Arnold Kling  

The Conservative, the Progressive, and the Masonomist

Well-Denominated... Comments Worth Reading...

Tyler Cowen writes,

Insofar as I am conservative (debatable) I would rewrite the definition:

A realization that we will do best by building on the strengths of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States (and other successful nations) rather than trying to reshape the nation radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals.

I know conservatives, I have attended symposia with conservatives, and Tyler Cowen is no conservative. The differences among conservatives, progressives, and Masonomists can be summarized concisely as follows:
LabelChangeDecentralized, Unplanned Human Activity

The core belief of conservatives is that we are going to hell in a handbasket. Depending on who you talk to, this has been happening since the 1960's, or since the French Revolution, or since the fall of the Roman Empire, or since ___. Depending on who you talk to, our problem is that we have forgotten the teachings of Ronald Reagan, or those of the Founding Fathers, or those of Jesus, or those of Plato, or those of ___.

Tyler's phrase "build on strengths" is anti-conservative. It implies that it is possible to move forward, when conservatives believe that all movement is backward.

The core belief of progressives is that ordinary people need to be told what to do for their own good. Progressives embrace change that is conceived and managed by experts, especially if it is grounded in science. In the 20th century, the relevant scientific apparatus included eugenics, Keynesianism, and Bergson-Samuelson social welfare calculus. Today, the relevant scientific apparatus includes climate science and behavioral economics, the latter embraced with enthusiasm by CBO Director Peter Orszag and by key economic advisers to Senator Obama.

The core belief of Masonomists is in spontaneous order. We embrace change that emerges from an evolutionary, trial-and-error process. We trust the process of entrepreneurial creative destruction, market solutions to market failure, and technological progress. What we distrust is central planning by experts. And I am sure that Pete Boettke would want to remind me of our intellectual debts to Austrian economists.

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The author at amcgltd in a related article titled Titles Titles Everywhere writes:
    Seconded: The core belief of Masonomists is in spontaneous order. We embrace change that emerges from an evolutionary, trial-and-error process. We trust the process of entrepreneurial creative destruction, market solutions to market failure, and techn... [Tracked on June 6, 2008 11:46 AM]
The author at Newmark's Door in a related article titled Political classifcations explained writes:
    Arnold Kling concisely explains the differences between conservatives, progressives, and Masonomists. Perhaps needless to say, Masonomists rule. [Tracked on June 10, 2008 4:35 AM]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
Michael Kolczynski writes:


What definition of conservative are you using? I generally accept the label of conservative -- and of those whom I read who also accept that label, your matrix is not accurate, nor is your analysis that "conservatives believe that all movement is backward." One clear example is Thomas Sowell. Sowell would not only be classified as Conservative by others but all evidence suggests he personally attributes this classification to himself. Would you assert that Sowell belives that all movement is backward? Certainly Sowell doesn't believe "Decentralized, Unplanned Human Activity" is "Bad." Nor would Rush Limbaugh, a self-proclaimed conservative say "Decentralized, Unplanned Human Activity" is "Bad."

Maybe I'm completely misreading you, but your definition of Masonomists fits just fine under what I generally accept to be part of a definition of conservative.

Of course, you can find plenty of examples of self-proclaimed Conservatives who may fit your matrix, but would they be the examples or would they be outliers?

Basically, I'm merely saying that the current "core" of modern "Conservative" thought tends to be more libertarian in nature and therefore more "Masonomist." Regardless of their obnoxious pet-peeves.

Your description of conservatism made me smile. But it considerably overstates the case. In fact, by appealing to the important lessons of history, many conservatives are merely trying to ensure that those lessons are not forgotten, or overlooked simply because they've become embedded in social norms. You could say that conservatives are progressive in the following sense: they're trying to ensure that political, economic, and cultural debates have a progressive (rather than cyclical) trend.

...and I know Masonomists well-enough to know that they should be considered conservatives in that sense at least.

