A Bad Hair Day?


Sullivan just isn’t having a very good day.  Something seems to have exercised his latent paleoconservative ire, but those old instincts are a bit out of shape, intellectually speaking, leading him to write thusly:

I understand why conservatives balk at the notion of a politician running a car company. Obama hasn’t done much with GM yet, but if he is not careful, he could easily get trapped, as David Brooks notes, in a hell of a pickle. He will face political pressure to hang in, even as the company continues to fail. And he has no expertise of the kind needed to run a car company. And this is the core conservative insight here: success is hard; it requires close attention to the details of a business or an enterprise; it takes experience and judgment and practical knowledge that no politician or economist or analyst has. Now I know GM’s management has sucked as well – but that doesn’t mean that government won’t suck a lot more. This is a classic case of a mismatch between what a politician can do and what he is trying to do: an over-reach, a categorical error.

Let’s see.  “Success is hard” is a core conservative insight?  Really?  I thought that was something pretty much everybody learns sometime around the age they start trying to walk.  Nope.  Turns out nobody would know success is hard if the political philosophy known as “conservatism” hadn’t come along and developed this core insight.  Who knew?

He then tops that bit of silliness by declaring that another core conservative insight is that business managers are categorically unique creatures, possessing a categorically unique combination of “experience and judgment and practical knowledge” such that “no politician or economist or analyst” could be one.  Apparently, like homosexuality, being a business manager is not a choice; you’re just born that way.  If that weren’t the case, Sullivan obviously wouldn’t be arguing that business managers are categorically different creatures, such that no person could possibly have what it takes to be a business manager and yet choose some other career, like politics or economics, etc.

Evidently, though, it is, in fact, a core conservative insight that that’s not possible.  So I guess no business manager has ever gone into politics.  I mean, if one had, then there would be a politician who had the skills and know-how to be a business manager, and that’s categorically impossible.  Likewise, no politician has ever become a business manager after leaving politics.

So if you’re Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson or Eric Cantor, stop running around telling people you ran successful businesses.  You’re making a category error.  (And, being conservatives, you really should be aware of this core conservative insight.  Didn’t you guys read the charter when you joined?)

Sullivan continues:

There is at present a massive disconnect between conservative economics and conservative foreign policy. The first is all about the wisdom of markets, or local knowledge, of irreplaceable specific expertise. The second is all about empire, control, liberal hubris and abstract ideology.

Starting an unprovoked war to remake a Middle Eastern country into a democracy is the fault of “liberal hubris”?  Those liberals.  You have to feel sorry for them.  All these years, we’ve been mad at them for criticizing that war, and now we’re mad at them for starting it.  Bless their hearts.

And then:

At some point, conservatives will have to pick. I fear it will only happen when they have learned the lesson of why liberalism always fails.

Liberalism always fails?  That’s bad.  Really bad.  Hide your children, because Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini and Franco will be making a comeback any day now, when the liberalism that temporarily defeated them fails, as it always does.  And I guess we know why it seems like the Great Depression is coming ’round again; the liberalism that seemed to end it actually failed.  And capitalism.  That’s on its way out, too, because Adam Smith was a liberal in the 18th century.  Oh, and the U.S. Constitution?  Epic fail.  Science, too, but you already knew that.

In fact, conservatism itself will soon fail.  Why?  Because conservatism (Anglo-American conservatism, anyway) is nothing but yesterday’s liberalism.  Free markets?  Old liberal idea.  Democracy?  Old liberal idea.  Bringing “enlightenment” to other people at the point of a gun?  Old, abandoned liberal idea.

Every time liberalism comes up with one of these innovations, the conservatives of the time hate it and defend the way things are as the best we could possibly do.  A generation or a century later, when one of those innovations has worked (which, of course, never happens, since liberalism always fails), conservatives defend that as the best we could possibly do and criticize the current innovation liberalism is pushing.

If liberalism were a band, Anglo-American conservatism would be that fan who loves their old stuff but hates every new album.  (Hence Lionel Trilling’s remark that conservatism is nothing but “a series of irritable mental gestures.”)  It’s liberalism’s “Greatest Hits” collection.  And since even the greatest hits of liberalism are doomed to fail, so is conservatism.

This is especially true of the Oakeshottian brand of conservatism Sullivan subscribes to.  Poor Andrew.  He’s going to be so bummed.


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15 Responses to “A Bad Hair Day?”

  1. michaellasley Says:

    Great post, JU.

    Success is hard AND it takes experience. Which right now seems positively laughable. Experience doing…..?

