a book by David Frum
(our site's book review)
The message of the author is that “. . . the conservative movement was born in revolt against the size, cost and arrogance of the modern state." But recently, conservatism has walked away from that founding principle. Instead, many conservatives have evolved a taste for the use of government power to "reform society" along traditionalist lines. Unfortunately for conservatives, using government in this way is a doomed project. "Modern government, like a twisted knife, necessarily cuts to the left.”
Modern government necessarily cuts to the left
Big government (which used to be a liberal obsession but now the Republicans have contracted the same obsession/disease), by relieving families of responsibilities for child and elder care which they used to do for themselves, weakens family bonds. The force driving the social trends that offend conservatives, such as family breakup and also such as unassimilated immigration, is the welfare function in today's government. The main fact of a capitalist economy is risk, according to Frum. Everyone perpetually risks of the loss of a job, or of the destruction of his or her business by competitors, or even the devastating crash of his investment portfolio. Frum is of the opinion that risk tends to make people more circumspect. Risk disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Big government, however, minimizes these risks and enables people to engage in destructive behavior but without suffering the consequences. The thing that puzzles the moralists is that the elite of society, either because they're gripped by liberal guilt or because they actively identify with an adversary culture, can't bring themselves to set up and enforce decent standards of conduct.
Elder care is financed more by Big Government these days than Frum likes—he says conservatism has walked away from its founding principles
In Frum’s words, the conservatives should not obsess on Republican elections, but instead should: “. . . be showing the public the necessary connection between the social pathologies it loathes and fears and the social programs it still rather likes—not just the programs for the poor that have created the underclass, . . . but also the broader programs and laws that have corroded the economic functions of the family, set ethnic groups at one another’s throats in pursuit of set-asides and special favors, outlawed the expression of moral outrage at irregular conduct, and diminished the necessity of thrift. . . . It is not to maximize liberty as an end in itself that conservatives have advocated minimal government. They have advocated it because they admired a certain type of character—self-reliant, competent, canny, and uncomplaining—and minimal government was the system of government under which the character they admired flourished best. . . . It is social conditions that form character, as another conservative hero, Alexis de Tocqueville, demonstrated, and if our characters are now less virtuous than formerly, we must identify in what way our social conditions have changed in order to understand why.”
Individualistic self-reliant, conservative hero
He lists some social changes, but then boldly proclaims—falling on his face as he does so—that the expansion of government is the only social change we can do something about. Government may not be able to do much about any other social change, but movements can. (For instance, the conservative movement in the past has helped keep government small and helped us reexamine our values for many years. We owe them a debt of gratitude for this. On the other hand, the Republicans have done a terrible job of keeping government small in the 21st century.) Policies, politics and social engineering cannot do much about the social changes needed most at this time. But grassroots movements have in the past, will in the future, and should in the present make sweeping social changes of many kinds. He needs to reread his history.
Frum falls on his face a few times
It’s true that the expansion of government has colluded with the deterioration of character. But this isn’t the main reason for character’s fall. Reducing government to improve character, like he says, is a noble task, but it is too reductionistic an approach if used alone, just as expansion of government as the sole culprit in character diminishment is too simplistic an explanation.
If you try to force responsibility on an underclass by removing the social safety net, but give them no map to the land of character, they’ll feel obliged to seek vengeance on the “greedy” rich and the “hateful, cynical, self-serving” politicians in the form of crime and conspiracy. It’s true that risk forces one to exercise self-control, if you’re a “have.” But if all of life is a scary risk and you’re a “have-not,” then the old law of the jungle kicks in and we all get to learn more about “survival of the fittest” (survival of the most criminally aggressive) the hard way, as we once more apprehend that “if you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.”
Follow Frum's plan and the law of the jungle will kick in—nastily!
Responsibility cannot be forced. The most well-understood parenting fact is that authoritarianism/coercion/threats/negative power don’t produce true responsibility in those it manipulates, but authoritative parenting often will produce responsibility. Authoritarianism produces fear, anger, violent impulses, vengeance, passive aggressiveness, aggression, and deception as the manipulated bide their time looking for a way to get payback, even if the payback is limited to hurting someone else or acting in such a way as to create disappointment in the autocrat.
