Krugman On The Closing Of The Conservative Mind

There remains essentially no room for independent thinking within the conservative movement.

Paul Krugman wrote this the other day, and I thought it was important enough to bring it to your attention. This is, after all, the real problem: We have a hard-core class of politicians and elected officials who simply refuse to acknowledge reality. I'm sure we all have countless examples of conversations with people who literally refuse to apply critical thinking to any of these issues. The question is, what can we do about it?

Start with the proposition that there is a legitimate left-right divide in U.S. politics, built around a real issue: how extensive should be make our social safety net, and (hence) how much do we need to raise in taxes? This is ultimately a values issue, with no right answer.

There remains essentially no room for independent thinking within the conservative movement.

There are, however, a lot of largely empirical questions whose answers need not, in principle, be associated with one’s position on this left-right divide but, in practice, are. A partial list:

1.The existence of anthropogenic climate change
2.The effects of fiscal stimulus/austerity
3.The effects of monetary expansion, and the risks of inflation
4.The revenue effects of tax cuts
5.The workability of universal health care

I’ve deliberately chosen a list here where the evidence is, in each case, pretty much overwhelming. There is a real scientific consensus on 1; the evidence of the past few years has been very strong on 2 and 3; there are no serious studies supporting the view that we’re on the wrong side of the Laffer curve; one form or another of UHC operates all across the advanced world, with lower costs than the US system.

So? You could, as I said, take the “liberal” position on each of these issues while still being conservative in the sense that you want a smaller government. But what the “reformish” conservatives Ryan Cooper lists do, in almost all cases, is either (a) to follow the party line on these issues or (b) to hint at some flexibility – and thereby cultivate an image of being open-minded — as long as the issues don’t get close to an actual policy decision, but to always find a way to support the Republican position whenever it actually matters.

But aren’t there people like Bruce Bartlett or Josh Barro who really do break with the party line on some or all of these issues? Yes, but they are then immediately branded as “no longer conservatives”, in a sort of inverted version of the none-dare-call-it-treason effect.

The point is that there remains essentially no room for independent thinking within the conservative movement.

Could you say the same thing about liberals? I don’t think so. A few decades ago, you might have been able to draw up a somewhat similar list for the other side, involving things like the superiority of tradeable emission permits to command-and-control pollution regulation, the general undesirability of rent control, the benefits of airline deregulation, the absence of a usable long-run tradeoff between unemployment and inflation (and hence the impossibility of setting a 4 percent target for unemployment). But many liberals eventually conceded the point in each of these cases (maybe even conceded too far in a couple), without being declared no longer liberal. The point is that being a good liberal doesn’t require that you believe, or pretend to believe, lots of things that almost certainly aren’t true; being a good conservative does.

And like Mike Konczal, I see no sign that any of this is changing.

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