The End of Conservative Ideology?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican presidential nomination, many wise critics have concluded that the old Buckley-Reagan conservative ideology is dead. The paradoxical reply: It is not dead because the original was not an ideology.

That declaration had always annoyed me in my younger days, when William F. Buckley, Jr. would ceaselessly insist that conservatism was not ideological.

Sure it was. What did Buckley himself write in his Up from Liberalism (1959) about the essence of conservatism? Its principles were set forth therein as “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of conscience, the spiritual view of life,” a strong defense—and all were meaningful “in proportion as political power is decentralized.”

Only with Buckley’s constant repetition, reinforced by his associate Frank S. Meyer among others (from F.A. Hayek to Ronald Reagan), did these principles become clear. Although they could be considered timeless, they were not discoverable by an over-rationalized, unitarily deductive ideology, but came into view as a synthesis of Western principles as resolved under concrete historical circumstances. (My previous essay for Law and Liberty discussing the fusionism embodied in Buckley’s National Review is here.)

Still, critics raised a valid point. They were correct in the sense that the old, open-ended Reagan-Buckley synthesis had been turned into an ideology by the time of George W. Bush. An obsession with abstractions like world democratization, nationalism and nation-building, materialist utilitarianism, and hyphenated compassionate-conservatism transformed the synthesis into a neoconservative ideology.

The old Buckley principles can remain serviceable as guidelines, but they cannot be arranged in a neat hierarchy so as to solve, in some mechanistic way, all of the problems we face. To be relevant, they must be applied in a way that takes current realities into account. Slogans about high taxation, or excessive debt, or out-of-control government spending, or foreign threats, or cultural decline are not enough (though each issue on that list needs attention). It is necessary to ask: how do they all fit together, today? What is the larger context that tells the story for modern times?

Americans know something is seriously wrong but they are too busy with their everyday lives to know precisely what. What they sense is that their government is dysfunctional, their Western civilization is in decline, and that nothing important really works. But no one tells them why.

A major Pew Research Center study entitled Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government showed that only 19 percent of those polled “say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century.” Just 20 percent “would describe government programs as being well-run. And elected officials are held in such low regard that 55% of the public says ‘ordinary Americans’ would do a better job of solving national problems.”

Notwithstanding that government is the “object of their frustration,” Americans “have a lengthy to-do list” for it. “Majorities want the federal government to have a major role in addressing issues ranging from terrorism and disaster response to education and the environment. And most Americans like the way the federal government handles many of these same issues, though they are broadly critical of its handling of others—especially poverty and immigration.”

As for the partisan divide over “the size and scope of government,” it “remains as wide as ever,” with 80 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents expressing a preference for “a smaller government with fewer services, compared with just 31% of Democrats.”

What the public opinion research shows is that people want services from government but are dissatisfied with the results. Their answers to polling questions do not make a rigid distinction between government and national government, but other polls show that state and local governments are much more highly supported than the feds, with Gallup showing 62 percent trusting state government and 72 percent trusting local government.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the main problem was dissatisfaction with the economy. But even then, President Reagan, in his first Inaugural Address, said that the purpose of reform was not “to do away with government” but “to demand the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States and the people.”

The fact is the U.S. government in Washington is simply overwhelmed. It tries to do too much. It does not understand the complexity of the problems it tries to solve. It only makes guesses at solutions, which overlap with previous solutions, where long chains of command frustrate decision-making. There is no accountability for performance. The policies adopted were crafted with little local knowledge and therefore lack effectiveness. Presidents or lawmakers on white horses can only set programs whose results will not be seen for years—by which time they become someone else’s problem.

There are 70 programs in six different agencies to feed hungry children. There are 105 programs in nine agencies encouraging science, math, and reading. There are 75 different work training programs. Programs where the feds only write checks “work,” but they are all seriously underfunded. One that just made the news is the low-visibility Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which carries a $52 billion debt, and more coming from the Teamsters that might double that total. The other programs mainly fund studies—and these, the research shows, mostly cannot be replicated—whose recommendations result in complicated new regulations that overlap and interfere with earlier ones. Actual implementation is left to local officials who must work out what they mean, with the goal of meeting the federally imposed standards rather than solving the problems.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton promise more of the same. While Trump has recognized and exploited the popular dissatisfaction with government expressed in the polls, he seems to be driven by the same one-size-fits-all solutions as his insider opponent.

