Conor Friedersdorf has posted another entry in the “sprawling, muddled debate about the state of the right, the role dissident conservatives should play, and the wisdom of attacking talk radio hosts” that’s been playing out recently, with Conor and Rod Dreher on one side, and fellow Gentlemen Freddie, Mark, and E.D. on the other, with a special appearance by Julian Sanchez. I myself was a little bit unclear on what Freddie meant by “taking responsibility” when he started this whole thing, and I think the debate has defaulted to Julian’s interpretation:
It’s not that opinion writers should have bad consciences about not being party activists, or that a fondness for Edmund Burke actually makes one “responsible” for whatever some racist loons shout at a town hall, which would be silly, but is also an easy way to read the claim on a first pass. Rather it’s that there’s an actual conservative base out there supporting the political actors, they’re not going away anytime soon, and if the conservative movement’s going to pull out of this toxic death spiral, someone who’s not an imbecile or a psychopath is going to have to identify with them enough to lead them out of the fever swamps.
And so we’ve been focusing on the relationship between dissidents and the base, and gotten into issues of leadership and tone and rhetoric, with Mark and E.D. offering their advice. Now, the League is more of a confederation than a union, so I don’t have to join up with my co-contributors on this line of argument. And so I’m actually with Conor on the idea that, in Mark’s phrase, “conservative wonks aren’t doing their job”:
Put another way, tweaking Rod Dreher for his failure to fully invest himself in reforming “the conservative movement” with wonky solutions acceptable to the base makes about as much sense as criticizing Reihan Salam for failing to abandon his cosmopolitan tendencies long enough to convince culturally conservative Texans to raise backyard chickens in the name of spiritual fulfillment and environmental sustainability. What a shame it would be if everyone who understood and embraced conservative insights uniformly turned their attention toward or away from politics! It is preferable that folks who identify as conservative adopt different postures toward “the conservative movement,” play greater and lesser roles in shaping it, wield influence in different places, and make varying contributions to American culture, political and otherwise, more generally.
All of which is to say, I have no interest in telling conservative wonks or dissidents what they should be spending their time writing or arguing about. I do, however, want to try out another angle on “taking responsibility,” and I think it might actually be more in line with what Freddie was ranting about.
In his piece, Conor reiterates a point he’s made before:
…I insist on reaffirming the distinction between the political philosophy conservatism and “movement conservatism.” The flaws that are so evident on the right are entirely due to the latter. [emphasis added – wrb]
This distinction can be made for any political philosophy that gains enough popularity to become significant in the halls of power. (Although when I try it for liberalism, I feel like I have to drop in a modifier like “Millean” or “Rawlsian.” Can we really take it for granted that “the” conservative philosophy needs no such modifier?) Since politics is a realm where concern for the common good has to contend with every kind of individual or communal interest, only rarely does a political philosophy find anything approaching a pure representation.
It seems obvious that no one would subscribe to a political philosophy if she believed that philosophy would ruin the world. But it’s not so hard to believe that someone could endorse a political philosophy without considering the problems that will come from imperfect instantiations of that philosophy.
To take a small-scale hypothetical: let’s say I become convinced that deregulation is generally good for the economy, with only rare exceptions, and that the widget industry has been under heavy regulation for years and years. Now, I conclude that a comprehensive deregulation of the widget market will lead to lower costs for consumers, lower barriers to market entry for would-be widget makers, and more innovation in widget design. It seems like I should advocate deregulation, right? Except — WidgetCo Inc. has a powerful lobby in Washington. If they manage to get their hooks in the deregulation process, they’ll skew it so that the rules they like stay in place and the rules they don’t go. It still counts as deregulation, but it redounds to the benefit of WidgetCo. If it turns out that partial deregulation is worse than the status quo, and it’s apparent that partial deregulation is ever so much more likely than comprehensive deregulation, my anti-regulation stance starts to look a little bit, well, irresponsible.
So, if you advocate for a political philosophy, taking responsibility means that you ask yourself: what does it look like when this philosophy goes wrong? What happens when it’s taken up by self-interested people? How will it be twisted by power? When Freddie says he takes responsibility for liberalism, I think what he means is that he can look at his how his political philosophy worked out in the real world, even in its Carter-years excesses and mistakes and say, “It was worth it.” Not: “They called themselves liberals, but it’s like they never even read Mill!”
In 2009, at what may or may not turn out to be the close of a conservative era, I’m not sure what I can say. The excesses and missteps of Buckley-style conservatism (which conceives of itself as in opposition to and separate from contemporary liberalism) strike me as fearsome indeed. But, really, that’s neither here nor there for this post. The point is that a person bears some responsibility for making sure the political philosophy she advocates isn’t an unstable equilibrium, prone to breaking down into something bad when deployed in the mess of political reality.