Richard Posner on the Conservative Intellectual Collapse

by Henry on May 12, 2009

At the Becker-Posner blog

The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge of prosperity worldwide that marked the global triumph of capitalism, the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement. But there were signs that it had not only already peaked, but was beginning to decline. Leading conservative intellectual figures grew old and died (Friedman, Hayek, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Buckley, etc.) and others as they aged became silent or less active (such as Robert Bork, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb), and their successors lacked equivalent public prominence, as conservatism grew strident and populist.

By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of “originalism,” the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded. All these became causes embraced by the new conservatism that crested with the reelection of Bush in 2004.

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising … By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

Discuss.

{ 95 comments }

1

nolo 05.12.09 at 8:08 pm

All I know is that when I read that post earlier today, every third comment proved Posner’s point. I can’t bring myself to go back.

2

Colin Danby 05.12.09 at 8:08 pm

I assume Posner was making these arguments eight years ago.

3

The Raven 05.12.09 at 8:23 pm

Posner is arguing that, even though the movement was wrong, it won the political battles, and that is good. In other word, he is arguing that the political power of the conservative movement was more important than the truth of conservative philosophy. It is an astonishing thing for an intellectual to say: glorying in the corruption of himself and his ideals. And yet Posner is a major figure, for all that I dislike him, and may yet sit on the Supreme Court. I am starting to feel like I have fallen into a Spenglerian nightmare: are we to conclude that, in fact, raw power has trumped reason, then, in the modern West?

4

Raghav 05.12.09 at 8:28 pm

Colin: I do remember his mentioning that he didn’t vote in the 2000 election since he had no strong preference among the candidates.

5

The Raven 05.12.09 at 8:33 pm

BTW, the comments are absolutely toxic. Posner & Becker would be well-advised to pay attention to the DFHs on moderation.

6

RobNYNY1957 05.12.09 at 8:34 pm

Conservatism has bad ideas, policies and execution? Liberals have been saying that for, oh, jeez, centuries? I have to say I’m am pleased and surprised to see that even Milton Friedman’s magical thinking (a/k/a “The Longest Running One-Joke Show Since Gilligan’s Island”) can now be criticized instead of accepted as religious dogma (by U Chicago guys, no less!). If conservatives keep making progress like that, they will be in the 21st Century any decade now.

But what Beck and Posner don’t see is that a lot of the characteristics that they identify as failures of new conservatism were part of old conservatism, too. Just read through the list again.

7

StevenAttewell 05.12.09 at 8:43 pm

Oddly enough, the actual victories of the conservative movement seem to have been largely, well, conservative. The fall of the Soviet Union, but not through any of the mechanisms considered by conservatives. The triumph of capitalism, but still a mixed economic system in which the state still plays a fundamental role, and even that triumph is now short-lived. Balanced budgets for a few years and none after. Redistribution and deregulation seem to have been the only major victories, at least in his formulation.

8

CJColucci 05.12.09 at 8:46 pm

I’m shocked — SHOCKED! — to learn that there is gambling going on here.

9

fardels bear 05.12.09 at 8:53 pm

I’ve never understood why conservatives felt they should get credit for the fall of the USSR. Wasn’t the whole point of Kirkpatrick’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” systems of government that the USSR could never, ever reform from the inside? Totalitarian governments had to end in violence? Wasn’t that the basis of Reagan’s foreign policy?

And then, when the USSR did exactly, precisely what conservatives said it could never, ever do, they claim a victory? How did that work exactly?

10

Thomas 05.12.09 at 8:56 pm

I found his post odd.

Posner says that in 2000 he “was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States.” He suggests that the changes pursued by conservatives after 2000 were not “incremental” changes, but that’s a strange suggestion. Marginal tax rates were cut, but not back to 1986 levels. The estate tax was eliminated, for a year. The government never shrank, in any sense of the term. Pragmatism in constitutional law was embraced, not jettisoned. (Roberts, for example, is a pragmatist, not an originalist.) The rights of gun owners under the constitution were recognized, but in a very limited sense (and against the arguments of the Bush administration). I don’t know what it means for a military posture to be strengthened. The “rise of homosexual rights” was resisted by conservatives, by largely in symbolic, not practical, ways. The debate over the role of religion in the public sphere certainly expanded, even if the role of religion itself did not change (or diminished). In other words, the period after 2000 was largely continuous with the period before. Perhaps the biggest discontinuity is the rise of gay marriage, but as I understand Posner, that disruption is one he likes, so opposing it counts as an other-than-incremental change.

11

Thomas 05.12.09 at 8:58 pm

Raven, no, Posner will not sit on the Supreme Court, not under any remotely plausible scenario. And you have him all wrong.

12

Righteous Bubba 05.12.09 at 8:58 pm

But there were signs that it had not only already peaked, but was beginning to decline. Leading conservative intellectual figures grew old and died (Friedman, Hayek, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Buckley, etc.) and others as they aged became silent or less active (such as Robert Bork, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb), and their successors lacked equivalent public prominence, as conservatism grew strident and populist.

This bit seems awfully personality-driven. Is conservatism a set of ideas or a bunch of guys to be loyal to?

13

Doctor Science 05.12.09 at 9:01 pm

It is bizarre to read an account of the shifts in US politics over the course of my lifetime that never mentions race. Surely he’s heard of the Southern Strategy. Is there some kind of a Gentleman’s Agreement to abide by it but never mention it? Or did it never make a difference from his lofty intellectual height?

14

koan0215 05.12.09 at 9:23 pm

“Is there some kind of a Gentleman’s Agreement to abide by it but never mention it?”

Yes.