The classic criticism of this ideology of centralizing problems was lodged by Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek, who skewered as dysfunctional the “public administration movement” of expert planners trying to solve problems remotely. Hayek devised a theory of complex phenomena to explain the dysfunction. Progressive administrators believe they can solve problems better than those with local knowledge by using the best scientific methods with great data accumulations under the control of the nation’s best minds. But data can be measured from innumerable perspectives, and even with the best scientific minds, results are reported as probabilistic averages and ratios rather than individualized solutions.

The science of physics that handles atoms so well (although there is that pesky quantum) cannot capture the greater complexity of biological material, much less the even more complex human being. An article in the May 2016 issue of Current Biology even questions whether biologists’ conception of the basic structure of the animal cell, long thought typical, is in fact universal. The difference when approaching the study of human beings is enormous: There are more interactions in one human mind in a few moments than there are physical atoms in the entire solar system.

If biology can be humble, why cannot political science?

The gap between concrete local knowledge against abstract national norms is inherent in all centralized resolutions. The only solution for this lack of individualized knowledge is to go where it resides, where actual things take place locally, rather than follow abstract national rules that apply precisely to no one person or situation. Each local entity can focus on what is required there without being distracted by enormous national crises or hindered by enormous national costs. Each of the millions of people in each field of human endeavor can do what is necessary for his or her own real circumstances rather than being ideologically driven by abstract ideological norms.

So, is conservative ideology dead? Let us hope so.

And let us hope that the Buckley-Reagan-Hayek synthesis can reassert itself to tell the truth, which is that the centralized ideological emperors have no clothes. That problems can only be confronted rationally when people can know local details where they live and work. And that there is no Wizard in Washington who can magically do it for them.

And then let us await a better day.

Donald Devine

Donald Devine, senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, and the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, was director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during Ronald Reagan's first term.

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  1. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    I wonder if you are using an overly narrow and confining definition of ideology? Perhapps this might be a matter of academic discourse–a kind of “Humpty Dumpty” problem, where those of us inhabiting one discourse use a word differently than those of us in another:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

    At any rate, in the conversations within which I am embedded, ideology connotes a much more generic meaning: “a system of ideas that informs one’s understanding of the proper ordering of a polity.” This is relatively close to the common sense of the word picked up by dictionaries like Merriam-Webster: “the set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party.” This is, to pick just one example, the kind of thing Eric Foner talks about when he describes the ideology of the Free Soil/Republican synthesis in the 1850s, or that Merrill Petersen discusses in his analysis of the use to which Americans at various points in time put the ideas of Thomas Jefferson.

    Understood this way, ideology speaks to broad frameworks of assumption, habit, disposition, and concept that dispose people towards some courses of action and away from others. Such frames are unavoidably part of what it means to be human–ideology is then a descriptive word that speaks to how human beings apprehend reality, and not a word intended to convey ethical judgment.

    You do not define the term, but as I read your essay, you use it in a narrower sense, to connote abstract, deductive principles detached from lived, day to day reality. In this sense, ideology is a bad thing, because it obfuscates, and affords those who employ it a false sense of confidence. Am I reading you correctly? Or have I missed something important?

    All best wishes,
    Kevin

    • gabe says

      Kevin:

      Well stated.

      You are quite correct in stating that *ideology* in the narrow sense does tend to not only obfuscate, but to deny certain aspects / phenomena of political reality.

      AND, I think (not to speak for Mr. Devine, BTW) that is the point of the above essay. If Buckley argued that “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of conscience, the spiritual view of life,” a strong defense—and all were meaningful “in proportion as political power is decentralized” and we find that current political thinking, even among Conservatives, is that Government *ought* to resolve our problems, in particular the NATIONAL Government AND that the only difference between conservatives and Proggies is that conservatives continue to advance lower taxes, freer trade, etc, it becomes clear that we have slipped into an ideological formulation of this nations problems and are simply advancing the same old ideological prescriptions: Lower taxes, etc etc.
      This prevents us from “seeing” that which may be in front of us: The consequent growth of ever larger government as a result of many of the same initiatives that we propose from an ideological perspective and the diminution of the role of community, “home” (a la Walker Percy, etc), personal responsibility, etc. It also leads us into foreign adventurism as we come to believe that we, the enlightened conservative vanguard (or Proggie vanguard) are justified in bringing forth to others the *wonders* of our own system. This is also true for many conservative prescriptions for domestic issues.

