a fault of conservatives, I quote a liberal mocking other liberals and (above all) himself.

There can be unintended consequences is both totally obvious and also (if related at all) the definition of conservatism. Esper’s first polite constructive effort to answer my question amounts to saying “you ask if conservatism has anything to offer which isn’t obvious to non conservatives, well conservatism by definition, has something useful to offer to all those squares who think actions can only have their intended consequences”

That’s better than “foreign policy realism” which is, as far as I can tell, a meaningless slogan roughly equally likely to be uttered by conservatives and non conservatives.

Finally the other defense of conservatism — the claim that every non Leninist is conservative. The claim is that the quest for profits is not always harmful, that profit seeking entities can sometimes do something useful, that we should make peace with at least some traces of capitalism. Hell really any non Stalinist as even Lenin accepted the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Here I think the issue is also a bit of motivated reasoning (OK interested error) where people who own homes and want to get a high price declare it is virtuous for them to attempt to block competitors and also people act as if they have a right not only to their own property but to everything else they want like nice views and plenty of parking and other people can just go live in tents (or suburbs). The point is that one doesn’t have to be conservative to be NIMBY and it isn’t true that only conservatives accept the quest for profit as sometimes tolerable.

I’d say the sincere effort consists of 3 thoughts which fall into 3 categories.

1) “to claim for conservatism universal values and widespread beliefs”

2) two words above which together mean roughly nothing and the use of which has almost zero correlation with conservatism.

3) “to pretend that the only alternative to conservatism is something like Marxism.”

OK useful conservative contributions to thought in the 21st century. I draw a blank.

Harmful conservative ideas. I will leave Trump out of it. The response of some conservatives to Trump has been dismal while others have bravely stated the obvious. In any case, I don’t blame conservatism for Trump.

1. Social security partial privatization. This was a way to allow people to bear more risk and send lots of money to financial service providers. As widely perceived, it had no redeeming social value.

2. Medicare privatization. This builds on the 20th century conservative failure Medicare Advantage which served to privatize public money. It was based on contradictory promises that it was guaranteed to cost less and to provide at least as good insurance. This was a case of Paul Ryan ordering the tides to stop.

3. Privatizing the Veterans administration the VA. Heard there was a VA scandal because the VA did not keep a promise that no other health care provider ever makes. It was a scandal, because it was a matter of public and congressional interest because the VA is public. The VA ranks at the very top in patient satisfaction and estimates of outcomes. These are published facts which conservatives sincerely perceive as absurdities.

4. The deficit will eat your children. We are turning into Greece.

5. Deficits don’t matter and/or tax cuts lead to higher revenues.

6. The Fed is degrading the currency. There will be high inflation maybe hyperinflation.

7. The limits on presidential power should be completely ignored 2001-2009, strictly enforced 2009-2016, and ignored 2017 – now.

8 Federalism and the Supreme Court should design Seattle school districts and welcome anyone who says “federalism” is bullshitting.

9 Reform the tax code to introduce a distinction between business income (taxed at a low rate) and labor income disguised as business income (taxed at a high rate). I have to give them credit. It is very hard to make the US Tax code messier than it was.

10 2001 is time for a “kinder gentler” SEC

11 Invade Iraq

12 Repeal Obamacare and figure out a replacement written in secret in McConnell’s office; but, this isn’t our plan it’s just a placeholder to get to the conference committee which will write an excellent bill.

OH hell I am ignoring all space limits, but I just can’t list all the horrible 21st century conservative ideas. Many were opposed by some conservatives. Many were supported by many non conservatives. Most have nothing to do with caution, respect for tradition or awareness of the risk of unintended consequences.

Good 21st century ideas

1) Hawaii hope. The idea is swift sure punishment works better than rare severe punishment. This is not a new idea, Cesare Beccaria made the argument in the 18th century. It is a new idea to test parolees with drug problems once a week and lock them up for a night if they fail (or skip) a test. It worked.

2 Also 24/7 sobriety.

3 Also grow your own marijuana laws.

That’s 3 and I learned all of them from one non-conservative Mark Kleiman.

4) Moving to opportunity works. A 2oth century experiment but the proof only was collected in the 21st century.

5) Access to birth control pills at ages 18-20 without parental permission makes a huge difference.

6) High rise public housing causes crime.

3-more I learned from one non conservative Larry Katz.

7) Higher minimum wages cause tiny to surprisingly significant effects on employment (started 20th century I guess)

8) Low skilled immigration has small effects on the wages of the few domestic workers who aren’t helped.

9) There sure isn’t a labor demand curve see 7 and 8.

Those are all from Card and Krueger.

OK so I am getting to economists, but there are super genius conservative economists. Why do they waste their brains defending the indefensible?

Look I really really can’t list good ideas of the 21st century. But there are many of them. I can’t think of any which are in any way a fruit of conservatism. Really not one. I draw a blank.