He's using the traditional definition of a conservative. Your terms have become so screwed up as to have become almost meaningless. We have people who call themselves conservative who actually are conservative (Pat Buchanan), conservatives who are a combination of conservative and classical liberal (Rush Limbaugh), conservatives who are classical liberals (Ron Paul), liberals who are conservatives (Joe Leiberman), liberals who are Leftists (Obama), liberals who are progressives (Hillary Clinton), etc. We need to clarify our terms, since we group people together who probably should not be together. Quite frankly, what Pat Buchanan wants economically is far closer to what Obama wants than to what either Ron Paul or Rush Limbaugh want -- but he's considered a conservative. Now, to the extent that Buchanan's type of government-controlled economy (I have heard him say, "I am opposed to the free market system") is founded in much older thinkers than Marx, while Obama's is based precisely on Marx, that does make Buchanan a conservative in the European sense of the term, though the result of what he and Obama both want are practically identical. So we really need a clarification of terms.

Also, I think a less school-specific term than "Masonomist" would be preferred. My Masonomist world view was developed without having read anything by anyone from GMU -- except for a few articles and a book by Walter Williams. Still, my systems view of the world was developed primarily from other thinkers' work.

Michael Kolczynski writes:

Certainly, under tradional Conservative definitions his matrix is acceptable. But I would argue that it is misleading due to the generally accepted meaning to modern conservatism, which is fairly antithetical to the old definition of conservative.

There of course is great literature on how Conservatism now is essentially classical liberalism, but I don't really see a need to reverse the label. If it is confusing to have switched once, I don't think it would be less confusing to switch a second time -- so instead of trying to use an old definition, since we're not discussing text that referrenced the term as it used to be defined, we should just leave conservatism as it's modern meaning. Of course this puts those such as Pat Buchannon on defense attempting to claim they're the "real" conservatives, but those quibbles exist all the time, and since Buchannon is (although a popular commentator) not representative of the current bulk of "conservative" thought, he should be on defense.

Larry writes:

What's interesting here isn't the definitional bit (I bet most self-labelled progressives would reject his categorization) because attempting to define controversial words is pretty futile.

Instead, the openness to emergent behavior caught my eye. In this post, the author identifies evolution, democracy and capitalism as the driving emergent phenomena of our world, tossing in the Internet as potentially the fourth. This resonates strongly with my thinking, and I'm pretty sure with Masonism as well.

Ken writes:


Your losing much of your sharpness. I've noticed a decline in many of your posts for a while now. This one is a nice example. Your diagram is completely wrong, if for no other reason than it simplifies people's beliefs and reduces the number of categories for those beliefs to the point of losing all information.


Chuck writes:

I was thinking more about the 'free market liberal' thing and I think it is relevant here.

Most of the liberal thinking I see (and the liberalism I agree with) is based on a fundamental accpetance of the value of markets for sorting out efficiencies.

I would say that the notion of free-market liberal is that instead of addressing the absence of saving for retirement by ignoring it or by mandating savings (in addition to Social Security, which is old-school liberalism) one could move things in the right direction by simply making 401k's opt-out instead of opt-in as they are now, and letting the marketing/cognitive bias concept of 'default bias' do the work. It isn't actually 'coercive' but it'll almost certainly increase savings for retirement.

Another example of a free-market liberal way of thinking is addressing health care by correcting problems with the free market in health care (we're talking about community rating here) and then use the free market to deliver health care, perhaps with mandates to buy it, perhaps not.

So the idea of a free-market liberal is not so much a liberal that believes in lassie faire capitalism, but a liberal who things that a properly incentivized market and profit incentive are the right way to do a lot of things like health care etc. Rather than think of it as a lassie faire free market, think of it as a market that is free to find the best solution, whatever it may be.

(For example, if you could create a profit incentive to deal with poverty and then stand back and let a free market figure out the most efficient way to do it - mental health treatment, group homes, whatever.)

Liberal goals remain the priority, but in terms of policy, a market that is free to make decisions is the means to implement the policy, if possible.

