Ph.D. Octopus

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More Conservative Decline: David Frum Embraces the Welfare State

with 5 comments

by Weiner

Very quietly, on his own blog, David Frum has written the most important conservative article in recent memory. Ostensibly a critique of a National Affairs essay by Yuval Levin, Frum’s article “Two Cheers for the Welfare State” in fact represents a rejection of conservative economic policy at the level of abstract principles. It is not only an example of the oft-talked about rifts in American conservatism, but also, just maybe, a precursor to a dramatic shift leftward for the conservative intellectual class in the United States.

Frum notes that he “changed his mind” as a result of the recent financial crisis. Earlier in his career, he supported the “doubling-down on the economic libertarianism of the Reagan years.” But with the recent collapse, he decided:

Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

And then, this massive revelation:

GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.

Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

First, it’s fairly remarkable for anyone, left or right, in our political discourse (and in academia), to admit to being wrong. This is just not something the punditocracy does. I guess people did this about the Iraq War, particularly the left wing humanitarian hawks. And Richard Posner “became a Keynesian,” which I wrote about here. Most notably, Diane Ravitch, former champion of charter schools and standardized testing and opponent of teacher’s unions, has done a complete 180, and now blames America’s education problems on poverty and inequality.

Frum hasn’t changed that much. Sure he was fired from the American Enterprise Institute for criticizing the Republican Party. But I suspect that has more to do with his disdain for the recent wave of conservative anti-intellectualism, symbolized by the Tea Partiers who have made heroes out of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. He shares that disdain with other conservatives like David Brooks and Christopher Buckley. But those disagreements were more about style than substance. On foreign policy I suspect Frum is still a hawk, and probably still far too conservative for my taste on economic issues as well.

Nonethelss, Frum is moving in the right (by which I mean the left) direction. Especially interesting is how he justifies this change. He invokes Irving Kristol the way socialists invoke Marx, libertarians invoke Ayn Rand, and Christians invoke the Bible. This is a classic intellectual move. Frum appeals to the ultimate neoconservative authority to advance the notion of a “conservative welfare state.”

Here is the Irving Kristol quote Frum uses:

The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind… they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.

Whatever works for you, Mr. Frum. What I see is a smart conservative realizing that conservative economic policies aren’t so smart.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 1, 2011 at 09:53

5 Responses

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  1. Lovely.


    May 1, 2011 at 12:37

  2. While I agree that Frum’s post is a nice departure from present conservative/Republican/libertarian insanity, it’s entirely consistent with what most Republican economists (though not libertarian economists) would believe. Mankiw’s introductory textbook clearly endorses the view that unemployment insurance and food stamps are sensible uses of expansionary fiscal policy because they’re automatic stabilizers and they’re timely and targeted. It’s much more skeptical that discretionary fiscal policy for macro stabilization can ever be effective.

    I certainly do not look at the anti-intellectualism of Palin & the Tea Party as being purely a matter of style. First, as a matter of substance, it’s clear this wing of the Republican party will never make any positive net-present value investment in public education or academic research. Second, when I evaluate a candidate, I don’t just look at their platform, but also at how I think they’ll handle the many unforeseen challenges that could arise in a 4 to 8 year term, and it’s clear to me that anti-intellectuals are not up to that task. Understanding the division of labor and gains from specialization are in fact core libertarian economic ideas, and certainly they apply to good government as well — contrary to ignoring any consideration of what “experts” think. Yet in reality in that’s mostly an act — certainly these anti-intellectuals do listen to experts, just it’s only the ones who specialize in maximizing the wealth of donors while screwing over poor people but managing to maintain the votes of the white/Christian/homophobic ones.

    I strongly disagree with Frum that the failure of S&P and Moody’s is a clear indictment of laissez-faire capitalism. The ratings agencies are highly relegated, and their dominant market share is largely a function of government regulation. In a sensible capitalist system, the rating agencies would be more competitive, and companies that gave bad ratings like Moody’s and S&P would have had their reputations ruined and ceased to exist, like the investment banks in bed with them which weren’t as well-connected to government.


    May 1, 2011 at 15:37

  3. Nuances aside (and appreciated, from DRDR), I like the idea of another sensible convert to welfare state/mixed economy rationality. I’m not saying we need more Frums, but I’d like to see more moves like this. – TL

    Tim Lacy

    May 3, 2011 at 11:52

  4. Thanks for the comments. DRDR, I agree that one can probably quibble about the “nuances,” as Tim notes, but I think the thrust here is key: Frum is moving from a libertarian position to a “welfare state/mixed economy rationality” (again, as Tim put it). Hopefully more intelligent conservatives will move in this direction. I’d be happy to see more Frums.


    May 4, 2011 at 12:24

  5. […] Laden’s death. In terms of policy, I’m far more sympathetic to GG than Frum, even with Frum’s most recent slight turn left. I think GG got the best of this debate, except when the subject of the Nuremberg and Eichmann […]

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