Friday, August 12, 2011

Jonah Goldberg on Categorical versus Ideological Conservatism

This is an excerpt from the latest G-File e-"news"letter that I just had to share because it says a LOT about how I view these kinds of arguments...
Categorical versus Ideological

Let's circle back to the issue of knowing what you believe. I was embarrassed for the GOP last night. When they were asked if they'd take a deal where they'd get ten dollars in real cuts for every one dollar in increased tax revenues, each candidate raised his -- or her -- hand like some trained chimp asked if he wants a bowl of Cheerios. On the merits, that's nuts. When I tweeted something to that effect last night, I got a lot of grief from people saying, "No, they were right. The Dems would never offer real cuts. Blah blah blah."

Of course the Dems wouldn't agree to such a thing. That's why it's an absurd question. So why give an absurd answer?

Honestly, without smuggling new facts into the hypothetical ("Pelosi would cheat!" "Reid would sneak in cowboy poet funding!"), you wouldn't take that deal? Really? For every $50 billion in closed loopholes we'd get $500 billion in real cuts?

If you think Republicans shouldn't budge on taxes hikes, that's fine. I agree with you. But why come across as if you don't care what the circumstances are? The correct position is not that tax increases are never necessary under any circumstances, but that they are unnecessary now.

Not even the most ardent supply-sider believes that raising taxes is never, ever warranted. Remember, it's the Laffer curve. If taxes are zero, you need to raise taxes to get any revenues at all.

I understand that the candidates were forced into a choice of a yes-or-no with a raised hand, but the point remains the same.

Having nearly finished a book that is in part a rousing defense of ideology, I'd like to throw out an important distinction. There's a difference between ideological thinking and categorical thinking. Conservative ideology is mostly a checklist of presumptions and principled biases. Conservatives are strongly against stealing, but given a horrendous enough hypothetical (your kids are starving, you need the antidote to save your poisoned wife, etc.), the conservative will concede that there are times when the presumption against stealing gives way to higher concerns.

The important thing to remember is that just because you've made an exception to the rule doesn't mean the rule is invalidated. Stealing still belongs in the category of behaviors that are wrong, bad, evil. It's just that, given the right circumstances, it can become the lesser evil. Liberals see this as hypocrisy. And maybe it is. But hypocrisy is not the worst thing in the world. The liberal relativist would prefer we simply get rid of inconvenient categories like good and evil, and judge everything by its consequences. The conservative believes it is better to maintain the authority of the principle but be reasonable, or humane, about its application. In other words, conservative ideology is an arrangement of competing categories or principles.

Categorical thinking recognizes no such competition. It reduces every question to an iron cage of easy universalities. You find categorical thinkers everywhere. People who want to make some small issue of principle into a matter of world-shattering importance. Not every moment calls for Thomas More. Sometimes the river Kwai can do without a new bridge, even if that reflects poorly on the British can-do spirit.

Conservatives aren't categorically against change, for instance. We simply believe that change is not a good in and of itself and therefore it can be just as important to oppose change as to champion it. "When it is not necessary to change," Lord Falkland famously said, "it is necessary not to change."

Similarly, when it is not necessary to raise taxes, it is necessary not to raise taxes.

The problem with the way the Republicans deal with such things is they think they're sounding resolute when in reality they sound unreasonable to a lot of people for no good reason. If a ten-to-one spending-cut-to-tax-increase ratio is unacceptable, how about 100 to one? A thousand to one?

Better to say, "Look, of course I would consider a deal like that, but keep two things in mind: 1) It will never happen because of the Democrats' addiction to spending, and 2) the question seems intended to pry open the door on raising taxes, which is not the answer to our woes, but part of the problem."
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