Big ideas aren't enough
Political movements need rigorous analysis and policies that work
I’ve been following recent debates between proponents of national conservatism and freedom conservatism (see Michael Schaffer for an overview or Oren Cass and Avik Roy debating it on a podcast) with interest but also frustration.
Frustration because I don’t think debates at this level of abstraction actually resolve anything. Indeed, the first draft of what became this article was about something completely different — arguments on the left between supply-side liberalism and its critics — where what I wanted to say was also that you can’t resolve anything at this level of abstraction. But the more I thought about that, the more I was reminded of how much worse things are on the right, where conservatives seem to have forgotten that they already did this whole bit, except with compassionate conservatism as a replacement for Reagan-style politics.
And on this high level of abstraction, compassionate conservatism was a great idea.
By the same token, the idea of eliminating the root causes of Islamic terrorism by causing Muslim-majority countries to become prosperous liberal democracies incorporated into the U.S.-led alliance and trading system was totally sound. But how do you actually do that? In a truly wild fit of utopianism, the Bush administration spent $2 trillion on an invasion of Iraq that not only failed to achieve any of those goals but resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. On domestic policy, maybe if Bush had had a spare $2 trillion he could have made the ownership society work. Or maybe he could have successfully boosted marriage rates. Or transformed K-12 public education. But in reality none of the stuff he did actually worked, either because the ideas were bad or because the math didn’t work or because the financial resources weren’t there. Not because he governed at a time of austerity, but because his biggest spending-side commitment was to a war that didn’t work, and he saddled the country with huge regressive tax cuts.
This is an issue for all kinds of political entrepreneurs. You can’t just come up with a nice-sounding, high-level message. You need the capacity to design ideas that make sense and work in detail. I’ve fretted before that the policy analysis capacity on the left has withered somewhat, but it’s borderline non-existent on the right.
The failure of compassionate conservatism
The cataclysmic failure in Iraq and the collapse of the global economy during his final year in office hang like a giant shadow over Bush’s entire presidency.
But as during any eight-year span, a lot of different things happened. And Bush was president during a causally thin span of American history when the incredible popularity bump he achieved thanks to 9/11 gave him more freedom of action than is afforded most presidents. He had an idea for this framework, compassionate conservatism, which was meant to be less relentlessly statist than orthodox conservative thinking while still reflecting conservative values and a conservative worldview when it came to addressing social issues. One of the best examples of this, I think, was his focus on marriage as a cure for poverty. The idea was that you don’t want to be mean to poor people just to save money, but you also don’t want to embrace the progressive idea of expanding the welfare state to address poverty.
Their solution was rooted in an idea that I think is correct: if a much larger share of children were born into and raised by stable two-parent families, that would ameliorate many pressing social problems.
But is that something the government can pull off? Published 17 years ago, Katherine Boo’s New Yorker article “The Marriage Cure,” remains one of my favorite pieces of journalism, detailing the uselessness of these Bush-era programs in terms of actually helping poor women with anything. Not only did lecturing people about marriage fail to achieve anything, but her subjects also struggled with banal issues like unreliable bus service that made it hard to stay employed. Having reliable bus service is not as useful as having a reliable life partner. But “spend money to run the bus more frequently” is a tractable idea in a way that “get everyone to have a stable marriage” is perhaps not.
Evaluations of these programs are pretty bleak. This didn’t work, this didn’t work, this didn’t work, and while this did improve spousal communication, we’re still left with the fact that they didn’t come up with anything that moved the needle on marriage rates. Here’s a meta-analysis of some other programs that, again, show some communications improvement from premarital counseling programs but no real shift in other variables of interest.
Bush also did this big push around “faith-based initiatives,” basically making it easier for religious social service providers to get grant money.
This worked in the sense that the church groups Bush wanted to get more money did, in fact, get more money. But there’s no real evidence this improved services or outcomes for anyone. As a culture war intervention it sort of worked; Bush could say he got church groups to be treated more fairly by the government. But in terms of the culture war issue that I think conservatives care about — building a more religious, more churchgoing society with stronger faith communities — secularization only increased.
Bush’s devils were in the details
This is all kind of forgotten now, but one of the signature moments of Bush-era journalism came when John DiIulio, a well-regarded academic who was brought into the White House to run the faith-based initiatives program, told Ron Suskind that the whole thing was being ruined by “Mayberry Machiavellis,” political opportunists who didn’t care about substance or policy detail.
And that could be a requiem for the whole Bush administration.
The idea of the “ownership society,” for example, sort of makes sense as a concept. America is a rich country, and if you could make it a country where private capital was more widely owned, you would arguably get a more market-friendly political culture. That would be worth doing even if you had to abridge some free market principles to get there. But the policy ideas they actually came up with were essentially:
A plan to privatize Social Security, which turned out to be a short-term political catastrophe for the administration at least in part because they could never come up with a proposal where the numbers added up.
