Wither to Conservatism?

Unbeknownst to me when I wrote my last Forbes column ruminating on the mess that is the current conservative movement, over at the Becker-Posner blog, dueling libertarian U-Chicago profs — Nobel laureate Gary Becker and Richard Posner — were chewing on some very similar thoughts.

Becker points out that the reason that Republicans are in such a sorry state right now is that they are trying to build a political party around two contradictory sets of beliefs. “One is the support of competition and generally freer markets, and the other is the advocacy of interventionist policies on various social issues, such as gays in military, stem cell research or in international affairs,” he notes. The first involves less government and the second involves more government. Taken together, they can’t yield a consistent philosophy favoring expanding individual choice.

Borrowing from William Easterly, Becker maintains that modern-day conservatism has become synonymous with protecting tradition and opposing change. Respecting institutions (such as property rights) that have performed well for a long time is certainly important. “But conditions do change, sometimes in crucial ways, and a sensible conservative philosophy would recognize the necessity of changing one’s views when this happens.” Consider divorce, says Becker. It made sense to have tough divorce laws when women raised children and didn’t work. Allowing their husbands to divorce them would have meant financial destitution. “However, anti-divorce laws make little sense when married women work to earn a living and they have few children,” he observes. “Therefore, a true conservative that generally opposes government involvement in private decisions would fully support laws that made divorce quite easy by both men and women.”

Curiously, however, Becker praises Reagan for having a non-interventionist foreign policy (and not having particularly strong religious convictions on gays and abortion!!!). To be sure, Reagan’s foreign policy designs were not nearly as grand as George Bush’s, perhaps because he inhabited a bi-polar world in which the U.S. was not the sole super-power. But this did not prevent him from invading Grenada; stationing troops in Beirut; and destabilizing Nicaragua (remember the Iran-Contra debacle?) – all of which, with the exception arguably of Grenada, did not involve any vital national interests.

Meanwhile, Posner, the resident liberaltarian, traces the decline of the conservative movement to the passing from the scene of conservative intellectual luminaries such as Hayek and Friedman (he also mentions Buckley, Bork and Jeanne Kilpatrick who, in my opinion, have neither the originality nor the intellectual heft to deserve to be mentioned on the same page as Hayek and Friedman let alone the same sentence!) leaving Republicans with few constructive ideas to control the stridency and populism within their ranks. He believes that the policies of the new (post-Bush) conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, he maintains, have been fourfold:

“The failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives [right on!]; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming [right observation; wrong example]; the use of religious criteria in selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government [who can forget Tea-Totaling, Civil Liberties-Chomping AG John Ashcroft and “Heck-of-a-Job-Brownie”?]; a continued preoccupation with abortion [true!]; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset price inflation [Amen!!]”

Still, Posner holds out hope for conservatives, not because they will suddenly get smart. But because power will inevitably go to Obama’s head and make him stupid. “There are signs and portents of liberal excess in the policies and plans of the new administration.”

So hang on to those tea bags – you’ll need them.