the imaginative conservative logo


Good people, or even just straightforward souls lacking in guile, often mistakenly attribute to their adversaries their own virtues and values.

Old China Hands explain that newly-arrived gringo businessmen are often surprised to learn that many people in China regard a signed contract not as a solemn pledge, but merely as a further step in a process of negotiation that lasts up until the goods are delivered and the supplier is paid: until then, they say, all details remain “up for grabs.” If true, this is not an example of evil or cunning Chinamen but merely a different culture’s idea of what a contract entails, but it must be frustrating for the Westerners to find that their signed and costly legal paperwork guarantees neither price, quality nor delivery dates, and only gives one an inside track to further negotiate beyond his competitors.

In a similar way, real conservatives misunderstand their Progressive adversaries and possibly squander time and effort by opposing them ineffectively.

False conservatives, such as the self-styled Neo-Conservatives, are almost by definition not as they describe themselves, and their guru Leo Strauss (and his own guru, Machiavelli) defend dishonesty in the allegedly higher cause of empire. But real conservatives, especially if both schooled and religious, are often so focused on ideas that they attribute their own virtues to others; they read the labels on their opponents’ boxes and believe what they see.  It can be a costly error.

Real conservatives, so interested in ideas and their consequences, read ideological utopianism writ broad across everything that Progressives say and take it as serious when it may not be so. While there is no shortage of naïve Progressives who may believe that equality (or eliminating poverty and so forth) is achievable by government or even desirable, they may well be as gullible as the conservatives who oppose them. To see the Progressive agenda in its entirety one may need to look shallower rather than deeper, at normal individual human desires far more basic than grand agendas for the improbable betterment of mankind. Here, the Public Choice School of Economics proves helpful.

The Public Choice School, pioneered by the late Nobel laureate James Buchanan, Gordon Tulloch and the late William Niskanen (described fully and for free here by Professor Eamonn Butler), applies game theory and the profit motive of business to that of the public sector. Now a vigorous economic sub-discipline spread from George Mason University to the University of Chicago and far afield, it has over fifty years killed off the old argument that while businessmen seek mere personal profit, government exists to serve the public interest. Government and its bureaucrats have their own versions of profit and they often subvert the democratic process and harm the public interest in its various forms. A measure of the success of the Public Choice School is the degree to which its ideas are now so often included in general critiques of government policy and question its motivations.

uncle samSince 1956, Parkinson’s Law stated (with intentional humour and irony) that work expands to fill the time available. In 1971, Niskanen’s Budget-Maximizing Model expanded the concept, stating quite seriously that rational bureaucrats will work to grow their own budgets and increase their own power, implying an ever-expanding government in terms of size, cost and authority. It is not a conservative howl against socialism, nor does it say or imply that bureaucrats have an evil and conspiratorial agenda. It merely discusses how ordinary humans in the public sector seek to improve their own conditions just as their private sector brothers and sisters do in business. It analyses the internal incentives for government to grow and expand.

Later examples are legion. Hard-working Sally deserves promotion but her superiors are too young to retire and give up their places, so a new department is created within the bureaucracy and Sally is put in charge of it (this may not have happened in a private firm seeking to contain costs, but profitability is not always such a constraint within the public sector). Earnest Bob has done such a good job that he is rewarded with more employees and an expanded operating budget. Carla, the boss of Sally and Bob and many similar department heads, rises in importance among her peers as her budget and personnel cadre grow bigger.

Meanwhile what of opposition? Clever Charles may lobby politicians for a government-granted monopoly on importing shoes but his higher prices will only amount to fifty cents a pair, and how many consumers will bother to protest a policy that will only costs an individual half a buck every time he buys shoes (although nationwide it will realize a vast fortune for Charles)?

Mine is a woefully inadequate summary but you get the picture. Malign but intrinsic incentives to government growth and restraint of trade are key points within the Public Choice School, as are counter-strategies (that are so far less inspiring).

But what does this mean to real conservatives who aspire to reduce the size, costs and intrusiveness of government?

In terms of Public Choice Theory, a policy that promises the betterment of mankind may be no more than an excuse for a bureaucrat, or an entire Progressive lobby straddling the public sector and so-called Civil Society, to justify their own kind of profits. Or to be less cynical, perhaps a grand Progressive justification is a pleasant condiment added to their tantalizing main meal of bigger government and more power for its individuals. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, bureaucrat by bureaucrat, department by department, adding people and functions while ginning up external demand for government to do more and more.

pawel-politician-liarExpanding from civil servants to a bigger canvas, politicians also seek profits that are different from those in business; they wish to buy votes, where possible on long-term lease using someone else’s money. So, Progressive politicians seek to expand the welfare rolls (including pensions and medical care as middle-class welfare) and increase jobs in the bureaucracy to lease Democrat voters, while many Republican lawmakers shriek about even a cut in the growth of obese defense budgets because soldiers vote Republican and defence contractors favour them as well.

