Not-So-Bright Right

On Sunday Richard Posner published a post on the “intellectual decline of conservatism” and the blogosphere has been discussing it ever since.

In his short, calm essay Posner traces the rise of the conservative movement from the 1960s to its “electoral success with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981″ to its apogee with, among other markers Posner lists, the end of the Cold War, “the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration” and the “early years of of the Bush administration.”

In his opening paragraph, Posner links the decline of the movement to its success. In fact, Posner, who is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (appointed by Reagan) and blogs at his own site as well as The Atlantic, says he was happy to stop and smell the roses even before George W. Bush took office.

By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of “originalism,” the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded. All these became causes embraced by the new conservatism that crested with the reelection of Bush in 2004.

Of course, there were many conservatives who wanted to keep going, and they did.

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

Since November conservatives have spilt much ink and pixels on the topic of What Went Wrong. Even among all that, writes Jonathan Singer at MyDD, Posner’s critique stands out:

What’s interesting about this isn’t that it’s an example of a conservative chiding the Republican Party for abandoning its conservative roots, because we have seen quite a bit of that in recent weeks and months (indeed, that seems to be the common wisdom among many in the upper echelons of the party). No, what makes this stand out is that one of the leading progenitors of modern conservatism is in effect saying that the ideology itself has gone haywire, that its failings are a direct result of misdirected focus. Some conservatives might think that George W. Bush led the GOP astray by not devoting enough attention to repealing the estate tax (and it’s worth noting that Posner stays away from demagoguing on the issue by calling it by another poll-tested name) or by resisting the rights of homosexuals — but Posner clearly isn’t one of them.

Matt Yglesias, who says Posner is “definitely a political conservative, a Reagan appointee, and an important product of the conservative legal movement,” agrees that Posner’s post “is unusual, even among the dissident camp in the conservative movement.” Why? Because Posner is willing “to acknowledge that (a) conservatism is as conservatism does and you can’t just wash your hands of George W. Bush, and (b) that the failures of conservatism-in-practice were really comprehensive across a whole swathe of different policy domains.”

Contra Yglesias, Stephen Brainbridge writes, “The bottom line is that Posner is not now and never has been a conservative in any meaningful sense of the term.” He continues:

Posner may have been a Reagan appointee, but you can’t go by that (Eisenhower, after all, appointed Warren and Brennan). Posner may have been affiliated with the market-friendly wing of the law and economics movement, but you can’t go by that either. . . .

I addressed this issue a long time ago, concluding that Posner’s documented record puts him in opposition to virtually every major conservative principle.

That aside, Bainbridge says he concurs with much of Posner’s analysis, and endorses Rick Moran’s take on the whole thing. Moran, writing at Rightwing Nuthouse, says that “Posner’s real gripe — and the gripe of many less ideological conservatives — is that ‘the new conservatism [is] powered largely by emotion and religion and [has]for the most part weak intellectual groundings.’”

Amen and Hallelujah. What Posner refers to as “new” conservatism (a term I will be shamelessly stealing from now on), calls on such intellectual luminaries as Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, and Beck, for sustenance. In this, the leading lights of the new conservatism dole out philosophy and rationale the way a Baskin Robbins ice cream server spoons whipped creme on to his concoctions. The result are that ideas and concepts with the heft of cotton candy, but extremely palatable to the narrow minded, are passed off as conservative dogma.

Religion has been confused with “traditional values” in order to justify the infallibility of many positions on social issues. Posner points specifically to abortion but might have also included gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and the teaching of creationism in schools. And the slice of conservatism that also identifies itself as “evangelical” — influential beyond their numbers — makes these “values” the centerpiece of their political universe.

All this is too much for Brad DeLong, who wants to know “how much intellectual steam did the conservative movement ever have?”

The very “things [Posner] sees wrong with Bush era conservatism” were, DeLong writes, “also the key components of the Reagan administration.”

