Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Conservatism contra Chamberlain and Carter

Gracchi contends that conservatives are particularly motivated by mistakes made by Chamberlain in the thirties and Carter in the seventies. I do not think it is quite that simple; all movements rely upon perceptions of past disasters to support their arguments and motivate supporters.

The case is simplest in American foreign policy: Witness the debate over the Iraq war which had competing sets of historical imagery being promoted by either side. The right cited Churchill as inspiration and Carter as the face of failure while the left called upon the example of Vietnam as an example of the failed war they predicted Iraq would be.

In American domestic policy the left, for almost the entire twentieth century, traded upon the memory of the Great Depression as a tale of capitalist excess turned to grief. This is very similar to right-wingers in the UK who trade on the strong popular memory of going cap in hand to the IMF and the other tribulations of relative economic decline or the UK left and its appeal to avoid a repeat of the 'heartless' eighties.

Like most uses of history for political cases these are all, to some extent, simplifications but I would argue that the most innacurate is probably the American left's use of the Great Depression. That the Depression was a result of market failure and America rescued by the New Deal is almost unsustainable. Sirkin's early paper is, to my mind, still the simplest way of explaining the starting point of the case that the Wall Street Crash was not a result of irrationality; had the growth of the twenties continued in the thirties share prices at their peak would not have been irrational. Friedman's alternative hypothesis that an incompetent monetary policy was what caused the depression is now largely accepted although the theory has been refined to include the effects of the Gold Standard by Bernanke, now Fed chairman. The right-wing critique of the New Deal is also strong. The left-wing use of Thatcher is not quite as demonstrably wrong as the case against the eighties centres upon unclear questions of methodology such as the question of whether relative or absolute poverty is a more useful measure but manages to ignore the huge change in the UK's economic fortunes that arose in the eighties.

By contrast, the right-wing cases that there was a genuine failure to confront evil under Chamberlain and Carter and that statism and labour power made a wreck of the postwar British economy clearly contain significant elements of truth. The simplifications are in their application to today's problems rather than in their account of history. Conservatives are fond of enduring truths and one of these is that the truly evil can rarely be appeased but must be opposed. Another is that attempts by the state to manage an economy into success will usually be counterproductive. Decades of defeat and failure are used to give the core thruths of conservatism emotional impact.

I'm also not sure how much this tells us about the future of conservatism. How much would looking at loathed decades from the past have helped us predict the future path of conservatism in the seventies or in the thirties?

Conservative thinking will respond to new challenges and new failures and, unfortunately, may experience new failures of its own but I'm not sure we can predict them from looking at past loathed decades. Might we look back at the nineties or the noughties as host to the worst manifestations of a society sapping transnational progressivism or will some new illiberal hell arise in coming decades for conservatives to remember as a new darkest hour?

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