Andrew Bacevich…

Andrew Bacevich… November 15, 2012

…who has personally paid in blood for the adventurism of chickenhawks among the Ruling Class and the militarism of the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism, loyally loves his country and offers some ideas on how to recover a conservatism that conserves:

In recent decades, the Republican Party’s version of conservatism has emphasized three major themes:

First, in the realm of political economy, Republicans favor small government and unbridled capitalism, looking to the market to solve our domestic problems.

Second, in the realm of foreign policy, Republicans favor big government and unbridled activism, looking to the military to prolong the American Century.

Third, in the realm of culture, Republicans have spoken in defense of so-called traditional values, making much of their putative opposition to abortion and the defense of traditional marriage.

Republicans have made the first two themes the actual basis for policy. On the third theme, they have offered little more than symbolism and sanctimonious posturing. So the real guts of GOP conservatism in recent decades have focused on unleashing the market and the military – less state regulation of the economy, more state resources funneled to the Pentagon.

I submit that neither of these qualifies as a genuinely conservative position. To the extent that I have accurately characterized the Romney campaign’s position, I am glad Romney lost.

The essence of conservatism should be to conserve, showing respect for what is good in our inheritance. I refer both to our human inheritance and our inheritance in the natural world.

I’m interested in conserving because I’m interested in the Tradition and in defending it from the madnesses of postmodernity.

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  • Will

    I do not agree with everything he says (in the original article), but with enough to say this is a fine statement.

  • It’s funny that you mention the madness of post modernism, because I only read this blog because of my post modernist tendencies. One of the best ways to look for the truth is to complicate your narrative. You, sir, remind me that not all conservatives mindlessly follow whatever Fox News says, which helps me to maintain a better understanding of reality.

    Anyway, I think you should complicate some of your own narratives and take a look at Glenn Greenwald’s blog over at the Guardian. Greenwald is a lefty, but he is also the best source I know that discusses our foreign policy (he talks frequently about drone strikes, which is what made me think of you) and our civil liberties abuses. I’d say 90% of what he talks about is of serious concern to pro-life Catholics.

    I left the Catholic Church about a year ago, but I persist in believing that Catholics and liberals have far more to say to each other than either side realizes, and I hope you’ll participate in the conversation.

    • Mark Shea

      I’ve linked Greenwald many times. One of the last of the honest lefties.

      I hope you reconsider and return to the Church.

  • Adam L

    I’m going to have to object to the characterization that the GOP has made “unbridled capitalism” the “actual basis for policy”, at least if by “unbridled capitalism” is understood to mean a free market or laissez-faire system, because that is far from what we have and that is far from how the Republicans actually govern. It’s true that the system can be regarded as “capitalist” in that there is the private ownership of the means of production, but it is not free market. What we have instead is a corporatist system of heavy economic intervention and both overt and indirect means of government largess.

    It’s true that the Republicans make a lot of noises about free markets and non-intervention into the market, but it’s just that: noise. It is similar to how the Democrats posture and make lots of noises about civil liberties and halting foreign intervention, but when they are in power we see that it is all rhetoric for their base.

    I’ll agree with Bacevich that the GOP has done a poor job on such social issues as abortion and marriage and needs to drop the militarism and support for the erosion of civil liberties, but I think he is simply wrong in his portrayal of the Republicans as a bunch of free-marketers. They are corporatists, as are the Democrats.

    • Mark Shea

      I don’t see a contradiction between unbridled capitalism and crony capitalism. It simply means using the power of the state to give perks to the most powerful capitalists, leaving them very much unbridled indeed.

      • Michael

        “I don’t see a contradiction between unbridled capitalism and crony capitalism. It simply means using the power of the state to give perks to the most powerful capitalists, leaving them very much unbridled indeed.”

        But it also places large barriers to entry in the way of competition making the markets anything but free. Sweetheart government contracts and regulations favorable to the politically connected do not make for a free market system. Adam is correct.

        • Peggy R

          Jumping in here. “Unbridled capitalism” hasn’t been seen since the first anti-trust laws were passed. (Even then, in earlier times, local authorities always found ways to keep out competitors to favored firms or friends, eg, licensing.) Perfect competition is a theory, after all. “Unbridled capitalism” is providing complete economic freedom and allowing the chips to fall where they may. “Unbridled capitalism” is NOT “crony capitalism” in which favors are bestowed by government on particular firms or industries chosen as winners. Both parties engage in crony capitalism. It has never been so bluntly abused as O has in the implementation of auto and bank bailouts. Some GOPers favor as much economic liberty as possible. Milton Friedman is a very good source on understanding laissez-faire capitalism. (Funny the French expression is used. France is very “dirigiste.”) There is much economic literature on the best ways for government to address what we call “market failures” or imperfections in free markets. The idea that a bad market outcome would be left unresolved for any length of time is unthinkable today. Until this Obama era, even the Dems would for the most part err on the side of limited regulation and more freedom and to allow firms to compete in the market.

