Matt Bruenig and the illusion of conservative unity

American blogger Matt Bruenig sparked an interesting debate recently with his claim that conservatives are better organised and less ideologically diverse than those on the left. This is a response.

To those on the left, the American conservative movement appears as a leviathan with each monstrous limb serving the coordinated purpose of the whole. In reality the only unity of purpose is a shared opposition to liberals. Ideologically, the conservative movement is an alliance of various groups of conservatives and libertarians.

On a few individual issues, some of these groups have more in common with some liberal groups than they do with their allies in the conservative movement. Many libertarians opposed the Bush administration’s war on terror, a position they shared with liberals. Another example is welfare policy where social conservatives and third way liberals united in support of time limits and tougher work requirements (more on this example below).

In a recent post Bruenig argues that the American conservative movement doesn’t struggle with ideological diversity the way the left does:

… the left is awash in dozens and dozens of moral and political frameworks, and that makes it much harder to succeed. Conservatives do not face as much of a problem because they have less ideological diversity, or at minimum have less prominent ideological diversity: in public, they are generally on the same page.

I don’t know how to decide whether the conservative movement is more or less diverse than the left. But I do know that those in the movement constantly struggle over differences in ideology and on policy. It’s been that way since libertarians, social conservatives, and anti-communists came together to form the modern American conservative movement in the 1950s.

Out of the wilderness

What brought these groups together was not agreement on policy but a shared opposition to liberalism. This was a time when literary critic Lionel Trilling could declare that there was no serious conservative thought in America. In a 1946 essay on little magazines he wrote:

In its political feeling our educated class is predominantly liberal. Attempts to define liberalism are not likely to meet with success–I mean only that our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation, perhaps especially where Russia is in question.

Libertarians were not only wedded to the profit motive but violently opposed to economic planning. Social conservatives were opposed to social legislation and suspicious of both science and the liberal idea of progress. And anti-communists saw cooperation with the USSR as dangerous madness.

Just about everyone in the movement agreed that Trilling was right about the educated class. This led to the call for a ‘war of ideas’, an attempt to provide an alternative to liberal and socialist thought and popularise it through a network of magazines, privately funded think tanks, foundations, and endowed chairs in universities.

Welfare reform

Chicago economist Milton Friedman was a champion of the movement but his ideas on social policy led to conflict. In his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom he suggested replacing welfare programs with a negative income tax that would set a floor below which nobody’s income could fall. As he explained to William F Buckley in an interview for Firing Line:

The proposal for a negative income tax is a proposal to help poor people by giving them money which is what they need rather than as now by requiring them to come before a governmental official detail all their assets and their liabilities and be told that you may spend x dollars on rent, y dollars on food et cetera and then be given a hand out. The idea of the negative income tax is to treat people who are poor in the same way we treat people who are rich. Both groups would have to file income tax returns and both groups would be treated in a parallel way.

As you can see if you watch the interview on YouTube, Buckley wasn’t persuaded. He told Friedman that about half of the poor "are poor because they are completely unmotivated and because there is some sort of a neurotic block that keeps them from acting in the way … you would expect them to act".

Buckley said that many poor people resist employment and need to be "treated not as members of equal category, but as individuals with individual problems". He spoke about welfare workers managing poor people’s incomes by paying rent directly to landlords and in some cases, directly to grocers.

Friedman’s response was that poor people who wanted to buy drugs would find a way to convert groceries into cash. So rather than wasting money by trying to prevent people from gambling or buying alcohol and drugs "They would be far better off if we just gave them the money and let them spend it."

This debate has emerged again and again within the conservative movement. Social conservatives resist the idea of the government giving poor people money without conditions while libertarians resist the idea of funding a vast government bureaucracy that manages the day to day lives of the poor.

Since the late 1980s, political scientist Lawrence Mead has argued for conditional welfare. In his book Beyond Entitlement, he argues that "The main problem with the welfare state is not its size but its permissiveness". Like Buckley he believes many poor Americans lead disorganised lives and are incapable of responding to the incentives of a negative income tax. His solution is to impose stringent conditions on welfare and employ case managers to make sure they are enforced.

Libertarian writer Charles Murray argues that this approach will lead to a kind of "custodial democracy" where dysfunctional citizens lead supervised lives out of sight of the mainstream. Instead of conditional welfare and supervision he suggests replacing the welfare state with a grant of $10,000 to each American age 21 or older. Apart from requiring that recipients spend $3,000 of the grant on health insurance, there are no strings attached — no work requirements, no compulsory training and no meetings with case managers.

Ideological smuggling

In practice, Lawrence Mead’s ‘new paternalism’ looks a lot like the third way approach to welfare reform. The idea of government reinforcing social norms about work and reciprocity appeals to communitarian liberals who want to provide support to poor citizens but worry that unconditional welfare sends the wrong message.

Elements of Murray’s basic income idea potentially appeal to liberals who believe real freedom means having the choice to reject wage labour.

Some of the most interesting discussions on issues like welfare reform may take place when thinkers smuggle their ideas across the borders separating liberals from conservatives. This won’t happen if liberals continue to think of the conservative movement as a tightly organised, ideologically homogenous leviathan.

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Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

I once read of a GMI that was not paternal. It was in the late 1970s in some magazine like Business Weekly. It suggested that Australia, as a business, was worth a certain amount of money and that at coming of age a citizen should inherit his or her single share.

Each would receive a dividend, shares could not be transferred, and one’s share would be surrendered at death. There would be a board of directors (I forget how appointed but it was to be separate from government) whose job it would be to maximise shareholder value by investing capital in private enterprise. It would run no business itself. Its job would be to pick winners though I doubt that expression was current then.

You can see all sorts of complications but it had nothing to do with welfare. As an honourable inheritance, the dividend was a matter of pride in achievement, not humiliation of charity. The way Norway’s sovereign wealth fund works is somewhat reminiscent.