      In the broader sense, ideology may be properly constrained by limiting it to what some thinkers have labeled, “The Common Mind” – something akin to your broader definition above. It is a way of behaving / thinking BUT not necessarily ACTING in ALL circumstances. The Common Mind is tempered by an understanding of both tradition and new realities on the ground. E,G., current talk of lower taxes simply does not resonate with the populace, they prefer jobs. Yet the Reagan influenced ideologue will continue to advance this panacea as the proper political prescription. The ideologue, left and right, presumes to have special knowledge / vision. Apparently, this is also true of a thoroughbred at Kentucky Downs and his (blindered) vision allows him to race to the finish line. Were it so simple for the effective politician / statesman?

      Anyway, take care
      gabe

  2. says

    Thank you Donald Devine for the chance to collaborate for a possible better future for responsible liberty.

    “The science of physics . . . cannot capture [biology],” is hyperbolic thought born of traditional semantics.

    “Science” is a systematic study of evidence rather than imagination. “Biology” is “the processes that occur in a living thing,” and those processes are empowered by physics. Physics is energy, mass and space-time from which everything on Earth emerges. “Everything” includes both biology and science; both reality and imagination. So far, humankind has not discovered how physics emerged and whether or not “why” is a valid question. The fact that these ideas have not been expressed this way before or that they are difficult to accept does not suggest that they are not the facts of reality.

    For me, a picture of Buckley with Vidal (who should not influence children and adolescents) would be more representative of reality. Anytime a mere intellectual’s words draw out the meanness a man previously kept vague, the event and its emergence should be commemorated for the sake of possible future understanding and perhaps to encourage leaders to intentionally replace meanness with humility. See politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/buckley-vs-vidal-the-real-story-121673 for another view.

    I want a civic people, perhaps including Liberty Law, to turn “conservatism is dead” into a positive event: responsible liberty is born. Buckley’s list of civic needs seemed to be, “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of conscience, the spiritual view of life,” a strong defense—and all were meaningful “in proportion as political power is decentralized.” Coming from my glimpse of over 3000 years of thought about classical liberty, including perhaps Lao Tsu’s idea—things are not confused: we’re confused, and with collaboration with at least 42 people, our goal is real-no-harm (RNH) private liberty with civic morality (PLwCM). PLwCM has a corollary, private morality with civic liberty (PMwCL). Therein “civic” is likened to “civic life” about which there are books I have not read. Specifically our “civic” addresses the ineluctable human connections, both direct and indirect, that exist because human beings live during moments and decades of their lives in the same space-time, whereas “social” refers to preferential, class, and imposed associations.

    It does not matter that RNH PLwCM has not been expressed before. What matters is that conservative constitutional law professors consider developing it in their language so that the present trend toward modern democracy—or I want it all and I want it now and Justice Kennedy says I have dignity and equality–can be overthrown. For example, constitutional law professors working with Congress can assemble the physics-based ethics or the facts of reality to reverse Obergefell v. Hodges. And that’s a states’ issue.

    The states always managed marriage so as to assure the civic safety and security (in the broadest terms) that children need. Only Judge Martin Feldman touched on that topic. See http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-gaymarriage-louisiana-idUSKBN0GY25F20140903 . But here are my arguments. Above 99% of children without influence to be gay but with fidelity to physics would choose the monogamous, heterosexual lifestyle. Today, only 83% of couples choose monogamy, but that is because they have never been influenced by physics, or reality-based morality. Monogamy is not instinctive among the lower placental mammals; most are not as sentient as humans. Humans observe that fidelity is perhaps key to perfection of the body, mind, and person, and the human psychology is so complex that it takes three decades to acquire basic understanding, another three or more decades to grow wisdom and more to achieve psychological maturity, if it is reached. For these reasons, each child needs the layers of exemplary maturity that is provided by monogamy: successive maturity levels of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and the legacies of ancestors. Same-sex couples cannot independently fulfill this civic duty to children. They cannot even offer the 99% the monogamous heterosexual role models they need to fulfill their natural tendency, let alone support their natural preference. And lastly, children in same-sex families do not have the genes of both partners and are therefore subject to romance and perhaps sex with one parent. A civic people cannot offer much less supply safety and security for children in gay families, and they cannot allow the Supreme Court to saddle a civic people with duty they cannot fulfill.