          No one should lose sleep over unfettered markets. They are not going to come back until governments collapse and no longer have resources to regulate or oversee. But we might be there sooner than you think. Hold on to your seats, folks.

        • Bill

          I think that’s picking nits. You’re not going to have a completely unregulated economy anywhere, not even with the Amish. So I think Bacevitch is correct here.

          • Adam L

            I hardly think it’s nit picking. We have a national banking cartel that controls the supply of money and interest rates, trillions of dollars were given away in corporate welfare, we have a huge military-industrial complex, the Federal Register is tens of thousands of pages long, federal spending is over twenty percent of GDP and there are hundreds of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

      • TMLutas

        If you do not see the difference between unbridled capitalism an corporatism, you have gone beyond naïveté and into the territory of not understanding english. Corporatism is the policy of bridling capitalism by favoring one corporate interest over another, generally incumbent interests over new entrants but also specific incumbents over other incumbents. It has never meant favoring the new entrant or the small business or even the big business that stays out of politics.

        Your economic illiteracy is negatively impacting your work for Christ. You insist on intervening in economic matters but get it wrong, not because you misunderstand Christ but because you misunderstand what is going on economically and therefore misapply His teaching. Hard leftists of the type the Church regularly condemns group corporatism and free market capitalism together but even they only do it for propaganda reasons and recognize the differences in their economic analysis.

        • ivan_the_mad

          Corporatism? Which definition? The newer one associated with fascism, or the older one associated with the New Testament and later with social encyclicals (most especially, the sort praised by a Pope in Quadragesimo Anno)? So no, crony capitalism is not at all the same as corporatism. Methinks you may be the one who has strayed into the territory of not understanding English and economic illiteracy. But that will happen when you’re an ideologue.

  • Adam L

    I think there is some issue over what we mean when we say “unbridled”. You are absolutely correct when you say that crony capitalism, or corporatism is using the power of the stated to favor large corporate interests. In this sense, yes they are unbridled from the normal constraints that would be imposed on them in a free market situation. But that necessarily means that the state is engaging in economic interventionism. If by “unbridled” however, we mean instead a general policy of economic nonintervention so that there is a truly free market, this would preclude economic largess and corporate favoritism.

    • vickie

      I appreciate libertarian inputs on civil liberties. And the Austrians seem pretty accurate about assessing the economy, but I am no economist. What the writer is talking about is that Laisse Fair capitalism is not about conserving things. I remember an anecdote about an appliance manufacturer in the midwest. They wanted to relocate to China. The workers made concessions and found significant way to cut costs so that there was now a relatively small difference in costs. The company still relocated – the manufacturers did not care about the dislocation and non-conservation of that towns culture. Laisse fair doesn’t seem to value social capitol.

      • Bill

        Companies will go where they can maximize profit.
        Lean and Six Sigma are ways to do this, but the biggest drain on a P and L statement for a company is labor, so companies are going to go where the labor is cheapest.

        Now small businesses can maintain human capital well. But large companies don’t care about being magnanimous.

        • TMLutas

          A major societal reform that is important for small polities is to create and sustain the norm that public officials have to fight hard to stay out of the trap of becoming a one company or even one industry town. Their social capital role is geographically limited in the manner you describe. It is the job of companies to give jobs to the least well off zones consistent with not going broke and/or wasting the capital of the shareholders. There is no geographical limit to that obligation. It would be better to come at this with a conscious Catholic ethic but the green eyeshade variety is only a moderate degradation in effect.

      • Adam L

        It’s a bit difficult to reply to the example you give, being as it is an anecdote, and we don’t know the entire context surrounding it and what considerations were made and how the decision was ultimately arrived at. I would note this can’t be a criticism of the free market on a couple counts. First, this is just one data point and we can’t extrapolate from that. Second, going back to my original point, the system as it is today is NOT free market, but rather corporatist, with heavy interference in the economy on the part of the government.

        Some other things to consider: What about the Chinese community that will benefit from the new jobs? Are they less deserving of employment? Would you find it so objectionable if they relocated to Canada instead? How about to another state or just another county within the state? Should a company never relocate? Under what conditions would you consider relocating acceptable? Also, what about cheaper goods for low income families? Plus in giving this example, we don’t readily see how government interference has artificially raised the cost of labor and reduced the competitiveness of manufacturers within the US. All of this is just to point out that there are a lot of hidden factors that need to be taken into consideration.

