If one is going to go after sacred cows, one should really go after sacred cows. Most of the people in our society who get credit for "going after sacred cows" are just going after unfashionable ones. At least ones that are unfashionable in the circles they want to appeal to. We live in a world of iconodules posing as iconoclasts.

Friday, September 18, 2009

In Office, But Not in Power

A good article about conservative government:

The Tory story rarely varies. Whenever the centre-right wins an election, the centre-left allows that its opponents have the office, but denies they have the mandate. They can govern for a term, yes, but only by consensus, not according to their own lights. They may steer the bus to a mutually agreed destination. Driving it along a route of their choice is out of the question.

Majority isn't the issue. The centre-left reminds the centre-right of its inherent lack of mandate as soon as the votes are counted, whether the centre-right's win is a squeak or a landslide. This is especially true in Canada. The amazing thing isn't that the centre-left

makes this declaration -- why shouldn't it? -- but that the centre-right often believes it, or acts as if it did. Majority or minority, Tories tend to govern apologetically, as if they were caretaker governments, probationary constables, relief politicians holding the fort until the real politicians catch their breath and return for the next spell of legitimate centre-left governance.

Some centre-right leaders in the United Kingdom and the United States haven't been as vulnerable to the syndrome of pussyfoot-conservatism as Canada's centre-right leaders. But even the least wobbly, Margaret Thatcher, say, and Ronald Reagan, weren't entirely impervious to it. With all their self-confidence and charisma, Thatcher and Reagan never radiated that cocksure, hubristic aura of self-righteous intellectual and moral conceit that's the hallmark of centre-left leaders from Pierre Elliott Trudeau to Barack Obama.

Simply put, the centre-left feels entitled to govern; the centre-right doesn't. It was instructive, and scary, to watch America's President open a new chapter of regulatory statism in his Wall Street ululation this week. Obama was cooking, laying down the law with entitlement oozing from every pore, in a dazzling, born-to-govern performance.
That one part on center-right leaders in the UK and U.S. may have been true in the 80s, but if one looks at Eisenhower, Nixon, and both Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger, when it comes to domestic policy, how much did they really change? The only real difference was velocity, not direction. Enough for Progressives to hate them, but not enough that Progressives have to re-institute programs "undone" when they get back in office themselves. Even on the regulation front, SarbOx was during the Bush Presidency, and for all the talk of "Deregulation" being the problem, everything they propose is new additional regulations, not re-introduction of regulations repealed under Bush.

It's amazing that, while they flog Bush in public through one tongue, with their other they will say that this or that policy they are pursuing was drawn up & initiated during the Bush Administration (some change, eh?), so what's the problem? This is because the real government, the one that drafts the bills (such as the Stimulus or Congressional version of Health Reform) are the permanent bureaucracy in combination with Pro-Government Activist allies in the Extended Civil Service, ones that call themselves "NGOs" but have more influence over public policy than elected representatives (search phrase "Improper political influence over government decision-making" in the story; note that what makes that story newsworthy is it's considered abnormal and...improper).
Sometimes I worry that everyone else is perfectly normal, and it's actually me who's insane. But then I read the paper and I can relax again.
Note that this situation, of conservative governments being "in office, but not in power", is exactly what Progressives want conservatives to be - see the latest screed by Sam Tanenhaus, discussed here; a kept opposition, impotent and existing only as a foil on the one hand and on the other to cement and ratify whatever the prior Progressive government enacted as "our tradition to conserve":
conservatives, if they wished to maintain that designation (at least in the eyes of liberals), were obliged to endorse all manner of liberal reforms once they were established as part of the new status quo. Thus, self-styled conservatives who attacked the New Deal were not acting like conservatives because they were in effect attacking the established order—and, of course, “real” conservatives would never do that. So it was that conservatives who wished to reverse liberal victories became radicals or extremists. Conservatives, moreover, could have no program of their own or, at any rate, any program that had any reasonable chance of succeeding, because any successful appeal to the wider public would turn them into populists and, through that process, into extremists and radicals. Not surprisingly, they viewed a popular conservatism as a contradiction in terms. Conservatives, in short, could only win power and influence by betraying their principles, and could only maintain those principles by accepting their subordinate status. Thus, in the eyes of the liberal historians, conservatism could never prosper in America because, if it did, it could no longer be called conservatism.
Margaret Thatcher called this the Ratchet Effect.

This problem of conservatism has been observed for a long time:
It may be inferred again that the present movement. . .will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always, when about to enter a protest, very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when [this] shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.
So Cass Sunstein can hope that one day animals will be able to bring suit in civil court.

Now, of course I don't agree with Dabney on the particular subject he was addressing in that passage. Indeed, I have elided over it, and replaced his words with generic terms. This, I suppose, insures that I am not a conservative. Which may be the case (I am a Hayekian, and have in the past called myself a "Hayekian conservative", which is strictly speaking an oxymoron in Hayek's own view).

But the malady Dabney was talking about in meta-terms is certainly a real phenomenon.

The next non-Progressive government ought to be both in office and in power, not simply a caretaker government that gets screamed down for the most trifling tinkering at the edges of the Progressive edifice. It should not simply be a superficial front/foil for the Permanent Party of Government, with policies continuing to be made by the bureaucracy and the opposition-in-office simply ratifying as the new status quo whatever this Administration enacts.



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