    This is the tip of an iceberg of reality-based moral power that has been available to Liberty Law since last August. During that time our articulation that Einstein was flummoxed by “science” rather than focused on physics has improved. Our goal evolved to RNH PLwCM. We perceived that Machiavelli’s 500 year old, Chapter XI, prince-priest partnership v the people is more representative as priest-politician partnership. We have experienced the power of civic collaboration and are grateful we never wrote a book (but may soon report the products of collaboration). A Civic People of the United States, a Louisiana, civic-education corporation, is not waiting.

    Richard, 92 years old, called me condescending, not accepting that my writing shares the product of civic collaboration. But how in the world did he arrive at that pigeon-hole for me? I responded that he was reacting against physics; a copy editor changed “physics” to reality.

    My mantra for nearly thirty years has been: I accept that I do not know what I do not know. I hope you, Mr. Devine can perceive the verity of that claim.

  3. Scott Amorian says

    This is a very excellent essay. Thank you Mr Divine. I’ve come to expect no less from you.

    I was recently rereading the the “Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress” of 1774. It’s a fascinating document. It probably does more to define the unwritten US Constitution, those rights referred to in the 9th amendment, than any other document. Let me point out a section of it and then go on with my commentary. It says in part:

    “Whereupon the deputies so appointed being now assembled, in a full and free representation of these colonies, taking into their most serious consideration, the best means of attaining the ends aforesaid, do, in the first place, as Englishmen, their ancestors in like cases have usually done, for asserting and vindicating their rights and liberties, DECLARE,

    “That the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following RIGHTS:”

    And then it goes on to list ten specific rights that closely resemble the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Those rights are:

    1. “life, liberty and property”.
    2. The inherent rights, liberties and immunities of English (not British) citizens.
    3. The retention of right even though they left England.
    4. Participation in government.
    5. Subjection to common law and trial by peers.
    6. Subjection to English statutory law (at the time of colonization)
    7. Immunities and privileges granted by royal charter and provincial laws.
    8. To peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievance and petition the king.
    9. To be free of standing armies.
    10. In keeping with the English (not the British) constitution, a legislature of separate powers.

    Other sections of the document address other rights. Freedom from government mandated religion. Protection from inappropriate government takings of private property. Prevention of alteration to local government. The pursuit of happiness.

    That all ties to Hayek’s reference to the problem of complexity. In computer systems (my professional field) complexity has to be well managed. Too much centralization and the system doesn’t work well. You don’t want your spreadsheet software to be part of the operating system. It needs to be a different piece of software that stands alone and runs separate from the operating system otherwise it causes technical problems. Likewise you don’t want too little centralization. With too little coordination from the operating system, the software applications create conflicts over hardware resources, which causes another set of technical problems occur. Complex software systems work because software is kept separated by its function, but is kept coordinated by a central system.

    The same principle applies to the human system of government. Too much inclusion of specialized systems into the central coordinating system creates problems, and it does so for the same reasons as software. Components of government become too “grabby” over resources. Too little coordination and the separate components struggle with conflicts over resources.

    What Hayek was getting at was that certain general patterns of design are needed to make complex systems work. In the origins of the US Constitution the general patterns were the rights of the people. When those patterns are not followed bad things happen. Overcentralization causes its own problems. In 1774, if you read the Declarations and Resolves, the overcentralization came very much from the establishment of Great Britain over the original government of England (the result of the Glorious Revolution). The overcentralized control by the House of Commons resulted in governmental excesses, which in turn resulted in the colonies reaction which was the American Revolution.

    After separating from Britain the Founders attempted to correct the problem of overcentralization first through Articles of Confederation, which overcompensated for Britain’s overcontrol, and lacked sufficiently strong coordination, and then through the US Constitution, which created a better balance of coordination and separation both in internal powers and in retaining state identities and powers.

    The problem with leftist ideology is that it advocates overcentralization. It tries to incorporate too much power and control into the central body. Government programs such as the “feed the children” programs suffer the same systemic problem as software programs. Those are special programs that should be kept out of the central coordinating system. They need to operate independently using the central system to coordinate shared resources, but they should not be a part of the central system, since they are not a resouce to be coordinated. Rather, they are a system that needs coordinated resources. When they become overly incorporated into the central system they start interfering with the otherwise healthy internal coordination, become too “grabby” and cause everything to operate less efficiently.

