The theme is the intellectual decline of the right; I really am curious; can anyone write a decent foundation that they are in decline from.
commenter Charles in response to my post on whether the crisis in American conservatism will spread to Australia.
There are different elements to political movements, often with overlapping memberships, which can include interest groups, social groups, political parties and intellectuals. The intellectuals will often have influence well beyond their numbers, as the people most able to coherently articulate the movement’s goals and arguments. Their loss of confidence in their own side can be a sign of an actual or coming crisis in the broader movement; while their success in public debates and growing confidence can be a sign that a movement is on the rise.
In American politics, we are seeing that loss of confidence. Richard Posner’s own recent book and the post I quoted yesterday are one sign of this. Here is a man with ideas about markets that have in the past been on the radical end even for free marketeers (such as his idea for a market in babies) who now says that ‘we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.’ We have former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett calling for tax increases in a new book. Conservative intellectual Ross Douthat co-wrote a book calling for the Republicans to support government intervention to win back the working class vote.
This is all consistent with many past pro-market reforms staying in place, but it is clear that prominent pro-market thinkers are increasingly arguing that the main new problems to be solved – and political movements almost always arise out of problems to be solved – are caused by failures of small government rather than failures of big government. A partial backdown is equivalent to a major loss of momentum.
As I argued in yesterday’s post, in Australia I don’t think there has been any loss of confidence among free-market intellectuals. Economic rationalism fizzled out rather than exploded as a force driving policy change, though except for the labour market its major reforms are still in place. Australian free-market intellectuals still see scope for their ideas in improving dysfunctional government service delivery, and like the broader right as represented by the Liberal Party believe that there is a good chance that we are headed for spectacular ‘government failure’. People in the finance industry made some dumb investments, but how many of them would sign up to a $43 billion project without a business plan? Unfortunately, there are no regulations that save us from crazy regulators.
A crisis in ‘conservatism’ is harder to spot; though there are conservative intellectuals they tend to be loosely connected to conservative movements or parties, which are often un- or anti-intellectual. As a political movement in the United States, conservatives seem to me to have become too preoccupied with issues that are marginal to the day-to-day problems of the broader mass of people: abortion, gay marriage, etc. They are also unfortunate to have linked themselves to a president who failed the before and after test for most Americans.
While the Howard government had run its course by 2007, on the before and after test it was a success. Almost every objective social and economic indicator was better when it left than when it arrived. Until the WorkChoices slip, Howard had his eye firmly on the interests of ordinary Australians, using tax and spend to ensure they participated in economic prosperity whether or not they were contributing to it. Conservatives successfully tapped into concern about the state of the family; in the 1990s this was seen as part of a plot of wind back the clock on women’s rights, but by the 2000s almost the entire political spectrum was falling over itself to support the family, much to my frustration. Howard also tapped into concerns about social cohesion and immigration; while the left never went along with this and continued to denounce him as a racist Howard was successful in public opinion on this point. The conservative focus was on these mass constituency issues, with as my political identity survey suggested, often suprisingly relaxed attitudes on American conservative pet but narrowcast causes such as gay relationships and abortion.
While Australian conservatism hasn’t failed on its own terms, on the other hand it is not obvious how Australian conservatives will be seen as having solutions to widely-accepted problems in the medium term. Possibly there will be scope for reworking family and social cohesion themes, but just how this will be done I don’t know. Perhaps the most interesting conservative issue at the moment is the charter/bill of rights, because of the significant challenge to our democratic system. But this is largely a negative agenda, and it is not clear whether conservative arguments will resonate with the broader public.
The Australian right is in a down period, with the natural shift in the political cycle. But to me it does not look like a broader crisis, as it does in the US.