Raise your hand if you’re a conservative who has cited Edmund Burke without actually having read him closely.
Really—you’re all scholars of the Irish-born MP and oft-celebrated “father of modern conservatism”?
Okay, what did Burke mean by the phrase “the little platoon”?
Yuval Levin explains in his wonderful new book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left:
The division of citizens into distinct groups and classes, Burke writes, “composes a strong barrier against the excesses of despotism,” by establishing habits and obligations of restraint in ruler and ruled alike grounded in the relations of groups or classes in society. To remove these traditional restraints, which hold in check both the individual and the state, would mean empowering only the state to restrain the individual, and in turn restraining the state with only principles and rules, or parchment barriers. Neither, Burke thought, could be stronger or more effective than the restraints of habit and custom that grow out of group identity and loyalty. Burke’s famous reference to the little platoon—“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections”—is often cited as an example of a case for local government or allegiance to place, but in its context in the Reflections, the passage is very clearly a reference to social class.
Still feeling Burkean? Ready to go the pipe-and-slippers, Brideshead cultist route and declare yourself a loyal subject of the queen?
Levin reminds us that the context in which Burke wrote those words was a long-running intellectual dispute with a European-born radical, a man who was cheering on the secular revolution in France—and, oh, by the way, also one of the forefathers of our own revolution, favored by none other than Ronald Reagan himself—the Common Sense and The Crisis pamphleteer Thomas Paine.
That the rivalry between Burke and Paine cuts both ways through our hearts—this is precisely the kind of dialectic, if you will, that Levin hopes to provoke in the reader.
Make no mistake, though; Levin is a Burkean. In fact, the most eloquent exponent of Burkean conservatism, properly understood, since George Will circa 1983’s Statecraft as Soulcraft.
While scholarly and measured in tone, The Great Debate is a readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance.
Indeed, The Great Debate is the must-read book of the year for conservatives—especially those conservatives who are profoundly and genuinely baffled by the declining popularity of the GOP as a national party. How can America, these conservatives ask, the land of the rugged individual, the conquerors of the frontier, choose statism and collectivism over freedom and liberty?!
Levin’s book provides the answer: You’re looking at the Democratic Party all wrong. It’s just as individualist as you are—maybe more so.
And that is the problem!
All signs point to Gov. Chris Christie cruising to reelection in New Jersey tonight.
This is one of those times when personal bias is well nigh overwhelming: Christie—an authentic, half-Italian, New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen uberfanatic, and a strong conservative by any reasonable standard—is about to rocket to the top tier of 2016 presidential contenders.
Judging by a spate of recent posts and on-the-ground reports, Business Insider’s Josh Barro is an unabashed fan of Christie as well. He even brushes aside the one serious reservation I have about the governor: his proclivity for in-your-face confrontations—in a word, “bullying”:
Christie’s confrontational personality can appeal to all sorts of electorates so long as he trains his anger in the right places.
When Christie yelled at that teacher yesterday about how education spending levels will “never be enough” for New Jersey’s teachers’ unions, he was doing so in a state that spent $19,291 per pupil on K-12 education last year — more than any state except New York and Vermont and 74% more than the national average. … So long as Christie keeps training his anger in the right place, Christie will be O.K. What national liberal reporters don’t get is that “towards teachers” can be the right place, politically and substantively, to train that anger.
This is true as far as it goes.
Which I fear is not actually very far.
Back in 2010, I wrote this at U.S. News:
In the short term, the example of New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie is instructive. He has maintained popularity while aggressively pushing an agenda of fiscal austerity. How does he do it? Simple: In teachers unions and state-government employees, Christie has found a juicy, isolatable adversary. This works on the state level, where things like pensions and teacher benefits are significant sources of budget shortfalls—unlike on the national level, where middle-class entitlements are the big driver.
The lesson is this: To the extent that “government” is a sectional entity—an interest group consisting of people who have not had to “sacrifice like the rest of us”—Republicans will find that cutting it is politically popular. To that extent that “government” is Grandma and Grandpa in Boca Raton, Republicans will need to tread carefully and—it’s possible to do both—honestly.
Zoom in on “juicy, isolatable adversary.”
