Conservatism and the Paul Krugman Paradox

In response to my post calling Paul Krugman a traditionalist conservative, Joe wonders whether there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m not sure whether conservatism is actually, in Joe’s words “worse off” if we consider Krugman a member. But I do believe that the argument over whether Krugman is a conservative exposes the glaring weaknesses in traditionalist conservatism that led me to my ultimate rejection of it.

There are only two resolutions to the question.  The first leads to a conservatism that I find very unattractive, and the second leads to one that I consider nonsensical.

First: we can call Krugman a conservative.

But to do so, we have to take “conservatism” to only mean, as Michael Oakeshott believed, “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, . . . the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant. . . .”  It is in this spirit that the self-described Burkean Sam Tanenhaus considers Obama’s healthcare policy to be “pure Disraeli” (The Death of Conservatism, p. 117), while the Tea Party is full of “antigovernment militants . . . [who] pine for an America that neither they nor most other living Americans can recall” (125).

But this is unsatisfactory.  Though conservatives like to point out the limits of reason, I can’t understand how reason is so limited that it would prevent us from engaging in any critique of prevailing traditions.  For instance, protectionism is one of the oldest methods for the U.S. government to collect taxes, whereas it was generally frowned on in nineteenth century Britain.  Does that mean that I should support protectionism if I live in the U.S. but not if I live in Britain?  If I can understand its bad economic effects, and understand the injustice of prohibiting trade between freely consenting parties, then why should it matter what culture I was born into?  Why can’t I say as an American that, yes, pure free trade has never been tried here (NAFTA and the IMF are more about managed globalization than free trade per se), but that if it were tried it would radically improve society and raise our standards of living, and therefore it should be tried immediately?

I see no reason why not.  I might need to be pragmatic about how I proceed, but I don’t see why human reason is incapable of picking one policy over the other, in a vacuum independent of tradition.

Alternatively: we can say that Krugman actually isn’t a conservative.

To do this, we would have to try to give conservatism a more substantive definition than the one above.  Thus, for some, being conservative means supporting a government of limited powers.  For others, it means having a government that enforces a particular conception of morality.

But either way, I don’t see how tradition plays much of a role in the outcome.  The more libertarian conservative has to argue, for instance, for limits on the federal government’s powers that haven’t existed since the New Deal–that is, which haven’t existed for the most recent third of American history.  Conversely, statist conservative, on the other hand,  might support an aristocratic politics that hasn’t been part of American history since the old Virginia planters lost political power in the early nineteenth century.

I’m not saying that either libertarian or statist conservatism is necessarily wrong.  In fact, I think that they are much more philosophically profound than Oakeshott’s conservatism.  My point is that they don’t depend much (or at all) on tradition.  Rather, they are both manifestations of abstract theory that rely for their proof on appeals to abstract reason.  And that being the case, it is hard to understand how they are really forms of conservatism at all.  They aren’t “libertarian conservatism” and “statist conservatism.”  They are just “libertarianism” and “statism,” and each one can be weighed on its own merits without the confusing appeals to tradition.

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6 thoughts on “Conservatism and the Paul Krugman Paradox

  1. joeptak

    Kelse -

    Interesting analysis and the conclusions you draw out point to a similar problem I have with conservatism (in general). My initial reaction, and I’ll develop a lengthier and hopefully substantive response likely tonight, is to understand conservatism “antifoundationally”; which frankly doesn’t make much sense given the appeal to tradition, but, seems to be inevitable if conservatives are going to get any traction from appealing to “tradition” in a form of a “concrete” or “non-abstract” concept. That said, I think a potential effect of that is to salvage a coherent (though perhaps confusing at a surface level) type of conservatism which reconciles the “statism” of paul krugman with the “libertarianism” of a Rand Paul and every other type in between as part of a continuum of which there are numerous subtypes. It is as if conservatism becomes an analytical category and each subcategory, but without having to appeal to abstract rationalism. But this presents new problems for conservatism of the intensional variety (i think) and clarifies very little in the attempt to defend traditionalism, I fear.

    Your thoughts on this early morning ramble?

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