Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Cliopatria has had a symposium on an article "Bush's Ancestors"by Princeton historian and sometimes liberal partisan Sean Wilentz. In the article, Wilentz draws a comparison and traces the origin of modern American conservatism to The Whig Party that rose up in the antebellum period to challenge the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. The Wilentz article is worth reading even though I think that in numerous instances the author is being rather facile by ignoring some logical historical connections that might be more flattering to George W. Bush and the G.O.P. than the comparison with the Whigs who died an ignoble death equivocating on slavery.

The Cliopatriarchs Ralph Luker, Jonathan Dresner, K.C. Johnson, Caleb McDaniel, Wilson J. Moses and Greg Robinson give an excellent demonstration of how to properly critique a historical argument, probing for weaknesses in reasoning and offering countervailing evidence to the thesis (Moses is the least effective at addressing Wilentz but his argument is nonetheless entertaining in a weirdly provocative way - every symposium needs somebody to be a bombthrower or at a minimum, get outside everyone's comfort zone).The symposium should be printed and passed around as mandatory reading in seminars for first year graduate students.

Collectively, they offered many cogent criticisms that I myself would make of " Bush's Ancestors" including:

Where the Cliopatriarchs critiquing Wilentz are weakest - as is Wilentz - is in understanding or explaining the several economic philosophies of conservatism which seem to all get lumped together under the vague label of " pro-business". This is a lacuna that seems to affect the historical profession as a whole which collectively believes that modern economics began with John Maynard Keynes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and ends with Paul Krugman's column. Any opposing view of economics from the Right is a priori dismissed outright as scribbling on a cocktail napkin - despite von Mises, von Hayek, Milton Friedman, a boatload of Nobel prize winners at the University of Chicago and a supply-sider Nobel laureate who inspired the Euro.

The intellectual resistance among most historians to giving serious consideration to conservative economic arguments borders on being an article of faith; and as a result they miss an important part of the conservative movement. American conservatism is deeply split on economics and the libertarian, free-market wing provided an ideology that helped fuel Ronald Reagan's march to the White House. Big Business by contrast opposed Reagan in the primaries and lined up behind George H.W. Bush in 1988 and George W. Bush in 2000. Supply-Side economics are what drove Reagan's across the board tax cuts, budget cuts, degregulation policy and tax reform, not the complacent rent-seeking of the Business Roundtable.

Big Business does not like across the board tax cuts, tax simplification or pro-entrepreneurial deregulatory policies. Big business likes tax loopholes, credits, subsidies, no-bid contracts, interest-free government loans, waivers and high artificial barriers to market entry - things that George W. Bush has given them in spades. That wing of the G.O.P. is Richard Nixon's and Bob Dole's wing, not Jack Kemp's or Ronald Reagan's and they are in the driver's seat these days but constitute few of the rank and file " movement" conservatives.

A second criticism I have- and it's a surprising one given the past four years - is that the once, allegedly all-powerful, Neocons are missing in action in both the Wilentz article and in the symposium. Of the group, McDaniel comes closest to addressing that strand of conservatism, albeit indirectly. The Bush administration Neoconservatives fit very poorly into Wilentz's Whig model, if at all ( I think McDaniel's allusions and his references to the fire-eating, Southern filibusteros demonstrated how poorly).

Conservatism really isn't a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma - though in the Ivy League it might as well be.

Technically, Bob Mundell did not win his Nobel on the account of his supply sider thinking. The prize had mainly to do with his contributions to international monetary economics.

Having said that, I wonder how much "the modern conservative movement," at least today's version, has to do with Friedman or Hayek--especially Hayek and his distrust of "brother-knows-best" type statism. Seems that many so-called conservatives in Bush's circle are statists, happy to expand the role of government both at home and abroad, full of what Hayek called "Fatal Conceit."
Interesting...I was just thinking over the past couple of days that the Republicans are recreating the Whig mindset after having been formed in response to the inability of either major party (Democrats and Whigs) to respond to slavery in a way that was consistent with the Constitution.

I'll have to read the links when I've got time.

OT: Given the current dissatisfaction with both political parties as measured by polls, is it time again for a third party? What would one look like?

I apologize for the tardy response on my part.

Hi kao_hsien_chih

Wow ! I don't see the Wade-Giles transliteration used much these days. Are you a student of a certain historical period ?

I didn't mean to imply that Mundell received the Nobel for supply-side theory, simply that the rote dismissiveness which most historians direct toward supply-siders, Austrians and Chicago school economics is unwarranted.

I wouldn't confuse the Bush administration with all of their supporters on the Right.

Bush's administration has diverged sharply from the tenets expressed by movement conservatives in the last forty years - which I think explains in part their volcanic anger over the Miers nomination . It is a pretext to vent.


Third party candidates in American history - The Populists, The Bull Moose Progressives, The Dixiecrats, Henry Wallace, George Wallace, John Anderson, H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader usually managed at best to do two out of three things:

a) Be successful spoilers

b) Be unsuccesful spoilers

c) Be just effective enough to change public debate by scaring the major parties into adopting their best ideas.

At worst none of the above. The Electoral College system is hostile terrain for such an attempt. Far better for a movement to burrow deeply into a major party apparatus and take it over from within over a period of years.
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