        • vickie

          Just a story, just a parable so to speak. It is not the fact that the Chinese have jobs; it is the lack of solidarity between the capital owners and the workers. I have heard elsewhere that there can be lawsuits if corporations do not pursue maximum profits because of a violation of fiduciary responsibility. The only pr0fits considered are monetary profits; there is no room for the profit to souls. And may libertarian-types, the Randians, don’t even believe in souls because you can’t measure them.

    • TMLutas

      Crony capitalism does not favor generic corporate interests. It favors particular corporate interests. Take the auto bailout and tell me that Ford was as favored as GM or Chrysler. And tell me the bond holders (largely held by corporations of one type or another) were served better than the UAW.

      To say that corporatism favors corporations is sometimes a useful shorthand but like mos shorthands it is not accurate in important ways.

  • ivan_the_mad

    “Flattening the distribution of wealth and ensuring the widest possible the ownership of property can give more parents the choice of raising their own youngsters rather than farming the kids out to care providers. If you hear hints of the old Catholic notion of distributism there, you are correct.” Huzzah!

    • Adam L

      Some thoughts:

      1) Who does the flattening? Presumably that would be the state. I would be worried about the amount of centralized power that would be required to bring this about.

      2) While there is certainly an important economic component, much of the decline in the family is for cultural reasons. For years the culture has been demeaning motherhood as being inferior to going out and pursuing a career. Also, note that fertility rates are lower today than they were two or three hundred years ago when standards of living were much lower. And today, in many Muslim countries the fertility rate has fallen dramatically over the past thirty years.

      3) How much “flattening” is desirable? Is there some optimal level, and how do we measure it? Wealth and property are not just some homogeneous blobs that can be easily cut up and divided out. Is there any non-arbitrary way of going about this?

      4) Assuming you do “flatten out” the distribution of wealth in society, how are you going to keep it that way? Even if we somehow had a society where everybody dealt with each other honestly and morally and there were no corruption, it still wouldn’t remain flat. People have different talents, abilities, tastes, preferences, etc. and thus will move away from this idealized flattened state. How much “unflattness” will be tolerable and how will you measure it? Wouldn’t you need a powerful, centralized state to constantly keep tabs on people and how much they are making and saving, etc.?

      • ivan_the_mad

        Certainly action on the part of the state is not precluded, but the Church teaches a bottom-up approach of families, trade unions, etc (Catholic corporatism) as opposed to a top-down central bureaucracy (fascist corporatism) per subsidiarity. As to how much flattening is necessary, Chesterton put it clearly when he wrote something like every man has the right to earn a living, but not the right to earn the livings of three or four other men besides. As we limit our appetites to practice virtue, so too we limit our activities to practice justice.

        Distributism is closely based on the social teachings of the Church, especially some of the earlier encyclicals that dealt with the threats of both socialism and unbridled capitalism. Wikipedia’s article on distributism has a section listing key texts to include three papal encyclicals and some books and essays by Chesterton and Belloc. I would encourage you to read the texts listed, since they would thoroughly answer your questions.

        • Adam L

          I’ll admit that I don’t know a whole lot about distributism, and I’ll try to read more on it if I should ever find the time. I’ve seen Chesterton and Belloc mentioned a lot in reference to distributism, but neither was an economist, as far as I am aware. Is there any economic theory or school of thought used as a basis for distributism?

          I still don’t see how you can guarantee a flattening out without a top-down approach. I can believe that, were the privileges and largess, etc. removed, that there would probably be greater economic equality, but I fail to see how you are going to guarantee it, nor why it should be regarded a priori as an end in itself. As to the paraphrase from Chesterton, that sounds very nice and all, but come on. What exactly counts as a living, and who decides that? Are we talking just bare minimum in terms of caloric and nutrient intake? The average westerner probably has a standard of living three or four times that of there ancestors of just a few centuries back. This can hardly be used as a satisfactory objective standard. Plus this fails to take into account that saving wealth serves an important social/economic function.

          And again you bring up the “unbridled capitalism” thing. But that was my point in my original post: what we have in the US is not a free market system and hasn’t been anything close to one in decades, and the GOP does not pursue genuine market policies, but rather corporatism.

          • ivan_the_mad

            Certainly they’re economists, they spoke a great deal to economics.

            The list of texts I referenced above will go a long way towards answering your questions, especially the encyclicals.

          • Peggy R

            There is a lack of knowledge of economics on the part of some folks here. Bonne chance.