15

Barry 05.12.09 at 9:39 pm

I read the B-P blog shortly after it was started; I characterized it as bullsh*t and blather, with no intellectual content at all. I wasn’t expecting peer reviewed papers, but writing which would appear to from people who were in the 99.99th percentile in IQ and education.

In the end Posner and Becker should be judged pretty much as pundits.

16

Keith 05.12.09 at 9:46 pm

I’ve never understood why conservatives felt they should get credit for the fall of the USSR

Reagan told Gorbi to tear down the wall, and a few years later, he did. So, to the conservative intellectual, this is a win for their team. Nevermind the circumstances of history, politics, or anyone or anything else that would simply paint Regan as an opportunist whose rhetoric coincided with world events. Saint Ronnie said jump, the Commies said how high. And then it was the end of history, so we could all just sit back and coast on the inertia of conservative glory. This was supposed to be enough for the lifetime of the great generation of conservative intellectuals, who would all be dead before being proven wrong.

17

The Raven 05.12.09 at 10:01 pm

Thomas, how, exactly, do I have Posner wrong? (Complaining that I am unsympathetic does not count.)

18

Bloix 05.12.09 at 10:12 pm

Posner is saying, accurately, that Bill Clinton was a conservative president and that during the eight years of his presidency a genuinely conservative agenda was implemented by Congress with his support: a smaller military, a less internationalist foreign policy, repeal of welfare, no significant new social programs, a roll-back of affirmative action, decreased union strength and political influence, increased income inequality, a balanced budget, less anti-trust enforcement, a lighter regulatory hand on business generally.

19

Thomas 05.12.09 at 10:16 pm

Raven, saying that he believes the movement was wrong, but won the political battles, and that’s good, is, as I read it, all wrong. My reading is that he believes the movement was once right and went wrong, and that, as a matter of fact, its successes mean that the political moment now is much different from 1964.

20

Felix 05.12.09 at 10:34 pm

Translation of Posner: All the ideas that we had that are now discredited or unpopular, those were never what we were really about. We’re really about the things that are still true, such as “order is more pleasant than disorder”. This is apparently also a view held by the people in power now. We’re not in power now because we won. So I’m going to go rest on my laurels until someone turns on the Bat Signal. As long as it’s someone I like, not an idiot like Sarah Palin.

21

chrismealy 05.12.09 at 10:35 pm

Somebody needs to introduce these two to Rick Perlstein.

22

robertdfeinman 05.12.09 at 10:40 pm

Posner is a libertarian. For some reason they chose to ally themselves with the Republicans. Just like the social conservatives (abortion, guns and gays) their issues were not of interest to the party which was devoted to expanding the wealth and power of the wealthy and the business community.

Both groups got suckered in. The social conservatives were dissected by Thomas Frank who showed how they never got the policy changes they thought they were promised. The libertarians have also been taken for a ride, there has been no increase in personal freedom, instead we have seen civil liberties being trampled at every turn.

So three groups that have nothing in common climbed into the same bed and after 30 years have finally discovered their mistake. Both libertarians and social conservatives are utopians who think that they will be able to restore some sort of imaginary past. The ones running the show allow them to posture on, but deal in the realities of tax breaks, buying politicians and gutting agency rules.

23

Mg 05.12.09 at 10:44 pm

Thomas @8

Posner is giving those things as examples of the “causes embraced by the new conservatism”, which was the case, although the conservatives weren’t successful. It’s hard to work out what the Republican aims are right now, but I imagine that all those things are still on the agenda – which is bad for Posner.

24

Righteous Bubba 05.12.09 at 10:53 pm

One of these days Solomon will cut that Scotsman in half.

25

christian h. 05.12.09 at 11:17 pm

“Triumph of capitalism”? Yeah right.

26

Martin James 05.12.09 at 11:27 pm

Posner stated year’s back he’s an atheist. Now he’s blaming the loss of Republican power on not enough smart atheists running the GOP.

By my paleo-conservative lights the best thing about the GOP being out of power is no elitist neo-con pricks and no populist preacher dicks being in power.

27

El Cid 05.13.09 at 12:41 am

I’m always sort of impressed at how society accepts so many odd things, like the notion that Kirckpatrick was some sort of intellectual, like I’ve really had to wrestle with a justification of hiring death squads to slaughter Central Americans because they were merely “authoritarian” rather than the “totalitarian” monsters against whom we had to hire the death squads.

28

Joe S. 05.13.09 at 2:01 am

Robertdfeinman,
Most libertarians ally themselves with Republicans because they are Republicans. They call themselves “libertarians” because it sounds less stupid than “conservatives” or because they like to smoke dope. (Yeah, I know that there are smart conservatives–but why oh why was Burke a Whig?)
Posner is not a libertarian–never was. If you have to pigeonhole him, you could do worse than “utilitarian,” which to him meant: wealth maximizer, never mind the distributional consequences.

29

Raghav 05.13.09 at 2:30 am

Posner is a libertarian.

A libertarian who supports universal health insurance for children, supports warrantless wiretaps, takes a dim view of strong conceptions of civil liberties, supports the U.S. ratifying Kyoto (and in general, taking aggressive action on climate change), expresses skepticism about executive compensation, and lately, of course, has come out in favor of the stimulus package and the rescue of automakers.

30

Thomas 05.13.09 at 2:50 am

Mg, yes, these are the causes embraced, I see that. What I don’t see is how these aren’t exactly the sort of incremental changes that Posner says are OK. (And the un-doing of those changes too is or will largely be incremental change. The tax code changes without it being a revolution.)

A few people have tried to categorize Posner. I think he’d call himself a pragmatist.

31

Eronarn 05.13.09 at 3:06 am

Conservative intellectuals had no party.

I’ll give him a hint: it starts with a D. At least, if they had a lick of sense, it would. It’s quite more conservative to stick with proven progressive policies even if only as a temporary measure rather than to veer off into crazy capitalism worship!