Another much more politically viable plan to encourage lax bank supervision and a devil-may-care attitude toward mortgage lending standards.
The politically tractable idea here, of course, ended in tragedy. Republican political operatives did a decent job of convincing people that woke liberals were somehow to blame for homeownership-promotion schemes that happened during their presidency, so this particular failure never became part of the conventional wisdom. But it’s part and parcel of their whole web of failures, one of many big ideas that just didn’t work out.
To their credit, it’s not like all their ideas didn’t work out. The thing every smart person can now cite about the Bush administration is that PEPFAR saved tons of lives. And it’s important to acknowledge that the president’s personal belief in this initiative — paired with his unusual amount of post-9/11 political capital — was genuinely crucial to getting this done at a time when lots of experts thought it was a bad idea. The Bush administration also played an important role in the early days of the fracking revolution that ended up transforming the world, just not in time for them to reap the benefits. The point is that when you look at what worked and didn’t, I don’t think you can say “well, some of their stuff was freedom and other stuff was compassion, and the freedom worked but the compassion didn’t.” It came down to the merits of the specific ideas.
National conservatism’s policy rigor problem
When I read the National Conservative manifesto, “Rebuilding American Capitalism: A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers,” my main reaction was that a lot of the ideas seem awfully half-baked. At a minimum, they don’t appear to have been properly vetted. I’m in complete agreement with what I think is the larger point that Oren Cass is trying to make with his “cost of thriving” index, but as detailed previously in Slow Boring, it seems to me that his aversion to conventional economics is leading him to explain it wrong.
By the same token, this Michael Pettis essay that American Compass published about the problem of unbalanced global trade is very convincing. But the specific policy proposal from the handbook is to levy a 10% tax on all imports and then say “after any year when the trade deficit has persisted, the tariff would increase by five percentage points for the following year.”
If this works, the way it will work is by raising the cost of goods to American consumers by enough to raise the household savings rate and therefore bring trade into balance. You could accomplish the same thing by, for example, imposing a 20% value-added tax (VAT) with the revenue going to reduce the budget deficit, and then saying the VAT goes up every year that America runs a trade deficit. If you frame it as a VAT, the problem becomes pretty obvious — using a regressive tax as your tool leaves most people worse off. Talking about a tariff rather than a national consumption tax gives the idea better America First branding, but I think it makes the policy problem worse. Since prices are rising for tradable goods (food, clothing, furniture, cars) but not for services, the impact is even more regressive.
There’s nothing wrong with starting with a big, abstract idea and then tossing out a specific policy solution that doesn’t totally add up. But you need an iterative policy development process that refines these ideas more clearly.
By the way, don’t take my word for it that this tariff idea won’t work. Pettis, in an essay in the handbook, writes “trade tariffs and other forms of trade restriction are insufficient to eliminate American trade deficits,” and says that what we really need to do is regulate capital inflows. But then nobody wrote a policy brief laying out the National Conservative vision for capital controls.
I’ve tussled several times with Cass, the impresario of this whole project, and I really do want to say that I mostly admire what he’s trying to do and think he is highlighting a lot of important issues. He’s also struggling with the objectively hard problem that thanks to education polarization, there are not currently that many people on the right who are qualified to work through these ideas on a technical level. But I think the cautionary example of the Bush administration should haunt people. Big ideas are only as good as their implementation.
What do conservatives want?
While versions of all these problems exist on the left, I think the right has it worse not only because of education polarization but because the post-Bush right seems reluctant to face up to what it even wants.
When I read conservatives talking about American society abstractly — Ross Douthat on “Barbie” is a great example — they seem to me to want really big changes in really large macro-scale trends that are happening not only in the United States but around the world. They want a massive revival of religious life, a turnaround of fertility trends, a revolution in gender relations. But none of the policy ideas on any side of these various debates are remotely scaled to those objectives. And even on small-scale stuff like the Bush-era marriage promotions, they can’t quite find things that work.
On a small-scale tactical level, conservatives have lots of winning ideas. “Democrats are too soft on crime, too lenient about violations of immigration rules, ask too many sacrifices in the name of preventing climate change, tax too much, spend too much, and are generally too indulgent of weirdos” is a good message that in one form or another wins elections in all kinds of places. But that’s conservatism as pretty literal small-c conservatism — suspicion of change and activists and intellectuals and the desire to remake society.
But I think it’s turned out over the past several generations that while standing athwart history yelling “stop!” might be a good election strategy and occasionally block some bad ideas, it cannot reverse the big underlying trends. If you decide it’s actually not important to reverse those big underlying trends, then you have a winning formula right there — just look at the most dysfunctional or outlandish thing the left is doing on any given day and hammer them. But if you actually want some kind of massive change in the structure of American society, you need to really think hard about how to accomplish that. I’m not sure any iteration of the current right is up for it.