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.
Since 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.
Expanding 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.
Real 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.