E.J. Dionne: Three points for conservatives

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Many who call themselves conservatives propose to cast aside even government programs that have stood the test of time. They seem to imagine a world in which government withers away, a phrase that comes from Friedrich Engels, not Buckley. Or they tie themselves up in unruly contradictions, declaring simultaneously that they are dead-set against government-run health care and passionate defenders of Medicare.

And while modern conservatism has usually supported the market against the state, its oldest and most durable brand understood that the market was an imperfect instrument. True conservatives may give "two cheers for capitalism," as Irving Kristol put it in the title of one of his books, but never three.

Perhaps I have just fallen into the very trap I warned against, seeking a conservatism that corrects, but doesn't oppose, progressivism.

But to my mind, conservatism has always made its greatest contribution as a corrective force that seeks to preserve the best of what we have. As our long and bitter health care debate winds to a close, might proponents of such a conservatism find an opening? Are they still there?

Read the whole thing.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchHealth & Medicine--The 2009 American Health Care Reform Debate* Economics, PoliticsPolitics in General

Posted March 25, 2010 at 5:41 am

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The URL for this article is http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/29035/

1. Capt. Father Warren wrote:

The debate is not over.  To be continued until and beyond November.

March 25, 7:37 am | [comment link]
2. Br. Michael wrote:

Translation:  Conservatives would be so much better if they agreed with the progressives.

March 25, 7:52 am | [comment link]
3. Br. Michael wrote:

Oh, and notice how the debate is over when progressives win, but it is never settled when the progressives loose.

March 25, 7:54 am | [comment link]
4. Daniel wrote:

Does this article mean that Dionne now qualifies as a neo-progressive? smile

March 25, 7:59 am | [comment link]
5. tired wrote:

Change a few words, and it reveals how patronizing he is:

Perhaps I have just fallen into the very trap I warned against, seeking a progressivism that corrects, but doesn’t oppose, conservatism.

But to my mind, progressivism has always made its greatest contribution as a corrective force that seeks to change only that which is well tested and fiscally responsible, without threat to the best of what we have. As our long and bitter health care debate winds to a close, might proponents of such a progressivism find an opening? Are they still there?

Clearly he views conservatives as pilot fish to the shark of liberalism.  Anyone who opposes statism and fiscal irresponsibility is an ‘extremist’ in his mind. 


March 25, 8:36 am | [comment link]
6. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:

Dionne incorrectly addresses capitalism as though it were a philosophy; thenceforth his opinions rest upon a flimsy foundation. Capitalism is the natural result of freedom.

The only path to limiting capitalism must perforce pass through limitations upon freedom., and consequently the only debate that consequently matters is that of “To what extent shall we limit freedom?”

We conservatives believe deeply in the natural, God-given right of minimal government interference in our lives, family, and commerce. That is most decidedly not the same thing as anarchy, but is instead focused on limitation of fallen Man’s innate desire to lord it over others.

Amongst the few unquestionable roles for government is to protect the weak against the predations of the strong, especially if violent. Dionne might have written an excellent piece exploring that concept.

Liberals, however, have utterly undermined any possible legitimacy to that argument from their side in regards to predatory corporations and the like because they have rejected it in practice. Who is weaker than a child in the womb? What predation is more violent than killing?

The left have been entangled so totally in their ad hoc inconsistencies (such as abortion) that their arguments rarely make much sense. They are thus reduced to too-common their attempts to shut down opposing views—sometimes sweetly, as in the case of Dionne, and sometimes roughly, as in the case of Coulter at the University of Ottawa.

March 25, 8:54 am | [comment link]
7. Sarah wrote:

Yes indeed, if only we could have conservatives who don’t oppose the collectivists, all would be well, reasonable, and unified!  ; > )

RE: “As our long and bitter health care debate winds to a close, might proponents of such a conservatism find an opening? Are they still there?”

Hopefully not.  It needs to be repealed, not “worked with” or “made better.”  It can’t be, built on such an immoral and unConstitutional foundation.

March 25, 10:41 am | [comment link]
8. Don R wrote:

Dionne also writes:

Many who call themselves conservatives propose to cast aside even government programs that have stood the test of time.

I think “stood the test of time” might be better understood to mean “have been around a long time.”  Some programs that have “stood the test of time” in that sense are in their current forms either unsustainable (e.g., Social Security in paying out more than it can possibly take in) , or immoral (welfare programs that have created a subculture of perpetual dependency).  Improving such programs is not only a fiscal imperative, it’s a moral one, too, in recognition of our nature as beings created in the image of God, beings with liberty, dignity, and God-given purpose.

