Conservative Renewal: A View from the UK

Alex Massie has a characteristically interesting post on the idea that political doctrines inevitably become inflexible dogma, and that this has happened to Reagan Republicanism:

Like Thatcherism in Britain, the Reagan revolution began as an internal insurgency that caught the party grandees by surprise. …

But it is an iron truth of politics that prolonged success sows the seeds of future downfall. Revolutions run out of steam. They cannot be permanent. More damagingly still, what begins as an unorthodox and surprisingly successful approach calcifies into a stubborn orthodoxy that brooks no dissent, even as times and circumstances change. …

The difficulty is that the second (or third) generation is rarely as talented or adaptable as the trailblazers who won power in the first place. Instead of finding fresh ideas and solutions, they inherit positions and prejudices that, because they worked once before, are assumed to be eternal truths rather than particular answers to particular problems at a particular time.

I think there’s a lot to this (though I do think his criticisms of the Club for Growth are mostly misplaced – as I’ll argue in subsequent posts, I think a low-tax voice will be crucial in developing successful conservative policies in the Age of Obama).

I did a post a few weeks ago that describes this same basic process with respect to business improvement approaches:

It’s interesting that there appears to be a cyclical nature to these things. More-or-less the same, basically sensible, method for business operational improvement — carefully observe current work practices, think of them holistically and in light of the goals of the business, and then redesign work practices — keeps getting reinvented. Taylorism, “Goals and Methods”, factory statistical process control (SPC), Total Quality Management (TQM), reengineering, and so on are all just manifestations of this approach. Each is typically pioneered by innovators who have a fairly supple understanding of the often unarticulated complexity of the task. It drives clear profit gains, and many other people want to apply it. A group of experts are trained by the pioneers, who are also quite effective. There is an inevitable desire to scale up the activity and apply it as widely as possible. It becomes codified into some kind of a cookbook process that can be replicated. This process becomes a caricature of the original work, and the method is discredited by failure and ridicule. (Seeing this phase of reengineering at several companies in the 1990s, a close friend of mine once described it as “like the Planet of the Apes, but the monkeys have taken over from the humans”.) Within a few years, some new pioneers develop some new manifestation of the approach, and the cycle begins again.

So I don’t think this kind of degeneration is unique to politics, but is a function of human nature. It’s inevitable.

Of course, some things that were true in 1980 are still true today. If you’re a conservative, you probably even believe that lots of things that were true then are still true now. The crucial task is distinguishing between what’s changed, and what has not.

It’s conventional wisdom to say something to the effect of “we need to apply the timeless principles of conservatism to the challenges of today” or whatever. The instinct behind this – adapting to changing circumstances without sacrificing basic beliefs – is surely sound. But as operational advice, it seems quite misguided.

I think that we sometimes reason from political principles to specific policies, but much more typically we either react viscerally to proposals or conduct analysis of a given problem and reach a conclusion. Either the visceral reaction or assumptions made in the analysis are the locus where conservative or liberal beliefs manifest themselves. These beliefs are probably created through some combination of genetic hardwiring and individual experiences. One type of experience can be reading and rational conversation, and so political philosophy and persuasion are not empty exercises; but they are probably a lot less important that genetics plus all of the experiences of childhood, work, family and so on. In effect, our political philosophy is more revealed by our choices than something which dictates them. (If anything, this ought to be truer for conservatives than anybody else.)

So, I’d worry a lot less about trying to distill the “essence of conservatism” or whatever than just trying to identify the problems of the day, and figuring out practical solutions to them. Obviously, I’ve packed a lot into the assumptions of what we define as a problem, how we decide what makes a good solution, and so on. This isn’t an argument that we don’t need political philosophy, but rather an argument about the primary methodology for developing, or perhaps more properly, specifying, one in our current situation. It strikes me that the most effective way for conservatives to apply a conservative worldview and develop the next manifestation of conservative ideology right now is, ironically, not to be self-consciously ideological, but rather to attempt to be pragmatic., i.e., empirical and practical.