    Perhaps we would not be too wrong to assume that the problem with rightist ideology is that it advocates to little centralized control, which results in conflicts over resources.

    The rights referred to in the Declaration and Resolves defined some general principles of operations of government. Rather than trying to control everything from a centralized system, they establish a relationship between the government and the governed. Spreadsheet software has a technical relationship with the operating system that requires communication protocols. In government the equivalent is found in our rights. As long as the protocols work correctly and are followed government works correctly. When we break the protocols of rights government ceases to work correctly. Overcentralization and undercentralization do not fix dysfunctional government, rather, they are the consequence of a failed understanding of proper rights.

    And that is what true liberal ideology is really about; understanding and executing the rights that lead to well functioning government.

    (Oh, I seem to have gone on a bit again. Haven’t I.)

    • says

      This is merely a comment.

      Federalist 84 claimed that the preamble to the constitution of the USA precluded any need for a bill of rights and that a bill of rights would inadvertently interfere with some inalienable rights. Alexander Hamilton wrote it, and James Madison did not serve well when he leaned toward common law (Blackstone?) under Protestantism rather than press for the preamble’s protections.

      Perhaps the pinnacle of computer modeling is artificial intelligence, and trying to mimic human decision making so far is failing. But who would want to define rights for someone like Steve Jobs? Adapting James Madison’s quote from 1785, “Before [Steve Jobs] can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.” Did Madison intend “legal society” or “propriety?”

      Madison could not imagine what the people have experienced and observed and how civic morality has drastically lagged technology. A civic people would like to scrap all but the preamble, replacing the obsolete articles and amendments and the reams of opinion about opinion that the courts have used to trash the USA. Taking it from June 21, 1788, when the bill of rights promise was ratified, we are 12 revisions past due according to Thomas Jefferson’s wish for each adult generation to revise the USA. See, for example, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch2s23.html .

      Lawyers, squabbling over opinion about opinion, have missed their noble calling: to assist the people in their quest for real-no-harm (RNH) private liberty with civic morality (PLwCM). For example, to help the people perceive that the priest-politician partnership that picks the people’s pockets will continue under Chapter XI Machiavellianism as long as the people allow it. They are so far out on the Blackstone and theism limbs they cannot even address civic morality.

      According to Judeo-Christian tradition, collaboration is not expected.

      • Scott Amorian says

        Please consider getting some professional help, Phil. A little couch time sometimes does a body good.

        • gabe says

          Scott:

          I doubt that even the Treasury of the USA has sufficient for ALL the couch time that Phil needs.

          although I would be willing to forego one six-pack of Peroni (an excellent Italian lager) to help with the cause.

          I do detect a form of first generation Lutheranism in Dear Phil, fighting a battle that was first launched over 500 years ago. Yep, the Bloody Priests are in collaboration with the politicians.
          Holy Shitake mushrooms – how could I have missed it!

          • says

            gabe what’s pitiful is that you and your psychological gestapo haven’t done anything about Christianity’s ruinous influence on civic morality in your lifetime.

            We propose reform from opinion-based law to reality-based civic morality using the preamble to coordinate collaboration and discovered physics to mediate the issues. Our goal is 65% of citizens collaborating for real-no-harm (RNH) private liberty with civic morality (PLwCM). Under the justice of a civic people, every RNH religion would flourish under its believers.

            Check it out. The physics of slavery was plain to Hammurabi 3800 years ago. Yet, when men canonized the Bible they included books old and new that suggest slavery was instituted by their god to help both master and slave. To this day the USA’s pledge of allegiance includes Eisenhower’s 1954 prayer, “under God.” Have you even told a joke about reform? How about a joke about a god that condones slavery?

          • says

            This a second response to “gabe’s” June 6, 2016 at 9:27 pm post attacking my person.

            Luther’s reforms of 1517 did not relieve Protestantism from the false-god’s word the Catholic Church had given them. The physics of slavery–chains, whips, brutality, rape, burdens–had always informed humankind that slavery is evil. But Christianity continued to wallow in the error.

