Over five years ago, in a provocative article in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait attempted to distill the essence of how liberalism differs from conservatism on economic policy. His analysis seems even more insightful in the wake of last week's election, with much to say about issues beyond economic policy, particularly the question of gun control.
In "Fact Finders: The anti-dogma dogma," Chait imagines that God has appeared on Earth in order to settle long-standing disputes over our economic policy. In so doing, God announces that every empirical claim made by conservatives is true: cutting taxes benefits everyone, eliminating social programs like Medicare will raise the living standards of the elderly, slashing regulations ends up benefiting more people than the regulations themselves. Chait envisions that liberals would respond "by rethinking and abandoning nearly all their long-held positions."
In contrast, he suggests, if the opposite occurred and God appeared in order to affirm liberal precepts endorsing the value of social programs and economic regulation, many conservatives would remain true to their beliefs, despite the disappearance of empirical support.
Why the difference? According to Chait, it is because "conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles." Liberalism and conservatism are not parallel ideologies. For conservatives, smaller government is an end in itself. Liberals, in contrast, support government intervention essentially as a means to achieve "material improvement in people's lives." Thus liberalism and conservatism represent less a clash of ideologies, than a clash between an ideology (conservatism) and "a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy" (liberalism).
In the aftermath of the mid-term elections, Chait's analysis acquires new relevance. Can it be denied that conservatism has become even more ideological than during the Bush years, when Chait wrote his piece? On economic policy, the Tea Party Republicans have attacked the stimulus package and the Obama health reform as evil per se. Facts seem largely beside the point. In contrast, despite the raving of Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers about a "socialist" takeover, both the economic stimulus and the health care reforms were deeply pragmatic efforts to solve demonstrably serious problems. The Obama Administration conspicuously rejected more ideological alternatives, such as a massive federal jobs program or single-payer health care.
Chait's distinction between liberalism and conservatism may have even more to say about the debate over gun control than about economic issues. As should be unmistakable from the comments to this blog, the opposition to gun control arises from a deeply felt ideology. Restrictions on guns are impermissible per se, as invasions of a "god-given" freedom.
In contrast, gun control proponents start with the existence of a problem (100,000 Americans killed or wounded every year by gunfire) and propose various reforms not because they are valuable per se, but because they are seen as pragmatic ways to attack the problem. Indeed, there is much debate in the gun control community over which reforms will be effective, much as there is robust debate among liberals generally about what economic policies will be effective.
This kind of internal debate is foreign to the "gun rights" crowd, for which the freedom to possess and carry guns is an unquestioned good and the only task is to identify and defeat threats to that freedom. The work of scholars showing the benefits of gun regulation, or the danger of gun carrying, is automatically dismissed as "biased" because it cannot be reconciled with the "gun rights" ideology. Chait's description of conservative economic reasoning is equally true of "gun rights" reasoning: "It begins with the conclusion and marches back through the premises."
If it is true that the gun control debate is really between ideology and pragmatism, what does that mean for the future of gun policy? Robert Samuelson, a fairly conservative economist, has observed that "most Americans are more 'pragmatic' than 'ideological'." On the gun issue, there is growing data to support this view. Even gun owners, and NRA members, support a wide range of gun control measures, including extending Brady criminal background checks to all sales at gun shows. The true "gun rights" ideologues represent a small minority of gun owners. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a national leader in the fight for sensible gun laws, is quite right in observing that "there's common ground on this issue for anyone who is willing to look at it honestly, not ideologically."
Bloomberg is optimistic about progress on the gun issue because, he says, "pragmatism beats ideology." At first glance, an election cycle that will send ideologues like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate may seem to offer little support for Bloomberg's view. On the other hand, noisy ideological appeals did candidates like Carly Fiorina in California and Ken Buck in Colorado little good. Fiorina was forced to defend her opposition to legislation to bar suspected terrorists from buying guns and Buck was confronted with his actions as a prosecutor giving aid and comfort to a gun dealer accused of violating the law.
Despite the political atmosphere of the last several months, in which the national discourse has been dominated by the ideologues of the right, it remains true that ours is not primarily an ideological electorate, but rather a problem-solving one. The Obama Administration no doubt understands this and will use a strategy of identifying the Republican Party with its Tea Party extremists, who are more interested in vindicating Ayn Rand than in putting Americans back to work.
President Obama should also understand that, given the remarkable consensus about gun policy between those who own guns and those who do not, the gun issue can be important in strengthening his claim to being the advocate of pragmatic problem-solving against the ideological crusaders of the right. The American people already implicitly understand that many thousands of American lives, particularly young lives, are being sacrificed on the alter of an "any gun, anywhere, anytime" ideology. They are ready to stand up to that ideology. Is he ready to lead them?
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)