A conservative friend (yes, I have them) recently sent me a column that seems to be making the rounds in conservative circles (I had also seen the column referenced by Ross Douthat in the New York Times). My response to him was involved enough to qualify as my first blog post in six months, and hopefully enough to get me writing more regularly again:
I read this column after Ross Douthat referenced it in his NYT column. Obviously well-written and thoughtful, but rather unremarkable in my mind, except in that it represents what I find somewhat rare from the conservatism the Republican party represents these days -- moderate pragmatism. Just as conservatives feel they are caricatured, I think this piece demonstrates the caricature of liberals that is accepted wisdom among conservatives -- as aspiring Europeans. Is there such a strain in American liberalism? Of course. Is it equal or more dominant in the ruling liberal coalition than Tea Party-ism is in the ruling conservative coalition? I don't think so.
As a result, if the column represents mainstream conservative thought (which I doubt it does), I think it shows how little actually separates conservatives and liberals in this country. This is a manifesto of wise government -- a debate over means and not ends. Do I agree with the assertion that market based reforms will solve health care costs? No. But that is merely a factual dispute, and both the column and I are in agreement that near-universal health care is the goal. Similarly, I'd be curious to see how the tax system envisioned by the author produces enough funding to provide the means-tested entitlements he supports. I don't think it adds up, but again, that's a factual dispute and not a philosophical one.
I also think the column opportunistically indulges in the common fallacy that accompanies snapshots in time. Just as liberals were inclined to over-indict the failings of capitalism during the economic crisis, so to are conservatives over-dramatizing the costs and consequences of the welfare state at a time of public fiscal crisis that is not the norm. It's the political equivalent of picking the lowest point in the stock market to analyze long-term annual returns. The author cites a "long-term" unfunded mandate of $46 trillion -- but notably does not define "long-term". Unmentioned: that the Bush tax cuts cost roughly a trillion dollars and their extension permanently (as Republicans insist) would have cost more than $3 trillion in the first decade, and more after. That is, a significant portion of the unfunded mandate is addressed simply by restoring taxes to pre-Bush levels -- which were still historically towards the low end when measured by taxes as a percentage of GDP.
Which is not to say reforms aren't necessary. We have a serious fiscal situation, driven largely by spiraling health costs. Some means-testing of entitlements and other government spending is inevitable. Instead, what we get from conservative governance is the destruction of public employee unions under the banner of marching against socialism -- even when those unions have already conceded financially to help prevent debt crisis.
More than anything, what makes me a liberal today is not my political philosophy, which, if the column is to be believed, is not so far removed from conservative philosophy. It is the un-seriousness and dangerous nature of the Republican Party today. Animated by a belief in the near-inevitability of the fiscal and moral death cycle of the social democratic model, it has now embraced either extremism as a supposedly necessary counter-balance to that inevitability, or opposition by any peaceful (and sometimes rhetorically not so peaceful) means necessary, up to and including pure demagoguery. Few things are more dangerous to a democracy than when a significant portiof of its leadership embraces such views and tactics-- and indeed, these are precisely the bases of the critique leveled by conservatism against Islamist political parties.
If, however, conservatism does indeed stand for what this column embraces -- smart and economically efficient ways for a "sizable government" to achieve the goals of expanded health care coverage, aid to the needy, government investment in infrastructure and education, an opportunity society of upward mobility for all (including recent immigrants), regulation that only addresses critical societal needs (and how can the risk of climate change honestly not be categorized as society-threatening?) -- and all of the above in a fiscally responsible manner that has yet to be detailed! -- then at worst liberalism and conservatism would be debating solely over means and efficacy of achieving a shared vision of an ever more free, prosperous, and fundamentally moral United States of America. As a liberal, that's the opposition I'd love to have.