32

Richard Cownie 05.13.09 at 3:30 am

Another rat leaves the sinking ship. But how much respect should Posner get for speaking
truth to the no-longer-powerful ? If he’d said it in 2004 or 2005 I might have given a
damn.

33

David 05.13.09 at 4:06 am

@28. Pretty much what Joe said, re Libertarians, Republicans and Posner. I’ve long maintained that most so-called Libertarians are just too chicken shit to admit they’re Republicans. As for the “real” ones, best definition of Libertarianism is anarchy for rich people. By and large, a useless lot.

34

Shawn Crowley 05.13.09 at 4:08 am

Kirkpatrick made no sense when she was alive (and history has proven her wrong ) but she had the Sneer down pat. Maybe she willed it, in equal shares, to Cheney and Rummey.

As for Becker, I read a couple of his papers when I was in law school. And re-read them trying to figure out why anyone thought him anything other than a fraud. Pick a conservative position, hand-pick a data set consistent with the position, proclaim conservatism to be natural law. Warmed-over imitation sociobiology.

And Becker brings us to Posner who thought that the legal system could be based on warmed-over Becker. I can still hear my Posner-adoring contracts prof trying to sell the idea that rich corporate criminals should not go to jail as they could be more economically productive in the free world. That was in the 1980s. And the results of that experiment are in.

The Republican Party found Posner/Becker useful for intellectual cover for policies arrived at without benefit of intellect. See, we gots us some serious thinkers, we’re not all jumped-up card sharks, Klansmen, and flat-earthers. Posner can try running away from his old friends but the stink clings to his robes.

35

anon/portly 05.13.09 at 5:32 am

36

Bruce Baugh 05.13.09 at 5:45 am

Posner was happy to toady to monsters on their way up to the level of monstrosity he felt comfortable with. Then he was surprised that they wanted to go further. But then he always was a very smart idiot.

37

Alex 05.13.09 at 9:42 am

You’re right about the comments. This has inspired me to invent a standard way of assessing thread toxicity. Simply count the comments until a Godwin’s Law event occurs. This gives you the Godwin score. The higher the score, the more value the thread has. This should work for large values of n, as the original formulation of Godwin states that the longer the debate continues, the probability of Nazis asymptotically approaches one, but for short threads it is of course possible that Gs=0, which should be taken to mean that the thread isn’t long enough yet.

38

Alex 05.13.09 at 9:43 am

In this case, the Godwin score is 3, which is dangerously low and tends to confirm Posner’s point.

39

dsquared 05.13.09 at 11:02 am

On a point unrelated to the post, but related to Alex’s tangent, I increasingly believe that Mike Godwin had the right rule but wrong target. I’ve seen plenty of discussions which continued in a reasonably coherent manner even with a couple of Nazi-analogies, but once the phrase “reading comprehension” has been typed, take it to the bank, nothing interesting is going to happen here.

40

Walt 05.13.09 at 11:42 am

dsquared: Good observation.

41

dsquared 05.13.09 at 12:10 pm

although thinking about it, “take it to the bank” isn’t quite the ringing endorsement of something’s suitability as collateral these days.

42

jacob 05.13.09 at 12:17 pm

Others have said it in this thread, but it bears repeating: Posner’s history of the conservative movement was bizarrely ahistorical. The idea that it can be explained without race, without mention of the social movements and liberation struggles–blacks, women, queers, colonized people–of the post-war period is absurd. Because he misses the true origins of the conservative movement, he’s surprised by its trajectory. But if one understands that it was rooted in a reaction against liberation, it’s no longer surprising that those threads (of racism, of anti-modernism, of sexual policing, of misogyny, of imperialism etc) are still there.

43

jholbo 05.13.09 at 12:22 pm

Becker-Posner must be one of the last blogs not to turn off trackbacks. And – lo and behold – there’s one from Beldar, that I take to be a nice confirmation of Posner’s thesis:

http://beldar.blogs.com/beldarblog/2009/05/beldar-on-posner-on-conservatism.html

Re: Posner’s claim that he was satisfied that conservatism triumphed after Bill Clinton.

“What an incredible non sequitur in the very first sentence of that paragraph — as if the Clinton Administration had been an instrument, rather than an opponent, of “the triumph of conservatism”! Bill Clinton, of course, has never acted out of any other principle than what would promote the career of Bill Clinton, and he famously “triangulated” himself into claiming credit for welfare reform and (compared to what came later and to the Democratic Party’s reflexive defaults) fiscal sanity. But to mention Bill Clinton’s name in the same context as Goldwater, Rand, Kirk, Buckley, Friedman, Hayek, Kirkpatrick, or Reagan is a terribly bad joke.

So, too, is it to assert with a straight face that “the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement.” Bill Clinton won’t be remembered in history for a few years of budget surplus (enabled jointly by the economic boom resulting from the transition to an information economy and taxation and spending policies forced upon him by a GOP Congress), nor for welfare reform (enacted, again, despite the resistance of most of Clinton’s own party), but for disgracing the presidency with a tawdry sex scandal which he turned into perjury and obstruction of justice, leading to his impeachment. Just a few lines earlier in this same post, Judge Posner had already written, mostly accurately, that the conservative movement, as exemplified by Reagan …”

Shorter Beldar: the conservative movement can’t be intellectually bankrupt because Bill Clinton got a blowjob in the Oval Office.

Yep. Party of ideas.

44

Steve LaBonne 05.13.09 at 12:35 pm

But then he always was a very smart idiot.

That’s practically the definition of “libertarian”. ;)

45

kid bitzer 05.13.09 at 12:45 pm

#39–

ditto for charges of “mind reading”.

after that, it’ stupids from there on down.

