A couple emails:
Jonah,Your thinking out loud was spot-on. Particularly this bit: But 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.
I’ve been arguing with my leftist friends, for years, trying to persuade
them that their preferences (Marxist, in the end) are ridiculous. It
wasn’t until I started articulating my defense of conservatism in the terms
you’ve described that they started acknowledging that supply-side policies
aren’t inherently evil. I could be wrong, but my hunch is that most
Americans already feel a good deal of sympathy toward the “liberty” side of
this argument – though, they probably wouldn’t go too far – and once
conservatism is articulated in terms of morality and justice, then I think
it takes little time to appeal to their egalitarian tendencies as well.
Once that’s done, then the left’s ability to claim dominion over any issue
on the “kitchen table” is severely minimized. At least that’s been my
I think conservatives could take notes from some of the neoconservatives in
this regard. Some of the folks you’d find in the neoncon reader, for
instance, have done a pretty good job at articulating their defense of the
free market in these terms. Though, their likelihood of ignoring
libertarian arguments should serve as an asterisk on this point.
Keep up the good work.
Excellent subject, and one that I have given some thought to.
The problem I have with liberals stating that they only want “what is good for most people”, is that it is almost always based on what they think people ought to want, or how they think people ought to behave. My guess is that if I am driving a gas-guzzling behemoth, they would by definition define that as “not good for me”. A real tension arises through this assumption that they know what is good for others, and the coercion required to make the vision happen.
A major strain of conservatism, on the other hand, couldn’t care less on the face of things what is “good for people”. That’s not our job to determine for other people what is good for them, is it? Our job is to support and maintain institutions and processes that are in synch with basic human nature and allow people to pursue happiness in their own way without undue interference. In the long run this will result in a world that is “good for almost everyone” (exceptions being crooks and socialists) because we all get to define what is good for us as individuals.
The key is the liberal arrogance of knowing what is good for people. Most conservatism is rather humble in this regard. I do not presume to lecture Matt Yglesias on what is good for him. Admittedly , their is a moralist strain of conservatism which does. But even these folks are generally assuaged by the conservative respect for tradition and traditional institutions.