Same Old Song

One of the hallmarks of a rigid political ideology is that its prescriptions do not change with changing circumstances. That is particularly true of conservative economic prescriptions; conservative heretic Josh Barro makes the point today that progressives have been making for quite some time:

[C]onservatives absolutely do have an economic policy agenda. They favor lower taxes, less regulation, government spending cuts, more domestic energy production, school choice, free trade, and low inflation. They often cite these policies as ones that might alleviate recession and speed recovery. They favor these policies now, they favored them in 2008, and they favored them in 2004.

That is, conservatives favor the same set of economic policies when the economy is weak and when it is strong; when unemployment is high and when it is low; when few homeowners are facing foreclosure and when many are. The implication is that conservatives believe there is nothing in particular the government should do about economic cycles.

This is a big problem. Recessions are terrible. They create enormous misery by throwing people out of work and out of their homes. How can a political ideology have nothing to say about how to address recessions?

I suppose the answer to that question is the ancient adjuration to say nothing if you can’t say anything nice–or in the context of politics, popular. Occasionally conservatives hint that the victims of recession are disposable people without the talent and work ethic to contribute to the economy, and other times they hint that on a macro level recessions are good “purging” devices to get rid of excess demand and redundant workers and inefficient enterprises. And that’s certainly the implication of policies that focus on reducing “dependence on government” or reducing low-end wages or increasing “creative destruction” in the economy.

But this is a bit more than the political and policy riddle Barro expresses. Conservative economic policy is a subset of conservative ideology generally, and to an extent that I’m not sure many people appreciate, conservative ideology generally (and most obviously in its “constitutional conservative” form) is rigid as a matter of principle. If you believe your policy prescriptions are directly derived from the Will of the Founders or Natural Law or Holy Scripture, then why would you ever even think about changing them? You wouldn’t, would you? So however it’s “rebranded” or given new buzz words and new spokespeople, it’s going to be the same old song, world without end.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.