Empowering the State Will Not Advance Social Conservatism

Ross Douthat has called attention to a growing number of conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, who are calling for more state power to advance conservative ends. They see the state not as a potential oppressor but a “harmonizer,” of values. One even calls for conservatives to seek to become the “Party of the State,” and thus give up trying to restrain the administrative state but turn it into a battering ram against liberalism.

In a future post, I will discuss what I believe are errors in political philosophy of this new movement. Here my point is simpler and blunter. In our era, it is a sociological fantasy to believe that aggrandizing the state will lead to a revival of the values conservatives hold dear. The classes with entrenched control of the administrative process of the state lean strongly to the left and will do so for the foreseeable future. Empowering the administrative state is empowering left-liberalism.

Begin with the general administrative state. The data are clear: federal bureaucrats are to the left of the Democratic Party. They are already the party of state and cannot be dislodged. And that is not a surprise. Particularly at the highest levels, the bureaucrats are graduates of our elite universities, the most left-wing institutions in our society. The issues presented to the administrative state are framed by the press—also an overwhelmingly left-leaning group. Some of Trump’s complaints about the deep state are overblown, but he is certainly correct that it’s far more difficult for conservatives to turn the ship of state to the right. When I was in government, bureaucrats often undermined our programs.

Nothing is more important to preserving conservative values than K-12 education and nothing shows better the futility of relying on state control to secure those values. As Michael McConnell once observed, the public school ideology seems to be a “a vaguely leftish stew of environmentalism [and] moral relativism.” I would add diversity ideology to today’s mix. Some elements of this stew are hard to distinguish in their structure and truth claims from the theological tenets of religions like pantheism that are particularly in tension with the Judaeo-Christian traditions central to American conservatism. But the notion that conservatives are going to be able to turn public schools for their ends is risible. Teachers stand to the left of the public and the National Education Association is one of the mainstays of the left wing of the Democratic Party.

In contrast, gains for conservatives in K-12 education have come here from breaking up state power and giving more autonomy to individuals to choose schools. The means of choice are various—school vouchers, tax credits for private schools, and charter schools—and my point is not to choose among them here. Any fragmentation of state control allows for greater influence of citizens on the education of their children. Vouchers and tax credits are particularly good for religious conservatives who would otherwise have to pay twice for the education of their children—once for the public schools antithetical to their values and again for their faith-based schools. If school choice is a neoliberal project (a word some of these writers, like the left, use with contempt), traditional conservatives should welcome more such neoliberalism.

Conservatives, particularly religious ones, benefit from the shrinking of state control in education and administration, because it allows them to live their out their own values and to persuade others by example that their values are right. That strategy is not certain to win the culture war but acquiescing to the big administrative state will surely lose it.

Reader Discussion

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on March 13, 2019 at 08:35:30 am

Agree with all (most) of this. Douthat et al. resignedly urge an "if you can't beat 'em" strategy. On one particular matter--the suffocating Leftist ideological atmosphere at US universities--some advocate for laws and bureaucratic offices to regulate "ideological diversity" into the places, which is similarly poor advice.

Unmentioned here, and also in most other writings I come across, written as they are by career professionals in the education establishment, is the role of parents in their children's moral education. Outsourcing instruction in literacy and mathematics beyond fundamentals to third parties is fine, but the "leftish stew" McGinnis mentions can be overcome at home. Of course, another difference between the Left and Conservatism, Inc. is that the former understands its conquest as a long march, where the latter's half-century long Fabian battle strategy has not replicated the success of the original. The Left's multi-generational strategy is about to pay off decisively as soon there won't be any parents left with the intellectual or psychic means to oppose truth and virtue to the Witless Weekdays universalized by the professional education establishment.

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on March 13, 2019 at 11:43:03 am

"... is the role of parents in their children’s moral education. "


It is noticeable only by its absence and this has permitted the Proggies to achieve almost all of their goals through "The Long March through the Institutions." Currently, there is not a single institution, wholly or partially funded by the State, that has not come under the sway of the Progressive whirlwind. Unfortunately, it is we who must "reap the whirlwind" as we observe that even such once venerable institutions as the Girl Scouts now espouse strictly Leftist ideologies. even worse is the condition of K-12 establishment. Review current textbooks where we find math problems heavily infused with the latest Social Justice bullshit. Consider further how young males, especially white males are disadvantaged by the products of modern Schools of Education, i.e., teachers, of whom approximately 40% are unable to pass their own proficiency exams, and of that class of failures, approximately 25% are unable to EVER pass the exams.

What do we conclude from this?
Perhaps, it is evidence that ideological purity or consonance is the sine qua non of a career in Education - and all to the detriment of our children.

And it all seems so hopeless to many parents. Attempts to secure answers, reasons or change to current practice are met with disdainful condescension, lies, obfuscation, etc. More organized attempts to effect change, i.e. school choice, vouchers, charter schools are met with a veritable rhetorical, political and economic onslaught against those few parents not completely demoralized. Again, we observe the deleterious effects of public sector unions, inordinately Left leaning as McGinnis suggests, seeking to protect their own peculiar interests as opposed to the interest of their charges AND being successful with the aid and assistance of the various Legislative bodies in the States.

Mark Pulliam has a post today on union", in particular public sector unions in which he avers that SCOTUS may further restrict some of the *rights* consequent to the NLRA. This may be so BUT it may be more helpful to have the people petition their own State Legislatures to compel ALL public sector employee labor negotiations / contracts to be submitted to a vote of the people for approval.