46

Rich B. 05.13.09 at 1:30 pm

I think what everyone is missing is that, for Posner, Conservatism is a location (like the edge of a cliff) — not a direction (like toward the edge of the cliff.) Posner felt like he was part of the Conservative movement while they carried him to the cliff for a glorious view in the 1990s. Since then, however, they have led us over the cliff, and as we plummet downward, it is not unreasonable to pine for that great place we once were.

In effect, Posner thought he was with a group of sight-seers, but was really with a bunch of lemmings.

47

bianca steele 05.13.09 at 1:45 pm

He isn’t describing the conservative movement, or a conservative “movement” at all. He’s describing a particular policy program that some people on the right were pushing at a particular time (approx. Goldwater to Reagan). He’s claiming that people like him were the conservative movement, and the other groups involved were just tagging along, when in reality the reverse was true, and people like him deceived themselves into believing “the conservative movement” was something they could live with because for them “conservative” was a compliment. He’s complaining the conservative movement no longer meets his standards, and also claiming he was an intellectual in the movement at a time when he might have been one source for those standards. What he misses is that “cultural” conservatism, especially of the kind he supports, makes intellectual standards impossible.

(“Cultural” in quotes because I don’t mean thinking the ABT ought to keep producing Swan Lake, or thinking everybody ought to finish high school, which is not what anybody means when they say “conservative.”)

48

bianca steele 05.13.09 at 1:48 pm

In other words, what Rich B. said while I was busy typing.

49

Salient 05.13.09 at 1:50 pm

although thinking about it, “take it to the bank” isn’t quite the ringing endorsement of something’s suitability as collateral these days.

No no, it’s perfect: You’re monetizing something that’s about to become worthless. The only modification you should have made is, “bundle it with ten other threads and take ’em to the bank, …”

50

Marc 05.13.09 at 2:06 pm

I’m not a conservative, but there is a conservative intellectual tradition. It is important to have skeptics in the arena, even if they only serve to sharpen what you believe is your correct ideology. A lot of the hostile commentary in here seems to me as an exercise in missing the point. Posner is saying that there is no room for educated people, of any ideology, in the current Republican party. This was not true in the era of, say, Reagan. But it does appear to be true now, and it does matter when prominent figures in the party start to say it. The sneering rejection of science is only the most obvious manifestation.

Reagan advocated tax cuts for the wealthy, for example, but was actually willing to sign into law tax increases when they were obviously required. The party of Bush will walk off a cliff rather than change their mind. The difference really is stunning.

51

Steve LaBonne 05.13.09 at 2:20 pm

The difference really is stunning.

Well, when you start thinking about the blatant and admitted intellectual dishonesty of the likes of David Stockman- maybe not so much. Iran-Contra doesn’t help your case much, either.

I think the Reagan Administration was the beginning of a lot of the march-off-the-cliff stuff that W just continued and perhaps heightened, but certainly didn’t originate.

There hasn’t been an intellectually honest or consistent right-wing movement in this country for a long, long time. I DO agree with you that that’s a real loss to the country, but the loss can’t be made good by pretending that the right is, or within living memory was, something that it manifestly isn’t.

52

Righteous Bubba 05.13.09 at 2:22 pm

I think what everyone is missing is that, for Posner, Conservatism is a location (like the edge of a cliff)—not a direction (like toward the edge of the cliff.)

The inclusion of cliff-jumper Irving Kristol in his list is surprising then.

53

Marc 05.13.09 at 2:30 pm

Steve – I share your dislike of Reagan. But the Bush administration really was incredibly pathological even by prior standards. I like Krugman’s analogy with the Jacobins: the Bush administration was so extraordinarily radical that they simply obliterated the informal restraints that were a traditional part of the system. We’re engaged in a public debate about medieval torture; public voices of the GOP are downright feral. That is fundamentally different from “I disagree with party X about marginal tax rates or military spending.” They are *nuts* now.

54

Steve LaBonne 05.13.09 at 2:35 pm

Bush certainly took it to a new level, but a lot of it (especially the idea of the President being above the law- the source of so much of the other craziness) was actually Nixonism taken to its logical extreme, complete with Nixon-administration retreads like Cheney to execute it. I just don’t see the fundamental novelty- the right and the Republican Party have been rotten to the core for a long, long time.

55

kid bitzer 05.13.09 at 2:43 pm

right: the core is nixonism.

and what the nixon gang learned from reagan was the importance of a charismatic front-man.

(imagine if nixon had looked and sounded like jfk: then he would have won those damned debates!)

so their ideal route to executive tyranny was to have an inner core of nixon-veterans, fronted by a reagan-like amiable dunce. maybe someone that people thought they’d like to have a beer with.

having bush out front made the program more politically viable. but the program was the nixonite dream of executive tyranny. the rot goes at least that far back.

56

Barbar 05.13.09 at 3:27 pm

As for Becker, I read a couple of his papers when I was in law school. And re-read them trying to figure out why anyone thought him anything other than a fraud. Pick a conservative position, hand-pick a data set consistent with the position, proclaim conservatism to be natural law. Warmed-over imitation sociobiology.

First off, Becker attained some distinction in economics well before the popular rise of sociobiology (he won the John Bates Clark Medal in 1967, while EO Wilson published “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” in 1975). Second, you give him too much credit when you say he hand-picked data sets; AFAICT data had nothing to do with Becker’s success. Becker took core economic ideas and applied them to non-economic topics (families, crime, discrimination) and he became well-known because the economic approach to these topics was more “rigorous” than other approaches, not because they were particularly better at explaining the facts.

