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05/10/2009

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After successfully shifting the center of American politics and social thought to the right over four decades, conservatism is at its weakest point since Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964, Richard Posner writes. The author of A Failure of Capi... [Read More]

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ThomasL

Abortion and embryonic stem-cell research are unique issues, and I don't think they quite fit in a simple breakdown of classical/social conservatism. For those that believe that a fetus or an embryo is a human being, and therefore entitled to human rights, such as the right to life, outlawing abortion is no more socially interventionist than for government to outlaw murder.

It appears different only because so many people disagree, holding that the fetuses and embryos are not fully human yet, and therefore not entitled to human rights. The level of public debate makes it appear as some standard political disagreement (Higher taxes! No, lower taxes!) but it really does not fall into that category.

If you structured the debate differently, so that instead of around fetuses and embryos the disagreement were centered around euthanizing the mentally handicapped, very few people would call it socially interventionist; not because the reality of the terms were any different--the argument that the severely retarded were not entitled to human rights has been made in other countries at other times--but because the overwhelming public sentiment would be in agreement against it. This is my key point, that the “rightness” or “wrongness” of this is not different to the participants in the debate. The difference is the level of support for the idea.

I believe you have been fooled by seeing a close debate--in the case of abortion, roughly half the population on either side--and from the closeness of that debate have drawn conclusions as to its nature and moral quality, and the moral quality of the government's intrusion into that debate.

However, if the debate is couched in terms of individual rights (both of the actors and those acted upon), there is ultimately a right answer and a wrong answer for liberty. Arriving at that answer may not be simple, but once determined the action of the government would not be interventionist in any traditional sense. It would be an action which either secured the native rights of the actor (the mother) or of the subject (the child).

JP

Great summary. Conservatives need to absolutely get back to being skeptical of government and preferring inaction in all things, unless an American citizen's inalienable rights are being violated. When does a fetus become an American citizen (or a human)? If the answer to that question was legally declared, then the issue of abortion could be much less complicated.

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
- Thomas Jefferson

Noah

While your summary is generally great, Reagan was very religious. He prayed often, and some of his policy was related to religion (the evil empire stuff got the 'evil' part due to the outlawing of religion). However, what was different was that his religion was a private matter for him. He saw himself as having a private relationship with god that dictated his own actions. Most presidents we think of as religious instead have used religion as a manipulative tool, invoking the 'desires of god' to direct the voting populace.

chrismealy

And here I was thinking the roots of conservatism went back to the first toady sucking up to the local bully. Go figure!

I don't know about Locke, but the liberals definitely get to keep Hume. Smith is for everybody. You guys can have Burke.

T.G.

Prof. Becker, great post. To the first commenter, the modern "conservative" impulse to intervene in abortion and stem-cell research would have a little bit more credibility if the conservatives "concern for protecting the vulnerable" did not end once a child is born -- i.e, see, hostility towards the Head Start Program; Universal Pre-School; denial of, and refusal to provide, quality health care for the uninsured.

To take one example: regardless of ones political label or ideology, one thing I have never understood about modern day America is how we the people have arrived at the point where the politicians whom have virtually unlimited health care coverage somehow get to lecture us about preserving the free-market for health care, about so-called "medical insurance accounts" and the like.

artk

ThomasL

You comments on the abortion and stem cell debate are a best absurd. I can accept the fact that one’s religion teaches that a fertilized human egg is given a soul and therefore is entitled to the same rights a born individual. But to analogize that fertilized egg to a developmentally handicapped individual is in many ways dehumanizing.

The fossil record, as unified in evolutionary theory, proves how homo sapiens developed from simpler life forms. Do that mean that worms should be given the same rights as people given that in 50 million years or so they will evolve into sentient beings?

ThomasL

T.G.,

You have utterly, though I hope not hopelessly, missed the point. The debate above is about existence, and when does one come into their right to exist. There is no more fundamental right to any man than the simple right to be. Ens. To most, the right of a human being to live (which necessitates their life not be taken from them by some other) is self-evident. Therefore, if a fetus or embryo is a human being, it possesses that right to be; if it is not, then it does not. That is the abortion debate. You have, however, equated the right of a man to live, to be, with his access to universal pre-kindergarten schooling, and then proceeded to consider the two on the same plain and level of significance. I am not sure a more perverse misunderstanding of natural law is possible than that; if there is, it would be terrible to contemplate what form it might take.

