I’m no right-winger but I’ve long felt that a healthy society needs sane progressives and sane conservatives, and that many of America’s difficulties are related to an absence of the latter. So here’s a proposed Sane-conservative manifesto, written from outside.

1. Be Cautious · Anyone who’s dealt with the public sector, or even paid close attention to the news, knows that many government programs don’t work very well. Some just fritter away energy and money to no particular effect, others turn actively harmful.

It’s not that those launching them are malicious or stupid; it’s that people are complicated and, in the societal aggregate, insanely complicated. They will try to game the system, and also will do astonishing things for reasons that could not have been predicted.

So it’s sensible to be predisposed against launching new programs, and to err on the side of caution, because we know for a fact that lots of times it’s not going to work.

Thus, we need conservatives.

2. Don’t Kill the Goose · Only for-profit businesses create wealth.

Government’s role is to lay the foundations for a free-as-possible market, regulated enough to create a climate of low-friction trust and deter theft; then to get out of the way.

The optimal balance in the level of regulation is hard to find, but it’s important to have a voice in the conversation repeatedly asking a single question: Will this screw up wealth creation?

Thus, we need conservatives.

3. Don’t Waste Money · If you take a quantitative approach to public policy (and you should) the data frequently show poor correlation between expenditures and outcomes. The nations that spend the most on healthcare are not necessarily the healthiest. Similarly, the volume of education funding correlates only weakly with measured results, and (in particular) defense spending regularly fails to defend citizens.

I think most agree that waste is bad, and wasting money is particularly bad. Thus, every policy discussion needs to have someone there pointing out that throwing money at the problem might not work, and maybe a cheaper alternative will.

Thus, we need conservatives.

Less Relevant · I observe that many who self-identify as conservative express surprising opinions about the regulation of sexual behavior, the role of religion in civic life, the desirability of starting wars, and the conservation of planetary resources.

These don’t seem to cohere intellectually in the same way that items #1 through #3 above do. It seems very unlikely to me that conservatives can build a lasting majority in any well-educated well-developed country around this other stuff; but they might, if they stuck to #1 through #3.


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From: Chris (Nov 11 2012, at 13:21)

People from the commonwealth often seem confused about the political makeup of the USA. Points 1-3 fit the modern Democratic Party quite well. The deeper problem is that America has no political left wing anymore; seems to have been a casualty of Vietnam. We now have a moderate-conservative party and a party of paranoid schizophrenics.

There are signs of hope, progressives in the wings, but that's currently the state of play.


From: David Nesting (Nov 11 2012, at 13:24)

IMO there's two axes you can break these down into: the social and fiscal.

Those fiscally liberal are prone to knee-jerk action and seem to charge ahead spending money without paying attention to what they're doing. The fiscal conservative is a necessary force to get everyone to take a deep breath and consider the consequences and the lessons history has taught us.

The socially liberal are interested in things like tolerance, and changing social conventions to better match a rational world. The socially conservatives are primarily just ignorant nutjobs. It's the kooks in this category that scare people away from voting Republican. I consider myself a fiscal moderate (possibly more fiscally conservative), but I'm far more afraid and disgusted by social conservativism than I am fiscal liberalism, so I tend to vote democrat (anti-republican, actually).

Rachel Maddow has a great 3min segment up on YouTube saying something similar (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMLcbTTdBGQ). We don't need conservatives to go away, we just need them to focus on the rational parts of their ideology and join the rest of us in the real world.


From: An Australian (Nov 11 2012, at 14:10)

As an Australian, US politics are a strange madhouse. The party for liberty wants to make all sorts of non-libertarian rules.

But I would have thought that not starting wars (i.e. throwing money at things in the hope of a different outcome next time) was a core conservative value. As is, you know, conserving the resources that we actually have.

Apparently not.


From: Ryan Cousineau (Nov 11 2012, at 14:22)

The essential impulse behind social conservatism is the same as that behind fiscal conservatism: institutions matter, novelty is untested and to be regarded with caution, because it is likely to have unexpected effects.

To take some historic examples when social conservatives were arguably right, they would have resisted the reformer's instinct that led to Prohibition. To take another now-uncontroversial example, the eugenics movement was resisted by the enemies of reform: you know, conservatives.

You can happily argue that modern causes aren't so noble, or this time it is different, or that what is called social conservatism today isn't as reasonable or fair or defensible as a fiscally conservative agenda, but the general impulse is to avoid transforming historic norms without a considerable amount of caution.


