Right Thinking From The Left Coast
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Why Government Doesn’t Work

We all know Bush is as big government as Ted Kennedy or Nancy Pelosi or any other big government liberal.  He’s a much more strident believer in big government than even Bill Clinton was.  Okay, you say, fair enough, though these policies were necessary to get elected, and it’s much better that Bush be in the White House now, at this crucial point in time, than some liberal.  But is it?  Writing in Reason Online, Julian Sanchez explain why Bush’s foreign policy, much like his domestic policy, is nothing buyt a mishmash of the worst aspects of liberalism without any of the real conservatism.

Dissecting what he calls “the Bush administration’s incomprehensible failure to plan adequately for the insurgency that subsequently emerged in Iraq,” a failure that has equally baffled war supporters such as Andrew Sullivan, Fukuyama concludes that neoconservative hawks “seemed to think that democracy was a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred.”

What is striking about this characterization is its extraordinary resemblance to the worldview economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell describes in his conservative classic A Conflict of Visions as the “unconstrained vision” of man and politics—a worldview that Sowell, here and in his more polemical follow-up The Vision of the Anointed, typically regards as distinctive of the left.

On the “constrained” or “tragic” vision, Sowell explains, we are all embedded in phenomenally complex social systems that embody the evolved, inexpressible experience of many generations. Human nature is largely resistant to change and frequently troublesome. Broad and ambitious plans for social improvement—especially when they propose bettering not just human conditions but humanity itself—are to be regarded warily, because the knowledge explicitly available to even the wisest individual or group is dwarfed by the implicit wisdom of our evolved traditions. As Sowell puts it, “the particular cultural expressions of human needs peculiar to specific societies are not seen as being readily and beneficially changeable by forcible intervention.”

And then there’s this.

Even when it appears to be most traditional, contemporary conservatism bears the imprimatur of the unconstrained vision. When, at a primary debate before the 2000 elections, Bush averred that his favorite political philosopher was “Christ, because he changed my heart,” most supposed that the candidate was either exploiting an opportunity to trumpet his religiosity or simply couldn’t think of an actual political philosopher. But taken at face value, it is a surprisingly telling comment: It implies that the function of political philosophy is to change hearts.

Bush’s defenses of his faith-based initiatives, for example, are redolent with the rhetoric of changed hearts, affirming that social programs are to be not merely ameliorative but transformative. Consonant with the constrained vision, Bush frequently recognizes that government is not equipped to undertake that sort of tax directly, without intermediation by more local groups with a more direct understanding of the communities they serve, yet he retains the core faith in government’s competence to steer a process that relies more on improving people than on improving the incentives people face. His Healthy Marriage Initiative recognizes, as thinkers guided by the constrained vision will, the importance of an evolved social institution, but seeks to manage it with the benefit of up-to-date social science. The No Child Left Behind act is meant to ensure the accountability of public schools—which sounds conservative enough—but it implements accountability to a set of centralized standards and measures, rather than local actors with more direct access to the needs and circumstances of children.

This is absolutely right, and it really clarified for me just what it is I find so unsettling about Bush.  He and Rove basically decided that they were going to use the exact same playbook as the liberals, only they were going to erase the liberal goals and put in conservative ones.  This is, of course, as stupid an idea as thinking you can turn a recipe for vanilla cake into one for chocolate cake merely by replacing the word “vanilla” with “chocolate.” So what we’ve ended up with are a plethora of bad policies, which are going to be with us a lot longer than Bush, simply because of Bush’s belief in the transformative power of government policy.

The thing is, I think that the relative failure of the war in Iraq has less to do with the underlying principles behind it than the sheer ineptitude of its implementation.  I honestly cannot believe that, had we has an additional 100,000 troops in theater, with an actual plan for dealing with the insurgency, the results would have been what we see today.  It’s not that I think the war is unwinnable, it’s that what should have taken us two years and 2,000 lives is now going to take us ten years and 10,000 lives, simply because of the Bush administration’s abysmal planning.

Transformative government is a seductive ideal.  I’ve fallen for it myself.  But reality always ends up kicking me square in the balls.  it doesn’t matter whether a liberal or a conservative (or a pretend conservative like Bush) is in the White House, the undeniable truth is that government simply doesn’t work, and the only sane policy to follow is the truly conservative model of free-market, limited government liberarian conservatism.

So, is Bush a conservative?  Not on your life.  And we’re all going to be paying for it for a long, long time.

Posted by Lee on 02/25/06 at 06:16 PM in Politics • Permalink


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