ThomasL

T.G.,

You have utterly, though I hope not hopelessly, missed the point. The debate above is about existence, and when does one come into their right to exist. There is no more fundamental right to any man than the simple right to be. Ens. To most, the right of a human being to live (which necessitates their life not be taken from them by some other) is self-evident. Therefore, if a fetus or embryo is a human being, it possesses that right to be; if it is not, then it does not. That is the abortion debate. You have, however, equated the right of a man to live, to be, with his access to universal pre-kindergarten schooling, and then proceeded to consider the two on the same plain and level of significance. I am not sure a more perverse misunderstanding of natural law is possible than that; if there is, it would be terrible to contemplate what form it might take.

Ella

There is no reason there has to be a schism between domestic and international policy, and Reagan's the best example of why. He had a coherent, limited, and classically liberal domestic policy and it was directly translated into a vibrant and effective international policy. Geez, he helped collapse the Soviet Union, and his two major policy concepts were lower taxes (domestic) and defeating the Communists (international). He was not interventionist the way that Clinton or Bush II were, but that doesn't mean that he didn't have a clear international policy vision.

I think he is the best example of a classical/conservative movement. The problem isn't that international, domestic, and social issues cannot be unified in a coherent conservative system. It's that we don't have any leaders or thinkers now who are conservative in all three areas simultaneously.

Ella

T.G., this should really float your boat, but I not only oppose abortion and universal health care and pre-K, but I oppose public schools, period.

artk, I find your arguments in favor of abortion dehumanizing and insulting. If I believe that an embryo (which, unlike your worms are not only genetically human, but a genetically unique and special human) is a human with a soul, how is it "dehumanizing" to compare one human with another human? That point in abortion is that many groups (babies, the handicapped, minorities) have been vulnerable to the strong. We recognize now that some groups have been mistreated and need to be protected; as someone against abortion, I think a similar protection needs extended to another vulnerable group.

All that to say, you compared babies AND the handicapped to earth worms. Earth worms aren't even human even a little bit. Just sayin'.

chrismealy, the roots of conservatism go back to the Age of Enlightenment. Ironically enough, "progressivism" or liberalism is much older, and goes back to dictatorships, tyrannies, and oligarchies. It is a much older way of thinking, but I don't think that makes it better.

Ella

Oh, it wasn't clear from my previous post, Mr Becker is absolutely right that the GOP has schismed into three distinct policy groups, and none of them agree with each other on the other two policy areas. And fiscal conservatives have, over all, gotten the shortest end of the stick, but I think all three conservative theories have been ignored in a "pragmatic" pandering from politicians. The GOP isn't actually hawkish; they pander to hawks and make noises about saber rattling, but they don't have coherent principals anymore than Clinton did when he bombed Afghanistan. Same with "fiscal" conservatives like McCain or Coburn, who vote for fascist and massive government bailouts. And social conservatives make noises about Terry Schiavo while actually, I have no idea what they do. Social conservatism is like rehab for Republican politicians; it's what they start shouting when they're caught with their pants down or they're three points behind in the polls. I don't think anyone really is a social conservative in party politics.

But the GOP is a big tent of disfunctional parasites in three different camps who hate each other and don't have any core beliefs.

VennData

Recall the automakers went to the gov't after the Bush/Paulson team had done the infantry work on the Hill with TARP. The timing of the current proceedings was a result of the inter-election period which didn't allow Bush to force a similar solution to the one we're seeing.

GM and Chrysler are not being "run" by the government, besides loans and DIP financing the Feds are taking drastic, draconian actions that would be hailed by "conservatives" if they were coming from the boardroom.

The reason the Feds have to stand in is the inability of "conservatives" to properly enforce investor rights, via their heavy-handed interfere in business on the side of the executive suite.
Good riddance to Wagoner and his ilk.

And to the Reagan nut above, Reagan flip-flopped on abortion to run for the White House, Now, I don't know, because I don't read minds like you, but I assume it was also a very personal decision.

cbooker

Nate Silver has a relevant observation. I, as a Boothie (MBA only) have less of a claim for authenticity, I suppose, but Silver's examination is a helpful addition.

http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/05/mike-huckabees-flawed-logic-on-gops.html

T.G.

ThomasL,

It is not my desire to reignite a tedious abortion debate on this page.

I will however respond to one item.

You claim that the abortion debate is actually about "the right to be" and "existence" --
"the sanctity of life" -- never mind that our actual domestic and foreign policies over the past century (and more) demonstrate that some lives are more "sacred" than others.