From: Bob (Nov 11 2012, at 14:43)

"Only for-profit businesses create wealth."

Depends on what you mean by wealth.

Money or good stuff that makes human life better?

Apache? Linux? Arpanet?

Many farms are not profitable businesses. They might like to be, but that's often not their point in life and if they could get by without, they would. I could go on.


From: Mike Dierken (Nov 11 2012, at 15:04)

"Only for-profit businesses create wealth."

Wealth is a funny word. I find the US national parks incredibly enriching, but those I don't suppose fall into the realm of "wealth". Local and national museums host a wealth of treasures - but again, I suppose those don't account for much in the way of profitable businesses. Fundamental research, spin-offs from governmental and military initiatives and education in general also are ways wealth has been created in the past - without for-profit business as a driver.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that wealth comes from people doing things and building things with for-profit business only one of the drivers. Governments of any sort should foster all of them.


From: Tim Converse (Nov 11 2012, at 15:15)

Nice post, and as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal I mostly agree.

I always feel a little uneasy when I see versions of this statement though: "Only for-profit businesses create wealth".

Is this really true, or is it only true because "wealth" is defined to be what for-profit business create?

I mean this in kind of a dumb, literal-minded way where "wealth" includes physical artifacts that weren't there before.

Example 1: Company builds house. Government builds bridge. Is the house wealth and the bridge not-wealth?

Example 2: Government invents Internet. Internet mogul makes wealth. Do we assign the wealth creation entirely to the mogul? If so, this is the circularity of definition that bothers me (the internet can't be wealth because the govt invented it?).

Finally, there's conserved wealth as created wealth (penny saved).

Example 3: Weather service sounds hurricane alarm, CDC prevents outbreak.

Is there a non-tautological version of the statement that I am missing?


From: Sam Jacobs (Nov 11 2012, at 16:53)

Tim Converse, I *think* it could be said that fiscal conservatives see wealth as consisting of things that can be bought and sold, including customers, and money itself.



From: dr2chase (Nov 11 2012, at 17:23)

The examples of "liberal" overreach are good ones, if true (were the conservatives really against Prohibition? They sure don't seem to have dug in very hard against the War on Some Drugs).

I can think of some examples of conservative overreach, too -- the urge to get arbitrarily tough on crime has led to draconian and inflexible sentencing laws (e.g., California's broadly-drawn 3-strikes law) and overstuffed prisons.

The one place where I think the line between sensible regulation and overreach has become interesting is current food regulations. Bloomberg's efforts to discourage sugar-water consumption are probably right; efforts to discourage salt consumption I am less sure are right (*); we probably need regulations to ban (most) transfats nationwide, but remember back when margarine was the "healthy" choice? We could have done something pretty dumb back then.

(*) I have slightly high blood pressure, we tried the salt experiment, and discovered (a) that it did not work for me and (b) that you really don't need all that salt for food to taste good; it's an arms race between food vendors looking for a quick and easy way to win taste buds.

The time window on conservative caution about flaky innovation is also interesting. Automobiles for almost all transport have become the new normal; mass transit was what laid out many patterns of urbanization and semi-urbanization in older American cities, but now it is regarded as some sort of a weird liberal plot to deprive people of their tax dollars and their freedoms. The idea of "jaywalking" is less than 100 years old, but you don't see too many conservatives lobbying for the right of pedestrians to wander into traffic whenever and wherever they feel like it. I might say that conservatives like "order", but mass transit is a lot more orderly than cars (though cars are more orderly than bicycles, because cyclists aren't sheep).


From: hughw (Nov 11 2012, at 19:01)

Your suggestions are too rational. Conservative, Liberal, Green, Libertarian, Socialist... any tag you can think of, our polity simply uses it to organize identities. Us against Them. People Like Us is the only thing people vote for.


From: Peter L (Nov 11 2012, at 22:54)

A possible explanation for "less relevant" aspects: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/what-conservatives-really_b_825504.html

You've described classical conservatives (or The Economist's "neo-liberal"), but other flavours exist.


From: nicholas a. evans (Nov 12 2012, at 06:49)

"Only for-profit businesses create wealth" -- like a couple of the other commenters, I'd find this statement far more "sane" if it were moderated somewhat. "For-profit business are often remarkably good at generating wealth." is a formulation that most could agree with, at the risk of being watered-down. Most importantly, it doesn't exclude other forms of wealth creation, nor does it rule out that some for-profit businesses are better at wealth capture than at wealth creation. But, taken on the whole, the level of wealth generation caused by profit seeking enterprise is remarkable.


