David R. Henderson  


The Conservative Missionary... Textbook Macro, Sumner's Macro...

A number of commenters found, as did I, that Bryan's conservative missionary statement was quite powerful. (I'll give my own criticism or two in a later post but that's not what I want to focus on here.) The question is: why was it powerful? I'm not inside Bryan's brain but I know him reasonably well and here's why I think it was powerful.

Because Bryan is not a conservative but a libertarian, he asked himself, "What arguments would have the maximum probability of convincing me to doubt my libertarianism in favor of conservatism?"

I first saw the power of that approach in 1983 when I was working in the White House at the Council of Economic Advisers. A friend of mine, Lance Lamberton, was working in the White House Office of Policy Development under Ed Meese. School prayer in government-run schools was a hot issue at the time and a newspaper had asked Meese for an op/ed in favor of allowing school prayer. Lance was assigned the task of writing it. I knew none of this until I got a call from Lance asking if I could look his piece over.

Me: But I'm against prayer in public schools. [Only later did I start calling them, more accurately, government schools.]
Lance: So am I.
Me: So what's the issue?
Lance: You're my friend and I need this.
Me: OK.

So he came up to my floor and showed it to me. I read through it and then said to him, "Lance, this is the best thing you've ever written. You still haven't convinced me, but you've come closer than anyone has in years. Whatever you did to write this, I think you should keep it in mind for all of your writing. What did you do?"

Lance answered, "I'm against prayer in public schools. So I wrote it to handle the issues I have with it. I wrote to convince someone like me."

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Eric writes:

I also think he did a reasonable job of shifting worldviews to understand the conservative mindset. As a libertarian/conservative halfbreed, the only thing in his piece I couldn't see a "real" conservative saying is "Asking Mexicans to live on a $10,000 a year in Mexico is reasonable ...". I don't think conservatives think this clearly about conditions in Mexico, and would never express it out loud or in print if they did.

guthrie writes:

To be fair, Eric, it's doubtful that your average conservative would also think that clearly on foreign policy (usually the rubber-stamp 'yes' is out for most military ventures), and would NEVER concede a point to the liberal camp (see the line "But there's more than a kernel of truth to liberal complaints about the conflict between markets on the one hand, and prosperity, equality, and common decency on the other"). It would seem that he's taking the position of an above-average conservative intellectual, who he would consider a worthy contributor to the conversation (which makes sense, really, and fits with David’s assessment here).

fundamentalist writes:

Depends upon what you mean by powerful. If it convinces a lot of people, then it is powerful. A lot of arguments for libertarianism seem powerful to me, but they haven't convinced many people over the past century, so I wouldn't call them powerful. They may keep the sheep in the fold, but they don't persuade the wolves.

PR research has shown for years that people don't care much about the truth. They decide what they want to be true, for emotional reasons, and then go hunting for the rationale to defend their choices. As the Bible says, few people care about the truth. That's why it takes disaster to change peoples' minds about deeply held beliefs.

johnleemk writes:

guthrie and eric,

I think the reason Bryan's post appeals so strongly to so many is that it is a synthesis of the strongest (if you ask me) arguments that libertarianism, left liberalism, and conservatism have to offer. While I doubt I agree with it in its entirety, I think it is probably superior to most positions that can be found in mainstream American discourse.

(And not to be mean, but I have a nagging feeling that Sarah Palin sometimes presents an incoherent synthesis of all the worst arguments that these three schools of thinking have to offer.)

Eric writes:

I've been trying to google to see if any conservative intellectuals have ever said anything like "Mexicans to live on a $10,000 a year in Mexico is reasonable ...". I'm not sure how to go about it, though. NRO has intellectually serious conservatives (Jonah Goldberg above for one). I read NRO almost as regularly as econlog, and I can't remember a statement like that. It's much more about the damage to American culture and the standard of living of America's poor than about improving the standards of the immigrants. If anyone has counterexamples, though, I'm fully open to being corrected.

Also, it seems like only since Reagan or so that the conservative side is the knee-jerk pro-war side. WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam were all started or seriously expanded under Democrats.

I agree that conceding a point to the opposing camp is next to unheard of among conservatives (and liberals, too). However, I wouldn't be surprised to see someone do it in a conversation with a libertarian as long as they didn't have to say "But there's more than a kernel of truth to liberal complaints" and could just say "But there's more than a kernel of truth to the idea"

guthrie writes:

To be sure, I was very much speaking for myself when I spoke of 'average conservatives', because prior to my regular attendance to this blog (among other circumstances), many of the positions he laid out were mine, without however, the intellectual backbone. For example, I had never given a second thought to how a Mexican might live in Mexico, but I opposed 'open borders' on a visceral, irrational, and rather subjective level (as you alluded to). All I saw were closing hospitals and steadily increasing traffic in LA and blamed the 'illegals', and supported sending them away without considering where they might wind up.

But it seems reasonable to me that an intellectual objection to 'open borders' would have to provide this (or some) alternative to answer liberal/libertarian positions, or else fail to be persuasive in the least... wouldn't you think? Seems to me Bryan is being very conscientious in trying to find arguments that he would personally find hard to argue against.

I'm also a Regan-era geek when it comes to the Military, so that rubber stamp I spoke of was also mine (before David here had a hand in its being discarded!)…

And you’re probably right that a ‘real conservative’ could concede a point as long as it wasn't directly attributed... I recall some consternation those times when some of my religious ideals coincided more closely with liberal thought than with my conservative stance, and went through plenty of mental gymnastics to reconcile these positions in those moments.

Anyhoo, today was a good day for the Econlog!