57

The Raven 05.13.09 at 3:42 pm

Thomas: oh, I see. The post doesn’t say one thing: at the beginning it claims to be right; at the end it admits some “weakness.” For values of weakness which include “wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,” I suppose. (That admission is with regard to economic policy.) The post is an argument from a lawyer with a weak case: pretend the past is unconnected to the present, deny what can be denied, minimize the rest, and bury any admissions of error. Posner does not say, “We won, so who cares about being right?” but the attitude is there, along with a deep contempt for the critical faculties of his readers.

I wonder if any of the neo-conservative leaders and theoreticians will ever admit to being wrong and act on their admission? Hmmm, Fukayama I suppose.

58

ScentOfViolets 05.13.09 at 3:52 pm

robertdfeinman 05.12.09 at 10:40 pm

Posner is a libertarian. For some reason they chose to ally themselves with the Republicans. Just like the social conservatives (abortion, guns and gays) their issues were not of interest to the party which was devoted to expanding the wealth and power of the wealthy and the business community.

Both groups got suckered in. The social conservatives were dissected by Thomas Frank who showed how they never got the policy changes they thought they were promised. The libertarians have also been taken for a ride, there has been no increase in personal freedom, instead we have seen civil liberties being trampled at every turn.

The libertarians I knew in the late 70’s were nothing like the ones that came later. As other people have already effectively pointed out, ‘libertarianism’ means whatever the self-declared libertarian wants it to mean. However, it does show the fundamental hypocrisy of that tribe; by any sane accounting, they should have abandoned Bush by the millions in 2004. That they didn’t just goes to show that either a) they are not the rugged individualists they make themselves out to be, or b) ‘personal freedom’ was code for ‘their personal freedom’. Since they never imagined that their phones would be tapped, or that they would ever be accused of being ‘for the terr’ists’, or even prosecuted for doing coke, smoking dope, or patronizing hookers, they understandably focused on the money.

59

bianca steele 05.13.09 at 4:16 pm

Marc@50:

To the extent that “the conservative intellectual tradition” consists of stating the ideology that tradition==conservatism, then, no, there is no conservative intellectual tradition. There is the cooptation of philosophy per se by people who call themselves conservatives.

To the extent that “the conservative intellectual tradition” consists of people like Hayek who made up their own ideologies while defending themselves from the charge of radicalism by calling themselves conservatives and supporting the status quo, no, there is no conservative intellectual tradition.

To the extent that what might otherwise be called a “conservative” tradition in the United States is supported by people who call themselves conservatives only to the extent they oppose feminism and affirmative action, who failed at training a generation to follow them, and who (in the United States!) take the truth of marxism as a given, again, no.

60

someguy 05.13.09 at 5:28 pm

The best starting point for the imperial presidency would not be Nixon but probably FDR.

Starting with FDR you get a series, pretty much all, of presidents who behave imperially.

61

Martin James 05.13.09 at 5:41 pm

The intellectual wing of the conservative party is now catholic. Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy still form a majority in the Supreme court and they are all influenced by a catholic view of conservatism.

For a late-comer like Posner, who is no Lincoln and is no Teddy Roosevelt, to dump on the intellectual traditions of the party is just silly. At heart he’s a bureaucrat, pure and simple.

62

Darryl Cox 05.13.09 at 5:58 pm

“Is there some kind of a Gentleman’s Agreement to abide by it but never mention it?”

Only among those who have benefited directly or indirectly from the implementation of the Southern Strategy.

63

Shawn Crowley 05.13.09 at 7:33 pm

Barbar: I am not an economist and have no familiarity with Becker’s early work. My concern is with his application of economic ideas to marriage and family issues with the intent to support a existing viewpoint and not even a pretense of an attempt to falsify a hypothesis. This work was used as support for conservative ideology without any protest from Becker (that I’m aware of, correct me if I’m wrong) that his papers were too preliminary to guide policy decisions.

We seem to agree that data played no great role in Becker’s success. His acclaim came from providing intellectual cover to conservative ideology. The rise of sociobiology certainly reinforced Becker’s appeal. The irony is that Becker’s papers were still being touted for policy support long after biologists had debated and rejected sociobiology’s more extravagant claims (I was a graduate student of Randy Thornhill at UNM in 1978 and had a front seat on the fight).

It took me a while to figure out what AFAICT stands for. At first I thought it was some data set I should know about!

64

Picador 05.13.09 at 7:52 pm

The best starting point for the imperial presidency would not be Nixon but probably FDR.

… or Wilson, or Teddy Roosevelt, or Lincoln, or… shall we only go back to John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, or can we find “imperial” ambitions in Washington as well?

The argument about Nixon is dead-on and specific. Nobody is talking about the origins of “the imperial presidency”.

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The Raven 05.13.09 at 8:17 pm

Picador, Alexander Hamilton, who wanted a President for life. And Washington delivered the coup-de-grace to the idea when he resigned after two terms.

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Myles SG 05.13.09 at 10:44 pm

I do think Martin James made a very pertinent point that whatever intellectual fragments remaining in the GOP are now solidly from the High/Traditionalist Catholic tradition. Of course, before William F. Buckley, a High Catholic himself, there really wasn’t a conservative American tradition so much as a reflexive psychological itch in favour of the status quo.

This might strike the American liberal as strange, but the British tradition of Toryism, rooted in the Army, the (High, established) Church, and the Crown (i.e. State) never existed in America. There were occasional reflexes and imports, but no coherent tradition as exemplified by such men as Lord Halifax, Lord Salisbury, and in post-war days Eden. The small-town Midwestern or Southern conservative was not a conservative in any intellectual dimension; the WASPs of the East Coast were fairly liberal, fairly Churchillian (who had been a Liberal) in outlook. Their conservatism was one of temperament rather than of outlook.