            Christianity is without excuse. Check Thomas Paine’s scathing objections in “African Slavery in America,” http://www.constitution.org/tp/afri.htm . And consider the concluding sentence in the Confederate States of America’s declaration of secession: “Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.” See http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp . The evidence is that the Civil war was the civic settlement of white-Christian Bible interpretation in the North versus white-Christian Bible interpretation in the South. Ministers in the South were preaching New Testament master-slave advice and slave-master advice.

            That white-on-white civic conflict should have put to rest 3800 years of slavery dominance on religious opinion vs civic morality based on physics. However, black church, founded perhaps in 1758, was beginning to build its own Bible interpretation, and some, understandably yet erroneously, make the case that white church is Satan. We look to a civic people for justice, and the conclusion that the Bible is not the word of a god is ineluctable.

            Dear “gabe” you must exist with the propriety never to have been called a heretic. I take you back to the time when I was being subjected to a modern inquisition in the religion my mom and dad–fantastically reliable providers in their own way–had convinced me to try to accept. It was a formative Sunday school class of men in their forties who liked to think deeply. Each person was to affirm the statement, “Jesus died on the cross to redeem me of my sins.” The responses were Yes; Yes: “I don’t know. The god I worship could have handled Pontius Pilate granting relief to Jesus rather than Barabbas.”

            You probably are not aware that a Southern Baptist has no hierarchy to whom to address withdrawal from the brotherhood. My letter of July 29, 1994, is addressed to “Baptist Message,” a Louisiana magazine, with a copy to my minister. Today, I can attend civic events at Baptist Churches when invited or otherwise notified and appreciate their privacy when not invited. However, I cannot attend a legislative event in this country without brooking the imposition of Christianity. Under Greece v Galloway, the Christian minister has become more arrogant, not only delivering the ceremonial prayer, but participating in then program.

            Dear “gabe” I don’t think you have propriety to even discuss these matters with me, much less attack my person with your ample weaknesses and anonymity.

  4. nobody.really says

    1. The moral of the Pew study (as of the bill of particulars in the Declaration of Independence): AMERICANS AREN’T LIBERTARIANS. They want government services. They want a lot of them. They just want them provided well. (Oh, and they don’t want to pay for them, but that’s a whole ‘nuther matter.)

    2. But what is the problem with deciding things at a federal level? According to Devine:

    The fact is the U.S. government in Washington is simply overwhelmed. It tries to do too much. It does not understand the complexity of the problems it tries to solve. It only makes guesses at solutions, which overlap with previous solutions, where long chains of command frustrate decision-making. There is no accountability for performance. The policies adopted were crafted with little local knowledge and therefore lack effectiveness. Presidents or lawmakers on white horses can only set programs whose results will not be seen for years—by which time they become someone else’s problem.

    Whereas local units of government are not overwhelmed? Whereas local units of government do have perfect understanding? Whereas your typical state capital — located in rural areas far from the scrutiny of the waning squad of journalists — are accountable for performance? Whereas governors and state legislators set programs whose results arise instantaneously – or perhaps, that all governors and state legislators remain in office for 70 years and thus are around when the policy’s result can be judged?

    As far as I can tell, the problem Devine identifies is not a choice between federal or state policies. Rather, it’s a choice between imperfect government action or perfect government inaction.

    As I’ve oft noted, we can evaluate the benefits of government inaction by looking at places where there is no effective government – Somalia, rural Afghanistan, the malaria-plagued heart of the Amazon Rainforest. It is far from clear that government inaction produces ideal circumstances. Thus, we are left with the option of government action, imperfect as it may be. And in any event, foolish Americans have told the Pew survey takers that they really do want government services. What can ya do?

    3. So, given that Americans want services, how to go about providing them? Yeah, I’d guess pretty much everybody here likes “subsidiarity” in principle – the idea of pushing decision-making to the lowest level practicable. The problem is not with the principle, but with deciding which level is the lowest level practicable.
    Consider the social safety net. (Yes, even Hayek was a fan of social safety nets.) To characterize poverty-related problems are a “local issue” ignores the fact that poverty rates vary by locality. And to say that natural disasters are a local issue ignores the fact that many disasters swamp the capacities of a local area. Principles of insurance say that we should seek to pool risk and defray costs over pretty much a broad a region as we can. Thus we have a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a Federal Emergency Management Agency, a federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, etc.