At the presidential level, teachers aren’t going to cut it. Neither are employees of the federal government, whose salaries account for about 5 percent of total federal spending.
Is Chris Christie going to yell at senior citizens about Medicare?
Is he going to yell at beneficiaries of food stamps?
Is he going to yell at families on Medicaid or CHIP?
Is he going to yell at farmers about agribusiness subsidies?
If Christie is a wise and disciplined campaigner, I find it hard to believe he’d do any of those things. And given his recent disparagement of the GOP’s “libertarian strain” in the context of the debate over the national security state, I can’t see Christie getting up in the grill of a Pentagon contractor, either.
Teachers and public-sector employees who don’t want to pay as much for their healthcare as most of the rest of us do are the “right targets” when you’re arguing about state budgets. In fact, they are ridiculously easy targets. They are to Chris Christie what southern reactionaries are to Sacha Baron Cohen.
But I ask Josh: who are the analogously easy marks when you’re talking about the federal budget, and do you honestly think it will do Chris Christie any good to get in their faces?
Josh Barro has a helpful post on why health insurance is different from other insurance products, such as homeowner’s or flood insurance.
The hardy perennial of problematic insurance analogies, though, is the one that’s supposed to make the case for expanding catastrophic health insurance and calling it a day. I first encountered it in some Cato Institute literature at college in the mid-’90s and came across it again a couple days ago:
Conservatives love catastrophic health insurance. Indeed we believe non-catastrophic health “insurance” is an oxymoron. It’s prepaid health care. Would you buy auto insurance for an oil change or tune up or new tires?
This one has bothered me in an inchoate, can’t-quite-explain-why sense for years. I wondered if the people who use it think beyond its superficial logic. So I decided finally to parse it.
Here’s why I think the analogy is lousy:
First and foremost, when I hear “catastrophic” car insurance, I don’t think of anything that happens in the mechanic’s garage, like rotating tires. I think of a collision with another car. When I got my first set of wheels in 1993—as it happens, an ’84 Ford Tempo that leaked oil profusely—I had the choice of buying “liability” insurance and opting out of “collision”: that is, in the event of an accident in which I was at fault, my plan would cover the damage to the other car but not my own. In my case, this was a decision that made itself: If I wrecked the Tempo, almost beyond repair as it was, its next and final home would be the scrap heap.
Equally obviously, we do not get to decide whether to insure our bodies only in the case of collisions with other bodies.
Which segues into my next point: Unlike 1984 Ford Tempos, we don’t send people to the scrap heap if they’re old, infirm, or otherwise financially inconvenient. We don’t “trade in” people. Indeed we spend an astonishing amount of money on the human equivalent of problem-plagued cars. You may have read recently of a startling fact: Half the population accounts for a trivial amount of our total healthcare expenditures, while a scant five percent spends half the total amount.
If you want to press the cars/people insurance analogy, you have to acknowledge the fact that, while we don’t put in an insurance claim every 5-7,000 miles, neither do we try to resuscitate 1984 Ford Tempos, or keep them on the road until 2084.
In the same sense that the writer (Scott Sumner) whose passage I quote above mocks the idea that maternity care is a “catastrophe,” is old age any more or less a “catastrophe”?
Moreover, there is this business of “preventative maintenance.” Are humans and cars even remotely analogous from this angle?
I’m calling b.s.
No, I don’t use insurance to pay for tuneups and oil changes. But what is the closest approximation, in the realm of healthcare, to tuneups and oil changes? The implication is that the routine checkup—the annual physical exam—is the closest approximation. But is it?
To my lights, oil changes and tuneups and tire rotations are more akin to proper diet and exercise than they are to a visit to the doctor’s office. These are the things we do to keep our bodies in good general health. We don’t consume professional medical services to do that—we go to the produce section and hit the treadmill.
Wait a minute, you say; what about the similarity of, say, mileage service intervals (it’s time you had your radiator flushed) and age-based disease screening (you’re 40 years old now; we don’t have to worry about your testicles so much as your prostate gland).
Well, what about that? What’s the worst a mechanic is going to find? That the car you paid $35,000 for is going to require an unforeseen $3,000 repair? As I argued a moment ago, when it comes to cars, you get to weigh the cost of fixing it against its overall, and annually depreciating, value.
