American Elephants

Our Actions Have Unforseen and Often Unwelcome Consequences. by The Elephant's Child
February 16, 2010, 12:07 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Liberalism, Politics, Progressivism | Tags: , ,

One of my particular obsessions revolves around the fact that Liberals are so little interested in consequences.  Conservatives care about evidence.  They want to see some evidence that a program or a policy will work before inflicting it on the country.

Conservatives and Libertarians have sponsored think tanks across the country, some of them well-known, some obscure, whose fellows study policies as diverse as light rail and emergency-room economics.  They study programs that have been passed into law to see if they work, and if they are cost-effective, and how they can be improved. They study problems that have not yet come to the attention of government; and study what is happening around the globe, and what those influences on America will be.  They study war and peace.

Liberals, after the 2000 election, complained publicly, and bitterly, that they had no ideas — because they had no think tanks.  The Center for American Progress was shortly established, and John Podesta put in charge.  Typically, the Center seems devoted to all things political in general, and how to win at putting their political ideas into practice in particular.  It is a difference in approach.

Liberals care deeply about their good intentions.  They’re all for hope and change and their idea of a better world.  But liberal ideas never die.  Most of the ideas proposed by the administration or the liberals in Congress, are not new, but very old familiar ideas from the Roosevelt era, or the Johnson administration or the Carter administration.  If a program or a policy does not work, they are quite sure that not enough money was invested or not enough rules were established, so they do it over again.

A shining example is the Head Start program, which was devised to give poor minority children the advantage of expensive pre-school programs that seem to benefit children from wealthier families.   Study after study has shown that there are no benefits that extend beyond first grade.  Yet Liberals continue to insist on the program, add more funding and, like this administration, expand the coverage to younger and younger children.  This is why they advocate government-run child care from the earliest age.

Or, as another example of splendid intentions, take Stimulus I.  It was not successful in anything that it purported to do — except for pumping lots of money (uselessly) into the economy. In that it was successful to the tune of $862 billion.  So we now have Stimulus II, which morphed into “the Jobs Bill”, which was canceled by Harry Reid to become a mere $15 billion effort, the purpose of which is not yet clear, nor is it clear what becomes of the jobs effort, for that remains an unsolved concern.

What fostered this rant of mine, was an article by Roger Kimball, the editor of The New Criterion, and President and Publisher of Encounter Books, at Pajamas Media entitled “Why I Am Not  Pessimistic,” which I would recommend.  In his essay, Mr. Kimball included an excerpt from Australian philosopher David Stove’s “Why You Should Be a Conservative,” which defines the oldest and best argument for conservatism.

A primitive society is being devastated by a disease, so you bring modern medicine to bear, and wipe out the disease, only to find that by doing so you have brought on a population explosion. You introduce contraception to control population, and find that you have dismantled a whole culture. At home you legislate to relieve the distress of unmarried mothers, and find you have given a cash incentive to the production of illegitimate children. You guarantee a minimum wage, and find that you have extinguished, not only specific industries, but industry itself as a personal trait. You enable everyone to travel, and one result is, that there is nowhere left worth traveling to. And so on.

This is the oldest and the best argument for conservatism: the argument from the fact that our actions almost always have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. It is an argument from so great and so mournful a fund of experience, that nothing can rationally outweigh it. Yet somehow, at any rate in societies like ours, this argument never is given its due weight. When what is called a “reform” proves to be, yet again, a cure worse than the disease, the assumption is always that what is needed is still more, and still more drastic, “reform.”

Progressives cannot wrap their minds (or, more to the point, their hearts) around this irony: that “reform” so regularly exacerbates either the evil it was meant to cure or another evil it had hardly glimpsed. The great Victorian Matthew Arnold was no enemy of reform. But he understood that “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith had left culture dangerously exposed and unprotected. In cultures of the past, Arnold thought, the invigorating “remnant” of those willing and able to energize culture was often too small to succeed. As societies grew, so did the forces of anarchy that threatened them –- but so did that enabling remnant. Arnold believed modern societies possessed within themselves a “saving remnant” large and vital enough to become “an actual” power that could stem the tide of anarchy. I hope that he was right.


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