How Did the Left Get the Drop on Us?

In my post yesterday on “The Cold War Never Ended,” I mentioned that I had written a long memo to management at AEI several years ago about aspects of this problem that I could not find. I found it. Turns out it dates from the fall of 2011, and while it doesn’t exactly describe the present moment, I think it saw some of the storm clouds that were gathering. Here is a long excerpt:

How did the Left get the drop on us? In the early- to mid-1990s we thought we had won on the major premises of politics and policy—Francis Fukuyama told us so!—such that what was needed from the likes of us was the technical work of unraveling piece-by-piece the architecture of the administrative-welfare state. The reasons for thinking this way were all around us, from the spectacular fall of the Berlin Wall to the market liberalizations proceeding apace in nearly every corner of the world to the spectacular rout of Hillarycare and the noticeable acceptance of market logic within Clintonite & Blairist liberalism. These encouraging signs were profoundly misleading. The problem with thinking you are riding a “wave of history” is that the wave might leave you stranded on a sandbar far from shore. Just ask Newt.

The distinction between these two questions diminishes as the point of view is raised; at the summit, they are the same question, though the answers to the second question will contain the answers to the first. (Aristotelians will immediately recognize this as a modern version of the reciprocal priority of the order of becoming and the order of being, but never mind.)

How did the Left get the drop on us? I have a field theory for this that is simple but hopefully not simplistic. We should not repair behind exogenous excuses about the surprise of the housing bubble/financial collapse and the extraordinary phenomenon of Obamamania. The seeds of decay and regress should have been evident long before these events. We should be honest: we—our cause, our movement—became complacent.   We became too narrowly focused on policy studies to the exclusion of the sustained public argument about the principles and practices of a free society that were the predicate of policy reforms. We forgot the “public” part of “public policy” studies.

Just for one example, I noticed—but did not at the time find alarming—a decided shift in the character of Mont Pelerin Society meetings as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s. There was, for example, the increasing emphasis on the nuts and bolts of how to privatize rather than why to privatize. There seemed to be a forgetting that the constant focus on the why of the cause for liberty was always the source of our energy and persuasive power. Everyone seemed to remark that the MPS meetings were less interesting, less exciting, than in the old days, but no one could quite say why. We began even to forget some of the basic arguments that once seemed urgent, and were surprised a few years later when we seemed in articulate in the face of sudden crises.

Along with this growing complacency there came a significant distraction: 9/11.

We missed some early warning signs. One should have been the disaster of California’s electricity deregulation. To point out that California’s debacle owed not to true deregulation but to a botched re-regulation is to miss the important point: to borrow a basketball analogy, it shifted the “possession arrow” of public opinion away from favorable attitudes toward de-regulated markets. The momentum for market liberalization in energy halted after the California debacle, and some states actually re-regulated.

After Enron, WorldCom, and the other business scandals that followed hard on the collapse of the Internet bubble (which itself was laid partly at the feet of a Federal Reserve that did not act decisively enough to curb the “irrational exuberance” of the markets), the policy response—Sarbanes-Oxley—should have been as a claxon warning that we were backsliding into the kind of economic interventionism that clotted the arteries of the economy from the 1930s to the 1970s. From there it was a fairly straight line to Dodd-Frank.

There are other straws in the wind one can point to. It is doubtful the three free trade agreements that just—finally—passed Congress this week would have done so without the spur of the bad economy. Liberalism, which had reluctantly embraced trade liberalization as recently as Bill Clinton, has decisively turned away from it again. Who ever thought, after NAFTA for example, that the principles and arguments for free trade would require re-articulation?

Another searching question: Why was there no sequel to the welfare reform of 1996? The conventional wisdom is that it would be the first in a series of reforms of entitlements. We learned subsequently that Clinton was open to the idea, but it got derailed by impeachment. But this extraordinary historical contingency cannot completely explain why momentum was almost wholly lost. It seems to me we have had few conversations pondering this question.

I don’t think we ever fully appreciated, as Hayek did as far back as the 1960s, that the nature of the challenge from the Left would change profoundly going forward from that point, and become much more difficult. Instead I think the conservative intellectual movement, and its institutions, became entirely too self-congratulatory (which was one of the mistakes the Left made starting in the 1960s). In re-reading the Constitution of Liberty for the first time in 25 years for the course I’m teaching on him this semester at Ashland University, I have been astonished at how much the book reads like a Thomistic commentary on Obama’s political philosophy and policies, but more broadly on the conditions that gave rise to Obama. Consider, for example, this lapidary passage that I think is right on target:

The current situation has greatly altered the task of the defender of liberty and made it much more difficult. So long as the danger came from socialism of the frankly collectivist kind, it was possible to argue that the tenets of the socialists were simply false: that socialism would not achieve what the socialists wanted and that it would produce other consequences which they would not like. We cannot argue similarly against the welfare state, for this term does not designate a definite system. What goes under that name is a conglomerate of so many diverse and even contradictory elements that, while some of them may make a free society more attractive, others are incompatible with it or may at least constitute potential threats to existence.

(And you should run, not walk, to read Hayek’s chapter entitled “Social Security,” more for its amazingly accurate application to Obamacare than the retirement program. Forget the “Hayek v. Keynes” rap videos; the world needs a “Hayek v. Obama” video series. If you have the time, I have a much longer meditation on this point up at Power Line.)

In some ways we have become a mirror image of the very problem we are set against: we are bogged down in petty details instead of broad principles.

Now, one obvious consequence of the loss of the conservative intellectual movement’s focus on the broader public argument part of “public policy studies” is that we have a crop of presidential candidates who speak almost entirely in technocratic tones. And so we get a crop of candidates who promulgate 59-point jobs plans. Why not? That tends to be what they see from us most of the time.

Conservatives who talk incessantly of finding “the next Reagan” are missing the point in looking for that particular skill set and style (though those are not unimportant things); a large part of what made Reagan effective was that he represented the culmination of a generation of patient public argument to change public opinion on general principles. For a variety of reasons I do not put much stock in the public opinion poll data that shows the public is “with us” on a variety of discrete questions. It misses the point that we lost the possession arrow.

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