As McGinnis argues, letting the Federal Government FURTHER into the tent will NOT result in any significant improvement - as the Fed bureaucracies are distinctly "left of Looney Toon."

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on March 13, 2019 at 14:18:19 pm

[…] John O. McGinnis is right that it’s wrong – and counterproductive – to empower the…. Here’s his conclusion: […]

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on March 13, 2019 at 18:10:34 pm

"We cannot continue to send our children to Caesar for their education and be surprised when they come home as Romans." ― Voddie T. Baucham Jr.

There are so many problems with conservatism empowering the state that it's easy fodder for a series of books. One could start with that there's no consistent definition of "conservatism" - it runs the spectrum of religious authoritarians (contrasted with the secular authoritarians on the "progressive" side) to (relatively) big-government libertarians. This leaves a spectacularly wide spectrum of desirable levels of government which leads to internal conflicts.

There's the bizarrely Quixotic fantasy (not unique to conservatives) that a tipping-point of permanent government control will be gained at some point and that justifies any and all compromises made to get there.

Then the far more practical fact that any additional power given to government will eventually fall into the hands of one's political opponents and turned against them.

Big-government authoritarianism and neoprogressivisim are far more philosophically compatible than any part of the conservative spectrum.

Conservatives tend to lean towards "realistic" or "practical" solutions that are compromised away to small, continuous progressive gains. Progressives lean towards solutions that seem politically impractical to an absurd degree in the present, but they keep chipping away.

Because conservatism is philosophically incoherent (sorry, but it is), it slowly but continuously shifts in a more progressive / neoprogressive direction. Today's Republican party would be viewed as an apocalyptically-awful adversary to the Republican party of 25 years ago. Not all of this is a bad thing, but most of it is.

Conservatives place far too much value on hierarchy and compliance, which combined with their fear of progressive control of government has allowed the Republican party to run roughshod over them. This would be funny to watch from the outside if we didn't all have to live with the results.

My suggestions to conservatives who, even when frequently I disagree with them, I view as an important counterbalance to the progressives: become very comfortable with civil disobedience, shoot for the moon with policy proposals - even advocate for extreme libertarianism (don't worry; you won't actually get it), be willing to take the occasional short-term election loss so that you have a credible threat to keep your party in line with (losing power is the only thing they really care about), and maybe even become epistemology geeks so that you're less likely to be slowly turned into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez clones. Because, yes, it's happening.

I calmly await the flames...

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on March 14, 2019 at 08:28:58 am

Excellent points, all of them.

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on March 14, 2019 at 10:10:09 am

Then again, if we don;t do something we are likely to have more of THIS, wherein we find the SJW's demand FREE Tide Pods and well stocked pantries:


One hopes that the Tide Pods will be CONSUMED rather than used to clean the SJW's *dirty laundry* - as it is doubtful that the SJW's are capable of even the most minimal self reflection.

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on March 16, 2019 at 15:43:39 pm

Oh, by all means absolutely do plenty of somethings. But stop doing somethings that are absurdly self-destructive. The current focus on immigration goes nowhere good. Immigration is inevitable due to the laws of supply and demand. You can fight it, you can maybe slow it a little bit, but you can't stop it to any meaningful degree in the long run. In the long run, economic forces always win. Always. Much better to find a way to turn it to your advantage. Latin Americans tend to be *extremely* socially conservative; this is a wedge that can be used against the progressives. The concerns about immigration and the welfare state are valid, but the last time conservatives did anything meaningful to improve the situation was back during the Clinton administration and the last big thing they did was at the time the largest increase in the welfare state since LBJ (Medicare Part D, back when Bush II had both houses of Congress under control). Government welfare is most often incredibly toxic to the individual and is always toxic to the cohesion of both the immediate family and the extended family - these are things that conservatives are supposed to be concerned about, but it's really hard to tell from the complete lack of positive action and almost complete lack of rhetoric. When you have a group of people coming into the country that are incredibly concerned about family cohesion, rather than attacking them it might be more useful to clue them in that the progressives want to turn them into welfare addicts and destroy their family units so that they can be used as captive voting cattle - just like they already have with some of the other economically disadvantaged groups of all races in the US. Public welfare reform and eventual elimination is one of the most constructive thing that conservatives can do in both the short and the long run, and yet there is nary a peep there.

Also, conservatives complaining that immigrants don't work out of one side of their mouths while simultaneously doing everything possible to preventing them from working out of the other is a bit... odd. Incoherence aside, it certainly plays directly into the progressive strategy of addicting them to welfare. I would think that a better idea would be to limit welfare access and remove minimum wage restrictions for immigrants. These are both helpful for American industry and agriculture, and would make it far more practical to start bringing low-skill manufacturing back from East Asia. Oddly enough, conservatives understood this back in the 80s and 90s, but it's been lost to the current generation.

From an individual perspective, stop paying attention to Fox News. All that media-industrial complex does (on both the left and the right) is push the highly addictive drugs of outrage, fear, anger and intolerance. These only serve to cloud minds and exacerbate problems while grabbing eyeballs for their advertisers. Remember - if we actually solved these problems then we'd have far less need for politicians and their media minions. Much better to go with the Biblical teachings of loving one's neighbors (even when they're being problematic), hating the sin and not the sinner, etc. When you approach problems with love and compassion you start finding solutions that benefit everyone. This doesn't by any means mean you have to turn into a bleeding-heart liberal. Quite the opposite: imposing solutions by force removes agency and greatly harms the capacity for individual compassion. This is not an accident. Neither is the long-term strategy of turning conservatives towards statist solutions. It's all about power and control.

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