Is George Bush a conservative?
Well, he calls himself one. He calls himself a compassionate conservative, which is a fine thing to be and not at all impossible, whatever our left-of-center friends would have us believe. I just question whether George Bush really is a conservative. (I’m going to suspend judgment about the compassion thing.) I used to wonder that about Richard Nixon as well—how a man who imposed wage and price controls and presided over unprecedented growth in the welfare state qualified as a conservative was a little baffling. (Maybe all you have to do to qualify as a conservative is to wave the flag a lot, which is disappointing for several reasons, since the flag is supposed to represent us all.) As for Bush, I’m not just talking about the Medicare Drug Benefit and No Child Left Behind and the spiraling budgets. I’m talking about his response to 9/11, and I’m talking about Iraq.
Now first let me say that September 11, 2001 would have dealt a tough hand to anyone who happened to be president on that day. President Al Gore would have faced the same hideous choices George Bush faced, and maybe he would have handled them better, and maybe he wouldn’t have. 9/11 was a supreme crisis for American government policy, a test by fire and a reputation maker or breaker. And some of the things Bush did were good and had to be done, and some of them I have my doubts about.
The first thing that made me wonder was his creation of a huge new government bureaucracy charged with what was called homeland security. (I’m not sure what was wrong with the word “defense”.) I don’t think that was a conservative response. A conservative response would have been to look at the institutional failures that led to 9/11 and fix the institutions and the dysfunctional relations between them that led to the problem. Creating a whole new institution, and an expensive one at that, is not a conservative response.
Then there’s Iraq, and I’m not talking about the invasion. What really made me wonder how George W. Bush could be called a conservative was the decision to disband the Iraqi army, dismantle the civil service and start all over from scratch. That’s not how conservatives operate.
The best book I know of about why some people are conservatives and some people are whatever the opposite is (I’m not going to use the word liberal because of its ambiguity) is Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. Sowell traces the origins of our political views to what he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions of human potential. The unconstrained vision holds that reason is supreme and humanity is amenable to the Big Makeover. Its proponents admire intellectuals and love big plans. Proponents of this vision are drawn to the various manifestations of utopianism, from mild socialism to communism and fascism. That generally corresponds with the political left (fascism is placed on the right because of its ethnic/nationalistic component, but remember that Mussolini was an admirer of Lenin and Hitler’s party was the National Socialists.)
On the other hand, the constrained vision sees humans as too messy and intractable to be malleable and prefers merely to get the incentive structure right so that productive activity will be encouraged and damage will be limited. Its proponents believe that knowledge is too widely disseminated to permit planning of something so complex as an economy, no matter how smart the people at the top may be. People who hold the constrained vision tend to be drawn to free enterprise and the evolved wisdom of long-standing institutions. They are conservatives. As Sowell puts it, “To those with the constrained vision, it is axiomatic that no individual or council can master [the complexity of social processes], so that systemic processes—market economies, social traditions, constitutional law—are relied on instead.”
Now, if there ever was a utopian project that ignored systemic processes and aimed at the Big Makeover, it was the attempt to raze all Iraqi social institutions and rebuild them from scratch. I’m not going to get into whether this project could have been accomplished if only it had been undertaken more competently. My point is that it was not a conservative project, that Rumsfeld and Bremer and Bush up there at the top undertook something in Iraq which should have made any true conservative’s hair stand on end.
Maybe they didn’t go into Iraq intending to do that—maybe they were overtaken by events and went lurching from crisis to crisis, improvising wildly. I’m more inclined to believe that than I am to think that the destruction of Iraqi society was cynically planned. But I don’t think a true conservative would have gotten himself into that position. A true conservative might have undertaken the invasion, if he believed Iraq posed an imminent threat (he might equally have looked at Iraq and decided that conservative principles ruled out such a high-stakes gamble.) But a conservative would have made damn sure to maintain order after the invasion. He would have defeated the Iraqi army but kept it intact with generous surrender terms, purged the officer corps and set up a reliable strong man. He would have tossed the top Ba’athists in jail but kept the Ba’ath-dominated civil service functioning. He would not have tried to re-make Iraqi society from the ground up. That is the very last thing a conservative would try.
So if George Bush isn’t a conservative, what is he? Who knows? I don’t think he does. He is a product of our political system, which rewards money and inertia rather than philosophical depth. He wound up as president because with his connections and his name he was a safe compromise choice for a messy and not entirely coherent coalition, which is what both our major parties are. Our party system doesn’t promote independent thinking or ideological focus. It promotes salesmanship, mediagenicity and political acumen (as opposed to policy acumen). And that goes for both sides of the aisle.
Most people’s views are too complex to be reduced to a label like “conservative” or “liberal”, and arguing about the meanings of words is usually a waste of time. But when you try to use a word as a claim to legitimacy, you’d better make sure you have a legitimate claim to it. Conversely, if you try to use a word as a bludgeon to destroy someone’s legitimacy, you’d better make sure you’re using it accurately.
So the next time someone tells you George Bush is a conservative, ask what the evidence for that is.