If a car is diagnosed with, say, juvenile diabetes, you can cut your losses. And, unlike babies, if it’s disabled when it comes out of the factory, it either doesn’t reach the showroom or … there’s this thing called a warranty: it gets fixed at the manufacturer’s expense.
I could go on, but I’ll conclude with this last thought. I realize cars have become more and more dependent on onboard electronics, but I grew up around plenty of guys who could change their own oil and tires. And while we can self-examine for signs of certain types of cancer, we can’t be our own doctors.
It’s helpful to step back and remind ourselves why we ask doctors to perform “preventative maintenance” on our bodies. If diseases are caught early, they’re often cheaper to treat or cure. If we stay in good physical shape, we reduce the chances of developing many diseases in the first place. When we preventatively maintain our cars, however, we are merely forestalling problems that we would have to pay out-of-pocket for anyway. If you don’t change your oil, your car insurance plan isn’t going to cover the cost of fixing a seized engine.
Maybe it’s time conservatives retired this car insurance analogy. Surely someone took out a life insurance policy on it!
I’m beginning to notice a pattern among the anti-crony-capitalist set.
They’ve adopted a view of the interaction between government and business that is manichean at best, New Leftism in conservative drag at worst.
National Review’s Jonathan Strong passed on this thought from Rep. Raul Labrador:
Great pt from Labrador that media has derided tea party for not being under Wall St’s thumb while normally they fret about $ in politics
— Jonathan Strong (@j_strong) October 16, 2013
Now there’s no middle ground between being in the pocket of big business and not blowing up the global financial system.
And yesterday, Forbes’s James Poulos mused that Sen. Ted Cruz was waging a quixotic battle against both Big Finance and Big Government:
Orderly non-default would go a long way to prove to Americans that our complex financial-political system does not need to run things. Who needs the Fed? We don’t even need to raise the debt limit! You can imagine the fallout. It seems impossible to me that Wall Street and the world’s key money elites would ever even consider throwing in the towel on this level. If the financial elite loses the popular perception that they and their ways are essential to basic economic order, the jig is up. And if you can bet on one thing, it’s that the financial elite isn’t going to opt for the jig to be up.
That’s why I rate it extraordinarily likely Cruz and Company will be whipped and the debt limit raised. They thought they could take on big government and big business without any radical-left allies. My expectation is that, come the end of this non-crisis, that was their only miscalculation that mattered.
Again, this notion that preventing a default on our national debt is some kind of sop to Wall Street. By all means, let’s have a debate about the financialization of the American economy. But let’s do so without bringing the system to ruin and hurting millions of ordinary participants of the real economy, shall we?
The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, bless his conflicted heart, wrote a column recently lamenting that a repeal of Obamacare’s medical device tax was the only concession Republicans would win in the shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. He acknowledges that the tax is “bad,” and that “Congress is correct to repeal it”—but then spends the rest of the column making a nearly airtight case for why the tax should remain in effect. (Read the piece from the sixth paragraph on, and tell me I’m exaggerating.)
The libertarian-populist take on the medical device tax was shared by enough Republicans that language to repeal it was actually stripped out of the House leadership’s final attempt at a bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.
Finally, this morning I made it about a fourth of the way through Kevin D. Williamson’s piece on the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy over the closing of national monuments during the shutdown. He writes, jauntily, “Every American has a little sedition in his soul, and this is a very good time to give it free rein.” To be charitable, Williamson has in mind Thoreauvian civil disobedience here, not outright sedition, but all the same, I find the whole tone utterly disturbing.
RedState’s Erick Erickson actually wrote the following sentence with a straight face: “Mitch McConnell is the single obstacle we have this week to taking our country back from the death spiral instigated by Obama and his merry band of community organizers.”
This talk of death spirals, storming barricades, of cleaning the Augean Stables of K Street, of exposing the naked emperors of Wall Street, of constitutional conventions—it seems painfully apparent to me that many folks on the right are suffering from radicalism envy. They are drama queens of the apocalypse.
Movement conservatism has always been half-crazy.
Lately it’s more like three-quarters crazy.
