Furious agreement, parts II and III

by John Q on November 18, 2008

It’s an analysis familiar to most on the Left. Support for laissez-faire is a hypocritical pretence, typified by Republicans who denounce a universal health care scheme as “socialist” while backing huge handouts for wealthy sugar producers.

For cultural and historical reasons, the United States has never had a proper socialist party of any significance[1]. Instead

the socialism we do have is the surreptitious socialism of the strong, e.g. sugar producers represented by their Washington hirelings.

In America, socialism is un-American. Instead, Americans merely do rent-seeking — bending government for the benefit of private factions.

As I say, familiar stuff. But it’s mildly surprising to see it coming from George Will.

Of course, I’ve been a little mischievous here (and as usual, haven’t included the irony alerts). For Will, the answer is not to do socialism properly, but to rescue conservatism from what he correctly describes as its current intellectual chaos. But, it’s not hard to read his article as suggesting that, absent success in this endeavour, Americans ought to prefer a coherent social democratic policy in which the power of government is directed at real social problems to the kleptocratic “big government conservatism” of the Bushies.

Now, with no mischief or irony at all, let me declare my agreement with Ramesh Ponnuru whose demolition of the “US is a centre-right nation” meme is the most succinct and precise I’ve seen.

I can see the point of saying that the country is “center right” if the point is that we are, compared to most developed countries, a bit more religious, free-market, and nationalistic in orientation. If that’s all it means to say “center right,” though, we could probably go through a long period of political domination by liberals and still qualify. And I’m not sure what else the phrase could mean.

This is spot-on. The centre-right meme is, as Pauli used to say, not even wrong.

fn1 Apologies to Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, but their support was never broad or deep enough to challenge the Rep-Dem duopoly.



Lisa 11.18.08 at 7:16 am

My favorite part of the explanation for no socialism here:

“This is partly because Americans are an aspirational, not an envious people.”

Uh, right.

Perhaps we are not envious but surely that aspiration is to be at a part of the social hierarchy worthy of envy. We want to be envied rather than envy?


virgil xenophon 11.18.08 at 9:54 am

It used to be said that despite the sublime oratory of Eugen V. Debs from his front porch in Terre Haute (or “Terry Hut” as the locals like to joke) and the millions of votes he received (even while in prison) America never developed a true Socialist party nor movement proper “due to the ready availability and low price of beef-steak.”

As to using “the power of government” to solve “real social problems” ? Well, we had LBJ’s “War on Poverty” and we’ve had successive Presidents declare government’s “War on Drugs” and we sure can see how well that’s turned out, can’t we? Of course I suppose, like insane people who keep on doing the same thing and expecting different results, those on the left still think that simply redoubling the effort is all that is needed. More tax money and more social programs, yeah, that’ll do the trick. Why is it that home schoolers win most of the spelling bees while $14,000.00/yr/pupil worth of tax dollars spent on students from the D.C. public schools never seems to produce any winners?

And speaking of “coherent” social policy. If the auto industry is “bailed out” with Federal tax-dollars, let’s see if some of the stringent “strings” attached being proposed by the left include labor taking big cuts in salary and pension/medical packages as well as proposed management changes in order to compete with non-union foreign competition. Let’s see just how “coherent” these proposals really are–or if the people that contributed $80 million to get Obama elected will be shielded from any pain by a Democrat controlled Congress.


Mike 11.18.08 at 10:20 am

we are, compared to most developed countries, a bit more religious, free-market, and nationalistic in orientation

And just a wee bit more disposed to drop bombs on anyone they feel like, violate any treaties they sign, and abrogate any clauses in their constitution in order to maintain and expand their national security state. And, as a people, ignore to an extent far greater than most other nations — certainly far greater than their status as a ‘great power’ should require — the deliterious effects on the rest of the planet of their foreign and domestic policies.

we could probably go through a long period of political domination by liberals

If they could actually get any elected into a position of domination. If Mr Ponnuru thinks that the Democratic Party qualify on this score, I suggest he ask the Vietnamese whether Democratic bombs felt noticeably different to Republican bombs.

This is spot-on

Well, spot-on in the sense of utter bollocks, sure.