What this means to real conservatives, one fears, is that a lot of time is spent trying to disabuse Progressive justifications for what is only a sideshow for Democracy’s rubes and hicks, window-dressing designed to get the yokels into big tent and keep them there until their wallets go dry. Politicians and civil servants are playing high-stakes poker with a stacked deck, while conservatives are up an alley three blocks away, rabbitting on about what Jefferson said to Madison. If the conservatives’ point is to educate a remnant outside of politics, fair enough, but if they think they are addressing the real issue by focussing on Progressive arguments they may be missing the target.

For engagement’s sake, the answer may lay in what has happened to Britain’s Liberal Democrat Party, or more accurately what they have done to themselves. They have their few virtues, but their policies look like watered-down versions of the (very) mildly centre-right Conservatives and the camouflaged socialists in the Labour Party, so for years they have promoted “better” democracy through Proportional Representation (voting a first and second choice, then somehow averaging it out). The risks and complications are numerous and utterly opaque to British voters, who still understand the main point that the proposed new system would result in a permanent Lib-Dem majority, for a party that almost nobody wants but which Labour and Conservative voters prefer to their foremost opponents. In other words, whether you want steak or vegetarianism, what you’ll get with the Lib-Dem system will be 75% bull-dirt. So, hardly anyone gives that baldly self-serving party the time of day.

barack-obama-liarReal conservatives, noble and reflective for the most part, usually debate an idea on its merits and avoid stooping to conquer. They ought to reconsider. It is not to say that conservatives should stop dissecting the misdirections and false hopes of the Progressives, but they must also engage in real-politik and expose the political agendas behind the platitudes; some groups do this already. How the bureaucracy and politicians benefit by department and function and overall, will reveal their greed for their own kinds of profit.

But exposure requires research, which is harder work than sitting in the study with Aristotle, Jefferson and even Russell Kirk. Both tasks are essential; one to provide cultural bearings and civilisational direction, the other to sell the product to a cynical multitude that is already suspicious of politicians.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this article may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
14 replies to this post
  1. An excellent primer on realpolitik for conservatives. We are far too naive–we believe the progressives are sincere in what they’re saying. Anyone who doubts the self-interest at work in bureaucracy should look back to this bit of conventional wisdom, “We better spend all of our budget or we will not get as much next year.”–

    One of the great things about graduate work in a university is you are sometimes in classes with people from other disciplines. I remember a class in ethics at Harvard taught by a fellow cleric. It was filled with law students and school of government types–I was the only other cleric in the class and even though the professor was a liberal and I am a conservative we agreed the naivete about how a church actually functioned to be pretty amazing. These people were secular, but they had believed our public relations literature. They thought there was no self-interest in church politics.

  2. Mr. Masty: Thank you for deconstructing the ideological poses of Progressives and exposing their real motive–a very human desire to feather their own nests. Who’d have guessed? As a self-described Progressive who doesn’t actually work for the government (though it does send me a monthly stipend), I must be just another gullible rube/hick/yokel who’s been lured into the Democrats’ big tent, thinking that their ideas mattered. Now that you’ve cleared that up, may I humbly suggest that your next post should apply Public Choice Theory to the one group you seem to be exempting: those “Real conservatives, noble and reflective for the most part, [who] usually debate an idea on its merits and avoid stooping to conquer”? Are we really so naive as to believe that “real conservatives,” unlike all other partisans, have no hidden agenda and no nests of their own to feather?

  3. Three quick points:

    1. Leo Strauss and Machiavelli are not all that bad, nor that easily categorized.

    2. Is the content of contracts in China regulated by government and stipulated in law? I ask because Americans had the same “problem” you describe here in Poland. Here, it is due to the fact that the government mandates three possible types of contracts people must choose between, thus no one takes them seriously when they sign them, and in fact most contracts are fraudulant insofar as they serve to create the proper impression for the government while the real, unwritten actual contract exists in the alternative real world. Culturaly, honesty in business is important – but contracts are never freely written, thus honest business often necessitates fraud. Personaly, I avoid signing contracts for another reason: reliance on law as an effective means of addressing grievances is laughable. This goes for large corporations as well, which prefer private arbitrage courts. Mutual self interest is always the best basis for business relations.

    3. Regarding Public Choice, I remember when I got a call from some people in a government agency who wanted to pay me roughly three times the market rate for a little bit of work. Why? Because it was the end of the fiscal year, and this agency hadn’t spent all of the money in its budget. If they ended the year on a frugal note and actually saved money, their budget for the following year would be cut! If they came out even or went into the red, there was a good chance they’d be able to argue that they were underfunded.

