Greg Anrig's Operation Chaos

… has written an op-ed on the bankruptcy of conservative ideas.

The following is more polemical than I’d like, but I feel like it’s important to stand up to undercooked polemics, even if that means using strong language.

That Anrig misunderstands conservative ideas is hardly surprising — actually, I hope it’s deliberate obfuscation rather than real confusion, but that’s another matter entirely. Normally I’d be indifferent, but as it happens Anrig has yoked Grand New Party to his thin arguments in a manner I find decidedly unconvincing.

But while Douthat and Salam deserve credit for alerting fellow conservatives to the perils of staying the course,

The perils we have in mind, by the way, are the perils of sticking with a 1980s mantra taxes, taxes, taxes. Margaret Thatcher pursued a different tax policy. One wonders if Anrig believes Thatcher to be insufficiently Reaganite. I mean, perhaps she was, which suspects that the whole Anrigian enterprise is more than a little daft. Moving right along,

their embrace of a relatively activist government — if adopted by the broader movement — would shift political battles to a playing field on which progressives have a much stronger footing.

“Aha, but we’re more activist!” Except Anrig’s style of activism might well undermine the sources of our society’s strength. Our contention is that our “activism” — that is, our projects of reform and institutional innovation — will do the opposite. Kind of a big difference. It could be that Anrig’s side is right. It’s worth noting that the reform of Sweden’s welfare state, the envy of the leftish world, happened under center-right governments, and relied heavily on, you guessed it, choice, competition, innovation, and ownership, all too-familiar buzzwords I realize.

Once conservatives concede that something like national health insurance is desirable, it becomes hard to discern what will remain of their Reaganite identity.

Except that Reagan championed a shift to catastrophic care in his second term, and we don’t support “national health insurance” — rather, we support bottom-up reforms that make the medical marketplace more transparent. We do believe that there ought to be some federal role in healthcare, but our proposed solutions are designed to shrink that role relative to total medical expenditures. Like David Cutler, I tend to think medical expenditures increase as societies grow more affluent. But the social insurance component of healthcare spending is distributed in an incoherent patchwork. Correcting for this will be a long, painstaking, incremental process. The key first step — as in McCain’s proposal — is to move beyond the broken model of corporate paternalism towards a system centered on individuals, a robustly Reaganite idea, for what it’s worth.

Reagan, you’ll recall (you’ll recall if you remember Reagan and not Anrig’s caricature), declared not that government was the problem in some time immemorial sense; he was referencing “the present crisis,” a crisis of managed capitalism. It wasn’t his optimism that was unique — Ted Kennedy was the first anti-malaise candidate in 1980, he just believed that expanding government was the can-do solution to every problem. Rather, it was the fact that he understood the nature of the problems facing managed capitalism, and he took a number of essential steps to address them. Right now, self-described progressives like Anrig — and I say “self-described” because I really do believe that his creed will lead to a sharp deterioration in our economic prospects, and that this will exact a stiff moral pricedon’t seem to understand the nature of our discontent: how it reflects deep interrelationships between failures of the public sector and civil society, and how economic inequality is a symptom rather than a disease. I don’t think today’s conservatives have this right either. But I think they’re more likely to get there. As evidenced by Anrig’s robust enthusiasm for government and command-and-control solutions, one suspects he’ll never be willing to kill his ideological darlings. Conservatives, heirs to a less ideological, more pragmatic tradition, are different in this regard, as will become clear in the years to come.

Anrig believes we’d shift the political terrain in a way that would strengthen progressives, which is an interesting view. My sense is that conservatives once had a strong brand on competence and managerial innovation, particularly at the state and local level, and that Democrats have tried to take on these trappings. And they’ve succeeded in a few places, at least politically: Virginia is a good example. But just as Republicans in Washington have grown fat and corrupt … let’s just say Illinois. Read the Illinois papers. The pendulum is already swinging back. There is a hunger for smart Republicans who understand the suburbs, and who understands that popular Democratic economic prescriptions are destructive to our long-term growth potential, as Jim vividly described.

I’ll note that right-wingers predicted doom and calamity when Clinton proposed a tax hike. But of course Clinton scaled back his plans considerably, and much of the heavy lifting on taxes and spending cuts was done by predecessor. This context is important.

Anrig calls school vouchers ineffective, which is interesting: suburban Republicans and Democrats have united to oppose any broad-based voucher experiments. The international data is mixed, but strong choice programs in Sweden and elsewhere have met with considerable success. A number of Democrats have called for voucher-based summer opportunity scholarships, an idea I’m very enthusiastic about. Have they been hijacked by the right? I guess so. As for the agenda of introducing competition into the provision of other public services, Anrig, colorfully, declares the idea a failure — a failure that has proved extremely successful in municipalities across the world, and that has sharply improved the efficiency of central government in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

None of this will persuade Anrig or his progressive co-religionists, which is fair enough. My job isn’t to persuade them — their livelihood depends on their being unflinchingly “right,” and mine doesn’t — but to be sure that conservatives aren’t persuaded by the left-of-center answer to Operation Chaos. (“These new-fangled ideas aren’t Reaganite! Why, translating social conservatism into market-oriented domestic policy isn’t conservative! Of course not!”)

Honestly, I feel pretty awkward in inter-faction squabbles. That’s probably obvious. I do think, however, that conservatism offers pretty powerful insights, and that conservatives deserve better, more persuasive determined opponents.