To the extent that simplistic analysis could be of use, part of the reason is the lack of stable hierarchical structures. Congregationalism, the church of establishment New England, had no episcopate. The Episcopalian church itself is frightening weak and inorganic, and this manifested itself in its excessive political flirtations (to an degree greater than in Canada or Australia, somewhat predictably) in the post-war era. The South is Baptist. The American conception of his beliefs included no such mystic belief in the State, except as a instrument of popular will. Nor in the established Church. And nor in the Army, as there had been no American tradition, as in Britain and in Prussia, of universal military service from the upper classes. Northeastern WASPs are notable, among Anglophone societies, for their lack of military pre-eminence and their relative pacificism; there had been no social norm, in pre-war times, regulating that they serve in the armed forces, as had been the case even in Eastern Canada and New Zealand.

So, in this sense, the High Catholic stream of American conservatism represented not a new direction, but rather the very first expression of intellectual conservatism as has ever been seen in this country. The strict hierarchy of Catholicism and its pronounced outlook on life makes up, to a tolerable extent, the absence of the Army, Church, and Crown paradigm in America.

And as a conservative, of the Anglican persuasion, I am glad it is so, glad that country finally has a genuine, organic conservatism.

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Myles SG 05.13.09 at 10:48 pm

I do want to clarify that the personal military inclinations of such men as Teddy Roosevelt and Poppy Bush has little relevance to the Army paradigm I speak of; I speak of it as an Institution, not just of persons. In Britain and in Prussia, there existed between the ruling classes and the armed forces an sort of fused affinity that was institutional rather than personal, and had thus a social impact, whereas the personal militarism of Teddy Roosevelt left no lasting social institutions.

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Myles SG 05.13.09 at 10:55 pm

And I also want to point out that William Buckley was raised strictly not in the Irish Catholic tradition, but rather the Continental one. This difference is observable in his writings. Continental Catholicism was a lot more amenable to an intellectual interpretation, as it was probably the most internally coherent of various strands of Catholicism.

The greatest Catholic conservatives in the past century had tended toward Southern Germans.

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frankly0 05.14.09 at 1:02 am

What I find baffling is Posner’s claim that the Clinton years somehow represented the closest approach to the Conservative ideal — so much so that only smallish improvements were even possible.

How could a Conservative so define their body of belief in a coherent way so that the apparent mess of compromises and inconsistencies of governance in the Clinton years might be regarded as its best, and nearly optimal, expression?

Of course, Posner makes that claim without any explanation of the underlying set of principles that might sense of such a highly counterintuitive and controversial assertion. Yet, if that’s how he chooses to proceed, how might he possibly have a right to chide other Conservatives for lapsing into an intellectual decline?

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LFC 05.14.09 at 2:35 am

jholbo @43: Frankly I’ve never been sure exactly how to use the “leave a trackback” feature that I’ve seen now and then at blog sites, but putting my technical (or technological) ignorance to one side, why do you think that “Becker-Posner must be one of the last blogs not to turn off trackbacks”? There are of course literally millions of blogs, so this hunch would seem very difficult to verify (unless technorati or some similar thing keeps track of the number of blogs that have or don’t have the trackback feature enabled).

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Jonathan 05.14.09 at 6:01 am

Trackbacks, which were arguably a bi-directional non-phallologocentric mode of bloggly discourse, were unmade by spam, largely for penile enhancement products, appropriately enough.

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stostosto 05.14.09 at 8:56 am

People are of course right in pointing out Posner’s glaring neglect of race (although I think it’s somehow contained in the first two of his catch-all list of bulletpoints that ” stimulated the growth of a varied and vibrant conservative movement”:

“The domestic disorder of the late 1960s, the excesses of Johnson’s “Great Society,” “

But reading the blog, the more eye-rolling comment was on Clinton as the apogee of conservatism. Because at the time conservatives (of the self-professed and cardcarrying variety) were decisevely consumed by a hysteric hatefest against Clinton – as represented by blogger Beldar linked to above.

If Posner is accurately portraying his 2000 position, he is also conceding that his and likeminded “conservative intellectuals” abject failure as an influence on the conservative movement dates back to at least Whitewater, Ken Starr, and Newt Gingrich.

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notsneaky 05.14.09 at 9:20 am

Myles, the South may be Baptist but it most definitely had and too some extent still has a martial tradition that in a lot of respects fits your “Army Conservatism”. The times they have been a’changing for awhile but places like the Citadel, VMI and even to a significant degree West Point are institutions in the direct meaning of that word, that also comprise an institution in the abstract one you’re talking about.

Of course, when I was in college I had a roommate I’d get into all kinds of arguments with, mostly because he always made these sweeping generalizations about what “America is” and how “Americans are” etc. And the South can pretty much serve as a good counter example to any such claim simply because, for all its faults and messed upness, it’s a way more complex place than any other region of this country. Even John Emerson’s Minnesota.

So if you say something general about America, or about American conservatism, you can always find something about the South that contradicts it. Eventually, my roommate, totally exasperated threw up his hands and said “But the South was never American! That’s why they had to be conquered!”. It was actually the first decent argument he had made.

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garymar 05.14.09 at 9:52 am

franklyo @ 69:

Isn’t this Posner speaking as a “small-c” conservative? A Burkean, let’s-not-get-drastic-here, muddling-through kind of conservative? I’ve known this kind of conservative, who actually prefers the deadlock of the Presidency controlled by one party, the Congress controlled by the other, so that nothing much gets done.

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Barry 05.14.09 at 11:01 am

“Isn’t this Posner speaking as a “small-c” conservative? A Burkean, let’s-not-get-drastic-here, muddling-through kind of conservative?”

