In my last piece here at America’s Right, I talked about Phase Two of the Conservative Awakening here in the United States. In Phase One we saw the Tea Party Movement unite Americans in a feeling of frustration and outrage at government corruption and waste. The challenge the conservative coalition now faces is to convert unity of sentiment into unity of purpose.
The most obvious strategy for uniting conservatives is to create a bullet-list of specific policies to enact, but it’s a bad idea. This strategy–let’s call it a policy prescription–would be counterproductive. It would exacerbate tensions between the factions of the conservative coalition and destroy rather than build on the current sense of unity.
In addition to fueling internal dissent, however, a conservative policy prescription would be practically useless. The military theorist Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke the Elder’s (now there’s a name!) central thesis on military strategy consisted of these two points:
- No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength
- Strategy is a system of expedients.
You’ve probably heard a more popular version of the first one already (no plan survives contact with the enemy), but the second statement is just as important. What Moltke was advocating was more than just a contingency plan if something went wrong. He understood that things always go wrong, and in more ways than anyone can foresee. He understood the importance of having a branching strategy tree that included responses to enemy actions and then counter-counter responses to their counter-responses.
Of course, trying to generate a list of every possible action and reaction quickly leads to analysis paralysis, but the essence of his insight was that military strategy has to be flexible enough to adapt to the enemy’s decisions on the fly. A strategy should include the ingredients for making decisions and not just a laundry list of pre-determined plans. In other words: a philosophy rather than a prescription.
(As an aside: I don’t think Team Obama understands this. The progressive agenda for radically transforming this nation has not survived contact with the enemy — the people who live in this nation. But listening to his State of the Union speech it was clear that Obama intends to stick to his rote script as much as possible instead of coming to terms with the reality on the ground. Bad for him, good for the country.)
The primary advantage of flexibility that Moltke had in mind is that it allows you to be responsive to your enemy’s moves, but there’s another important benefit. It opens the door to successful compromise. Compromise is a a dirty word in politics (which is ironic because so is “ideologue”), but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is plenty of room for compromise without sacrificing principles. More importantly: you have to know when to put a more immediately important principle ahead of one that can be postponed.
This is what Voltaire meant when he said el mieux est l’ennemi du bin: the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you have a perfect policy prescription and you’re not wiling to change a single comma or semicolon in the whole document, you’re doomed to failure. But of course you’d never even get that far because if you’re committed to creating the perfect policy prescription you’re going to spend your whole life refining and editing and never finish.
And of course in reality this is all pretty silly. Every ideological partisan has his or her own favorite pet solution (when all you have is a hammer…), but most of the problems that America faces right now could be alleviated by any one of numerous different policies. For example, I don’t want to see the Fair Tax and Flat Tax adherents get so heavily invested in proving their solution is the best that we forget that either approach would be a vast improvement to the convoluted, corrupt catastrophe we have today.
A policy philosophy replaces the rigidity of a prescription with the practical flexibility of a “system of expedients.” In addition, because it delays the winner-take-all debate until after conservatives have made political headway, it can preserve an atmosphere of civil debate among conservatives instead of cutthroat sibling rivalry.
All well and good so far, but what exactly is a policy philosophy? What does it look like? This is all vaporware until we see some product.
In the public mind “free markets” and “capitalism” mean just one thing: deregulation. What’s more, most people assume that capitalism is intrinsically favorable to business interests over the common good. Not only do I see this attitude from the Michael Moores of the world, but I’m also disappointed to see conservatives occasionally stick to the deregulation sound bite as though it were the pinnacle of economic theory.
In my current microeconomics class (Markets and Equilibrium Analysis) the professor recently outlined the solemn duty and obligation of all economists. It is simple. We must hate two things. First of all, we must hate the government. Secondly, we must hate monopolies. Now true, this guy did get his Ph.D. from Chicago so he might be a little tainted with Milton Friedman’s philosophies. But even given that crazy free-market bent, notice that there are two targets of his ire: political power and economic power. That’s because the root of the free market is not deregulation. It’s political and economic liberty.
The problem that some conservatives have is that they equate liberty and deregulation. The idea is that if you want people to be free you have to get rid of government. And that works … to a point. But unless you’re an anarchist you understand that we actually need some government to support the political liberties of the citizens. Government is like chemotherapy: it’s poison. But you also need it to keep you alive. That’s why the Founding Fathers didn’t fight a war for the Disunited Anarchy of America.
The same principles apply to the economy. The political idea of a free market (one without deregulation) is a watered-down version of the economic model of a perfect market. A perfect model is a mathematical construct that has several unrealistic characteristics. Two important ones are perfect information and zero market power. Two results of these assumptions are that every consumer in the market knows everything there is to know about all the products in the market, and no single firm is big enough to push consumers or other companies around.
If your real-life market doesn’t have these characteristics, then the “guiding hand” of Adam Smith (also known as the fundamental theorems of welfare economics) breaks down. This means all the great economic theories about free markets start to evaporate.
Of course, no market in the real world will ever match the mathematical ideal of the perfect market, but government can play an important role in protecting economic liberty. It has the power to break up monopolies, prevent them from forming, and enforce regulations to keep consumers informed.
The basic principle is the same one that our Founders used in creating the tripartite government — the judicial, executive, and legislative branches each guard their own domains, and this competition helps keep the overall power of government limited. In the same way the government and powerful business interests can be played against each other to keep the power where it belongs: in the hands of individual citizens.
This is a philosophy. It’s not a prescription. It doesn’t state what the perfect tax level should be, or exactly what kinds of laws should be passed. It simply outlines the general principle that in order for people to have maximum individual liberty there is a role for the government to play in preserving a free-market economy. A really radical free-market capitalist might oppose the FDA’s power to determine what drugs adult Americans can or can’t buy for their own consumption, but such a radical would freely admit that if the FDA merely provided rigorous, objective scientific information and allowed people to make up their own minds this would be a good thing.
This is what I mean when I talk about a conservative political philosophy instead of a prescription. The conservative movement needs a system of clearly articulated and easy-to-understand principles that provide the clarity to evaluate specific policies without locking us into a strategically vulnerable static position.
Robert considers himself a classical liberal, has a background in mathematics and systems engineering, and is currently studying economics in graduate school. He and his wife also work as business analysis consultants, and they live day-to-day as undercover conservatives along with their two small children in a socialist bastion of a college town. He has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.