  2. urbino Says:

    Yeah, no kidding. I know less than zero about banking and finance, but even I could do as well as the current crop of executives. I mean, how much expertise and experience is needed to run a successful business into the ground?

    With a few exceptions, conservatives are having a really hard time comprehending the enormity of what’s happened and how silly it makes them sound when they trot out their usual arguments.

  3. michaellasley Says:

    This is loosely related. From the Freakonomics blog. I don’t know why I started reading that, but it’s interesting everyonceinawhile. But anyway, an interview with one Matt Miller who has a book about “dead ideas.” About clinging to things just because that’s the way things have been. And one of the questions was about AIG bonuses and what was the “dead idea” behind that: “It is the idea that ‘Money follows merit’ — by which I mean that market capitalism is a meritocracy in which people basically end up, in economic terms, where they deserve to. As we can see by how fiercely Wall Street resists change, financiers cling to the idea that their outsized rewards reflect something superior about their performance in the ‘free market’ — as opposed to being the result of rigged compensation systems that reward failure or mediocrity as often as success.”

    I like that — “a rigged compensation system.” Which is a different way of explaining what Sullivan seems to be calling hard work and experience.

    The full interview with Miller is here: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/01/better-off-dead-a-qa-with-the-author-of-the-tyranny-of-dead-ideas/

    • urbino Says:

      That’s well said, iyam. I’ll have to check that book out. I’ve read the book Freakonomics, but have only visited the blog a couple of times. Maybe I should visit more often.

      This all sorta ties in with a new book I’m currently reading about economic psychology, Animal Spirits. Its basic point is that humans are not, as classical economics supposes, Homo economicus — that is, we are not primarily rational utility maximizers. Rationality is part of our decision-making process, but only a part, and not as big a part as the classicists assume.

      How this applies to the “rigged compensation system,” I think, is that we rarely decide compensation on meritocratic grounds. Merit enters into it to some degree, but we set compensation levels (and make hiring decisions) just as much on social factors as on merit.

      When one fairly closed social network — like, say, Wall Street — controls huge amounts of money, that money is going to get thrown around based on the connections within that social network just as much or than on who is actually good at their job.

      We like giving large sums of money to people we like. So when we have large sums of money at our disposal, that’s what we do.

    • urbino Says:

      Note the fancy new threaded comments capability. Now we don’t have to quote the comment we’re replying to. Just click the “Reply” link at the top of the comment you’re replying to.

      • michaellasley Says:

        Sounds an interesting book. Is there a proposal to changing this belief in Rationality-when-it-comes-to-Free-Markets? Or is it purely analyzing the situation?

      • urbino Says:

        It is interesting. And short. And a quick read.

        People have been pointing this stuff out, as a flaw in classical economics, off-and-on for a long time. Their book title comes from Keynes’s magnum opus from the 1930s, which was the first discussion of the problem in an economically systematic way.

        The way this thing seems to go is we learn the lesson for a little while, then gradually forget it again and go back to setting things up as if everybody was a rational utility maximizer. Like now, for instance.

    • michaellasley Says:

      And so which is the proper thing to do, etiquette-wise? Reply to the comment you were replying to? Or to your comment?

      (Sadly, I’m actually serious. I’m a dummy. Plus I know how delicate you are when it comes to etiquette being observed properly.)

  4. unicorntx Says:

    I’m always a late-comer to the intirguing topics, and rarely have anything to add, but RE: your original post…

    Do you ever bite your tongue when you have it in your cheek so long?? 🙂

  5. michaellasley Says:

    This has nothing whatsoever to do with your post, but it’s from today’s Freakonomics blog: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/are-bicyclists-free-riders/

    Someone in Oregon wants you bikers, JU, to start carrying your weight, tax-wise.

    • urbino Says:

      This seems like a dumb idea. Cycling is something cities want people to do more of. Given that virtually every person who’s cycling someplace would otherwise have been driving to that place, the reduced road wear, congestion, and pollution they’re creating by cycling more than offsets whatever revenue Huckleberry Dumbbell in Oregon thinks he’s losing.

      The freakonomist makes a good point that investment in bike infrastructure has huge benefits, but those benefits accrue not just to the cyclists, but to the city in general.

      All that aside, cyclists generally aren’t the libertarians the freakonomist seems to think. We wouldn’t mind paying a registration fee (as long as it can be done online), but only if the five-oh starts protecting our legal rights on the roadways. They probably do a pretty good job of that in Portland, but in 98% of the country, the po-po thinks we have no business being out there (despite the laws) and whatever happens to us, we had it coming.

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