Jonathan Chait gleefully pounces on my post from earlier today about conservatism and economics and claims victory in our age old “Opinion Duel” debate (Okay, it’s actually only like a year old, but it feels ancient). You should read Jonathan’s whole post because it’s hard to recap here, but this is the relevant part:
Boiled down, my argument was that movement conservatives believe in empirical arguments, but those arguments aren’t necessarily determinative, since many conservatives have deeper moral grounds for opposing big government. They would like for freedom-expanding policies to have consequences like faster economic growth and the like, but ultimately it’s frosting on the cake. So, for instance, they might make all sorts of empirical arguments against Social Security’s efficacy, and they surely believe them. But even if those arguments were disproved to them, they would still oppose Social Security on the grounds that it restricts our freedom. This makes them different from liberals. Liberals may favor expanded government in many cases, but that view is based entirely on the belief (correct or not) that it will produce certain practical benefits. There is no deeper liberal desire to expand government on principle alone, while there is a deeper conservative desire to shrink government on principle alone.
He then reprints my post and writes: “Thank you, Jonah! That was my point!” Alas, I can’t find the full Opinion Duel debate (here ‘s some of it), but since the only people interested in this post probably remember it, I won’t bother recapping. First, I don’t think Jonathan is right that liberals only want to expand government after they’ve made a sober-minded analysis of the facts. Rather, their first instinct is to always think it’s necessary to expand government or to emphasize collective solutions to social problems. This may not be true of such disciplined minds as Jonathan’s but it was true of the Progressives, it was true of the mid 20th century liberals, and it is generally true of their heirs today. (If I remember correctly, I argued that Jonathan was so ideologically blinkered he couldn’t see how ideologically blinkered he was on this point. A point Will Wilkinson made quite nicely here .) But that’s an old argument — I’d just really, really hate for anyone to believe Jonathan that I was conceding that point. Anyway, Jonathan claims that I’ve conceded his argument about conservatives being ideologically committed to capitalism no matter what the data says. But I simply didn’t. Jonathan claimed that “true conservatives” think support for capitalism is first and foremost a matter of justice and only secondarily (“frosting on the cake”) a matter of empirical judgement about the best way to organize society. The clear intent of today’s post was closer to the exact opposite. I said that too few conservatives talk about conservatism as a matter of justice and that conservative argumentation would be augmented if we did. I said that an empahsis on the freedom & justice aspect is an “interesting facet of conservatism which rarely gets its due in debates” and: “I think the argumentation of conservatism might be enhanced if we got a little better at defending capitalism on the grounds that it is moral and just and not merely more productive.” Translation, Jonathan: If anything conservatives emphasize the empirical merits of the free market too much, not too little.