I’m now old enough to remember two federal government shutdowns.
Both turned out poorly for Republicans.
The difference this time was that every sane observer strongly suspected it was going to work out poorly for Republicans.
In the end, they won’t even get peanuts. They’ll get the discarded shells of peanuts.
The most infuriating, tear-out-your-hair reaction to the House GOP implosion came from Reps. Thomas Massie and Joe Barton, Republicans of Kentucky and Texas respectively: that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” No deal? Seriously? Ponder that for a moment: A faction of House Republicans, at the not-so-secret urging of Sen. Ted Cruz, noisily insisted on a foolish confrontation with Senate Democrats and the White House. Once that confrontation ended fruitlessly—as critics predicted it would—this faction skulked away and left its leadership dangling and embarrassed.
This is akin to goading a friend into a bar fight and then watching helplessly as he’s kneed in the crotch.
Make no mistake, though: the GOP leadership isn’t completely blameless. It had planned, too, on a dangerous confrontation over the debt ceiling. There is little reason, now, to believe that such an effort would have ended differently than this one.
Another round of negotiations over long-term budgeting, to be held between now and Dec. 13, will commence once this deal is enacted. Is there any hope for it? It’s hard not to be pessimistic. The eternal snag is as it always has been: there is no appetite within the GOP for exchanging higher tax revenues for entitlement reform. And contrary to Fox News pundit George Will, I think there’s little chance that President Obama will trade entitlement reform for sequester relief. As Jonathan Chait has noted, Democrats are unlikely to accept permanent cuts to mandatory spending in order to temporarily increase discretionary spending.
So we’re left the question, Can this divided government live with the status quo at least until the midterm elections?
Can it agree simply to do no more harm?
CNN reports on a potential thaw in the fiscal standoff:
On Wednesday, GOP leaders appeared to shift their focus from efforts to dismantle Obama’s signature health care reform, the initial driving force behind the shutdown, to securing spending cuts elsewhere. …
Meanwhile, GOP leaders were distancing themselves from demands by tea party conservatives to also make dismantling Obamacare a condition for agreement.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Republican negotiators secure actual spending cuts or, rather, some kind of a framework in which subsequent negotiations will take place. But the tabling of Obamacare represents half the battle for the Obama administration.
It’s worth stepping back to look at the Spinal Tap sandwich that Republicans—because they could not agree on tactics—have put Obama in: The House leadership, plus Rep. Paul Ryan, now seek nonmaximal budget concessions from the administration. But all along, they’ve eyed the most dangerous hostage—the debt ceiling. The kami-cons, meanwhile, sought a maximal concession—the defunding or delay or Obamacare—but eyed a lower-value target: the continuing resolution to keep the government open.
Obama won’t bargain on the debt ceiling.
And he won’t bargain on Obamacare.
Two separate factions of Republicans tried to make him do both—and for different reasons.
Clowns to the left of him, jokers to the right.
There is a deal to be had now that Obamacare is again on the backburner and a short-term debt ceiling increase is apparently in play. The mismatch of demands and leverage points is coming back into balance. And so we’re left to wonder what House Republicans could have accomplished had they retained a sense of proportion and sought reasonable concessions without attempting to seize the highest-value hostage. A repeal of the medical device tax, plus sequester-level budget caps? The Keystone pipeline? More?
Instead they’ll get peanuts, and an even more badly damaged national brand.
Robert Costa reports this morning:
In the coming days, the House will likely consider legislation that would establish a bipartisan negotiating group to resolve the current fiscal impasse. It’d include select members from both chambers, and once passed, it’d start immediately.
This sounds alarmingly similar to 2011’s deficit-reduction supercommittee, which could not reach bipartisan agreement of any kind and whose miserable failure led indirectly to the creation of the budget sequestration that nearly everyone hates, but is kept in place by Republicans who enjoy mutilating their nose to spite their face.
It seems increasingly clear that the House leadership is playing out the string in the hopes that Obama or Senate Democrats will crack.