IIRC, he led the law&economics movement, which did a lot to radically alter court interpretations of some areas of law. He’s a radical, but he probably felt that his desired radical changes were achievable without losing control.

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Alex 05.14.09 at 11:37 am

The thread is interesting because the guy who godwins it actually says that they need to stop shouting TAXGAYABORTION! at every issue, and then all his friends proceed to shout TAXGAYABORTION! nonstop for sixty-odd comments. I reckon TAXGAYABORTION! is a useful snark-shorthand to keep for US conservatism in general.

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novakant 05.14.09 at 12:07 pm

A Burkean, let’s-not-get-drastic-here, muddling-through kind of conservative?

If only there were more of those. Call me naive, but to me conservatism is supposed to be about preserving traditional ways of life, belief in social order and skepticism towards change. I can live with that. But what we get instead under the label of conservatism is a bunch of crazy, militaristic free-market ideologues who judge everything except gay marriage and christmas in economic terms, want to remake the world in their own image instead of just letting people be and have no respect whatsoever for nature or traditions.

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someguy 05.14.09 at 3:36 pm

Picador,

Yes. But only after FDR do you get a string of presidents behaving in the same manner.

I thought you were talking about presidents being “above the law “and “executive tyranny “.

Presidents acting as regents. Imperial presidents.

Nothing new as you point out see Lincoln and Wilson but FDR ranks with the best and starts a trend that continues through to at least GWB.

Nixon and GWB are small potatoes. FDR interned 110K citizens by executive order and sought to stack the supreme court.

FDR seems like a much better starting point than Nixon. Nixon just continued on in the manner of LBJ and FDR.

Well not really. Nixon stands out because he made the mistake of violating a common law for his own very direct and petty political benefit and covering it up. Which is not something Bush did.

But that only highlights how FDR is much better comparision than Nixon.

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Doctor Science 05.14.09 at 4:25 pm

novakant:
to me conservatism is supposed to be about preserving traditional ways of life, belief in social order and skepticism towards change.

Perhaps that’s what it’s *supposed* to be, but IMHO what conservatism actually *is* is the motivating desire to conserve something. The question is, what are you conserving?

If, like Posner (I guess) you’re most motivated by conserving existing hierarchies of power and money (=”belief in social order”), you’re a political/economic conservative. People who are focused on conserving existing gender roles and hierarchy are social conservatives. Raging free-market ideologues are *also* conservative, because they’re trying to conserve their ability to act economically without restraint. Militaristic neocons are conservatives, too, because they want to conserve the US’s ability to physically coerce people who disagree with them.

They’re all conservatives, IMHO.

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Barbar 05.14.09 at 4:26 pm

Isn’t this Posner speaking as a “small-c” conservative? A Burkean, let’s-not-get-drastic-here, muddling-through kind of conservative? I’ve known this kind of conservative, who actually prefers the deadlock of the Presidency controlled by one party, the Congress controlled by the other, so that nothing much gets done.

I’ve always thought of Posner as a “rationalist natural order” conservative, someone who thinks the laws of economics constrain social outcomes, and who thinks that liberals are utopians and moralists who sometimes have difficulty facing cold hard facts.

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bianca steele 05.14.09 at 5:25 pm

I don’t know what the word means where Richard Posner lives, but around here “conservative” means someone who feels his/her personal choices are more moral than those of other people, and who feels this is because the way they were raised or the school they attended was “old fashioned,” and this is what explains why they and people like them are the successful ones (or otherwise visibly “better”). So in politics they feel the country needs to support or extend their kind of school or their kind of family.

(Of course, the word has other meanings, and I can refer to “a conservative estimate” without praising or denigrating my own estimate with reference to my actual political beliefs and my feelings about the existing order of things (whatever that might be), no problem. :)

If, as a couple commenters have implied, Posner is basically a Burkean liberal who’s willing to move (forward), slowly, when it’s time — if he doesn’t see the way he was raised or the way he lives now, with the institutions that have underwritten that, as essential for good things’ happening, and threatened by even those gradual changes — I don’t know why he prefers to align himself with conservatives.

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Chris 05.14.09 at 5:58 pm

A tax on gay abortions wouldn’t raise much revenue, would it? Lesbians never get pregnant by accident (so they probably have a *much* lower rate of abortion than heterosexual women, not that really I expect conservatives to consider them morally superior on that basis) and gay men never get pregnant at all.

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Myles SG 05.14.09 at 10:16 pm

Yes, notsneaky, but the South is still missing the two aspects of Church and State. Those are fairly important.

And also, even if the South were to have the requisite conservatism, its impact on American political philosophy is limited. A regional thing is very likely to be limited in impact; that is its nature. Much like Welsh Liberals had only a brief period of impact on the United Kingdom, so does the South only have a very short time in the sun.

The emergence of a High Catholic conservatism, additionally, is bound to be more strict and less liable to wavering. Alito or Roberts, for example, will not waver simply to feeling; their reliance on non-temporal sources of authority prevents them from acting in an overly empowering manner.

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Myles SG 05.14.09 at 10:21 pm

T hat’s why I am very hopeful about the future of American conservatism. Roberts will be on the court for quite a while, and same with Alito. The difficulty is not in winning elections; the Republicans can do it aplenty. But what’s striking is how, until quite recently, the GOP was not at all a powerfully conservative force, being, as it were, not at all motivated or guided by any higher or expansive conservative principle much like Lord Halifax would have been.

Poppy Bush is the perfect illustration. And as an Anglican, I must say I am quite disappointed by how my prejudice toward the American Church was confirmed by Souter, an Episcopalian, who exemplified the uncertain, unknown, and somewhat confusing fundamental liberalism of even the most conservative Episcopalians. And so it was with Poppy also.