Michael Turner 11.18.08 at 10:31 am

John, just to demolish your furious agreement (I and II) that America being center-right is not even wrong:

Really, America is now left of center-right, but also still a little bit to the right of the center, and to be more precise about it, is right in the center of what’s left when you ignore everything that’s either center-right and to the right of center-right, or in the center and to the left of center.

Admit it, your argument is now a smoldering ruin. I’d continue bombing but it would only make the rubble bounce.


stostosto 11.18.08 at 12:26 pm

“My country, right or center-right.”


Rich Puchalsky 11.18.08 at 12:56 pm

“we are, compared to most developed countries, a bit more religious, free-market, and nationalistic in orientation”

Ranesh Ponnuru of The Party of Death was never spot on about anything, and never will be. We are, compared to most developed countries, an empire. So of course we’re more religious, “free market”, and nationalistic than they are. That will go away as the empire does, which is happening in 3,2,1…


Michael Turner 11.18.08 at 1:44 pm

“My country, right or center-right.”

Very cute, stostosto, but to quote Wolfgang Amadeus Pauli, it’s not even center-wrong.


michael e sullivan 11.18.08 at 2:07 pm

Well, as I’ve believed for sometime, saying that the US is a center-right country is basically correct. What gets left out is that the current incarnation of the Democratic party is, basically center-right. The current incarnation of the Republican party is authoritarian kleptocrat.

That’s not how the media potrays things these days, of course, but looking at the world, or (at least with economics) even at US politics before the right-wing media domination that began 20-25 years ago, it’s clear. The average democratic politician probably thinks like Brad Delong or Paul Krugman, not exactly big fans of socialism.

But I gotta think Will is basically getting religion here. I’m something of an economic conservative, but even a hard core libertarian like Milton Friedman seemed to think that in a modern rich society, the welfare state was inevitable, and the goal was to make it as small, efficient and as little disempowering/disincentivizing as possible, not to demolish it. Even though I’m anything but a fan of state control, it’s appeared to me for quite some time that out-and-out social democracy as practiced in much of europe is strongly preferable to the kleptocracy that has prevailed under modern republicans.

A true classical liberal agenda doesn’t appear politically feasible, and the morality of those who would try to shade that direction incrementally purely by attacking support for the poor is very questionable. In fact, it seems clear that the whole venture (as practiced by movement conservatives) is really a sham, designed to make sure that as much money gets funneled to or kept by the already rich as possible, with really no concern whatsoever for moving the country in the direction of classical liberalism or the welfare of the country as a whole.


Picador 11.18.08 at 2:52 pm

I can see the point of saying that the country is “center right” if the point is that we are, compared to most developed countries, a bit more religious, free-market, and nationalistic in orientation. If that’s all it means to say “center right,” though, we could probably go through a long period of political domination by liberals and still qualify.

I’m deeply confused about this argument.

“I can see the point of saying that 2+2=4, if by that you mean that when you take two and then add another two to it, the total result is four. But if that’s all it means for two plus two to equal four, then the fact is that you could divide it by 1.1, round off, and it would still be four.”

Yes, and… ?


A Very Public Sociologist 11.18.08 at 3:16 pm

Laissez-faire = socialism for the rich, markets for the rest of us.


ajay 11.18.08 at 3:25 pm

6: agreed. The only way in which it makes sense is if the meme is in fact “The US is a center-right nation” – note spelling – rather than “the US is a centre-right nation”.
In other words, the US is a centre-right nation in the sense that it is centre-right compared to other developed nations. But I think that the meme is “The US is a center-right nation” – ie the US as a nation is on average center-right compared to the US political spectrum – the US is, in fact, naturally closer to the R than the D, and thus the R are the natural party of government.

In this case, Ponnuru is saying “well, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge, because the US will always be centre-right” – correct, but, in Ponnuru’s terms, a long period of D government could produce a US that was both center left and centre right.

In fact, the US is center left and centre right – measures like universal health care etc are far more popular with the US population than with the US political classes.


roger 11.18.08 at 3:31 pm

It strikes me that the comparison with other developed countries always leaves out the very distinctive American structure of strong states. This makes it seem like the U.S. is much less invested in government intervention than is actually the case – rather, the government interventions are distributed differently. In France or Norway, the central federal model of government holds to the extent that the departments really are subordinate as policy makers – but this is simply not true in the U.S. New York State has a lot more influence over the way the citizens of New York state deal with the “government” than, say, Paris has over the way the citizens of a Norwegian fylker deal with the “government”.