March 25, 11:12 am | [comment link]
9. David Keller wrote:

The point he, and most liberals miss, is this is not about capitalism; it is about the constitution. If the constitution is bad or wrong, we can amend it or call a constitutional convention.  Until then we need to follow it. Obama is not the emperor. Congress is not the Imperial Senate. And the fight is hardly over. And don’t forget your own experience—TEC is a microcosm of the DNC—they smile and ask for civil conversation while they drive the knife deeper into your back.

March 25, 11:18 am | [comment link]
10. J. Champlin wrote:

This would have been a better article if Dionne had descended from Olympian generalities and acknowledged pointed questions to the health care package that remain unanswered.  David Brooks’ conservative criticisms in this regard are very helpful—e.g., among others, the thing really isn’t paid for.  Or, when this package started out, there were authentically progressive attempts at cost control that were abandoned in an abject capitulation to lobbying, so we end up with coverage without control.

Bart Hall, I always enjoy reading your posts.  So, respectfully, a disagreement.  Capitalism is the natural result of freedom, but not at the expense of laws so that we may, “live among other men holily, honorably, and temperately” (the phrase is from Calvin’s treatise on Christian freedom).  Also, Calvin again, none of us are to “attempt more than our calling” because “it is not lawful to exceed its bounds.”  It is precisely with that sense of transcendent responsibility that we will make the actual sacrifices involved in protecting the life of an innocent child in the womb; or, again, we will make and keep a vow, “until we are parted by death”.  The marriage of free market capitalism with expressive-experiential utilitarianism undermines any recognition of transcendence, and thereby undermines freedom.  This isn’t an argument for the nanny state; perhaps it’s just a gloss on your recognition (straight out of the tradition) that government corrects for our fallen nature.  However, it seems to me, in our polarized ideological debates, conservatives are in danger of sawing off the branch they sit on.

March 25, 11:37 am | [comment link]
11. magnolia wrote:

great article, thanks for posting a rare reasonable point of view. whether for good or ill, regardless of the facts, republicans will now be linked with those who vandalise democratic offices and make death threats against dem politicians and their families, posting their home addresses on the internet. these are the people they embrace.
no room for us moderates anymore even though most of the country is centre right.

March 25, 11:41 am | [comment link]
12. Br. Michael wrote:

Part of the constitutional problem is that it is, by an large a one way ratchet.  Under the guise of “interpretation” the Courts can amend the Constitution quickly and without the need for the formal amendment process, which is so cumbersome as to be pretty much unworkable.  Once a court has ruled on a constitutional matter the only way it can be undone is through the amendment process.  Thus we have an unequal struggle as the courts act as sitting constitutional conventions.

It can work the other way, but FDR got around it when he threatened to pack the Supreme Court.  What is really frightening is that if the Court is split the swing vote, an unelected justice, becomes a one person Constitutional Convention.

Think about it.  Those in favor of the Congress requiring people to buy health insurance say that it is only a minor expansion of the Commerce Clause.  Well that’s like saying a minor amendment to the Constitution doesn’t require the amendment process.  Of course it does.  So the progressives, in effect have amended the Constitution through the back door and will require formal amendment to undo what they have done.

March 25, 12:12 pm | [comment link]
13. Billy wrote:

“they smile and ask for civil conversation while they drive the knife deeper into your back.”
Unfortunately, this is what most conservatives in politics or TEC (not sure there is much difference at this point) have finally learned.  Thus, they are becoming more shrill.  The problem is that when conservatives are shrill, the media, led by the liberal pols - as we are seeing Hoyer do today - sensationalize it.  When the liberals are shrill, they are just being sensitive to a situation or there outlandish statements are ignored.  Thus, lesson for conservatives - stay on message; don’t be shrill!

March 25, 12:35 pm | [comment link]
14. Rick in South Louisiana wrote:

I genuinely appreciate the points Dionne makes. Even if I have a few rejoinders.

The debate is not over. It has just begun.

Mobs shouting epithets? If so it should be denounced. Problem is utter lack of evidence for this allegation.

But most importantly when he says “conservatives are at their best when they…” True. But it gets them absolutely nothing. One gets tired of being adjured to play nice by people who do not.

March 25, 12:53 pm | [comment link]
15. J. Champlin wrote:

This is an honest question—and I don’t know the answer.  About four times in the last two weeks I have posted variations on an argument that health care is a massive commons—we all have access to it; it is necessary for life; and, for all practical purposes, none of us can afford the extreme health care that we will at some point require, so we have worked out strategies for sharing the cost.  If I refuse to help share the cost, I should be refused access to the system.  Only we’re not going to do that (please don’t post that you pay for your doctor’s visits; I did too when I had a high deductible plan; none of us can pay for our open heart surgeries, or whatever).