    But then, what of subsidiarity? Some concede that it makes sense to collect funds on a broad scale, but to defer decisions about disbursing funds to the local level – say, via block grants. National Public Radio is currently doing a serious of stories about how well this policy worked for Clinton’s Welfare Reform program. Spoiler alert: It hasn’t worked well. Basically, local governments used federal welfare dollars to bolster the interests of whichever constituency they favored, and those constituencies were not generally poor people. Federal welfare has become a middle-class subsidy. Moreover, no politician ends up responsible for this situation: Local politicians accurately say that they’re not responsible for the size of federal taxes, and federal politicians accurately say that they’re not responsible for the manner in which local officials squander the funds.

    Given this dynamic, I’m rather more forgiving of federal strings attached to federal dollars. But I don’t disagree with Devine’s praise for local action. I just don’t see them as necessarily in conflict. We can have federal actions and, given all the dissatisfaction with those federal actions, we can have our oh-so-superior local actions, too. And given our Laboratory of Democracy, maybe we locals can even show those feds a thing or two, and the feds will adopt OUR policies as their own.

    Except….

    4. Arguably the larger conceptual problem is not federal spending with federal strings, and with federal politicians accountable for it all. Rather, the problem is – as McGinnis and others have noted – the Supremacy Clause combined with the Dormant Commerce Clause.

    The Supremacy Clause says that federal policy preempts state policy, sometimes even when that preemption is merely implied. And the Dormant Commerce Clause is a judicial doctrine that authorized courts to strike down state policies that impinge upon interstate commerce, even if no state or federal entity has raised any objections to the policies. The combined effect of these doctrines is that federal policies sometimes do precisely what Devine complains about: become substitutes for local actions.

    In sum, in principle I don’t object to feds adopting federal policies funded with federally-authorized taxes. But in the interest of subsidiarity, those policies should not constrain local units of government from also adopting policies unless it is impossible to reconcile the local policies with the federal ones. And I’m troubled by the practice of private actors getting judges to overturn local policies merely on the theory that those policies intrude upon the jurisdiction of some other level of government; let the government entity police its own jurisdiction.

  5. z9z99 says

    I don’t think that the issue is whether centralization is good or bad per se, or whether people would be happy with any amount of government service as long as it is provided well. There are some things that I would want government and only government to do, and there are some things I would not want it to do at all regardless of how well it is perceived at doing them.

    I want government and only government to provide an army. Same with local police protection. I only want the government to investigate the cause of plane crashes, perform foreign espionage, and operate criminal courts. I do not want the government to run newspapers, churches or social organizations (implicating respectively freedom of the press, religion and association). I don’t want the government to be responsible for the details of airplane design, or fashion design for that matter. I don;t want the government to manage musical bands or comedy tours.

    These preferences arise from consideration of how different types of incentives affect different institutions. Some institutions thrive with a profit motive, others are corrupted by it. Some institutions function well because of a sense of community that is missing from larger entities. The incentives that optimize the performance of government are different than those that do the same for private enterprise or charitable organizations. Sometimes this works in favor of the government doing stuff, sometimes it means the government should defer to better options.

    As a general observation, by no means rigorously verified, government seem to be at its best with projects; defeating the nazis, going to the moon, building the interstate highway system, etc. and at its worst with the ongoing management of the mundane. Hence the familiar jokes about the DMV,, Amtrak and less funny jokes that are the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Service.

    The choice is not dichotomous between government and private industry. My own personal opinion is the the hospital system in this country was at its best when it was primarily a charitable enterprise, organized by religious orders and civic organizations, and it has not been improved by intervention of either government or profit-seeking institutions. I would not want to see the Boy Scouts listed on either the New York Stock Exchange or the Blue Pages of the phone book.

    Government, private enterprise and charitable organizations are all necessary and beneficial. Each does some things better than the others; and there are certain things to which each is ill-suited.

    Because diversity or something.

    • says

      This is a comment and reference to a proposal.

      The preamble to the constitution for the USA specifies an entity that never existed but might be grown asymptotically by performance example: We the People of the United States. The entity is defined by the rest of the sentence. Christianity labeled that sentence “secular” rather than neutral to religion, retiring it to negligence these 229 years.

      A civic people (ACP) want to change tradition and establish use of the preamble by at least 65% of citizens, mimicking the percentage of states’ representatives that signed the preamble as part of the 1787 draft constitution.

