The Intellectual Disaster of American Conservatism (Liberalism)
December 18, 2011
I watched a rather good debate this morning on the ABC News program This Week. The participants were journalist George Will and Congressman Paul Ryan (on the “right”) and Congressman Barney Frank and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich (“on the ‘left”). You can watch it now or simply read the transcript. The topic for the debate was “There is too much government in my life.”
I thought the “right” handled the economic questions very well. I was especially impressed (because I don’t know him as well) by Paul Ryan’s knowledge and debating skill. But I kept wishing that George Will was in one of his libertarian moods because the “left” exposed some glaring inconsistencies on matters of social and military policy. For whatever reason, Will played the good conservative in the debate (perhaps to avoid causing splits on the “conservative” side of the debate).
I think the “left” (mainly Barney Frank) played an excellent card. He stressed how he was for more government in the economic sphere but for less government in the social and military sphere. On the other hand, the “right” did not try to exploit the inconsistencies between the “left’s” philosophy of economic regulation and its support of liberties in other areas.
I am more interested in the inconsistencies of conservatism than I am in the inconsistencies of liberals, so-called. I cannot really explain why. Perhaps it is because I think that conservatives are more teachable on the social issues than “liberals” are on the economic issues. Or perhaps it is because I am an economist and I spend more of my time thinking and discussing economic issues. Therefore, I gravitate toward people who share my views, namely conservatives.
So now I can turn to two conclusions from watching the debate : (1) Barney Frank made powerful points against Will and Ryan; (2) Will and Ryan seemed anemic, sometimes non-existent, in their responses –perhaps even somewhat embarrassed by the conservative “cross” they had to bear (okay that is clearly my interpretation).
Take a look. (The dashed lines mean that parts of the discussion have been omitted.)
Barney Frank: On the other hand, and my conservative friends who claim that they are for small government are the ones who tell us that an adult shouldn’t be able to gamble on the Internet. We have the leading judicial conservative, Antonin Scalia, absolutely in a snit because you can’t be sent to jail if you have personal sexual relations of which he does not approve. We have a series of interventions by the conservatives in those choices that should be left to individuals.
Paul Ryan: I fault the president for thinking that society is transparent and easy to regulate.
George Will: Well, I’m worried, actually, by the mad proliferation of cameras following us through our lives. It does seem to me that when you say when does X trump personal liberty? Almost never.
Christiane Amanpour: When it’s a matter of saving lives?
Will: I don’t want to make safety parallel with, equal to, let alone trump personal liberty.
Frank: I would welcome — I do — there’s a complication when you’re driving a car, because it implicates others. But I would assume, George, you’re going to sign on with me and Ron Paul in removing the criminal penalties on the use of marijuana and on stopping this terrible regulation of the Internet in which we tell adults that they can’t gamble.
And frankly, here is where the right wing is very much for big government. They are the ones who want to regulate personal choices. Birth control, whether or not — we’ll leave aside abortion, which is more controversial — they want to regulate the use of birth control. As I said, gambling. Private sexual practices. Who can get married. I have never understood why heterosexuals who want to get married, believe that if I were to marry a man, they would somehow lose interest in their wives. I am not — I am not aware of what my attractive role would be there.
So, in fact, it is the case — there’s also the case of course with the military, and again, we didn’t get any take-up of that, but a major reason for the expansion in American government, taxation, et cetera, is an overly extended American military, which is committed all over the world to accomplish all kinds of social and economic purposes far beyond defense.
But, let’s talk about individual liberty. Gambling, marijuana, personal sexual practices, what people can read — here is the case where, frankly, it is the right wing, particularly the social issues component of the right wing, that has been the ones fostering big government.
Ryan: I noticed, Barney, you have a big thing with the national defense, with the Defense Department. That’s the primary function of the federal government. You may not like what they do.
Frank: But to build bridges in Afghanistan — where in the Constitution is that?
Frank: Can I get an answer on marijuana, George? Are you with me on it? I mean, personal liberty, if someone wants to smoke marijuana who’s an adult, why do you want to make them go to jail?
Will: As you know, first of all, on the Internet gambling, as you know, I’m on the — a supporter of the Barney Frank bill.
Will: With regard to marijuana, I need to know more about — whether it’s a gateway to other drugs. I need to know how you’re going to regulate it, whether you’re going to advertise it. I am open to the–
Frank: Oh, you’re just a copout.
Will: We’re not–
Frank: It’s been around for a long time. The gateway — anything is a gateway to anything. That’s — and let’s put it this way, that’s the slippery slope argument, which is a very anti- libertarian argument. The fact is that if someone is doing something that’s not in itself wrong, that it might lead later on to something else, then stop the something else. Don’t lock them up for smoking marijuana.
Will: What you’re calling a copout is I’m calling a quest for information.
Frank: How long is it going to last, George? We’ve been doing it for decades.
Will: I understand liberalism’s aversion to information because it often does not go in their direction.
Frank: No, I’m averse — I’ve been studying this for a long time. You know, you’re on Medicare, and how much longer are we going to have to wait for you to make up your mind?
I excerpted the parts that I believe expose the conservative inconsistencies best. You should read or listen to the entire debate. It is one of the few political interchanges on tv worth your time.
In conclusion, I would echo Barney Frank’s point to George Will: Hurry up and decide the marijuana issue – your days are numbered (as are all of our days).
(By the way, I am not changing my overall views of Barney Frank. I think the Dodd-Frank bill is terrible, and so forth.)