Towards a Conservative Political Philosophy

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:

  1. No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength
  2. 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.

It’s not.

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.

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Comments

  1. jamesbridge says:

    Robert, I don’t comment much but I really like your insight. It’s always intelligent and well done, and I always look forward to it.

    Keep up the great work.

    James B.
    Liberal, KS

  2. Steve Palmer says:

    Good article, and I agree with every word, but I would add that the states are also a critical aspect in the Founders’ competitive formula.

    1.) It’s easier for the individual voter or activist to influence state government than federal.
    2.) It’s easier for the state to influence Washington than it is for the individual.
    3.) The state official’s incentives are usually more in alignment with the People’s interests than the federal official’s incentives.

    The Founders anticipated that the three branches of the federal government could collude to attempt to consolidate power and expected the states to act as a safeguard against that eventuality.

  3. Jack Ott says:

    Great insight and analysis, Robert. However, one additional thought that occurred to me as I read your justification for both government regulation and a free-market economy lies in mankind’s own imperfections or, as our social conservative friends refer to it, sin. As you assert in the article, government regulation functions to protect us against unbridled greed and corruption in the free market.

    The next question is who protects us from the imperfections within the government? The answer, of course, is “We, the people”. What we have then is a societal separation of powers, just as our founding fathers provided for our government in the Constitution. And, just as in government, if one or more of these entities fails to perform its roles, the result is the type of quagmire that we find ourselves in today. In this case, fingers could be pointed at all three components. The question that is being argued is which component should shoulder the majority of the blame.

    This brings to mind the famous words of Sir Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

  4. Chris says:

    Competition is the key to free market success, but we don’t really practice competition after elections are over. I can’t help but think that the tensions between the factions of our government between 1994 and 2000 created one of the most prosperous times in our history. The Republican Revolution spilled over into Bush’s presidency, which allowed one predator to overpopulate the ecosystem – and look what happened: instead of conservatism, we got government.

    This is what has happened now, only to an even greater degree. When the ecosystem is imbalanced in favor of one predatory competitor, that competitor is free to feed unchallenged.

    The government is an ecosystem that must be balanced in order for the tripartite branches to work properly in competition with one another. When the deck is stacked, they just seek to make themselves fat.

    I suspect that it might be in our best interest to somehow ensure that the balance of power in the government is spread evenly through the major factions in order to provide the right amount of tension and achieve the best result.

  5. La Crimson Femme says:

    Hi Robert,
    I agree with the rest that your articles are well written and enjoyable. I just recently watched 1 of many part series on Milton Friedman’s theories where he debating with others. What he mentioned is actually quite similar to what you are suggesting. Government isn’t bad. Capitalism via large corporations isn’t bad. It’s with the two come together in a conglomerate which causes the problems. And this is what Mr. Friedman cautioned against. I see the current administration actively encouraging as many bed fellows as possible.

  6. Randy Wills says:

    Nicely done, Robert, as Jeff would say.

    But where does a party platform figure into the scheme of things? The opportunistic approach to strategy rather than a fixed plan certainly comports well with military campaigns, but does it serve to sufficiently rally an electorate to bring about the desired change?

    As you know, I’m an advocate for the immutable “compact” (the Declaration and Constitution, the Scriptures, etc) approach to politics and religion rather than evolutionary historicism (i.e. viewing the Constitution and Scripture as a “living documents”) espoused by Woodrow Wilson and other progressives.

    If we’re too flexible and opportunistic, how do we avoid the pitfalls of evolutionary philosophy? Maybe I’m missing the point, but just thought that I would ask for the sake of discussion, which is what makes AR great.

    Randy

  7. Randy Wills says:

    Sorry. I omitted a key word in the above comment. It should have said ” —- immutable “SOCIAL compact” rather than just “compact”. And then to compound my mistakes, it should have said (“—– and Scripture as living documents”).
    Sloppy writing.

    Randy

  8. Robert Wallace says:

    Randy-

    I love your question, but I’m going to have to address it in a full-length post. I’ve been trying to type out a reply here, and there’s just too much good stuff that I want to dig into.

    So – in a couple of days – I’ll have a new post up that addresses your question in detail. Thanks for provoking my thoughts down this path!

  9. Randy Wills says:

    Thanks, Robert. I’ll look forward to your next article. I share your concern that we need to avoid a self-defeating, internal battle, as we move towards the 2012 elections.

    If we can’t convince the majority that economic “detox” is both imperative and, by its very nature, painful, it will be difficult to change the direction of our country. I’m reminded of the poster on the wall of a friend’s psychiatric counseling center. It showed a ragdoll going through an old-fashioned washing machine wringer with the caption, “The truth shall set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

    Randy

  10. Thanks Robert for the insightful follow-up post. It certainly clarifies matters regarding Randy’s inquiry

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  1. [...] Right contributor Randy Wills asked me a great question in response to a post about conservative philosophy. In the piece I argued for taking a flexible approach to conservative ideology. Randy’s [...]

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