Perhaps the country that is closest to the American model is Canada, but because there are relatively few provinces, they do not skew the way the state functions in the same way that American states do.


roger 11.18.08 at 3:34 pm

Oops. Erase the “Paris has” in my comment comparing a Norwegian fylker and New York State.


John Emerson 11.18.08 at 4:09 pm

I’ve been reading up on Minnesota’s Farmer Labor Party, which ran the state 1930-1938 and had Socialist, Communist, and Trotskyist influences. The most persuasive explanations for its demise are 1.) WWII, which split the party and 2.) partial co-option by Roosevelt at the national level (and more generally, the difficulties involved in practicing socialism within one state in a federal system).

Positively, the reason why the FLP was as successful as it was is probably that in 1920 or so 70% of its population was foreign-born, in Northern European countries with strong Socialist movements.

Anyway, it should have been Minnesota’s Floyd B. Olson who you apologized to rather than Debs or Norman Thomas. (Trivia: Olson was Scandinavian but grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and spoke Yiddish. Even more trivia: some of the Jews he knew were mobsters, and some believed that he was implicated in one or more gangland killings.)


Chris in NF 11.18.08 at 4:25 pm

To concur with #6 — the whole idea of what constitutes the political “center” is rather problematic, as it gets skewed from context to context, nation to nation, from historical period to historical period … what qualifies as the political center here in Canada stands somewhat to the left of Obama, and both Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower would qualify by today’s standards as Democrats (and fairly lefty dems at that, too).

The value in Ponnuru’s statement lies more, I think, in that it helps point to the fact that the political center is at best contingent and at worst an elaborate fiction.


bdbd 11.18.08 at 4:57 pm

recall the young OMB director from Reagan’s first term, David Stockman, who came in wanting to cull “weak claims, not weak claimants” from access to the federal teat, and quickly found out that it was not going to work that way. He spoke at length to the Atlantic’s William Grieder and got “taken to the woodshed” by Reagan.


Michael Turner 11.18.08 at 5:11 pm

All of these issues are easily settled by agreeing that America is both the center and the centre of the world. “Center” is easy–that’s how we spell it in America, and Americans are unanimous on America’s centrality. “Centre” only seems problematic.

Unfortunately, every once in a while we have to wake the rest of the world up to this (may I say) central fact of our time–that the world only has a “centre” seemingly distinct from “center” because Uncle Sam is an indulgent sort, as long as you don’t cross him. But cross him you did, when you either didn’t join, or bailed out on, the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq.

In this, the most recent, instance, the wakeup call has taken the form of issuing a whole boatload of sketchy mortgage backed securities, then letting them suddenly go bad. You tryna tell me you don’t feel that?

Remember, we’re only doing this to remind you who’s boss. Really, it’s all under control.


Questioner 11.18.08 at 5:35 pm

I think you’re all being too hard on Ponnuru. To understand what he means you have to realize that a bunch of conservatives and Republicans (and Newsweek) have been saying that the US is center-right (relative to the current US political spectrum, where the Republicans are right and the Democrats have centrist and left-wing elements) and that, consequently, Barack Obama better watch how he governs–if he tries to push a liberal agenda, there will be a revolt and his presidency will be in ruins. Ponnuru responds that, while there is a valid sense in which the US is center-right, the sense in which it is yields no warning about governing liberally. Indeed, the congress and presidency could be extremely liberal for the next 20 years and the only sense in which America would be a center-right country would still obtain. This seems to me to be both (a) a point that can be assessed as being either true or false and (b) a point that is true.


Rich Puchalsky 11.18.08 at 6:23 pm

“I think you’re all being too hard on Ponnuru. ”

No, really not. There are some things that are so silly or objectionable that the person saying them is forever after discredited. That may occasionally be right about something thereafter, but so what? Almost anyone has to be right about something sometime, just by the law of averages. But they can’t be usefully right, because they aren’t trustworthy.


Jim Harrison 11.18.08 at 6:35 pm

Pundits and even academics who should know better often possess what Nietzsche called “high-speed intestines.” They process too fast. Generalizations such as the bit about America being a center-right country may or may not have some valid historical justification, but mostly they simply reflect the life experiences of 40-year olds whose horizons barely encompass the Reagan Revolution. The old set of eternal verities will soon be replaced by equally short-sighted alternatives as economic catastrophe creates a large crop of lefties until something else happens.


professor fate 11.18.08 at 8:25 pm

Ahhh Actually the “war on poverty” did result in lowering the poverty rate in the US – but it was costing the well to do money and giving it poor people and we all know what that means.