Ronald Reagan was the original fiscal incontinent. And the substitution of will for intellect — was it ever any greater than in the rush to cut taxes to raise revenues, or in Alexander Haig’s belief that U.S. national security would be enhanced if the IDF gave the Syrian army a thrashing in Lebanon? We had to rely on the alliance of Nancy Reagan and her astrologer to get a sane policy toward Gorbachev, for God’s sake. And cultural conservatives — if I understand Posner, his complaint is that Reagan paid them only lip service and they patiently sat in the back of the bus and were quiet, while Bush, Palin, and Joe the Plumber take them seriously.

And, of course, the piece of Reagan-era conservatism of which Posner was most proud — deregulation and the trimming-back of government — has either turned out to be (a) destructive, or (b) accomplished by Carter and Clinton.

Posner ends his essay by noting the “liberal excess in the policies and plans of the new administration” will provide “targets for informed conservative critique,” and perhaps a rebound.

Not everyone is as sanguine. At FiveThiryEight, Nate Silver does the Nate Silver thing and produces a chart that shows the rising percentage of post-graduate-degree-holding voters who vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, from approximately 40 percent for Carter to almost 60 percent for Obama. Maybe the party itself is suffering a brain-drain?

Obviously, this data is far from perfect: Having attended the University of Chicago, where there are plenty of booksmart people that you wouldn’t consider particularly bright, I can tell you that the correlation between intelligence and educational attainment is considerably less than one-to-one. Still, Republicans have gradually been losing the egghead vote. I wonder how that translates into their ability to recruit strategists and “thought-leaders” who can work on the campaign, policy and media sides and help to lead them out of their current slump.

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See also Posner’s “post on ‘the intellectual decline of conservatism”:

Is the Conservative Movement Losing Steam? Posner

I sense intellectual deterioration of the once-vital conservative movement in the United States. As I shall explain, this may be a testament to its success.

Until the late 1960s (when I was in my late twenties), I was barely conscious of the existence of a conservative movement. It was obscure and marginal, symbolized by figures like Barry Goldwater (slaughtered by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election), Ayn Rand, Russell Kirk, and William Buckley–figures who had no appeal for me. More powerful conservative thinkers, such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and other distinguished conservative economists, such as George Stigler, were on the scene, but were not well known outside the economics profession.

The domestic disorder of the late 1960s, the excesses of Johnson’s “Great Society,” significant advances in the economics of antitrust and regulation, the “stagflation” of the 1970s, and the belief (which turned out to be mistaken) that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War–all these developments stimulated the growth of a varied and vibrant conservative movement, which finally achieved electoral success with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981. The movement included the free-market economics associated with the “Chicago School” (and therefore deregulation, privatization, monetarism, low taxes, and a rejection of Keynesian macroeconomics), “neoconservatism” in the sense of a strong military and a rejection of liberal internationalism, and cultural conservatism, involving respect for traditional values, resistance to feminism and affirmative action, and a tough line on crime.

The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge of prosperity worldwide that marked the global triumph of capitalism, the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement. But there were signs that it had not only already peaked, but was beginning to decline. Leading conservative intellectual figures grew old and died (Friedman, Hayek, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Buckley, etc.) and others as they aged became silent or less active (such as Robert Bork, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb), and their successors lacked equivalent public prominence, as conservatism grew strident and populist.

By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of “originalism,” the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded. All these became causes embraced by the new conservatism that crested with the reelection of Bush in 2004.

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression. These unanticipated and shocking events have exposed significant analytical weaknesses in core beliefs of conservative economists concerning the business cycle and the macroeconomy generally. Friedmanite monetarism and the efficient-market theory of finance have taken some sharp hits, and there is renewed respect for the macroeconomic thought of John Maynard Kenyes, a conservatives’ bête noire.

There are signs and portents of liberal excess in the policies and plans of the new administration. There will thus be plenty of targets for informed conservative critique. At this writing, however, the conservative movement is at its lowest ebb since 1964. But with this cardinal difference: the movement has so far succeeded in shifting the center of American politics and social thought that it can rest, for at least a little while, on its laurels.

http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/archives/2009/05/is_the_conserva.html

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See also:

Capitalism in Crisis

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124165301306893763.html

https://abluteau.wordpress.com/2009/05/07/capitalism-in-crisis/

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