It’s interesting that Frum sees producing good character as a prominent reason for lessening government. Pulling the rug out from under the feet of the disadvantaged will precipitate activities that will further lower character and the chances for it to improve. So he’ll end up with even less good character to admire, thereby shooting in the foot his own conservative goals.
Frum will end up with even less good character to admire if he screws over the disadvantaged, thereby shooting in the foot his own conservative goals
Pulling the rug out from under the feet of the disadvantaged is a bad idea
Character has eroded for a whole plethora of reasons. It’s a holistic, systems issue if there ever was one. His dog-eat-dog, reductionistic perspective on it makes a good case for the need for better character and more responsibility, but, concomitantly, does the whole, complex issue of character formation—and for that matter the concept of cause and effect—a disservice. It is well known how to design environments that engender good character, an it is well known that various conservative, authoritarian, and punitive measures will not only fail but backfire. So it behooves us to help Frum help himself (and ourselves in the bargain) in his quest for better character.
The disadvantaged don’t need a financial disaster to challenge them to build better character and honor the American hard-work ethic. Or if a safety net removal is insisted upon, at least we owe it to ourselves and our country to do it slowly, rationally, sensitively, and wisely, rather than capriciously and punitively. All logic points in the same direction: Give them the opportunity—via grassroots movement and not via social engineering—to grasp the meaning of the net-removal situation, the time to prepare for it, and the information to be able to profit from the challenge and opportunity it entails. If we’re all to be capitalist entrepreneurs, risking and bravely maneuvering to get ahead, we must first have the opportunity to learn how one becomes such a thing. See Renewing American Civilization: toward an opportunity society.
A capitalist entrepreneur, risking and bravely maneuvering to get ahead
It gets down to information. Information so clearly imparted that even the illiterate among them will get the message. Information convincing presented via all the best mass media and multimedia that can be enlisted. Let the high-quality power of knowledge and wisdom be used for them—via this movement opportunity, rather than having the low-quality power of wealth (empty their pocketbooks without warning) and coercion (jail them when they react to the net removal predictably) be used against them. They’re our citizens. They’re our fellow countrymen and women and children. They’re not some nameless, faceless THEM. Why utilize the negative power of threat and financial trauma without a warning? Why not utilize the positive power of wisdom shared, of empowerment, and of helping them to learn to be resourceful so that they won’t look to the government’s resources as their only hope? Why not help them evolve the type of character that can not only cope but thrive even after the net has been yanked?
And what “movement” will get them ready? What movement will empower them and contain the information and social resources needed to help them to help themselves? Frum would indulge in wishful thinking here and cite the conservative movement. He would be incorrect. His book may (or may not) be Dead Right, but his solution is dead wrong. Adopting minimal amounts of government-as-solution beliefs may indeed complement the process, but it will fail to empower or inspire.
(The MC movement, on the other hand, will succeed as the type of empowering impetus required for people to be successfully weaned from entitlement programs and from dependence in general. It will enable independence, responsibility, and hard work ethics as nothing else can because it will strengthen character. See Why Register for an MC?.)
Registering for MC search and match
Conservatives are figuring that we’re going in circles here: Give them better character so that when we challenge their character, they’ll rise to the challenge, and then this reduction of government spending will have bettered their character. But their character was already better, so it’s a double-bind where you can only get it if you already have it—it’s a Maine joke, and you really can’t get there from here. Expecting capitalist entrepreneurs to be produced by the "conservative movement" alone is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
Trying to put a square peg in a round hole
But those who are more adept at cause-and-effect will see that once you have empowered them enough so that they can rise to the occasion of a financial challenge, they have good character and no longer need this crises dumped on them to improve their character, so the main conservative goal of wanting to be around—or be compatriots with—people whose character is admired has already actualized pre-net-dump. So now the main goal of the social safety net dump—no longer related to character—would be to lower taxes for us all, which is a laudable goal if done fairly and equitably. But if the schools in their neighborhoods aren’t safe and don’t teach, and the health care is so poor they cannot get healthy enough to rise to economic challenges, and the main money spent there is by big tobacco for smoking ads, while in our neighborhoods there are school improvements, infrastructure improvements, college grants for our kids, and safety, it might just be fair to reconsider the taxes issue in the light of good capitalism’s prerequisite of a level playing field.
In the meantime, perhaps it would be a good time to show that the extra funds they get through the safety net are much less than the entitlements that middle-class people have come to expect as a matter of course, and that the middle class are at least as dependent on big government spending as the lower class. So, as you can see, a systems analysis, a political analysis, an economic analysis, and a even a capitalistic analysis of the issue, if taken together, as a relatively holistic assessment (which we have barely even started here), could always be counted on to yield a much more complex and interdependent cause-and-effect evaluation than is to be found in Frum-ville.
Frum is exactly right to have character center stage and spotlighted as the pivotal issue in America’s cultural decline. But character is damaged more by steep-gradient nurturance, authoritarian and permissive parenting, isolation, media influences, capitalism’s hysterical consumer conditioning and the unacknowledged religion of materialism than by overlarge government. But since the MC movement will deal with most of the first three and part of the fourth, it seems obvious that the values of MC movement members will quickly, if indirectly, stymie many of the remaining character-harming factors.
Put hair on their chests and force the weak to be strong in spite of themselves
So we like to think of the restricting of the size of government not as an abandonment of citizenry done to try to “put hair on their chests and force the weak to be strong in spite of themselves,” but as a side effect when the big government programs which attempt to make up for lack of community and connectedness and good parenting knowledge are no longer needed because said lack is reversed. All of us would prefer well-functioning families, neighborhoods, communities, relationships, lifestyles, child-raising methods and childcare practices over a bloated government bureaucracy attempting to bandage symptoms in a dysfunctional system where relationships, families, and community are all failing. But to dump the existing programs and expect conservative values to come to the rescue is to get the cart before the horse. You don’t dump the programs in order to get life working right. You get life working right in order to dump the programs.
Getting the cart before the horse
The author feels that the government should protect the public from only those risks they cannot reasonably be expected to protect themselves from, such as unemployment, natural disasters, disability, and catastrophic illness. Grants, Medicare, college loans, subsidies, welfare, food stamps, and social security simply promote irresponsibility. The able-bodied should have no option but work in order to get the money to fill their needs. If there’s an easy way out—if they can be lazy and irresponsible and immoral and even criminal and the government will prop them up and subsidize this cynical, irresponsible conduct, they will never learn to become hard-working Americans, in Frum-think.
The author feels that the government should protect the public from only those risks they cannot reasonably be expected to protect themselves from, such as unemployment, natural disasters, disability, and catastrophic illness
This addresses the underclass, the poor and the welfare users, but what about the rest of us? He feels that if people can neglect retirement planning and college planning and illness planning and simply count on the government to take care of these issues, they’ll end up—like they do now—feeling entitled to these things and not even try to make their life plans. As a result, millions of the nonplanners who suddenly have a need they’re unprepared for will look to those of us who’ve been thrifty and responsible and saved a nest egg and ask these people to subsidize their lives with a little thing called income redistribution—the liberal wet dream.
In essence, the responsible and hardest working are penalized and the irresponsible and laziest are rewarded—a conservative nightmare. Is it any wonder that character suffers? (This expression of conservativism seems to sell well ideologically, but voters vote with their pocketbooks and not their minds so tend to refrain from voting against any entitlement because they’d like to get in on the goodies too. "If others are getting freebies, I want to get my share too." Regardless of the finer principles they hold, this is the way they vote: To maximize what they get and minimize what they lose.)
He has a good point. In fact, he has many of them. We’d all love living in a country full of responsible people who plan smart for the future—including contingencies, work smart and hard, and are very productive and entrepreneurial. His utopia is a nice step upwards. The problem isn’t what his goal is. The problem is his plan for getting there.
The brick wall of reality that will be hit by the "conservative movement"
The path to the MC movement