        • Peggy R

          You can start a new society with distributism. But once property has been “distributed” by whatever means, the Chestertonian utopia becomes RE-distribution and compulsory taking of private property. We have a Fifth Amendment about that (yeah, I know our constitution’s been trampled) as well as general property rights and contract rights. And I wouldn’t trust any US or secular government to be just and not be punitive or abusive of such a power, as Adam pointed out. I think Chesterton expressed an ideal with no just way to get there.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Mr. Bacevich sums up quite well what modern conservativism has become, which is why I don’t consider myself a conservative.

  • Chris Burgwald

    While I have great respect for Col. Bacevich — his written was a central part in my reconsideration of my views on foreign and military policy — I was very disappointed to see — in a pre-election symposium at The American Conservative — that he voted (again) for President Obama.

    I had no illusions about Mitt Romney’s lack of attention to truly furthering the culture of life and traditional marriage, but I’m just as certain that President Obama is worse on those scores. Yet Bacevich — a conservative *and* Catholic — nonetheless cast his vote for Obama, leaving me confused & frustrated as I try to figure out his thinking.

  • Tim H

    Mark, et al, I definitely want to hear and enact the guidance of the Church. I hear about the preferential option for the poor. I hear about the necessity to provide a living wage, healthcare, even housing. What I don’t understand is how this is supposed to happen.

    Mark, you and I have corresponded on something like this in the past.

    Is there some institutional mechanism that is REQUIRED to provide these things? If so, whether it be governmental? or quasi governmental? – national? international?, then there is a TON of literature out there that speaks about what we Catholics would likely call institutional sin. It’s the basic idea that if you create a power center than people will naturally seek to use it their own advantage. “The Road to Serfdom” by Hayek is a great read on how this works.

    I know you’ve said you’re eyes glaze over when you try to read economics (Mark). But there are good writers in the field who could help you get a better grip on the intractability of these problems. I’m not saying that gives us a rationale to avoid the obligations the Church (and our Lord) ask of us. But criminy, please quit implying bad faith on the part of those of who are scared to death of the power of the state to intervene .

    One quick try to boil it down – The market is the best mechanism that we know of to allocate resources to their highest valued uses and due to the creation of incentives to provide goods and services it unleashes human ingenuity in a way that is only equalled by religious fervor. Now, I think it’s fair to say “God forgive us!” after that statement, but that is the ‘problem’/solution to scarcity that we all face. It might not work as quickly as you’d like. It might not allocate resources to the things you think it should (but that’s a problem of values not the mechanism). But when you put government in the mix, you inherently limit it’s capacity to produce the goods and services that everyone wants. AND, AND, AND by adding government in the mix, you create a huge power center that is ripe for manipulation by the very forces that succeeded in the market. (The literature is full of this where the regulated piece of the market actually “captures” the regulating body. But what the hell did you expect – who knows that particular market except those who succeed in it.)

    The market does not promote virtue but at least it has going for it that people have to offer a product/service that others will actually buy – no one forces you to buy. But putting regulatory bodies over the market creates institutions made to tempt people to sin with little incentive to remain whole other than virtue. Which one wins 9 times out of 10 when virtue is put against vice when the stakes are the success of one’s family? Yes, the regulators who work at these places face this choice – work in the regulatory office and your kid goes to public school and community college – work at the regulated industry and your kid goes to private school and maybe the state school or even private college. Find a way to help the regulated industry negotiate the regulation in the least burdensome way for a regulation that rarely even accomplishes its goal anyway, and you get to work for the regulated industry. The race is on as to which of you saints will be last to put down the stone of regulation against that regulated industry.

    So what it seems like by creating these regulatory bodies you are requiring is that people just be stop acting like the fallen, sometimes filthy , sometimes pure, people who just want to provide for their families. And instead, act like saints. Well . . . I WANT that too but I can’t require it of people. I want them to act like that, but I don’t think it’s fair to create institutions where the temptation to sin is all but unavoidable, where the whole structure is set up for the poor person to sin. Again, at least in a market, the producer is held to the bar of the consumer. And I have not even touched the problem that government only survives by coercion.

    So one last time: The market = limited by what the people want (the down side being “what people want”.) Regulation = creating institutions full of temptations to sin usually at the barrel of gun through taxation.

    I get it. The market does not help make people virtuous. I fully admit this. But the problem is that regulation is not a panacea. It brings extremely complex problems into the market. To regulate is not a choice in a vacuum. It creates crazy perverse incentives. And I simply do not think you or even the Church are very well versed in those incentives. So one last time, repeating what I said above, quit implying that I hate kittens because I’m scared to death of the power of the government (regulation being only one of the problems of government).