Just my perspective on it.

Chuck writes:

Perhaps for clarity rather than calling it a 'free market liberal' it should be called a 'minimally invasive liberal'. It's a liberal with some respect for unintended consequences and the imperfectability of human kind.

That is, a respect for those things, but not submission to them.

I think there needs to be an overhaul of terms to reflect the full range of politico-economic-social-cultural ideologies. Beck and Cowan's "Spiral Dynamics" go some of the way toward doing this. My own free market ideology is based on quite different things than truly classical liberals'. I think that matters.

Tom Church writes:

Troy...we don't take you more seriously if you put PhD after your name. Read Cowen's book.

And I'd have to agree with the mislabeling of conservatives. I'd much rather encourage "decentralized, unplanned human activity" than not.

Kudzu Fire writes:

sounds like an anarchist

The title shouldn't make anyone take me more or less seriously. You should judge my ideas, regardless of what title I may or may not have. I do find it annoying when people act like I should hide the fact that I do have a Ph.D. I worked hard to earn, like I should be ashamed of it. The avoidance of Dr. or Ph.D. just seems like a bunch of politically correct egalitarianist nonsense (I really want to use a much stronger term than "nonsense" here -- one of a more bovine origin).

George writes:

...not so much a liberal that believes in lassie faire capitalism...

"What are you trying to tell us, price signals? Timmy fell into a recession and can't get out?"

michael gordon writes:

There are, alas, several problems with your classification, Arnold.

1, Conservatism Confused

There are several problems with the way you classify this term: a more accurate one, which was used extensively in 19th century European political discourse, would be reactionary: diehard opposition to both the two epochal upheavals of the late 18th century and on into the next two.

1) The industrial revolution, with the rise of a new urban industrial middle class that challenged, often violently on the Continent of Europe, the traditional status, power, and wealth of the landed aristocracy and the traditional upper-class bourgeoisie: lawyers, accountants, financiers.

Britain was unusual here, largely because the British landed aristocracy --- showing more flexibility and far more interest in agrarian improvements from the 17th century on --- encouraged their sons (and daughters) to marry the emerging middle classes for reasons of money and to mingle with them on equal terms. Tocqueville was so struck by this tendency to "stoop to conquer", his term for this aristocratic flexbility --- as compared with the rigidities of the French aristocracy-of-the-sword who showed contempt not just for the emerging industrial middle classes in France, but the new aristocracy-of-the-robe that ran the military and civilian bureaucracies --- that he saw it, rightly, as a major reason why Britain avoided the kind of radical revolutionary waves that France and other Continental countries suffered, not just in the 1790s, but way on into the 19th century.

2) The democratic revolutionary wave that began in the US, which never spilled over into radical social upheavals, only to radicalize rapidly in the French revolution after 1789 --- which, among other things, upset the European balance of power and plunged Europe into 16 years of total ideological warfare, ending only with Napoleon's second defeat at Waterloo in 1815. That revolutionary wave persisted, off and on, erupting again in France in 1830, in France and most of Central Europe in 1849, and again and again at times in the more rigid, backward regions of Spain, Italy, Eastern (and Central Europe), and the Czarist Empire in 1904 and again in 1917-1918.


2. You Confuse Reaction with Conservatism

Meaning? Rooted in pre-industrial, pre-democratic, highly orthodox religious traditions, reactionary conservatism turned extremist and violent against these two major changes --- and in the process, over time, captured the new (3rd) revolutionary upheaval of the 19th and early 20th century: nationalism, which became a marked reactionary tool and, together with Social Darwinianism, racism, and ever growing anti-Semitism, eventually moved toward fascisms of various kinds after 1918. (Communism and the fear of it was an added attraction that brought large numbers of intellectuals, priests, threatened aristocrats and old and new middle classes --- and (though voting studies now find it exaggerated) the threatende lower middle classes --- into fascist circles.

