Sunday, 18 March 2012

David Frum: Conservatism for Liberals? – CBC Radio One, Ideas, March 8, 2012

David Frum sketching his general political outlook: “I’m a conservative, I’m a Republican, I believe in limited government and markets and reduced business regulation and … national security, these kind of issues.  Now what has happen though … where I and the Tea Party have sort of met at cross purposes and bounced off and recoiled from each other, has been the way we reacted to the present economic crisis...” 

Frum describing the rise of the Tea Party movement: “The United States had a lot of difficult economic times during the 2000s, during the Bush years.  The expansion from 2003 to 2008 was one of the weakest and least satisfying economic expansions in recent times.  The typical wage earner was actually earning less, adjusting for inflation, in 2007 than seven years previously.  Then the sub-prime housing market goes into trouble in the summer of 2007, then the banks, who had financed the sub-prime lending, begin to hit trouble.  There is an important bankruptcy in the Spring of 2008.  Then Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt in September and the whole financial system seizes up in October.”

In mid-March I was listening to a CBC re-broadcast of the program ‘Ideas’ from last November.  As Max Allen interviewed David Frum, for an episode titled ‘Conservatism for Liberals?,’ I was reminded of my impression from the original airing.  On the surface Frum sounds very logical and flexible in his general ability to see the weaknesses within both ‘left’ and ‘right’ politics in the United States.  Although he is a self-described conservative, he is not above pointing to the short-comings of the Tea Party movement and aspects of the Republican Party.  These sentiments seemed both astute and fair-minded especially as they were emanating from a former George W. Bush speechwriter.  Frum seemed to be making an effort to move beyond dogmatic ideology and was expressing a desire for obtaining solutions which matched problems.   Who could argue with that variety of pragmatism?  Yet, after both listens to ‘Ideas’ I was left with the feeling that something remained unstated. 

I think what in retrospect struck me most about the Frum interview was his inability to connect dots.  His dogged support of the Republican Party did not exactly align with what he describes as the most overt problems of our era – crime, inflation, failing Cold War, etc.  He points out the conservative ideology was the solution for the problems of the mid to late 1970s while ignoring precisely who was in power in Washington during this period.  Frum reports that it was precisely this set of crises of the 1970s that initially coloured and shaped his political views.  Yet, what is conveniently left out is that many of these problems were brought on by the actions of the Republican Party – who held the US presidency between 1969 and 1977.   If conservatives were coming up with solutions, a pretty big if, they were reacting to problems of their own making. 

The interview also made me think about Frum’s critique of the how the inflexible ‘left’ too often looks to the past and comes up with inappropriate social and economic answers for the here and now.  Again, there is an element of truth to this observation.  He even goes on to make the case that the right in general and the Tea Party in particular, suffer from this same looking-to-the-past-for-solutions tendency.   But what Frum fails to point out is that this faith in yesteryear, and notion of universal solutions, is at the very core of conservatism.   Perhaps Frum is looking for ‘progressive conservatives’ - a political ideology which barely survives even here in Canada.   I noted with interest that Frum never uses this expression even though this notion seems to be precisely what he is after.     

At one point interviewer Max Allen recalls that the journalists on the ‘right’ seemed to be untouchable political stars of the 1960s.  Frum agrees when Allen recalls, “I remember this – at the time that Bill Buckley was writing, commentators, critics on the right in the United States could write circles around anybody on the left.”  Again, one immediately notices the absences in these observations.  Were there non-conservative journalists or commentators on network television during this period?   To which writers is William Buckley being compared?  In retrospect, one is struck by the rarity of events such as Buckley’s 1969 ‘Firing Line’ interview with Noam Chomsky.   The talk points out how inadequate, willfully obtuse and ill-prepared Buckley was when it came to contending with points-of-view which challenged his conventional assumptions.  Interestingly enough, David Frum seems to have fared little better with Chomsky in panel discussions around the 1988 Massey Lectures.  At times Frum, then associate editor for ‘Saturday Night’ magazine, came off as an embarrassingly ill-equipped amateur who did not understand even the most basic aspects of Chomsky’s talk. 

Frum describes how many contemporary conservatives fail to fully understand the current economic crisis.   He points out that the solution, at least in the short-term, is not to slash benefits or government spending as these programs put money in the hands of consumers and can actually drive the economy forward.  According to this line of thinking it is not so much that the government is spending too much but that it has increasingly limited sources of revenue.   Needless to say this is not exactly conservative conventional wisdom – and might be it’s exact opposite.  Either way, while the long-term objectives remain the same – smaller government, less regulation of industry – the short-term requires another customized set of solutions.   But what Frum doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that ‘limited government’ and ‘less regulation’ is at the very heart of our current economic woes.   If Frum was genuine about preventing future downturns why wouldn’t he call for larger government - which, after all, appears to be the only way to regulate financial institutions as the ‘invisible hand’ of increasing self-regulation has been something of a disaster.  It is Frum’s long-term notions which are the problem – the short-term ideas he offers are merely reactions and temporary band-aids.         
Frum’s proposal seems to be that government only needs to (re)act when the economy is under duress.  It is apparent that he sees such problems as we are currently facing as temporary blips on an otherwise naturally functioning and self-correcting set of markets.  Indeed, the sequential and matter-of-fact manner in which Frum describes the events leading up to the 2008 sub-prime crisis suggests a series of unfolding inevitabilities.  But the problem with inevitabilities is that human agency is left out of the equation.  There is a failure to acknowledge that markets are man-made rather that naturally occurring.  Contrary to Frum’s descriptions, history is not a set of predetermined steps where one event automatically leads to another.  This belief that markets are predictable and natural is why Frum believes in short-term tinkering rather than long-term reconfiguration.   So, yes, wages are declining and income is increasingly unevenly distributed, but there isn’t anything one can do about that.  But, of course, as he points out on multiple occasions during the interview he is not an economist.  So while he feels free to dole out endless ideologically-driven economic opinions he always has the fall-back excuse of not being a trained economist.         

“No matter how much theory is disguised or repressed, there is no practice without theory” – Terry Atkinson