Movement on the Right

John Brooks column in the Jan 10 New York Times points to a shift in conservative thinking, a reasonable path towards the future.

Conservatism would have been well served to adopt this approach when the financial crisis hit, or specifically after the 2008 election, when Obama took office, so the two parties could have worked together to address the severe problems facing our nation and the world at that moment.

The Conservatism of Skeptical Reform, Mr. Brooks calls it. He outlines a softer attitude towards government, one that acknowledges government has a role in helping to solve the country’s problems and assisting individuals in need so they have a better chance to improve their lives.

This is a welcome acknowledgement that government is in fact necessary for the American Dream to be possible. After all, without the democratic government set up in the constitution the entire idea of an American Dream is a chimera.

It is a shame that it has taken five years to get here. I won’t go into specifics in this post, but conservatives’ focus on opposing everything their opponents wanted to do- opposition based on principle alone, instead of what Brooks terms populist conservatism ‘about ends and not means‘ – battered everyone’s dignity.

Mr. Brooks goes on to say ‘Members of this conservatism are more likely to conclude that, in fact, problems are complex and there are no easy answers, but there is room for policy expertise, and perhaps philosophical rigor, even if it comes from Washington.’   

Finally conservatism admitting that humans are complex, thus we have complex problems. This is why democracy is the best idea around which to construct a society- many of us have loony, out of mainstream ideas about how to live our lives. This loony-ness is where innovation comes from, where art and beauty become manifest.

Conservatism is a fantastic counterbalance to ideological overreach. But it tends to see the world as black or white, right or wrong, and that way of looking at the world isn’t a fair picture of reality. So conservative answers to our complex problems tend to address only parts of problems, leaving a broad swath of its citizens’ needs unaddressed.

I am a business owner and modestly successful entrepreneur. But I’m also a loony. My accountant is always complaining how my wife and I never take his advice. What he means is we don’t always take advantage of laws that favor our income bracket or our business interests.

My accountant’s position in relation to my wife’s and my affairs is analogous to a conservative’s position to society as a whole. His view of our life is not complex: he’s only concerned with what’s good for our bank account, how’s the cash flow. That’s his role, and we appreciate his advice. But we are more than how much money we do or don’t have.

Society, too, is more than what one swath of its citizens thinks. Just as my wife and I might donate more money to charity than my accountant thinks prudent, or offer benefits to employees beyond what is standard in our industry, or, to quote Mr. Brooks again,  ‘Engage in a constant process of gradual concrete reform even as you are aware that most of your efforts will not pan out.’

Sure, only one in ten of the gang members or work-release inmates we’ve hired over the years works out in any meaningful way, but what if no one had given me second and third chances? Sure, we spend too much on art, but the flatness of our lives without it is unimaginable.

Skeptical Reform Conservatism is a welcome adjustment to our political landscape. It’s a more nuanced view of how to make people’s lives better, a view that more closely matches the realities of this country’s citizenry.

Thanks for letting me in.


Postscript Note:     Mr. Brooks lumps in the Head Start program with Empowerment Zones as examples of programs with no ‘identifiable long term gains.’ I don’t know the details of Empowerment Zones efficacy (a program my wife and I decided not to participate in, because we didn’t think it was fair to take the tax breaks when we were hiring people in the neighborhood anyway and the business was doing OK. And who wants all that government paperwork?) but Mr. Brooks is wrong about Head Start. Programs like Head Start and WIC and Snap all have demonstrable positive effects on our society- children benefitting from these programs stay in school longer, go to jail less, are more stable in their relationships, are more upwardly mobile, make more money in their lives, etc. My wife is a prime example; she got food stamps and assistance as a single teen mom, her children haven’t needed assistance to raise their children. (One of capitalism’s deficiencies is it promotes short term thinking. What my father used to call ‘a dollar chasing a dime.’ Democracy is the counterbalance to this. Cutting these programs is going to have deleterious long term effects on many lives and society as a whole.) And please admit that Obamacare is a Heritage Foundation idea. Not owning it now is an prime example of opposing just to oppose. Everyone who attempts to look objectively at health care knows that the way to provide quality health care at a reasonable price is single payer.



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