Monday, October 3, 2016

What liberals can learn from conservatives, revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a short column for the Philly Mag website trying to distill what I'd learned from years of close interaction with conservative friends like Ben Boychuk, William Voegeli, and Steve Hayward — three strong ideas of conservatism that, perhaps, liberalism doesn't always get well.

Do the lessons hold up in the age of Trumpism? Let's revisit.
• They’re often better at recognizing the law of unintended consequences: Simply put, the attempt to fix a problem can sometimes end up creating new, unanticipated problems that also need solving. You can, for example, make the case that the federal government’s decision to seriously start fighting wildfires in the last century actually ended up making wildfires … worse. In Boulder, Colo., attempts to rein in that city’s runaway growth have driven housing prices skyward—ruining some of the grassroots charm activists there were trying to preserve.
Conservatives aren’t perfect at applying this principle—see the invasion of Iraq—and sometimes it becomes their excuse to do nothing, but liberals would probably benefit from applying this insight a little more consistently.

Some of this caution, I think, reaches back to the Declaration of Independence — a document whose signers declared revolution, and which also declares that you might not want to do this kind of thing that often. The Declaration says: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

Does the candidacy of Donald Trump qualify as a revolutionary act? Let's agree, at least, that it's one in which many previous norms — observed by both politicians and the press — have been tossed aside. Whether it amounts to "revolutionary" probably depends on whether he wins.

Here's "Decius," writing at American Greatness, offering his rationale for a Trumpist presidency. "A Trump victory could pave the way to a restoration of proper constitutional government. Note to speed-readers: I said “could.” Hillary surely won’t. Trump might. He at least offers us a chance to begin the process of achieving a restoration for ourselves."

Decius' best rationale for Trump is a "maybe, but maybe not." He sweeps aside talk of the consequences of a Trump administration all too lightly. Do Trump's advocates take the law of unintended consequences seriously here? It appears not.

They’re often better at recognizing that big bureaucracies can become oppressive: Anybody who has dealt with L&I or the city’s revenue department in Philadelphia can probably offer an amen here, as can anybody who has tried to clean up a trashed city-owned lot. It’s why conservatives are against “big government” instead of better government—they believe, not without reason, that bigger government can create problems and badly affect individuals just because of the insidious ways bureaucracies tend to try to claim more power without offering ore accountability.
I don't think even Trump knows his own vision well enough to know if the bureaucracy will grow or shrink during his presidency, so let's move on.

• They have an idea and stick to it: Recognizing there are several varieties of conservatism in this country, what most profess to have in common is a belief in the Founders, the Constitution, and limited government.
Trump is unusual for a Republican in that he hearkens back to the Founders with far less frequency than his predecessors. He's show fealty to specific parts of the Constitution — the Second Amendment — and contempt for others (the First) and done little to offer up any explanation of his Constitution vision. Suffice it to say, though, he's given every indication that he doesn't see any limits to the powers he might have as president. "I alone can fix" America's problems, he says, and that's the not the comment of a man who respects limits on the powers of the presidency.

So. Three years ago I offered three lessons liberals could learn from conservatives. Trumpist Conservatives, it seems, are ignoring or whistling their way past two of those lessons. It's bad for conservatism; I suspect it might be bad for the United States as well.

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