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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Saturday, June 17, 2006


Can conservatism govern?

posted by Aziz P. at Saturday, June 17, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
This is a rather aggressive essay at Washington Monthly arguing that modern-day conservative ideology is structurally unable to govern competently. Here's the teaser:

Conservative dissidents seem to have done an admirable job of persuading each other of the truth of their claims. Of course, many of these dissidents extolled the president's conservative leadership when he was riding high in the polls. But the real flaw in their argument is akin to that of Trotskyites who, when confronted with the failures of communism in Cuba, China and the Soviet Union, would claim that real communism had never been tried. If leaders consistently depart in disastrous ways from their underlying political ideology, there comes a point where one has to stop just blaming the leaders and start questioning the ideology.

The collapse of the Bush presidency, in other words, is not just due to Bush's incompetence (although his administration has been incompetent beyond belief). Nor is it a response to the president's principled lack of intellectual curiosity and pitbull refusal to admit mistakes (although those character flaws are certainly real enough). And the orgy of bribery and special-interest dispensation in Congress is not the result of Tom DeLay's ruthlessness, as impressive a bully as he was. This conservative presidency and Congress imploded, not despite their conservatism, but because of it.

the meat of the argument is below the fold... 

Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather, from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to the people themselves. One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut--especially in ways benefiting the rich--the better.

But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions--indeed, whose very existence--they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.

The bottom line is that conservatism innately rejects the concept that government, harnessed properly, is a force for positive change.

According to the classical liberal view, oppression by government or church is bad. The modern liberal recognizes however that there is also economic oppression. To that end all forces of potential oppression must be balanced - and run with competence. Government can be restrained, but we should not settle for mere restraint.

Ultimately I think that conservatism is best confined to the federal courts and the House of Representatives. I think the Executive Branch can not afford to be tainted with an ideology that rejects Government as a solution to policy problems. After all, the use of Government to improve policy and govern competently is the very definition of the Executive branch! So a committed conservative Executive is indeed a self-hating entity. Ultimately policy gets outsourced to economic interests, which is the path to corporatism (unquestionably where we find ourselves at present).

The rest of the essay is superb; it goes on to invoke the axiom that "Ideas have consequences" - one that the Right loves to accuse the Left of not understanding. And it goes on to argue that the United States was born liberal. These are important points that we need to articulate as we fashion a purple political voice.


Conservative government develops policy and sets priorities but it does not believe that the government itself needs to be the chief actor in executing those policies and priorities. That can be individuals, the business community, the market, or the government.

There is really only one philosophy driving it, aside from an inherent belief that government shouldn't do certain things: the most efficient and capable actor should solve problems and provide solutions. If that's not the government, then get government out of the way.


but often as not that actor IS government. After all, only government can harness resources at the scale of teh entire society rather than just an allied subset.

Take health care for example. Medicare is an astonishingly efecient program - something like 96 cents of every dollar is spent directly on patient care. A single payer health care system would harness that effeciency far more capably than the present one, where private insurance companies seek to deny care whenever possible.

Thats kjust an example, but the point is that you have to be willing to even acknowledge that sometimes government CAN be a boon (if done *competently** !!). Conservatism denies that premise outright. At least, modern day conservatism does.


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I'd like to distinguish between efficiency and effectiveness.

Efficiency is generally a measure of achieving some goal while yielding a maximum return on the resources invested.

Effectiveness emphasizes the qualititative goodness with which the goal is achieved.

We could probably have, for example, more efficient -- in the sense of cost-effectiveness -- mail delivery if we would accept multi-week, rather than multi-day, delivery times to rural areas.

You could, for instance, save up everyone's mail and only deliver it when there was mail for at least 80% of the population. If folks wanted it sooner, they could come and get it.

That might not, however, be very effective mail delivery.

Nobody is in favor of wasting money. At least, nobody who's pocket isn't going to be lined in the process. But economic efficiency is not always the most important consideration.

Thanks -


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.