From: Zach (Nov 12 2012, at 08:41)

As someone who should fall squarely into the Republican Party based on ideals, I agree completely with your 3 points. The problem is that there aren't any parties who actually work for us.

There are a few issues that fall squarely into your points which have been so distorted by the religious right that I don't think there's any hope left for a conservative who believes there's a proper place and time for government action. The democrats have repeatedly shown that these are issues they support as well, leaving no room for anyone who truly wants to see change.

War - Both major parties continue to attack countries around the world that present no harm to us, and military bases around the world that are no longer needed.

Personal Freedom - Indefinite retention, "enhanced" interrogation, spying on US citizens and many many other heinous acts were started under the last republican president and have been expanded under the current democrat president (who, I might add, campaigned under the guise of rolling back those measures.)

War on Drugs - Prohibition of alcohol failed in the 1930's, and prohibition of other recreational drugs has been failing for 75 years now. Despite the fact that 19 states and DC have passed medical marijuana laws, the whitehouse has on multiple occasions treated the issue of legalization as a joke. This, more than any other issue, should be a case where conservatives stand up and say, "Why is all our money being wasted this way?"

There are other issues along those same lines. Anymore, the only real difference between the two parties seems to be social issues, and even at that the social issues are largely problems created by government interference in the first place.

That wouldn't be so bad if the 3rd parties weren't actually worse (List made from the conservative 3rd parties that made it onto the ballot this year according to wikipedia):

Libertarian - This seems like the logical choice, but in order to be a serious candidate there you have to believe that all government is bad and we should be working to dismantle it. There's no room for discussion about what government should and should not be doing; it should not be doing anything!

Constitution Party - I hope that more of the Christian Right leaves the republican party and joins this party instead. Maybe then the republican party can rebuild its good name.

America's Party - Just another offshoot of the Constitution Party.

Objectivist Party - Do I really need to explain why a party based on Rand's ideals is a bad idea?

American Third Position Party - Anti-immigration racists who are trying to promote the idea that america is for white americans.

The Reform Party - This is the most interesting of the bunch, and seems to be a microcosm of the problems facing the republican party. They keep going back and forth on whether to incorporate social issues into their platform. However, until they sort that out I can't lend anything more than moral support.

As a final closing note, you seem to imply that the progressives on the left are sane. That's the real problem right now; neither major party has a sane base (conservatives/progressives) and as a result the candidates who are running are so distasteful to the swing vote that elections are still (usually) a close call.


From: chrismealy (Nov 12 2012, at 10:35)

Tim, that all sounds nice but it's completely wrong. Conservatives are reactionaries trying to regain the power they lost due to somebody else's new freedoms.

Corey Robin has a terrific book about it. You should check it out.


From: Euro2cent (Nov 16 2012, at 13:43)

So, conservatives should only have opinions deemed acceptable by jacobins?

Is it OK if they ask for an equivalent right, or is that an insult to the sacred "progress of humanity", or whatever god you worship?

(You can see by the comments here how the foaming-at-the-mouth leftist loons are quick to point out that anyone not agreeing with their suicidal lunacy is a half-witted illiterate reactionary, or some similar string of approved insults. Those must come in instructional booklets for the half-learned.)


From: Michael Skinner (Nov 17 2012, at 05:30)

What you describe is Libertarianism. I voted for

Gary Johnson because I am Conservative on government, and Liberal on social issues. If the Republican party would distance itself from the right wing and the Evangelicals, and embrace Libertarian values, I think they could be relevant again. I like Ron Paul because he speaks plainly and doesn't pander, but he also comes off as a bit of a kook. I would love to see if Rand Paul can give Libertarianism in the Republican party a more mainstream face.


From: Peter L (Nov 18 2012, at 01:43)

And another take on the "less relevant" (complete with a cartoon): http://www.filibustercartoons.com/index.php/2012/11/15/the-gops-purity-problem/


From: Ryan Cousineau (Nov 19 2012, at 14:26)


[sorry for the tardy follow-up]

Regarding Prohibition, remember that first, it was a massive overturning of a long-standing social convention (legal alcohol). The core drivers of the movement were social reformers, often evangelical Christians, and it was especially spearheaded by women (notably the Women's Christian Temperance Union), and in some cases this was the same group of activist women who also struggled for the vote.