Such reactionaries wanted a powerful, militarized central state to protect them against the industrial middle classes and later, in arm with many of the middle clases, the industrial working classes and their increasing drift into support for Socialist parties. They feared change, feared decentralized government, feared democracy, and were, to repeat, increasingly ultra-nationalsit, Social-Darwinian, anti-Marxist, anti-Liberal, and anti-Semitic.

You find remnants of these traditions today in the ultra-nationalist National Front parties, under different names, in France, Belgium, Austria, Italy, and --- on the fringes fortunately --- Germany.


3, Moderate and Flexible Conservatism, of the Anglo-American sort.

The intellectual foundation of such conservatism emerged in the late 18th century in Britain and the US --- Edmund Burke its greatest spokesman in Britain and Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in their various writings in the Federalist papers in the run-up to the US Constitution of 1789.

Suspicious of radical change, they favored constitutional monarchy in Britain and, in the US, the new, limited, democratic federal system. They explicitly worried about the selfish, self-seeking nature of humans; believed that abstract theoretical intelellectuality --- no doubt would be taken aback by libertarian GMU theoretical skyhooting modeling too --- was thoroughly suspect as a guide to complex societies; favored maintaining traditions where possible, but favored what we would now call incremental change . . . the genius of the US Constitutional system, with its division of powers, its checks-and-balances, and its federal system.

They were not anti-capitalist, just the contrary. And though there were disputes between Hamilton and Madison --- and among pracitioners like John Adams and George Washington (and of course Thomas Jefferson, who represented a more radical vision of popular democracy)as well as with Hamilton and Madison --- they were not at all reactionaries whatsoever.

Here's Burke on change:

"We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature."
Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe (1792)

"A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation."

Generally, Burke, over time, appealed to both the pre-industrial, pre-democratic Tory wing of the British Conservative party and the new, more middle class liberal (libertarian) wing that joined with it after Britain's switch to free trade in 1849 and Robert Peel's move from the Liberal Party to the Conservative Party. That is what has given the Conservative Party its enormous flexbility . . . a survivor of several revolutionary upheavals since the mid-17th century, right down to the espousal and extension of the welfare state after 1945 and then the (noticeable but partial) retreat under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.


4. Contemporary US Conservatism

With the exception of the slave-holding Southern aristocracy, the US political right has never had even a Tory wing of pre-industrial, pre-democratic thought, and whatever thought Calhoun and others produced tended to disappear after 1865, the year the civil war ended.

Nor is there anything like Christian Democracy that has powerfully influenced the politics of Germany, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and for a time France --- paternalistic, favoring stability and the family, suspicious of free markets, and faovring eventually a welfare state to that end.

Today, American conservatism is an umbrella term that brings together, in uneasy alliance, four different intellectual and political groupings:

*Libertarian free-market enthusiasts

*Evangelical Christian Majority types, who favor free-markets, but dislike and react against the kind of radical or liberal cultural and moral changes that have occurred in US life since the early 1960s. They want to use the legal system, for good or bad, to stop or reverse these changes. Obviously they are in conflict here with Libertarians.

*Neo-Conservatives: The term was originally applied by former liberals --- aghast at the radical social changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s --- associated with the intellectuals who started and managed the most influential journal of social policy in the US and English-speaking world, The Public Interest: especially Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, James Wilson, and --- with Norman Podhoritz's Commentary Magazine --- showed with rigorous academic work that the Great Society programs and increasingly ambitious social policies of the US government were based on faulty or incomplete knowledge and were producing increasingly deplorable spillover consequences. Think of the new welfare policies after 1965, and their impact on the black (and increasingly Hispanic and to an extent white) two-parent families. Or of growing coddling of criminals until the 1990s.

These neo-conservatives did dislike and criticized libertarian economic reductionism, stressed cultural traditions and cohesionl, and favored in line with Burkean-Conservatism in Britain, a moderate welfare-state as a stabilizing influence in American life.

The application of the neo-conservatism began in the 1980s, with the new Reagan offensive against the Soviet Communist empire. Most accepted power-realism, but added a strong thrust to counter Communism with a strong human rights approach (where possible) and the promotion of democracy. This too brings them into conflict with Libertarians.

