Friday, May 16, 2008

Conservatism, Surgical Radicalism and the Four Party System

The current popular political debate occurs between two kinds of conservatives. The first, called liberals or progressives, argues that the current framework of American democracy, created during the Progressive era and New Deal and now roughly 100 years old, ought to remain in place. In their view introduction of additional institutions, plans and programs like national health insurance along the lines of earlier ones is needed, but today's framework is a good one.

The second kind of conservatives, popularly so called, are not comfortable with the New Deal project---Social Security, government regulation of industry, and large-scale federal social welfare programs, but do not want to repeal these programs either. They follow Edmund Burke, who argued against radical in favor of gradual change. Burke felt that gradual transformation of institutions while protecting liberty was a better path than the French revolution's authoritarianism, political correctness and executions. Rather, he preferred the American revolution's restraint.

Today's conservatives retain Burke's dislike for radical change. But the institutions that exist in America today were radically imposed during the first half of the twentieth century. They did not evolve logically from the market economy of the nineteenth and they did not reflect economic exigencies of the the early 20th century. Rather, they reflected the imposition of a political vision of specific rent-seeking special interest groups and agenda-drive political radicals.

Burke wrote in Britain in the late eighteenth century when barbaric institutions had gradually evolved into more democratic and liberal forms in Britain and to a lesser degree in Europe. Burke did not write about what to do to unravel the harm that the French revolution had caused. Rather, he wrote about how Britain and other liberal nations might best cope with change. This is not the problem that faces America today. An excessive application of Burke is inappropriate. America has had some radical change imposed while partially retaining liberal institutions. Conservatives who wish to create a new liberalism need to be surgical radicals. They need to undo New Deal radicalism's derangement of older versions of liberalism. The derangement has taken a number of shapes, to include social security, urban renewal, welfare, the Federal Reserve Bank, excessive application of eminent domain, and excessive regulation of business. Such radically instituted habits ought to be undone conservatively but radically.

Progressivism and the New Deal were radical upheavals. They rewrote American institutions that were not very old. A radical conservatism is one that is pragmatic, and asks that if radically imposed institutions fail that they be undone. This is a surgical radicalism that devises new liberal institutions where Progressivism and New Deal social democracy have failed.

Conservatives who wish to retain Progressive institutions, who are loyal to the old Federal Reserve Bank and its old-fashioned economic planning, high levels of government spending and support for business are Progressives. Conservatives who wish to retain New Deal institutions like Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act are social democratic liberals.

Perhaps Americans should think in terms of a four-party rather than a two-party system. Perhaps there should be a surgically radical conservative party; a Progressive-conservative Rockefeller-Republican Party; a New Deal Party; and a social democratic radical party. Of these, the surgically conservative radical party would be the most radical, liberal and progressive.

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