Recently I, a Southern Baptist-cum-Charismatic believer, have undergone what could be considered a ‘crisis of Faith’ or ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, but the culprit, it seems, are questions that have arisen from within, not from any event I can point to… I doubt you’d call the current economic crisis or my reading this blog as disaster! Many beliefs I’ve held since I was very young have been overturned or challanged… I’m curious how you might perceive my struggle? (JSYK, I have a great deal of respect for your commentary here on this blog and am not trying to needle…)

Lori writes:

I also play devil's advocate with myself. In my case I'm an old school anarchist sympathizer of Bakuninist tendency trying on my best guess as to the headspace of a mutualist in the tradition of Proudhon (or Carson), which is to say someone consisting of one part econlogger and two or three parts me. It's a baby step, but somebody's got to do it.

You libertarians should also try this exercise toward lefty progressives (of civil libertarian bent of course). I would suggest aiming for the jugular: 'You know in your intellect of intellect that it [Economics] is what it is...'

Noah Yetter writes:

I didn't find it persuasive at all. All of his premises were clearly and obviously false.

Judiciously halving government's role in the economy is reasonable. Laissez-faire in the face of monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures is not.

Monopoly is a myth. Irrationality is a myth. Imperfect information is not actually a problem. Externalities are not solvable by state action.

Restrictions on drug use are a clear violation of individual freedom, but they also protect families from seeing their children turn into junkies.

They provide no such protection. No discussion or even acknowledgement of all those Americans (not to mention foreigners) imprisoned or murdered each day by the Drug War?

It [immigration] seriously risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Pure assertion; no argument provided.

(bunch of jingoistic garbage about foreign policy)

It's hard to know where to begin on this one...

If you want to persuade libertarians that conservatism is something other than at best willful ignorance and at worst evil, please argue in a way that suggests you've at least heard of libertarians' philosophies and arguments. Here's a hint, you're not going to get anywhere by beginning "I know Horribly Counterproductive Not To Mention Tyrannical Policy XYZ is like unto a jackboot forever stomping on the neck of liberty, but..."

I know I'm being unfair, but this is my honest reaction to Bryan's post. I didn't think it even worth commenting on until you suggested the nonsensical idea that anyone found it persuasive.

johnleemk writes:


If you believe humans are perfectly rational, I doubt there is much anyone could say to persuade you of anything other than anarcho-libertarianism. You're working from a fundamentally different set of premises than most people.

John Smith writes:

I agree with John. If Noah honestly believe that people are always rational, then there is little point in discussing much with him since his beliefs are so out there.

As for the drug issue, it may be that one so devalues people's lives and liberty lost in the course of drug enforcement and so values the absense of negative side effects from drug addiction, that one is in favour of drug enforcement on net. You may not agree with him, but it is rather disrespectful of you to so strongly imply that it is not possible when you yourself within the same paragraph demand fairness.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I believe DH when he says, as a libertarian, he found it compelling. I guess this means I am less of a libertarian than I thought.

Conservatives believe liberty IS the most important value. Now, what rules and restrictions are necessary to keep as much of it for as many citizens for as many generations as possible?

Conservatives don't care about immigration, except for our (possibly inflated) view that many live tax-free. We find it a disgrace that politicians purchase votes by giving away as much as possible to a constituency that are here illegally. When you raise the straw man "they take our jobs", you are conflating us with union thugs.

Libertarians care much more about the drug issue than conservatives do. Everyone wants to keep drugs away from children - how best to do it? I tend to agree with an Economist article from ten years ago that enforcement is more damaging than regulation. I don't care what libs stick in their bodies.

If Bush's foreign policy was so bad, Obama had the perfect opportunity on day 1 to cancel the whole thing and bring the boys home. That he didn't speaks volumes about reasons of state, and the political convenience and cheapness of his attacks when national security was not his immediate concern.

Conservatives accept responsibility for unnecessary wars prosecuted. Libertarians won't accept responsibility for necessary wars not prosecuted.

roversaurus writes:

It was also persuasive because it was filled with vague feel goodisms and substituted hope for the real world.

It argued against fanciful fears while putting forth the option of fanciful government action.

Noah Yetter writes:

It's right there in Chapter 1 of Human Action. All deliberate human action is rational.

This is no guarantee that it is effective or that we're pleased with the results, but anything we choose to do cannot be dismissed by branding it as "irrational." If someone appears to be working against their own interest, it is because of their imperfect perception, imperfect prediction of consequences, or the observer's own hubris.

As for the drug issue, it may be that one so devalues people's lives and liberty lost in the course of drug enforcement and so values the absense of negative side effects from drug addiction, that one is in favour of drug enforcement on net.

Then what is the point? If our lives and liberty are worth nothing then why bother? Anyone who thinks through the Drug War, acknowledges the costs, and still sides for it is evil, period.

Conservatives believe liberty IS the most important value.

Bullplop. This is what libertarians believe. Conservatives value tradition above all else.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Hi Noah. I stand by my comment. I am referring to the liberty of the generations; I think you are referring to the liberty of the moment.

A liberty that lasts for half a generation is no liberty at all. How is liberty frozen in place, such that it can survive a generation or two of faint-hearted, self-absorbed ingrates? With traditions, i.e. respect, where respect has been earned, for the goodness in the existing order.

A conservative majority is more likely to retain, and appreciate, its very extensive liberties than a libertarian majority who would cast that down and take their chances.

John Smith writes:

To Noah,

The humans in question may be so mentally ill or suffer from various issues such that they are not capable of full capacity. If you definition of rationality is such that they are still rational within their own context and limitations of their illnesses even though from an external viewpoint they are not rational, then this is acceptable though I believe it is not a very mainstream view of the word rational.

With regards to the drug issue, it is your right to deem it evil. But I am simply pointing out that you are wrong to deem it illogical or impossible. It clearly need not be.

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