And as someone who is dislexic and thanks the great magnet for spell check – I find who ever wins spelling bees to be at best a test of long term memory – as an example – shakespear couldn’t spell worth a damn.


Larv 11.18.08 at 8:45 pm

“Why is it that home schoolers win most of the spelling bees while $14,000.00/yr/pupil worth of tax dollars spent on students from the D.C. public schools never seems to produce any winners?”

I’m unclear on what you think this proves. First, homeschoolers can dedicate as much or as little time to a certain topic as they like. Some parents dedicate an awful lot of time to rote memorization of spelling in order to have their children do well in spelling bees. Without some measure of their overall knowledge or skills, this is meaningless. Second, by citing the “$14,000/yr/pupil” figure you seem to be claiming that homeschooling produces these results at a fraction of the cost. If, however, one considers the opportunity cost of homeschooling, I doubt that it is substantially cheaper.


Questioner 11.19.08 at 12:41 am

“There are some things that are so silly or objectionable that the person saying them is forever after discredited.”

I don’t think this is true. First, there is such a thing as moral reform–someone could be a Nazi for a long time, then see the light and become an anti-Nazi crusader. I don’t think we should ignore the things he says because of his Nazi past. Second, there are areas where someone discredits himself in that area, but not in others. William Shockley discredited himself in race studies but not in chemistry. And even if you discredit yourself in one part of social science it doesn’t follow that you’re not to be listened to in any of your other pontifications about social science.


Questioner 11.19.08 at 12:43 am

I should have said Shockley didn’t discredit himself in physics.


Rick 11.19.08 at 2:37 am

Watching a debate about the minute differences between the two parties is like watching someone argue with himself in a mirror. The Republicans are just as “socialist” as the Democrats. Big government, bigger spending, federalization of local powers, no opposition to bailouts… sounds socialist to me.

You want real change? You have to give outsiders a fighting chance.


virgil xenophon 11.19.08 at 3:14 am


I was just stirring the pot somewhat. As a beneficiary of public education whose Mother taught for 26 yrs at the elementary level and her sister 32; and having grown up on a teachers college campus with a professor Father I am hardly one to say that public education is worthless or that money (i.e., good facilities, of which campus Lab schools have aplenty) doesn’t make a difference. Having said that however, one has to admit
that endemic big city corruption (here in New Orleans they recently found 32 million! had been siphoned off in payroll to deceased people scams. etc.) and student discipline and teacher competency problems seem politically insurmountable. Improvements to this where they have been tried anywhere in the nation seem to achieve results that are marginal at best and at great cost.

You know there is a school of thought in administrative and bureaucratic decision-making theory advanced by a French sociologist whose name escapes me now that some organizations are so far gone that any improvements only make them more “efficiently ineffective,” and that the best thing is to blow them up and begin anew. I sometimes think that is true in the case of public schools –inner city ones anyway–the guy just may be right.

I might also make the provocative statement that the problem is mainly one of Democrat
control. The last sixty years have seen the school boards and City Hall of every major city east of the Mississippi controlled by a solid line of Democrats–the first thirty white ones, the second thirty black ones. Perhaps it’s time to try a different sort of people.


virgil xenophon 11.19.08 at 3:22 am

Correction: To be accurate I should have said “almost” every major city and a “mostly” solid line.


virgil xenophon 11.19.08 at 3:27 am

professor fate

As one who is mildly dyslexic and whose son is severely so afflicted, I hear you. As far as the well to do resisting giving money to poor people is concerned, that’s EXACTLY why the SS system was disguised as a retirement system for middle class people. As FDR is said to have stated: “Any program exclusively for poor people will forever remain a ‘poor’ program,”


J Thomas 11.19.08 at 4:47 am

You know there is a school of thought in administrative and bureaucratic decision-making theory advanced by a French sociologist whose name escapes me now that some organizations are so far gone that any improvements only make them more “efficiently ineffective,” and that the best thing is to blow them up and begin anew.

The GOP comes to mind….