Yet consider another report (also from the indispensable Costa) on the implacability of the Houses kamikaze-cons:
“They may try to throw the kitchen sink at the debt limit, but I don’t think our conference will be amenable for settling for a collection of things after we’ve fought so hard,” says Representative Scott Garrett (R., N.J.). “If it doesn’t have a full delay or defund of Obamacare, I know I and many others will not be able to support whatever the leadership proposes. If it’s just a repeal of the medical-device tax, or chained CPI, that won’t be enough.”
Representative Paul Broun (R., Ga.) agrees, and says Boehner risks an internal rebellion if he decides to broker a compromise. “America is going to be destroyed by Obamacare, so whatever deal is put together must at least reschedule the implementation of Obamacare,” he says. “This law is going to destroy America and everything in America, and we need to stop it.”
Does this sound to you like there’s even a remote possibility that any deal, big or small, could pass muster with both Senate Democrats and 218 Republicans? If not, why are we putting the country through this? Why are Republicans inflicting real, immediate, and tangible harm on the economy in order to accomplish the impossible (delay or defund Obamacare) address an abstract future threat (debt) or merely to save face? Why isn’t the majority of the House majority isolating its rightmost faction and ending this pointlessly asinine pissing match?
Contra the conventional wisdom, I maintain that no one in leadership will lose his job. The very nature of Tea Party opposition, whether it issues from the likes of Bazooka Ted and His Gang in the Senate or the unappeasable Jacobins in the House, is to throw weight without consequence. They evince no interest in actually wielding power from the inside, which would require restraint, conciliation, and moderation. They are hysterics on the brink of utter demoralization. The danger they pose to democratic norms, institutional comity, and political functionality is precisely why they can’t be bargained with; they must be marginalized.
It’s time, Republicans: it’s time to throw the One Ring into Mount Doom.
After a weekend of trying to imbibe as much as I could of the back-and-forthing over this latest Manufactured and Unnecessary Crisis—despite much better things to imbibe, like postseason baseball, football, or even hemlock—I shouted at no one in particular:
What the hell is this thing about, anyway?
I mean, is it Obamacare?
Or is it long-term debt?
One minute, the showboating Bazooka Ted and His Gang tried to hold up the bank and defund—or maybe just delay; or at the very least marginally fiddle with—Obamacare. Something! The “Vitter Amendment”! Anything! The next minute, we’re talking about a “grand bargain” again. An “epic battle” over spending. Doing something to save our grandchildren from runaway government debt.
If you want to win an epic battle, it’s probably a good thing to have a coherent idea of what you’re actually battling over.
They’re a bunch of certitude-surfeited Jacobins.
That’s the implication of this New York Times report on hardline House GOPers who precipitated the current government shutdown, er, lapse in appropriations.
Sample quixotic-sounding quote from Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico: “At times, you must act on principle and not ask what cost, what are the chances of success.”
Here these 30-odd Republicans stand. Damn the torpedoes, they can do no other!
You know what, though?
After Mitt Romney’s failed bid for the presidency, the GOP’s first brainstorm was to tackle the immigration issue and thereby mend fences (as against building a literal one) with the country’s growing Hispanic population.
The resultant legislation—the so-called Gang of 8 bill—was a perfect expression of business-class consensus: a reform whose approach to the importation of temporary workers would have aggravated the plight of low-wage, low-skill workers and eventually paved the way for a two-tiered labor market.
The flawed immigration reform proposal, added to the party’s longstanding fealty to the investor class when it comes to upper-bracket tax rates, drove Ross Douthat to complain of Republican “donorists”: rich social moderates who mix more easily with the cosmopolitan elite than with grassroots conservatives.
This past weekend, after which a government shutdown over Obamacare seemed all but certain to proceed, has seen the ascendance of a more authentically populist conservatism.
As Tom Petty sang years ago, I can’t decide which is worse.
For the push to “defund,” or merely delay the implementation of, Obamacare is maybe the most moronic and counterproductive gambit yet devised by the fire-breathing right flank of the congressional GOP.
It drops the ball of debt reduction—the putative reason conservatives confronted President Obama so dramatically in back in 2011—and exposes many Republican lawmakers’ cowardice when it comes to reining in the growth of entitlement spending. (I’m old enough to remember a “grand bargain” that included chained CPI and raising the eligibility age for Medicare!) Read More…