Conservatism in North America

Two recent articles on conservatism are worth considering. First, from the left, there is Cory Robin's insightful articulation, "The Conservative Reaction," in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the classic progressive critique of the right: conservatives -- since the French Revolution -- essentially want to preserve elite interests against movements, like feminism, that advance agendas for greater democratization. Second, from the right, there is Stephen Hayward's thoughtful self-critique in the autumn edition of Breakthrough Journal.

While Hayward's "Modernizing Conservatism" predictably misunderstands the left -- the author thinks that progressives essentially believe that individual success is due to luck rather than merit -- the essay clearly grasps the core ideological mistake that conservatives must confront if they wish to retain their hegemony over economic policy. Hayward surprisingly acknowledges that the conservative project of "starving the beast," that is, weakening the welfare state by decreasing its tax revenue, diminishing entitlements and limiting government intervention in the lives of families and business, has been a failure. Government is larger than ever and Reaganism -- despite its rhetoric -- seems to have only perpetuated a broader process of increasing state administration over society.

The driving conservative assumption over the past generation was that by reducing tax revenue, U.S. administrations would eventually be forced to cut spending. The truth is that the cost of middle-class entitlements has continued to grow -- compelling greater expenditure -- but without the tax income needed to offset the increased expense. Hayward notes that Americans currently pay 60 cents for every dollar of government service that they receive; thus the author concludes that the best way to reduce spending may be to tax the public according to the level of benefit that is actually provided. Hayward believes that, when confronted with a choice that imposes the costs of social programs on their beneficiaries, the public may be more cautious about the desirability, or at least scope, of state-delivered social programs. This conclusion may not be justified in the Canadian context, where a broad-based consensus exists that each should contribute to the education, medical treatment and other basic needs of the whole. It is, however, a perceptive application of public choice theory in the United States where significant segments of the population embrace -- sometimes admirably -- rugged individualism and thus expound an almost existential hatred of taxes.

Hayward's views are, for a U.S. conservative, refreshingly fact-based. One gap in his essay is that he has not spent time studying the most adroit conservative politician of our generation. No political leader in the Western world is more cunning, pragmatic and far-sighted than Canada's Prime Minister: witness the guile behind his government's recent decision on health-care funding. If right-wingers in the United States want to ensure conservative hegemony, they should take lessons from Stephen Harper -- who, like all resilient leaders, understands Niccolò Machiavelli better than his rudderless opponents. Our current Prime Minister promises to last longer than Jean Chrétien or Brian Mulroney -- while reconfiguring government spending along lines that preserve elite interests against the occasional intrusions of democracy.

Thomas Ponniah is an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

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