For your own intellectual honesty, please tell us readers that you are aware that for at least the past 25 plus years the RNC/conservative rhetoric about abortion has been about allegedly "promoting a culture of life" -- even if it means criminalizing ALL abortions -- to include even the most heinous and vulgar scenario of, say, a 13 or 14 year old girl who is the victim of a rape or incest being forced to carry fetus to term. This is actually the viewpoint of Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a man whose popularity among the modern conservative base is exceeded only by the Queen of Alaska herself.

If this point of fact and history about the RNC issues platform is lost on you, then any discussion is pointless.

Anonymous

However, if the debate is couched in terms of individual rights (both of the actors and those acted upon), there is ultimately a right answer and a wrong answer for liberty.

No, there isn't. A fetus is an individual; it has a right to life. But a woman also has a right to control her own body. So what happens when those are mutually exclusive? Whose right do you infringe? Some would argue that the fetus' right to life trumps the woman's right to comfort or the lifestyle that she wishes to have, but somehow the same people don't apply this metric to other issues--for example, believing that it is worth killing others in war to achieve abstract objectives such as "freedom". It is thus hard to determine what metric is being used to justify one position and not another.

Jim

When is a fetus a person and therefore have a right to life. The fact is we don't know and should therefore be "conservative" in our approach. It has always confounded me that a person who shoots and kills a pregnant mother and her fetus is charged with a double murder on the basis of illegal (presumably immoral) taking of life but that the mother may take that same life with impunity and possibly have the public pay for it.

That we are a conflicted society is apparent when one thinks that in any big city hospital on any given day at any given time there is someone having an abortion, someone getting fertility treatment, someone trying to adopt, someone giving up a newborn to adoption, someone spending thousands trying to save a newborn's life, someone getting a tubal ligation for birth control, etc, etc.

Vote for me and I will make sure you can do anything you want and with someone elses money at that.

Paul G. Brown

I'm sorry, Mr. Becker. But this simply will not do.

These 'conservatives' you describe? I've never seen one outside highly contrived laboratory conditions. Whatever the intellectual pedigree of the movement, the reality on the ground is that Americanis Conservata 'believes' in two or three fundamental truths.

1. The legitimacy of income and wealth inequality on moral grounds, and in promoting public policy that takes as its goal preserving the economic status quo.

2. In the superiority of ideology over empiricism; belief over evidence. When asked 'Who are you gonna believe? Me? Or your lying eyes?", they opt for the intangible every time.

3. Variation is perversion.

They don't read Hume, Locke, or Smith, let alone Burke. They quote William Buckley when it suits them (and ignore him when it does not). Sad to say, we have no chance what-so-ever of 'restoring the consistency and attractiveness of the conservative movement' in the way you set out because the (virtuous imo) qualities you ascribe to it were never qualities it embraced in the first place!

Buck

Can anyone seriously claim that Ronald Reagan favored little military involvement in other countries as some sort of classical conservative approach? He funded the Contras, for crying out loud. Grenada? What, because he was only funding a MILITIA in Nicaragua that makes it consistent with the non-interventionist approach? How can anyone claim he had little interference in social arrangements? He was very deliberately attacking the current social arrangements in terms of the welfare state.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt

Interesting points, Professor. I share your belief that the Republican party--and the schizophrenic "conservatism" it now symbolizes--has drifted far from its core, traditional philosophical underpinnings. As you say, Adam Smith-style liberalism said nothing about contentious, morally charged social issues, yet those issues tend to identify "conservatives" in the early 21st century. There is a phenomenal difference between "Bush II Republicans (The Neocons)" and old-fashioned "Reagan-era Republicans."

I am no Republican. But I study history and I understand what "conservatism" traditionally means. It seems that "old guard" Republicans--who favor individual choice and private enterprise over governmental decisionmaking/regulation, etc.--should no longer be called "Republicans" at all, but rather "libertarians." A libertarian, like an old-guard Republican, could care less whether two men get married or a woman aborts her fetus. Those are individual choices. Government should not infuse its moral judgments concerning them. Yet modern-day Republicans feverishly oppose both gay marriage and abortion, claiming an evangelical righteousness that has no place in a philosophical regime that prizes private, individual choice without governmental interference. The schism between these two "Republican types" has led to the crisis in the party. It seems that a Republican cannot survive politically today if he is moderate on social issues. That is unfortunate. Until the Republicans figure out what they think, they will continue to suffer setbacks.

