Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Policy and Pyraminds

Fascinating quote from David Brooks at the NYT.
... it's not only feuding that has been the key to conservative success - it's also what the feuding's about. When modern conservatism became aware of itself, conservatives were so far out of power it wasn't even worth thinking about policy prescriptions. They argued about the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect the moral order. Different factions looked back to different philosophers - Burke, Aquinas, Hayek, Hamilton, Jefferson - to define what a just society should look like. Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement's views about human nature and society are true. Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate. A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did.
I think that there is some truth to this and that in Canada, conservatives have not really had the kind of debate that Brooks has in mind. I think we should have that debate, and that goes to the kinds of stories and authors that I post here. Perhaps some of us are familiar with this territory but my sense is that the public at large is a few steps behind. That is part of the reason they can be so easily swayed by insubstantial claims from the Liberals. There really are people out there, I think, who think that conservatives want to throw little old ladies and babies into the street. To their mind there can be no other reason for wanting to change X, when "everyone" knows X is the "only" thing keeping granny from being evicted. How to put this? .. that is incorrect. Another interesting thing Brooks points out is the American Democrats envy of the Republican machinery - think tanks, radio, etc. I saw this in the Terri Schaivo story a lot. Large numbers of the people who sided with Micheal were of the opinion that he was the victim of a "vast right wing smear machine." They gave the impression they thought the members of the public who sided with the Schindlers were dumb meat puppets caught up in the great Republican combine. This I think reveals a certain kind of mindset - a very elitist one. It holds the public in a very low regard. Any opinions the public has, it has only because a group of very clever and powerful people has planted them in their minds. People who hold this view are never, themselves, victimized in this way. Just ask them. They are always the brave, bold and misunderstood misfit, slogging away thanklessly... It's obvious that groups of people do try to influence the public this way and that way on various issues. What's much less obvious is that they have any success whatsoever. Ad campaigns can flop. Politicians who spend more money do not always win. And on it goes. Aside from the snob appeal, there is something else at play here. As Brooks points out, Conservative bickering generates a lot of ideas and it seems to me that ideas that succeed in such a vigorous exchange have to have some thing going for them. More than likely, that thing is merit. Religious mystery is also helpful because it means that one does not become wedded to every policy, and policy can therefore be revised and adapted in response to input received. Catholics are to have a 'preference for the poor,' for example. That is a goal and not a policy. If a policy is not meeting that goal, the policy can be changed. On the liberal side there is a greater tendency, I think, to confuse policy goals with the policies themselves. Hence the near hysteria when proposals are made to change the way that health and education are dealt with. Any change in the method is characterized as if it were wholesale ditching of the health and education themselves. I'm not certain of this but I wonder if the greater lack of religious belief on this side plays into this. The non religious place themselves under terrible pressure to achieve everything here and now. The policy they back is in a sense a part of their legacy, in an undesired effect of "the personal is the political" perhaps? With few kids and no afterlife, maybe it's the greater part of their legacy. It's no wonder then that altering policy in an effort to make goals better achieved is not going to assuage Tutankhamen. When you're toying with the stones on his tomb your reasons don't matter.

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