The End of Conservative Ideology?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican presidential nomination, many wise critics have concluded that the old Buckley-Reagan conservative ideology is dead. The paradoxical reply: It is not dead because the original was not an ideology.

That declaration had always annoyed me in my younger days, when William F. Buckley, Jr. would ceaselessly insist that conservatism was not ideological.

Sure it was. What did Buckley himself write in his Up from Liberalism (1959) about the essence of conservatism? Its principles were set forth therein as “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of conscience, the spiritual view of life,” a strong defense—and all were meaningful “in proportion as political power is decentralized.”

Only with Buckley’s constant repetition, reinforced by his associate Frank S. Meyer among others (from F.A. Hayek to Ronald Reagan), did these principles become clear. Although they could be considered timeless, they were not discoverable by an over-rationalized, unitarily deductive ideology, but came into view as a synthesis of Western principles as resolved under concrete historical circumstances. (My previous essay for Law and Liberty discussing the fusionism embodied in Buckley’s National Review is here.)

Still, critics raised a valid point. They were correct in the sense that the old, open-ended Reagan-Buckley synthesis had been turned into an ideology by the time of George W. Bush. An obsession with abstractions like world democratization, nationalism and nation-building, materialist utilitarianism, and hyphenated compassionate-conservatism transformed the synthesis into a neoconservative ideology.

The old Buckley principles can remain serviceable as guidelines, but they cannot be arranged in a neat hierarchy so as to solve, in some mechanistic way, all of the problems we face. To be relevant, they must be applied in a way that takes current realities into account. Slogans about high taxation, or excessive debt, or out-of-control government spending, or foreign threats, or cultural decline are not enough (though each issue on that list needs attention). It is necessary to ask: how do they all fit together, today? What is the larger context that tells the story for modern times?

Americans know something is seriously wrong but they are too busy with their everyday lives to know precisely what. What they sense is that their government is dysfunctional, their Western civilization is in decline, and that nothing important really works. But no one tells them why.

A major Pew Research Center study entitled Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government showed that only 19 percent of those polled “say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century.” Just 20 percent “would describe government programs as being well-run. And elected officials are held in such low regard that 55% of the public says ‘ordinary Americans’ would do a better job of solving national problems.”

Notwithstanding that government is the “object of their frustration,” Americans “have a lengthy to-do list” for it. “Majorities want the federal government to have a major role in addressing issues ranging from terrorism and disaster response to education and the environment. And most Americans like the way the federal government handles many of these same issues, though they are broadly critical of its handling of others—especially poverty and immigration.”

As for the partisan divide over “the size and scope of government,” it “remains as wide as ever,” with 80 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents expressing a preference for “a smaller government with fewer services, compared with just 31% of Democrats.”

What the public opinion research shows is that people want services from government but are dissatisfied with the results. Their answers to polling questions do not make a rigid distinction between government and national government, but other polls show that state and local governments are much more highly supported than the feds, with Gallup showing 62 percent trusting state government and 72 percent trusting local government.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the main problem was dissatisfaction with the economy. But even then, President Reagan, in his first Inaugural Address, said that the purpose of reform was not “to do away with government” but “to demand the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States and the people.”

The fact is the U.S. government in Washington is simply overwhelmed. It tries to do too much. It does not understand the complexity of the problems it tries to solve. It only makes guesses at solutions, which overlap with previous solutions, where long chains of command frustrate decision-making. There is no accountability for performance. The policies adopted were crafted with little local knowledge and therefore lack effectiveness. Presidents or lawmakers on white horses can only set programs whose results will not be seen for years—by which time they become someone else’s problem.

There are 70 programs in six different agencies to feed hungry children. There are 105 programs in nine agencies encouraging science, math, and reading. There are 75 different work training programs. Programs where the feds only write checks “work,” but they are all seriously underfunded. One that just made the news is the low-visibility Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which carries a $52 billion debt, and more coming from the Teamsters that might double that total. The other programs mainly fund studies—and these, the research shows, mostly cannot be replicated—whose recommendations result in complicated new regulations that overlap and interfere with earlier ones. Actual implementation is left to local officials who must work out what they mean, with the goal of meeting the federally imposed standards rather than solving the problems.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton promise more of the same. While Trump has recognized and exploited the popular dissatisfaction with government expressed in the polls, he seems to be driven by the same one-size-fits-all solutions as his insider opponent.

The classic criticism of this ideology of centralizing problems was lodged by Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek, who skewered as dysfunctional the “public administration movement” of expert planners trying to solve problems remotely. Hayek devised a theory of complex phenomena to explain the dysfunction. Progressive administrators believe they can solve problems better than those with local knowledge by using the best scientific methods with great data accumulations under the control of the nation’s best minds. But data can be measured from innumerable perspectives, and even with the best scientific minds, results are reported as probabilistic averages and ratios rather than individualized solutions.

The science of physics that handles atoms so well (although there is that pesky quantum) cannot capture the greater complexity of biological material, much less the even more complex human being. An article in the May 2016 issue of Current Biology even questions whether biologists’ conception of the basic structure of the animal cell, long thought typical, is in fact universal. The difference when approaching the study of human beings is enormous: There are more interactions in one human mind in a few moments than there are physical atoms in the entire solar system.

If biology can be humble, why cannot political science?

The gap between concrete local knowledge against abstract national norms is inherent in all centralized resolutions. The only solution for this lack of individualized knowledge is to go where it resides, where actual things take place locally, rather than follow abstract national rules that apply precisely to no one person or situation. Each local entity can focus on what is required there without being distracted by enormous national crises or hindered by enormous national costs. Each of the millions of people in each field of human endeavor can do what is necessary for his or her own real circumstances rather than being ideologically driven by abstract ideological norms.

So, is conservative ideology dead? Let us hope so.

And let us hope that the Buckley-Reagan-Hayek synthesis can reassert itself to tell the truth, which is that the centralized ideological emperors have no clothes. That problems can only be confronted rationally when people can know local details where they live and work. And that there is no Wizard in Washington who can magically do it for them.

And then let us await a better day.