And you are correct that the Democrats at least have some coherent philosophical unity at the moment. I think this will lead to their dominance in national politics for the next few years, just as we saw them dominate national politics in the 1930s and 1940s.

James

I agree with the three-camp breakdown of the Republican Party, it is a traditional view that is firmly rooted in reality.

However I disagree in a few respects. The conservative intellectual movement has a long and rich intellectual history going back to Locke and the rest. In contrast, The average conservative is not only a populist ignorant of what should be his intellectual basis, but as Dr. Posner suggests, is part of "the intellectual decline of conservatism"- not only are many republican voters and politicians not participating in their intellectual history, but they are rabidly anti-intellectual.

This anti-intellectualism is what I find most disturbing. There are solid arguments for conservatism and plenty of intelligent and respected conservative thinkers. These men and women, however, are not the ones being given sway in the GOP.

Until the Republican party goes back to the rational and philosophical foundations that underlies any political ideology, and hence embrace intellectual thought, they will be unable to make any strides. This is what should be meant by "core principles". When the GOP does return to their true roots, they will likely find themselves returning to a more old-guard style, and find themselves winning more elections.

That said, I'm not complaining. As one of the libertarians that Balthazar Oesterhoudt mentions, I look on with glee as the GOP alienates their classic liberals and sends them looking for another party.

James G

I've seen that there are other people with the name "James" commenting on other parts of this blog. For clarity, I'll post with "James G" from now on. The post directly above this one, dated May 11, 2009, 4:16pm, is also mine, despite the lack of a last initial.

Apologies for the inconvenience, fellow Jameses.

Eric

Thoughtful post and some good comments. The real issue not mentioned here is that when conservatives abandoned their small-government platform for more electorally enticing – though inherently contradicting - "social issues" they were able to make massive gains and become the dominant political movement of their time. But ultimately such a contradiction can’t be sustained, because people can be duped for only so long – and in the age of blogs and electronic media such duplicity gets even harder. So the contradiction that’s been exposed between small gov’t libertarians and issues-based conservatives have left the Republican Party looking ineffectual at best, or hypocritical at worse.

Thus the real challenge for traditional, libertarian conservatives: In an age where Baby Boomers –
approaching retirement and living longer – find that they are unable to afford their anticipated quality of life; where the majority of Americans struggle with debt, health costs, college tuition, and a desire for a less consumerist, more natural, local-based lifestyle; where yet another financial crisis feeds a growing suspicious of big business’ impact in creating many of these problems, small-government, pro-business solutions are no longer appealing to the American people in a mass way.

And if you can no longer hide beneath the cover of social issues, what remains? To me, it looks like the conservative movement will be a small minority on the outside shouting in for some time to come.

Eric
http://www.changeany1thing.com

Daddy Love

Hmmm...seems at least a little bit strange that no one here is even considering the issues of forcing a woman to give birth against her will. Forcing her to give the use of her body to a parasitic being against her will (would you support hooking up one human to anophter to the first to use the second's kidneys for dialysis?). Stripping from her the right to freely and independently make medical decisions. Stripping her of her right to privacy. All the while also conveniently ignoring fertility clinic "homicides."

One may have answers that address these issues, but it is more interesting that no one has even BROUGHT THEM UP, not even the only apparent woman in the comments section (ultra-right-winger that she is, I am not surprised). If you want to do more than pretend to have an actual philosophical discussion of the issues around pregnancy termination, you might try to cover the relevant philosophical ground.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt

It appears my last post failed to properly link by blog. Problem rectified.

@Daddy Love, I noted in my comment that the abortion debate does not fit within "traditional" conservative philosophy. Privacy questions and fundamental decisional liberties actually constitute core libertarian ideas; and those ideas increasingly chafe against "neocon" social/relgious values. Becker's post addressed the fact that current-day "conservatives" neglect that basic respect for individual decisional liberty. In my view, "old-fashioned," economically-oriented conservatives would have no philosophical problem allowing a woman to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt

It appears my last post failed to properly link by blog. Problem rectified.

@Daddy Love, I noted in my comment that the abortion debate does not fit within "traditional" conservative philosophy. Privacy questions and fundamental decisional liberties actually constitute core libertarian ideas; and those ideas increasingly chafe against "neocon" social/relgious values. Becker's post addressed the fact that current-day "conservatives" neglect that basic respect for individual decisional liberty. In my view, "old-fashioned," economically-oriented conservatives would have no philosophical problem allowing a woman to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy.

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