I don’t remember the french sociologist, but CN Parkinson wrote a long essay on the topic.


virgil xenophon 11.19.08 at 5:38 am

J Thomas

“The GOP comes to mind…..”

Sadly, ruefully, I must admit worse things could to happen to the GOP in it’s present form.
As the old saying goes: “They said, ‘cheer up, things could be worse’ and so I did, and sure enough, they got worse….”


A. Y. Mous 11.19.08 at 9:33 am

Ah! So that’s how one actually says “two marginal points left or right”. I get it now. Thanks. (https://crookedtimber.org/2008/10/30/slightly-different-thoughts-about-expectations-for-obama/#comment-257400)


Picador 11.19.08 at 3:20 pm


“Why is it that home schoolers win most of the spelling bees while $14,000.00/yr/pupil worth of tax dollars spent on students from the D.C. public schools never seems to produce any winners?”

I went through the DC public schools system, and I think I’ve done okay according to the standards any school system might set for its alumni: post-graduate degrees in law and engineering from top-5 national programs, etc. Several of my friends from high school are similarly situated.

Let me guess: you live in the DC suburbs, right? Fairfax? Potomac? And you commute into the city every day and leech off the services and infrastructure paid for by taxes on DC residents, right? Must be nice to have a subject population just over the District line who subsidize your lifestyle but don’t have a vote in the Congress that controls their budget and their taxation.

Or are you one of the carpetbaggers who’ve moved into the city in the past ten years now that it’s white “safe” enough to do so?

I understand your point, and only an idiot would deny that the DCPS has some major probolems, but in my experience it’s a better idea to focus first on the outright theft of resources in a system before turning to other sources of inefficiency. But of course, outlets like the Washington Post like to beat the “irresponsible black people who can’t manage their own schools” drum to distract everyone from the suburbanites looting the city’s coffers in broad daylight.


Theron 11.20.08 at 10:33 pm

“Why is it that home schoolers win most of the spelling bees while $14,000.00/yr/pupil worth of tax dollars spent on students from the D.C. public schools never seems to produce any winners?”

Many good responses to this so far – I would also add that home school teachers do not have to accept in to their “classroom” any and all who arrive at their door. No matter how serious the social problems, the mental health issues, the personality problems the home school student brings to the classroom, the teacher is faced only with a very small number of students, any of which can be expelled (sent to public schools) at moment’s notice. Private schools have the same advantage. It makes quite a difference.


Robert Waldmann 11.21.08 at 5:36 am

Ah, I thought, a challenge — can I interpret “center right nation” so that it makes sense to warn Democrats that the USA is a center right nation ? I must find a definition of a center which isn’t well to the left of any point to which the Democrats might overstretch.
OK how about the point X where the fraction of Republican representatives to the left of X is equal to the fraction of Democratic representatives to the right of X ? Not ideal. By that definition the center moved right in 2006 and 2008 as moderate Democrats beat moderate Republicans in swing districts, but it will do well enough to make the claim “America is a center right nation” even wrong.

The claim then becomes that more US citizens self identify as Democrats than as Republicans, their views on policy are to the right of X. I am quite sure that this is not true — on tax progressivity, the minimum wage, universal health insurance, environmental protection, the war in Iraq, should government do more, and does the government have a responsibility to take care of people most citizens are to the left of X. On the death penalty (if you assume that Democrats who claim to support it are lying) and AFDC (if you remember what it was and who was President when it became TANF), due process rights and overwhelmingly creationism vs natural selection most US citizens are to the right of X. In other words, if the Democrats abandone decades old policy positions, they might end up too far left for the median voter.

By my definition the USA was a center left country from at the latest 1996 through the present except maybe for a year or two after 9/11. However, I thought, with great effort and in a spirit of bipartisanship, I can interpret Republicans claims so they are meaningful albeit false.

Then I read this

BOEHNER: … I think the Congress is still a center-right Congress.

OK back to the drawing board.


Robert Waldmann 11.23.08 at 4:17 am

Ah home schoolers winning spelling bees. Calculate the cost of home schooling given the pupil teacher ratio and you won’t be surprised. Home schooling involves a gigantic investment per child.

Also who cares about spelling ? Many do, but I sure don’t. I would consider producing spelling Bee winners to be a very clear sign of misplaced priorities.

Comments on this entry are closed.