The Corner

Theory and Practice

Jonah has already pointed to his superb (my word, not his) review of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness in the new Claremont Review of Books. You should be sure to read both the review and the book (a collection of some of Claremont’s very best pieces). The review is a wonderfully learned and engaging essay about American conservatism and its various intellectual tributaries. I think I agree with essentially all of it, and I learned a lot from it, but there was one paragraph that leaves me wanting to offer a couple of thoughts.

Having laid out Thomas Silver’s view that some strands of conservatism lost their way by neglecting the Founders’ grounding in nature and natural law, Jonah writes:

It is not clear to me that conservatives have to subscribe to a dogmatic belief in nature in order to be reliable conservatives, to get right with the founding, or to make strides in the fight against the unfolding progressive revolution in politics (after all, it was this motley camp that got Reagan elected in the first place). At the very least, if this natural law approach to politics is the ultimate and proper destination of the street car called conservatism, other right-wing fellow travelers can ride for a good long while in the same direction before the insufficiency of their philosophical fare requires them to hop off. There may be some first-order disagreement between the Claremont conservatives and the more technocratic thinkers around, say, the excellent fledgling journal National Affairs, but those disagreements seem entirely academic given the political and economic realities we face. Indeed, the diversity of philosophical opinion among the supposedly unanimous Founding Fathers themselves seems far greater than that among the leading conservative intellectuals today.

As the editor of National Affairs, I certainly can’t speak for all of our writers, but maybe I can say a word about our general disposition, and why I think “technocratic” isn’t right. I certainly see what Jonah is getting at here, and he seems to employ a pretty expansive meaning of “technocratic” (made even more so by just saying National Affairs is only “more technocratic” than Claremont), but I think it nonetheless overlooks an important point.

It’s certainly true that National Affairs often takes up particular policy problems in great detail, which the Claremont Review of Books generally doesn’t. An essay about, say, how to fix Medicare or how to modernize the school system which goes into great detail about how certain public programs work and how they might work differently can involve matters that are without a doubt rather technical. But it seems to me that the nature of the solutions we offer to the country’s public policy problems (and especially those problems caused by bad public policy, which are most of the ones we have in mind) makes our work not only not technocratic but deeply anti-technocratic. One can understand the technical aspect of these problems without believing that it is the crucial or governing aspect. Our writers generally seek to take institutions that are now built to channel technical expertise and turn them into institutions that instead channel public preferences and social knowledge. That’s the basic purpose of turning welfare-state institutions into market systems, and of empowering civil society in place of the federal bureaucracy. It’s a function of the idea that governing problems are actually not generally best understood (or truly understood) as technical problems, and therefore that governing is not a technical exercise. Seeing governing as a technical exercise requiring above all the application of technical expertise is what I would take to be the definition of the technocratic viewpoint which, combined with its equal and opposite error of populism, gives form to the progressive worldview.

#more#That worldview is utterly antithetical to the worldview underlying the American constitution — which simultaneously opposes both technocracy and populism (a contention I tried to work out a bit more fully in NR last year, here).  But that American constitutionalism does not just take the form of general ideas and philosophical arguments. It takes the form of an actual constitutional system with particular governing institutions, and it also has to be embodied in specific public policies enacted and managed through those institutions. In other words, to combat progressivism and advance the traditional American vision of government requires of us an engagement not only at the level of ideas but also at the level of public policy.

We who defend the American system too often recoil from thinking and working at that level, preferring to defend general principles, perhaps under the mistaken impression that detailed public policy work is itself a kind of technocratic pursuit. But this is a serious mistake. Ceding the policy arena to the Left allows liberals both to dominate policy making itself (and thus define the work of our government) and to masquerade as non-ideological pragmatists just trying to solve technical problems. By making a case for the policy implications of conservatism we can both compete to control the direction of our government in practical terms and show that taking policy seriously doesn’t end the debate but rather extends it. Serious policy differences flow directly from serious philosophical differences. Conservatives can read a spreadsheet too, and yet that doesn’t mean we think bureaucracy is the solution to what ails us — quite the contrary.

Americans devoted to the founding ideals have far too often tended to make the mistake of staying out of the policy mire, and not only in our time. But some of the greatest champions of the American system have understood the danger of doing so. “A good government implies two things,” James Madison wrote in Federalist 62. “First, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained. Some governments are deficient in both these qualities; most governments are deficient in the first. I scruple not to assert, that in American governments too little attention has been paid to the last.”

The progressives changed that, but in a way that undermined the ability of the government to attain that great object. They had (and have) a different end in mind. They have to be answered by an attention to the means of government from the friends of the American system. And to engage them at the level of policy detail is not to accept their assumptions about what government should do.

This is what the various wonks engaged in a policy-oriented conservatism seek to achieve. They are the policy arm of the very same movement that Claremont represents, and I think even the first order disagreements Jonah mentions are probably very rare. Public policy flows directly from political thought, and both the Claremont Review and National Affairs seek to illuminate the intersection of the two, if sometimes by different means. If there is a serious philosophical point on which, say, Charles Kesler and I differ then I would certainly like to know about it — if only because it is probably a point on which I need to do more thinking and to prepare to change my mind.

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