* Reactionary conservatism, neo-nationalist and nativist, of the Pat Buchanan sort. It has some overtures of anti-Semitism, though that is hardly true of, say, a pundit like Lew Dodds; and it lacks the violent and extremist thrusts that marked European reactionary conservatism of the 19th and early 20th century, with its easy embrace of Fascism.


5. The Republican Party in 2008

The party seems in disarray, and for several reasons: the Bush-bungling in its policies in Iraq, the adminsitration's group-think closed policymaking, and its inability to communicate effectively with the American people. The latter, as opinion polls show, are concerned with a variety of social and economic issues, plus a war that they no longer support in Iraq, a direct consequence of rigid occupational policies pursued by the Bush team, full of arrogance and contempt for others with a very belated adaptation of military strategy only 12 to 18 months ago.

Nor is that all. There's the economy. Regarding it, it does no good for libertarians and others to deplore the exaggerated pessimism about the US economy.

For one thing, good social science -- ignored by free-market enthusiasts for decades --- has shown since the path-breakng work of Samuel Stoffer and others in the late 1940s that people's sense of "deprivation" isn't absolute and unchanging, but rather a matter of "relative" comparisons between the existing status-quo or trends from it with previous "gains" eventually taken for granted and shaping expectations of continued gains into the future.

For another thing, the pathbreaking work of Tversky and Kahneman in frame-theory --- which collides directly with Libertarian and free-market rational choice theory --- matches up pretty closely with the work done on relative deprivation . . . not least in the ways in which people judge their contemporary and likely near-future happiness or deprivation according to how they frame (and hence perceive and understand) the status quo and the expectations surrounding it and changes, good or bad, in the future.

On top of that, as a third and final thing, there is the simple pragmatic problem of who has benefitted from the recent business cycle upswing since the 3rd quarter of 2001. The fact is, however much you may be nonchalant about it, real wages have hardly improved at all on the average . . . the first time this has happened in a cycle-upswing since the short, thwarted one of the mid-1930s Great Depression period.


Oh, something else too. Most Americans --- rightly I think --- are far more attuned to the strains on our social-fabric of continued legal and illegal immigration out of Mexico and Central America than free-market enthusiasts . . . who, entranced with the low-wage impact of such immigration, are utterly indifferent to these social strains: growing violent gangs in urban areas, increasingly poor educational performance by the children of immigrants, and an illegitimacy rate of around 50% for Hispanics in our country today.

--- Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor,

michael gordon writes:

Add another reason for the disarray in the Republican party to the various ones I listed earlier: the arrogance and corruption that have marked way too many of the party's leaders in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. Start with Newt Gingrich and move on to the scandals of the Bush W era.

Even an admirable, compromise-minded bipartisan type like John McCain will be vulnerable in this electoral season to the charges that he's just another Washington insider, fattening on personal links and mutual backscratching with lobbyists and powerful local interests back in Arizona.

-- Michael Gordon

michael gordon writes:

Edmund Burke's great book Reflections on the Revolution in France , drives home his great powers of insight into ideological extremism . . . which he identified with overly abstract intellectuality that reduced everything in complex social life to a set of basic principles and precepts.

Published in 1790, just a year into the revolution when a brief, ill-fated constitutional monarchy had been set up, Burke's book predicted what would follow in the next years in France: the monarchy would be destroyed, revolutionary Jacobin fervor would be unleashed, mass terror, executions, and warfare --- against domestic and foreign opponents --- would ensue. At some point, he observed, such anarchy and fanaticism would provoke a military leader to assume dictatorial control and bring new order to France.

The reality of things?

Both these predicted trends did materialize, with their dangerous and destructive outcomes: mass terror and fanaticism, followed in 1795 by Napoleon and two others assuming dictatorial power . . . followed not long afterwards by Napoleon crowning himself emperor and plunging France anew into almost two decades of total warfare in Europe.


