Conservatives and Ideas

A small portrait of the translator

November 26, 2008 @ 17:02 UTC

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Environment, International Relations, Globalization

James Joyner throws down the gauntlet to conservative intellectuals, arguing that conservatives lack ideas with regards to at least two critical issues: global warming and income inequality. I would argue that while Joyner’s challenge to conservatives is provocative, it is fundamentally based on sand.

I would first call attention to the rhetorical trick Joyner is playing here. He insists that conservatives (and everyone else, for that matter) must accept the premise of his issues as assumed or else stand convicted of being intellectually bankrupt. Apparently, arguing that global warming is exaggerated (and there is growing evidence of exaggeration and even outright fabrication by global warming activists) or that perfect income equality is not economically or socially desirable is just out-of-bounds. In a sense, Joyner’s argument reduces to the trivial truism that conservatives are failing to proactively make intrinsically liberal arguments. Well, duh.

Second, I would note that conservatives are not totally silent on the broader issues within which global warming and income inequality are embedded as liberal foci. Contrary to breezy and self-righteous liberal stereotypes about conservatives, conservatives are not in fact reflexively hostile to the environment. While they resist government and international mandates as ineffective and even counter-productive, conservatives often promote private conservation and stewardship as moral issues and encourage market-based mechanisms for additional environmental protections, such as purchasing Brazilian rain forest tracts to protect these essential carbon sinks and biodiversity reservoirs from slash-and-burn agricultural use. If — IF — global warming advocates would stop exaggerating their “consensus” and holding witch-hunts against skeptics long to actually do the work of building a persuasive (rather than coercive) case that global warming was both real and man-made, many if not most conservatives would probably be willing to explore ways to create market incentives for reducing CO2 outputs and speeding transitions to cleaner energy forms. Because Al Gore’s disingenuous demagoguery on the issue has made many conservatives leery of the potential for government action on global warming to take away with one hand while giving corrupt handouts to certain friends of the activists themselves (e.g. the companies who claim, often deceptively, to counteract a “carbon footprint” by using contributions to plant trees), advocates of government-based global action still have a lot of persuading to do, but conservatives hardly bear sole blame for their credibility deficit.

A similar problem holds with regards to income inequality. Aside from their highly questionable premise that income equality is either economically efficient or socially desirable, liberals who hold conservatives responsible for inaction in this area presume too much moral and intellectual authority on their own side. Leftist philosopher Peter Singer wrote over 30 years ago arguing for a moral obligation to spend oneself into near poverty in order to alleviate others’ suffering, but many of the liberals who want to use the government to force others to give seem to be living quite well themselves. In fact, when it comes to actually taking personal action instead of just advocating for government action, studies have shown that conservatives are more giving than liberals, even controlling for income levels. Joyner seems to be just trying to conservatives responsible for not joining liberals’ hypocrisy on helping the poor.

Even in regards to government policy towards the poor, Joyner gives short shrift to conservative thinking on the issue. He characterizes conservative responses as being limited to “education”, but that is just not true. Conservatives argue that private-sector employment is a better solution to low income than dependency on government handouts or government make-work jobs. And the proven conservative method for creating such jobs is to reduce whenever possible the tax load that the government places on those who do the investing and the hiring. The fact that Joyner or other liberals don’t like this solution for emotional reasons (it is often characterized deceptively as a “handout to the rich”) doesn’t mean conservatives are avoiding the issue. If anyone is avoiding substantive discussion in favor of easy pejorative labels and changes of subject, it is liberals, not conservatives.

Now, is there room for conservatives to refresh and improve their commitment to serious policy ideas? Of course there is. The fixation among many conservatives for social issues like abortion, religious purity, and cultural objections to immigration is poorly suited to the critically important economic issues that confront the country today. Conservatives need to step back from their sweeping electoral defeats and their Pyrrhic gay marriage victories and reassess which issues are important and, more to the point, amenable to practical action.

But Joyner’s attempt to skew the ground for that debate by smuggling in assumed conclusions and misrepresenting conservative contributions is, quite frankly, just self-serving and petty.

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