With little regard to reality

In a Time column this week, Fareed Zakaria laments what’s become of contemporary conservatism, and the unfortunate ways it’s “lost touch with reality.” It’s a fairly short piece, but it offers a compelling condemnation of conservatism’s break with its traditions and its adherents wiliness to “espouse ideas drawn from abstract principles with little regard to the realities of America’s present or past.”

The Republican prescription is to cut taxes and slash government spending — then things will bounce back. Now, I would like to see lower rates in the context of tax simplification and reform, but what is the evidence that tax cuts are the best path to revive the U.S. economy? Taxes — federal and state combined — as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. The U.S. is among the lowest taxed of the big industrial economies. So the case that America is grinding to a halt because of high taxation is not based on facts but is simply a theoretical assertion. The rich countries that are in the best shape right now, with strong growth and low unemployment, are ones like Germany and Denmark, neither one characterized by low taxes.

Many Republican businessmen have told me that the Obama Administration is the most hostile to business in 50 years. Really? More than that of Richard Nixon, who presided over tax rates that reached 70%, regulations that spanned whole industries, and who actually instituted price and wage controls?

In fact, right now any discussion of government involvement in the economy — even to build vital infrastructure — is impossible because it is a cardinal tenet of the new conservatism that such involvement is always and forever bad. Meanwhile, across the globe, the world’s fastest-growing economy, China, has managed to use government involvement to create growth and jobs for three decades. From Singapore to South Korea to Germany to Canada, evidence abounds that some strategic actions by the government can act as catalysts for free-market growth.

The indictment goes on from there. America used to invest in education, science, and innovation, making the U.S. a global leader, but the right now sees these efforts as (cue scary music) government spending, which necessarily makes it unwise. Why? Because their ideology says so.

Similarly, the right is wedded to demonstrably ridiculous ideas regarding health care policy, and refuses to even acknowledge the fact that other industrialized democracies spend less and get more. Republicans, Zakaria added, “resemble the old Marxists, who refused to look around at actual experience. ‘I know it works in practice,’ the old saw goes, ‘but does it work in theory?'”

“Conservatives,” he added, “used to be the ones with heads firmly based in reality.” No more.

None of this, of course, is the least bit surprising. The reason our political debates are so exasperating is that conservatives aren’t just annoyed by reason and empiricism; they act as if they’re allergic to the very ideas. Zakaria noted several worthwhile examples, without even getting to the right’s hostility towards science, affinity for discredited legal gibberish, or dangerous foreign policy.

But reader M.R. alerted me to this piece from Barry Ritholtz, who seemed unimpressed with Zakaria’s column — not because he disagreed with it, but because the observations are so obvious. “Fareed Zakaria has reached the terribly obvious and long overdue conclusion that the right wing in the US is a fantasy-based denier of reality,” Ritholtz noted. “Whoopee…. For his observation that the earth is round, serious people are showering Zakaria with effusive praise. While the reality based observations are long overdue, it is embarrassing that we feel so compelled to applaud it.”

Ritholtz’s argument is well taken, but I’m inclined to be far more generous. Zakaria has traditionally been a center-right observer, uncomfortable with sweeping condemnations like these. It took some courage for him to write a column for a high-profile mainstream publication, effectively conceding that The Ideology Has No Clothes.

It reminds me a bit of Jacob Weisberg’s piece from last month lamenting the Republican belief that “magical thinking trumps rationality.” The Slate editor, hardly a reflexive far-left voice, added that the GOP has “moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.”

There’s a case to be made, I suppose, that these observations are overdue. Given the right’s radicalism, though, I’m more inclined to welcome the criticism and hope it spreads than I am to check the publication date.