The key point about Burke's conservative thought --- which was echoed by George Washington and John Adams in this country: beware of totalizing intellectual systems that reduce a complex world to basic abstract first principles and premises whose proponents --- full of fervor and righteous conviction --- seek to remake the social, political, and economic worlds of human beings in their image.


Here, more specifically, are three paragraphs summarizing Burke's justified suspicion of what would become the world's first totalitarian revolutionary system: (Source: )

"Burke argued that the French Revolution would end in disaster because it was founded on abstract notions that purported to be rational but in fact ignored the complexities of human nature and society. Burke's beliefs were built on the foundation of a collection of philosophies originating primarily in the western world that ranged from philosophers such as St. Augustine, Cicero, all the way back to Plato. His brilliantly elegant yet practical and complex philosophy reflected his belief that Government Policy and Mandate should be first and foremost grounded in the human heart....

[Extended quote from wikipedia elided. Please do not requote extensively on EconLog material that can be found elsewhere online.--
Econlib Ed.]


By now, let us hope, the caricature of "conservatism" that Bryan has mistakenly set out in his 4x3 table should be clear. For my part, I would go further. And argue that Burke's, Adam's, Hamilton's, Washington's, and Madison's suspicions of ultra-abstract theories and models were sound and apply to today's totalizing theories and models used by radical socialists on the left and libertarian enthusiasts on the right.

Both sides appeal to the possession of basic, taken-for-granted assumptions, premises, and first principles of their theories --- often modeled and run statistically by "experts" (in Bryan's case, presumably, Ph.D. economists of the right-thinking sort) --- to give us sure-footed, near-totalizing insight and policy-guidance into refashioning a whole society or economy or its polity in line with the theory's image of the idealized result.


Others, especially those who subscribe to the kind of concrete comparative and historical work about the complexities of human societies, tend to adopt a more Burkean and Hamilton-Madison view of the world. It was that view that inspired the editors and hundreds of social scientists, historians, and philosophers who made the Public Interest the dominant policy journal in American life for over 30 years.

Again and again, as their articles --- based on keen scholarly work --- showed, our government was attempting to implement social and economic policies that were based on flimsy or outrightly bogus knowledge about human behavior and social complexities. And yet their were and are numerous radical and liberal scholars who continue to push their advocacy-riddled nostrums onto the public agenda, often filled with data and statistical modeling.

Worse, these misguided policies almost always entailed harmful and even dangerous unintended consequences that we're still combatting, with (fortunately) some success. Why some success? Because of a different sort of intellectual and scholarly approach to these massive social problems, such as welfare policies that encouraged illegitimacy and family break-up or encouraged more and more vicious street-crime and gangs and rampant unsafe streets almost everywhere in many US cities. An outstanding example of such modest, but concrete, well-founded policy proposals: the sorts of policing methods, based on Jame Wilson's and George Kelling's modest but powerfully persuasive Broken Windows theory of crime (1982, in the Public Interest). Implemented, eventually, in several cities around our country, the approach has its most strikingly beneficial results in the Rudy Guiliani years in New York in the 1990s and on into this decade.

Small wonder that the Swedish ambassador to the UN in that city wrote an op-ed a few years back in the New York Times, praising Guiliani's great success . . . to the point that he himself had nominated the mayor as a candidate for the Nobel peace prize. All over Europe today, there are efforts to try emulating Wilson's and Kelling's modest hard-headed policy suggestions.

Funny enough, if you go back and read their 1982 article, it does not rest on modeling, has no statistical apparatus, and sets out a variety of concrete observations and solid but modest policy proposals.

The moral? Maybe it's self-evident to some of us.


Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor,

Tatterdemalian writes:

The only problem with Masonomism is that it has already lost the war of ideas against the others. There are innumerable experiments that have shown that proving one's worth is not anywhere near as successful a tactic, economically, socially, or even militarily, as proclaiming one's worth, and so by its own definition, Masonomism should be abandoned.

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