      ACP want civic children, and therefore propose a program to express to each newborn, child, adolescent, and college student or equal: you are a civic person and are critical to the USA and therefore with each of your collaborative successes we are setting aside for your early adulthood a stake in American capitalism so that you understand we wish you to be not only a consumer but part owner in free enterprise. You must complete the entire program to receive the set aside funds at the appointed time, so this is not a giveaway: You must earn the funds.

      This civic duty surpasses many of the government obligations you listed, because civic persons are the most important element of the USA. Without exemplary civic morality, the dissidents and criminals would have not contrasts to encourage them to empower We the People of the United States.

      “Child incentive program” is posted on our website.

  6. George Woloshyn says

    Finally, Don! You’ve done it! You’ve decoupled “conservatism” from “ideology”.

    It was always a bit difficult to promote conservatism as an “ideology”, because the “relativist” mindset immediately would react by taking the position that “you have your ideology and I have mine”. Then …..when you go through all the issues that generally define “conservatism”, you often discover that there are no differences because people generally go with what makes sense. (And, of course, there’s no reason to be a “conservative” if it does not make sense.) The moment you talk about “ideology” the other person thinks “rigidity”.

    I think, Don, that the best thing conservatives – ideological or not – can do right now is to get behind Mark Levin’s constitutional convention initiative. If we can bring that about, we won’t solve all the problems besetting our country, but we sure as heck will move a long way in that direction. And the progress we will have made will be much further and less dubious in reaching that very cut-and-dried objective, than going out and evangelizing.

    Why don’t you see if Mark Levin could have you on his “Levin TV” so that we can get some additional intellectual underpinning to his very practical “solution”?

    • says

      This is a comment, not intended for collaboration. (If I accepted Richard’s claim, I’m condescending, but I would argue I’m just expressing what seems obvious.)

      In 1790, citizens were 99% traditional factional Protestants and 6% could vote. Today, 14.7% are traditional Protestants and 100 % of non-criminals can vote (and that’s changing in Virginia). More than 23% have considered the available gods and find them wanting–would prefer to collaborate with people for justice.

      Establishing a civic people, 65% of citizens who collaborate for real-no-harm (RNH) private liberty with civic morality (PLwCM) seems like a more livable solution than trying to get conflicted representatives to function.

      Also, a civic people saw WFB’s tragic performance against GV (a bad civic example) as well as WFB’s last appearance on the Dick Cavet show, and don’t desire more mean travesty.

      “Conservatives” just seem to take the doomed side of civic issues. Take for example DOMA, a failure on Judeo-Christian tradition, but a possible winner using physics: the facts of reality–no gods needed.

  7. Jameson Campaigne says

    Excellent point, re “ideology” which Eric Voegelin called “false consciousness” and George Carey deemed a-historical.

    A regime (as opposed to a government) is based on abstract ideas to some extent but as, or more, important is the mix of culture-and-history embedded in a polity. It takes generations to alter the power of embedded culture, although modern communications and the Gramscian Left’s capture of many educational and cultural institutional “heights” and its importation (since 1965) of waves of non-European, somewhat alien immigrants, could speed this process up … unless — with respect to immigration at least — our response is to turn these new peoples into American citizens (in the full meaning of that word) through proper K-12 and college educational efforts. This is not all that difficult, conceptually. See for example this salient:

    Almost all of what conservatism stands on is all here, in the works and biographies of the Founders. These three books (also in Spanish) are a promising new venture, the Founding explained in “bites” instead of in long-form works:

    1. Constitutional Sound Bites, Volume One: http://amzn.to/1PEAybk
    2. Constitutional Sound Bites, Volume Two: http://amzn.to/1hKGncE
    3. Constitutional Sound Bites, Volume Three, The Bill of Rights: http://amzn.to/1hKGp4t

  8. says

    Much thanks to Jameson Campaigne for calling attention to my work, and to Phil Beaver for sharing my thoughts on the Preamble. Jameson mentions my three volume Kindle series on the Founding Documents and the work that has be done in Spanish: Cápsulas Informativas Constitucionales ,

    In the course of creating the Spanish material, the Kindle series was collected and material added. The collected and expanded edition is Constitutional Sound Bites and is available both in hard copy and Kindle on Amazon.

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