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Danielle Day 05.15.09 at 3:36 am

The morally, intellectually bankrupt Republican party reminds me of a verse by that old lefty Ewan MacColl: “Geldings programmed his energy. Dead men told him how to live”. (“Kilroy Was Here”)

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NBarnes 05.15.09 at 6:07 am

The most salient fact of that entire post is the huge comment thread proving Posner right. As Alex says, Posner posts about how the Republican Party needs an intellectual underpinning more sophisticated than “OMGZ TAXGAYABORTIONZ!”, followed by a thread of Republican radicals shouting ‘OMGZ TAXGAYABORTIONZ!’ at the top of their lungs.

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Myles SG 05.15.09 at 8:22 am

“followed by a thread of Republican radicals shouting ‘OMGZ TAXGAYABORTIONZ!’ at the top of their lungs.”

I much take offense at your characterisation.

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novakant 05.15.09 at 9:28 am

Doctor Science, yes and no:

Yes, it is one of the inherent features of conservatism to pass off the existing power structures as something natural and just as opposed to arbitrary and unjust, both to keep those who don’t benefit from it from getting too uppity and to assuage a nagging conscience.

But this is not the only thing people want to “conserve”: there is a desire to conserve the environment, our cultural heritage and ways of life that have developed over hundreds of years. Ironically most of contemporary conservatism has been thoroughly corrupted by capitalism and technology, which both lead people to embrace radical and often brutal change, rather than organic growth. And it is often those on the liberal side of the political spectrum who advocate a cautious and, one might say “conservative”, approach to change.

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Doctor Science 05.15.09 at 12:11 pm

novakant:

I suspect we’re saying the same thing (maybe), which is that *all* of these attitudes are conservative.

The great dilemna faced by anyone who’s trying to be conservative — in any of these senses — is that it’s no longer possible to think you can conserve *everything*. It’s not that “conservatism has been thoroughly corrupted by capitalism and technology”, it’s that we’re all riding the capitalism and technology trains whether we like it or not. Conserving “ways of life that have developed over hundreds of years” — what does that even *mean*, when we’re talking on the Internet? You have to pick and choose what you’re trying to conserve, or else turn into super-Amish — and even that doesn’t work, because there are other people in the world and they *will* be changing without you, which means your world will change will or nil.

My beef is with people like e.g. Andrew Sullivan, who goes on and *on* about what a Real True Conservative is, with no reference to actual human beings and their behavior. Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative is distilled essence of defining conservatives by assertion: “a conservative believes X, a conservative does Y” — without dealing with pesky details of fact.

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bianca steele 05.15.09 at 1:21 pm

What confuses me about these discussions is why people are getting hung up on the definition of “conservative.” Yes, this is an academic blog. And, yes, defining “conservative” is an exercise undergraduates (and high school students) are led in by their teachers, in an effort to give them some context about history and political theories.

It’s like there is only one practical matter that people can take action on: who should be President? And there is only one question that people can discuss: what is the proper, ideally rational definition of “conservative” (or “liberal,” “secular,” etc.)? Past that no one seems able to conceptualize anything beyond “purge.” And that’s silly and uncivil.

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Doctor Science 05.15.09 at 1:54 pm

bianca:

My observation is that *conservatives* are hung up on the definition of “conservative”, and have been for many years (see: Goldwater, Wm.F. Buckley). I observe a *lot* more discussion among conservatives about “what counts as” than there is among liberals (or progressives), and this is true regardless of whether they’re in or out of power. On the left, the comparison is more to the old “what counts as Marxist/socialist/communist” parsing, but less coherent.

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Steve LaBonne 05.15.09 at 2:59 pm

On the left, the comparison is more to the old “what counts as Marxist/socialist/communist” parsing, but less coherent.

Considering the number of ex-Trotskyites on the right, maybe the similarity isn’t surprising!

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bianca steele 05.15.09 at 3:40 pm

Doctor Science: conservatives are hung up . . .

Okay, that’s obviously true. But we have plenty of evidence just in the comments section on this blog that this doesn’t translate as “Republicans, and only Republicans, are hung up on the definition of ‘conservative.'” Yet it’s almost a given that “conservatives vote Republican” (in the US where there is nothing called a “Conservative Party,” unlike in Canada and the UK): everyone who says “conservatism is always true” is automatically taken to be saying, “voting Republican makes more sense.”

Then you get people who say, “I have no real politics, and generally support the liberal status quo, and I’m a conservative, and I’m a conservative because I believe cultural conservatism is the true meaning of ‘conservative,’ both as regards art and literature, and also as regards ways of life (which does imply religion, if you’re religious, but not necessarily for those who are not).” But if they went out past the circles where this makes sense, they would have to choose, I think.

And–as I think was shown during the Scialabba/New Criterion discussion a little while ago–there really are very few “culturally conservative” media outlets that are not also politically conservative to the point of partisanship. Roger Kimball supports the conservative movement and Republican candidates and National Review. To argue that people can have progressive politics and be “conservative” is–in a sense–to push them towards those partisan publications.

It sounds like you’re saying people who don’t want to be mistaken for “conservative” should go to solidly left-wing places where they can debate the true, ideally rational meaning of “the Left.” But you’re also showering contempt on this kind of discussion, so I’m not sure what you mean.

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virgil xenophon 05.15.09 at 9:17 pm

I’ve always been partial to Winston Churchill’s description of his personal conservative credo which he described in a letter to his Mother, stated as: “Look before you leap–and don’t leap if you can find a ladder.”

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Carter 05.17.09 at 5:20 pm

I don’t know what the word means where Richard Posner lives, but around here “conservative” means someone who feels his/her personal choices are more moral than those of other people

This perfectly describes several progressives with whom I am acquainted. “More moral according to Biblical tradition” is perhaps more correct?

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