    Thus government agencies typically had to go on frenzied spending sprees at year end, paying absurdly high prices for anything and everything or risk budget cuts. This was and is the way public institutions are apparently funded.

  4. Mr. Schifflett, you could not have more missed the point. By thinking only of deconstruction (which has become a signature of “self confessed progressives”), you have backhandedly accused the author of creating a straw man, the virtuous “real conservative.” Read it again. Mr. Masty has so deconstructed you (and I suspect that the various schools of thought he also deconstructs are not all that familiar to you–they aren’t to most progressives) that you fail to see that he is making the most fun of us “real cons” who can’t seem to see who is dealing the deck. This piece, wonderfully ironic, stings me more than you; after all, you guys are so far the winners, and guys like me still take you seriously.

    • Mr. Willson: I assure you, I’m always capable of missing the point even more; you misunderestimate me at your peril. That said, I did get the larger point of the piece, which was that conservatives don’t recognize the true motives that Progressives conceal behind an ideological scrim; and I’m fairly certain I quoted Mr. Masty correctly regarding “real conservatives” who “debate an idea on its merits and avoid stooping to conquer”. I get it; Mr. Masty is telling conservatives to come down from their ivory towers and stoop (at least now and then) to the self-interested level of Progressives in order to defeat them. I don’t think I “backhandedly accused [Mr. Masty] of creating a ‘straw man'”; I think I did so pretty straightforwardly, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner. I stand by my claim, which perhaps I
      failed to make clear: I don’t deny the insights of Public Choice theory as to how self-interest and not ideology often motivates people, but I seriously doubt that the theory only applies to Progressives and government bureaucrats. I’ve worked in the private sector, and I’ve seen plenty of nest-feathering going on there as well, though always couched in terms of “the greater [corporate] good”.

      Thank you, however, for continuing to take me seriously, despite my likely unfamiliarity with various schools of thought. Like most Progressives, I probably suffer from Chronic Epistemic Closure, but there’s hope; I understand it’s covered by Obamacare and that the NIMH has been given a grant to find a cure.

  5. The fundamental problem with progressives is that for them it seems “the end justifies the means”; they characteristically do not believe in moral absolutes, but are moral relativists.

    Forward- we know not where or why, and it does not matter how…

    • Mr. Sharples: I don’t know a single Progressive who subscribes to the dictum “The end justifies the means,” unless you consider George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Yoo, and David Addington to be Progressives (in fairness, I’ll add Barack Obama to the list for his use of drones, but that policy isn’t widely supported by Progressives). Actually, I don’t know anyone at all of any political or ideological stripe who subscribes to that dictum; I just know people who believe in weighing specific ends and specific means and making difficult and often controversial calls about what is and what isn’t justified under certain specific circumstances. If that’s what you mean by “moral relativism,” then I stand convicted, but so does pretty much the rest of the human race.

    • Mr Sharples, maybe yes and maybe no. There are noble Progressives who believe every word of their idealism. They are no more running the Progressive strategy than readers here represent the Conservative side overall; the Right has its public sector feather-bedders too! The point of the Nobel-winning Public Choice School is that virtually all humans, in both the private and public sectors, are profit-seekers; just that profit looks different for each. By heeding them we stop demonising one another personally and and look to the real driving forces behind a growing State, which is an often misunderstood form of profit.

  6. Mr. Shifflett, welcome to our site: a Progressive with a sense of humor. I have known very few. Thank you.

    • Mr. Willson: you’re more than welcome, and I thank you in return. I do what I can to defy expectations and stereotypes; frankly, I find dialogue with those with whom I (at least sometimes) disagree far more enjoyable and productive than living in a left-wing echo chamber. And–I say this with some regret–I find conservatives more likely to talk about larger cultural, social, and even spiritual issues, whereas liberals (alas) seem to be all about politics; but man does not live by electoral majorities alone.

  7. Mr. Shifflett,

    Can you please direct me towards a website or resource that would be a liberal/progressive mirror of TIC? I greatly enjoy confirming my own bias, as we all do, but I recognize the need to understand the other side of the spectrum. However, the problem I keep running into is the lack of reflective, honest liberal sites. I admit I may very well be looking in the wrong places.

    Thank you,

    H Davidson

  8. Good run-down of how bureaucrats are hardly noble.

    However, it doesn’t really seem to address what makes them tick. Progressives at their core wish to destroy Western Civilization and replace it with their own utopian visions based on delusions of man’s nature. It was true with Rousseau and the Jacobins, just as it is true today with modern Progressives.

  9. “but they must also engage in real-politik and expose the political agendas behind the platitudes”….Yes and they must also deconstruct the psychology of Progressivism – of do-gooding – and expose it for the sham mind-game that it almost invariably is: not really about doing good in any practical sense, more about FEELING good about yourself whilst, in reality, carrying on being just as self-seeking as anyone else.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: