Arnold Kling  

Conservatives, Libertarians, and Big Ideas

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Stephen Bainbridge writes,


it is the Libertarians and the progressives who are Big Idea people. Despite their obvious differences in philosophy, they share the absurd belief that if only their big idea(s) came to pass, society would inexorably progress towards some ideal.

...“A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers,” as Russell Kirk aptly put it.

Pointer from Megan McArdle, who comments,

Conservatives need to figure out how they are going to roll back the bad ideas and prevent new bad ones from getting through. For that, they need a proposal a bit more eloquent than "Stop!"

It is probably fair to say that libertarians and most conservatives agree that big government causes harm. However, they disagree when it comes to methods for changing it. Libertarians are revolutionaries, while conservatives are...conservative.

The question here is whether Big Ideas are good or bad for those of us who prefer smaller government. Professor Bainbridge convincingly indicts Big Ideas by listing them.


Compassionate conservatism, Objectivism, Deconstructionism, Freudianism, Nazism, Conceptualism, Socialism, Syndicalism, Minimalism, Communism, Functionalism, Postmodernism, Dadism, Fundamentalism, Fascism.

Let me play sophomore philosopher for a moment. The statement "Reject Big Ideas" is itself a Big Idea. So, I don't think that there is any way to avoid taking the position that Big Ideas are inevitable. The challenge is to find a way for good Big Ideas to drive out bad Big Ideas, rather than the other way around.

The Big Idea that I would like to get across is that voting does not equal sanctification. We need to approach elections not as an opportunity to choose great leaders who will follow wonderful policies, but as an imperfect check against tyranny.

When it comes to curbing abuse and exploitation, I am much more impressed with the tool of market competition than with the tool of elections. The challenge is to convey this Big Idea, so that we start to play down the notion that democracy gives politicians a mandate to implement their own Big Ideas.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Selfreferencing writes:

Arnold, I agree that there is a lurking incoherence in Bainbridge's critique of libertarianism. For conservativism to even conceive of itself in this Burkean, Kirkian fashion is a Big Idea. Furthermore, for centuries the West has had a tradition of Big Ideas. It would be a Big Idea to end this tradition.

Jack writes:

I agree: many Libertarian Big Ideas are "negative", i.e. let's cancel this or that existing Big Idea. When Libertarians push "positive" Big Ideas, I tend to part ways with them.

Steve Miller writes:

"The Big Idea that I would like to get across is that voting does not equal sanctification. We need to approach elections not as an opportunity to choose great leaders who will follow wonderful policies, but as an imperfect check against tyranny."

Well said.

Jeff writes:

Umm, err, the founders (at least a large portion of them) were conservative and revolutionaries.

Cliff writes:

Jeff gets close...

Seems to me that the founders of the republic had a few Big Ideas, and it seems to me that one of them was the one Arnold is promoting about democracy.

Bainbridge is proposing this syllogism:
The ideas in this list of big ideas were all bad
Therefore all big ideas are bad.
(Except for my syllogism)

Arnold is right, and Bainbridge is lost in the pragmatist's contradiction: 'there are no principles' is a principle.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I like the way you frame the last sentence. The tough sell is that the market doesn't provide assurances, it is uncertain and changing. Your favorite cereal might disappear tomorrow. People look to government to provide assurances. And when government undertakes assurances to provide, both small and large, it usually gets the job done. At what cost is the key question. I rarely hear us debate about whether a huge government initiative will fail. Nobody wondered if we would get our heads handed to us in Iraq. Even with Iran brewing, nobody questions whether we might lose. Saddam didn't think he could win. Neither does Achmadinejad. They do question if we'll do it.

At any rate, "at what cost" is the key question. And perhaps the war and possible impending action against Iran are useful frames for convincing people that we shouldn't always have government do something because it can.

Patrick C writes:

Big idea: add "none of the above" to all political ballots. If "none of the above" wins the election, new candidates are selected and the election is re-run until a real person wins.

This would: 1) encourage voter participation, 2) offer more attractive candidates, 3) discourage lack of "straight talk"

Karina writes:

My problem with grouping conservatism, and some forms of libertarianism, with other Big Ideas is this: They are process-based, not teleological.

Communism and most of the other sorts of -isms out there have some kind of utopian rhetoric built into their narrative. A lot of these ideologies fail because they don't really think about incentives for people to get there.

Conservatism doesn't talk about a "workers' paradise" or any other kind of paradise, and libertarians almost always bring up the idea of creative destruction in the market and other forms of "controlled chaos" that are necessary for economies to function. In other words, they admit to a degree of painful imperfection that most of those viewpoints don't, and admit that we'll always have some of this painful imperfection built into the system, even as we try to make some improvements.

The Founders didn't think we were going to hit the mark perfectly with the Constitution. The point was to create a system in which the processes were basically good and incentives were right for always perfecting the system, not letting it unravel. It also guards against tyranny.

Unfortunately, "imperfectionist" systems can always be overpowered, even through democracy (Hugo Chavez on line one?) if there is enough belief in a utopian ideology.

Karina writes:

Just a point of clarification, now that I think about it: What is the difference between a Big Idea and a Small Idea? Can you even think about policy questions/take in data without one?

It seems like the -isms are what Bainbridge considers Big Ideas. They come prepackaged with a comprehensive world view and often a teleology. And a set of holy books, too.

I consider "voting != sanctification" to be a useful mental tool/heuristic because it keeps one from making assumptions. This actually encourages thought. It doesn't come with an ideology, and it has more than one argument to back it up.

Of course, I view conservatism (and prudent libertarianism, my preferred flavor) as a set of smaller principles for
how to think about policy. This is why there's often so much infighting in both tents; the principles can be used by a LOT of different worldviews, from capitalist to ultra-Christian to New Age to South Park conservatism.

I'd argue that single principles have a longer (potential) shelf-life and farther-reaching consequences well beyond all dogmas. Ultimately, some of the principles have turned into the biggest ideas of all: those are the "bigger" ideas. Autonomy of the individual, personal property, citizenship, right of passage, open seas, one-man-one-vote...

Michael Stack writes:

To me the great virtue of libertarianism is "improvements at the margin". Get a little libertarianism or a lot, the net result is almost certainly an improvement. Left-wing ideas need to travel in large packs to be effective.

Here is my Big Idea. It's simultaneously conservative and revolutionary. Our government should be structured the way every complex system in nature is structured: as a bottom-up emergent system, meaning it is structured based on power laws. That means, more power at the bottom, among the many, and less and less power as government entities get larger and larger. Another way of putting it: the individual should have the most power over his own life, then would be personal associations like family and friends, then would be voluntary associations, like clubs and churches, then would come towns and neighborhoods, then city government, then county government, then state government, then federal government -- the last being the weakest of all, and having practically no effect on the daily lives of anyone, since its job will be to cybernetically steer the entire ship of state through the waters of world politics.

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