We regulate utilities; we inspect food; we pay our payroll taxes; we carry auto insurance as a condition of access to the highways; we protect the air and the waterways.  Granted, each one of us views these measures with more or less enthusiasm; the point is that we regulate the commons under the constitution without concern for our individual liberties.  Why is it unconstitutional this time?

BTW, to the extent that I understand what I have read, I have very real concerns about the bill as passed.  But they are concerns about it’s implementation.  I do not feel that my liberty is threatened.

March 25, 12:58 pm | [comment link]
16. Don R wrote:

J. Champlin, it’s the individual mandate that’s the problem.  In none of those other cases has the Federal government attempted to require citizens to contract with a third party.  Even car insurance doesn’t meet this standard, because (1) you don’t have to drive, and (2) it’s not the Federal government mandating it.  States have more freedom in using coercive power against citizens than the Constitution permits the Federal government.  Law Professor Randy Barnett (whose general persuasion is libertarian, I think) has a useful discussion on the Washing Post’s web site here.

Regarding another thing you have mentioned in this comment and before: if we all ultimately require care that we can’t afford, how would all of us together be able to afford it?

March 25, 1:12 pm | [comment link]
17. J. Champlin wrote:

Don R—My point is simply that when I must undergo a medical procedure that will cost several hundred thousand dollars, I can’t pay for it at the time.  Insurance pools the risk, as there are relatively few of us at any one time faced with catastrophic costs, even though we all will be at some time (to date, I’m still accumulating a surplus, but the clock is running).  We best pool the risk by including the young and healthy who would rather not be bothered (a huge proportion of the “uninsured” are young; to my mind, that’s one of the most compelling reason for the mandates—I presuppose that no one is young forever).  In principle, we would all save throughout our lives, the market would adjust, and insurance would be out of it.  I believe that’s the ideal best (although health care delivery would still require regulation); practically, I don’t see how it could be done.

March 25, 2:42 pm | [comment link]
18. Don R wrote:

J. Champlin, I think you put forth a reasonable, simple model for how insurance in general works; my question was more about your apparent assumption that everyone eventually has this sort of bankrupting expense.  I don’t think that’s true, but I realize that, on this point, we’re really talking about how much insurance costs and how risk affects those costs.  That makes it more a question for the actuaries in that it doesn’t really change regardless of who is providing insurance.

It would change with the size and composition of the pool (e.g., the proportion of people requiring little heath care relative to the proportion requiring a lot), which is why you could view it as a “commons” problem.  In that case, are you saying that we need to force people to buy insurance to keep costs down for everybody else?

It’s good to be cautions about pitting ideal circumstances against reality, but I tend to see that as weighing especially heavily against trusting the promises and budgetary calculations of politicians.

March 25, 3:23 pm | [comment link]
19. J. Champlin wrote:

Don R—Thank you for your response.  In answer to your first question about forcing people to buy insurance, the answer is yes.  However, I also think that that in and of itself is not sufficient absent questions about how health care is delivered (do we reward defensive medicine and ordering up tests; do we place hospitals in useless competition that drives up cost; do we approach end-of-life care with appropriate respect for limits).  All those go to the Kendall’s mantra of culture (as in culture, cost, and coverage).  It also goes in favor of tort reform, incidentally.

I share your caution about the promises and budgetary calculations of politicians.  The budgetary calculations in this case are demonstrably flawed; the attempts to control costs were undermined.  I won’t be posting anymore on this thread, but thank you for engaging what I wrote.  And if it’s appropriate, I’d be interested in reading your further thoughts.

March 25, 4:02 pm | [comment link]
20. Truly Robert wrote:

#4: Rats! I was going to suggest that, but you wrote it first.

March 25, 4:55 pm | [comment link]
21. Br. Michael wrote:

The real thing is the expansion of federal power.  If upheld it will render, without going through the process of amendment, the concept of limited federal power meaningless.  Yet this was the major check in a complex scheme of checks and balances to obtain ratification of the Constitution in the first place.

We didn’t need to worry (too much) about what sort of politicians we were electing because there were things they couldn’t do because the federal government simply didn’t have the power to do them.

This legislation, if upheld, effectively repeals the Constitution.  And we will truly be sailing into uncharted waters.

March 26, 7:59 am | [comment link]
22. libraryjim wrote:

This health care bill will cost AT&T 1.4 Billion dollars. Caterpillar- 100 million. AK Steel- 31 milliion. John Deere- 150 million. 3M- $85 to 90 million after tax. The new deficit prediction is 9.75 Trillion. That adds 1.2 Trillion more in 10 years than Obama said. That is 90 percent of GDP. By 2020…the national Debt will be 20 Trillion dollars. We are on the way to destroying ourselves from within. Game over? Only November will tell.

“The world is a dangerous place to live — not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”—Albert Einstein

March 26, 10:54 pm | [comment link]

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