It’s fundamentally about challenging or sustaining traditional hierarchy. The actual lineup of positions on social and economic issues doesn’t make sense if you assume that conservatives are, as they claim, defenders of personal liberty on all fronts. But it makes perfect sense if you suppose that conservatism is instead about preserving traditional forms of authority: employers over workers, patriarchs over families. A strong social safety net undermines the first, because it empowers workers to demand more or quit; permissive social policy undermines the second in obvious ways.
In contrast to conservatism, Krugman argues:
…modern liberalism is in some sense the obverse — it is about creating a society that is more fluid as well as fairer. We all like to laugh at the war-on-Christmas types, right-wing blowhards who fulminate about the liberal plot to destroy family values. We like to point out that a country like France, with maternity leave, aid to new mothers, and more, is a lot more family-friendly than rat-race America. But if “family values” actually means traditional structures of authority, then there’s a grain of truth in the accusation. Both social insurance and civil rights are solvents that dissolve some of the restraints that hold people in place, be they unhappy workers or unhappy spouses. And that’s part of why people like me support them.
I’ve written about Robin’s widely-misunderstood argument in the past. But Krugman’s post is a good opportunity to revisit and summarize my critique. In short, Robin is right that classic conservative theorists were defenders of economic, social, and political hierarchy against modern liberation movements. But he misunderstands the basis of the position.
The conservative position has never been simply that a hierarchical society is better than an egalitarian one. It’s that an egalitarian society is impossible. Every society includes rulers and ruled. The central question of politics, therefore, is not whether some will command while others obey. It’s who gives the orders.
Radical leftists understand this. That’s why Lenin’s “who, whom?” question became an unofficial motto of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks promised that a classless society would one day emerge. In the meantime, however, they were open and enthusiastic practitioners of power politics.
Modern liberals find this vision upsetting. So they pretend that their policies are about reducing inequality and promoting freedom rather than empowering some people at the expense of others. They associate inequality with wealth and freedom with liberation from religion and family. So they assume that a society in which rich people, churches, and fathers have less power is ipso facto freer and more equal.
Notice how Krugman’s hostility to these traditional hierarchies blinds him to other kinds of inequality. He praises France because social insurance and stronger protections for employees make it easier for mothers and workers to stand up to patriarchs and bosses. Do they really make France “fairer and more fluid”? In cultural terms, perhaps. But not politically or even economically.
The defining feature of French life is that the welfare and regulatory state Krugman admires is administered by graduates of elite educational institutions. These aristocrats of the universities and civil service are geographically concentrated in Paris and anecdotally quite “inbred.” France is not a class society in the Marxist sense. But it could be described with only minimal exaggeration as an ENAligarchy.
Krugman doesn’t see the énarques as a ruling class that need to be knocked down a peg because their authority isn’t traditional. They wield power over other people’s lives because they got good grades, not because they have a lot of money or are heads of households or leaders of religious communities. But academic meritocracy is not the same thing as a fluid and fairer society. It’s certainly no fairer that some people are lucky enough to be smart than that others are good at making a fortune.
And France is no star when it comes to economic mobility. According to a review of the literature by the economist Miles Corak, France joins the U.S. and the UK as the Western countries with the least intergenerational mobility. Krugman also doesn’t mention that France is a very good place to have a job, but not so hospitable to people looking for work. That’s especially a problem for young people who didn’t go to the best schools.
There are serious arguments in favor of rule by a highly-trained administrative class within a moderately redistributive capitalist economy. Those arguments were a crucial source of the modern liberalism that Krugman endorses, and have recently been reiterated by Frank Fukuyama. What modern liberals really want, however, isn’t freedom or equality—terms that have no meaning before it’s determined for what and by whom they will be enjoyed. As conservatives have long understood, it’s a society in which people like themselves and their favored constituencies have more power while the old elites of property, church, and family have less.
Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.