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American Conservatism’s Crisis of Ideas

BERKELEY – On the back left corner of my desk right now are three recent books: Arthur Brooks’ The Battle, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers. Together, they constitute an important intellectual movement, which also happens to be a large part of the reason that American conservatism today has little that is constructive to say about managing the economy – and little purchase on the center of the American electorate.

But let’s back up historically, to the founding of what we might call modern conservatism in early nineteenth-century Britain and France. There were some – Frédéric Bastiat and Jean-Baptiste Say come to mind – who believed that government should put the unemployed to work building infrastructure when markets or production were temporarily disrupted. But they were balanced by those like Nassau Senior, who spoke out against even famine relief: Although a million people would die in the Irish Potato Famine, “that would scarcely be enough.”

The main thrust of early conservatism was root-and-branch opposition to every form of social insurance: make the poor richer, and they would become more fertile. As a result, farm sizes would drop (as land was divided among ever more children), labor productivity would fall, and the poor would become even poorer. Social insurance was not just pointless; it was counterproductive.

The proper economic policy was to teach people to venerate the throne (so that they would respect property), the paternal hearth (so that they would not marry imprudently young), and the religious altar (so that they would fear pre-marital sex). Then, perhaps, with women chaste for half or more of their childbearing years, the surplus population would diminish and conditions for the poor would be as good as they could be.