The "Progressive Era" article on Wikipedia highlights both Prohibition and eugenics (and also, less controversially today, women's suffrage) as core causes of the Progressive movement, from the 1890s-1920s.


As with anti-slavery earlier, the important proponents of these ideas were mostly religiously-inclined social reformers.

It's interesting that while the War on Drugs is a later development, the first serious opiate-control laws happened in the US in 1914, and with the same basic motives as Prohibition.


From: Karl Brodowsky (Nov 30 2012, at 16:53)

The issue of "con­ser­va­tion of plan­e­tary re­sources" is not really minor to me. All other issues become irrelevant, if we do not deal with this issue at least to some extent.

For me it is not entirely clear what a conservative position to this issue could be.

It can be observed that those who call themselves "conservative" are very often

against conserving planetary resources. But in a more literal sense of the word "conservative" one would expect the opposite. Actually that is a combination that I have actually encountered occasionally, conservatives who are also very much in favor of protecting our natural environment.

Concerning the money issue, again it can be observed that many politicians who are labeled conservative tend to spend a lot of tax money on military, highway construction, and subsidies to farmers, while opposing usage of money for education, social security

and public transport. So it is less an issue who is saving more money and more an issue on what the money is spent.


From: Matěj Cepl (Dec 03 2012, at 05:43)

Concerning, conservative (or perhaps more libertarian-conservative) opinion on the green issues, I think the most important point is that true owners will take of their property, and that many (not all, but most?) environmental issues are caused by the confusion about the ownership. And of course, that large multinational corporations behave towards their property with similar care as a government ... none at all. Therefore, transfer of most property from governmental hands to true owners, who would take care for it, could lead to some substantial improvements in the environmental situation.


From: JulesLt (Dec 03 2012, at 07:07)

I agree with Zach's point - Libertarianism is something that largely annoys me - it mostly seems to be something promoted by pundits, rather than people who actually do stuff.

See Buffet's often genius comments about the reality of 'going Galt'.

Or put another way - I know I'd thrive in a Libertarian world, as I have skills that are in high demand. I'm less sure your right-wing ideologues have transferable skills.

But I know I'm not a Libertarian - basically, I believe than a democratically elected tax-and-spend government IS probably the ideal form of government, based on observation of the alternatives (current and historical).

It's also one of those things - like free market fundamentalism or Communism - that ignores the reality of How People Are.

I'd also say that I disagree with 'only for-profit businesses create wealth'. Infrastructure investment creates wealth - and is often only possible when performed by governments, as can do so expecting a return over 25 or 50 years, rather than the 5-10 horizon of business.

A classic example is one of the tunnels under the Thames that went bust before completion in Victorian times, but is now one of busiest passenger carrying tunnels in the world. No one would invest in a project delivering returns in 100 years, yet the wealth creating value has been huge.

Another example is universal elementary education - we know that where introduced it has a huge impact in boosting the GDP of a nation.

Basically, anywhere where there is no clear line between the input in and the return, but there is a measurable improvement in productivity / GDP.

(Arguably, health care comes into this category too, but that's a controversial subject in the US).

Where the conservative steps in, though, is that there are limits - as someone recently put it in regard to China, 'the first few decades of developing an economy are quite easy, because you're picking the low-hanging fruit' - building a toll-free highway between a populous city and a sea-port generates jobs and wealth.

Building a new airport, that is then never used, on the other hand, is the kind of thing that happens when you are misallocating money.

(Something large companies also do, when they struggle to make their capital work).

Free education beyond elementary can produce diminishing returns - at least if it's separated from what generates GDP.

Which is a prime example of why the philosophical divide between Left and Right gets in the way - on the one hand, free education to study whatever you like, regardless of the cost. On the other, a market-led system that is failing to deliver skills the country needs.

(As SMEs - the biggest drivers of growth - can't afford to sponsor degrees. Hell, a lot of tech growth comes from businesses that would not have existed when students were 16).


From: Nick Gall (Dec 03 2012, at 11:06)

Tim, What you've described in 1-3 could easily fit a "cautious, frugal, free market progressive." Thus we don't need conservatives. We only need different types of progressives. :)


From: Matěj Cepl (Dec 05 2012, at 03:21)

In the end my reply was too long, so I have published it on my own blog … http://luther.ceplovi.cz/blog/2012/12/reply-tim-bray-conservatives/ (clarification of definition of conservatives and similar animals).


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