The latest plan [Congress is offering] is even worse than the spring round of $100 billion or so in tax rebate checks. At least rebates allowed taxpayers to spend their own money. Under this stimulus the government will tax or borrow $150 billion to $300 billion in order to spend the money on social and pork-barrel programs. The latest draft would direct dollars to food stamps, another expansion in unemployment insurance, home heating subsidies, more aid to states and cities, and “infrastructure” like roads, bridges and public transit. Because of Davis-Bacon wage requirements on these brick and mortar projects, a portion of the dollars would coincidentally flow to the Democrats’ biggest campaign contributors: unions. Call it a political “rebate” check.
– from “An Obamanomics Preview” in the WSJ
1. I have spoken at length about how conservatives and Republicans generally need to educate, and stop pretending that having alternative media sources will fix everything. We have a fairly large conservative media now, and all it does is say the same thing over and over again, and we’re clearly not any better for it.
One reason that conservatives became angry at President Bush was for all the spending that he refused to veto. Part of that spending went into things like “No Child Left Behind,” conservative alternatives to where more liberal policies would normally exist or come forth. I think the idea generally was for a class of conservative bureaucrats to emerge that would change Washington culture rightward. Perhaps this has happened, only time will tell.
The argument against having conservative policies or a bureaucracy, of course, is that government shouldn’t be spending or meddling in the first place. The problem with this argument is that if you try to make it on any given issue, you’re typically citing policy analysts who presuppose a government counterpart. That counterpart exists because legislation over these matters exists – blaming Bush for spending getting out of control is kind of like blaming the earth for being two-thirds water: the nature of the beast has not been recognized. The real issue has always been Congress’ willingness, backed by judicial activism, to legislate over everything or appoint bodies (i.e. the FCC, FDA, etc.) that wield virtual executive power. Why should Congress give up that power? Because we scream a lot and elect them back into office anyway? The President’s job is to keep us safe – nothing more. If he feels he needs Congressional “unity” in order to do his job, that’s his call, not ours. (The best argument for term limits: a President only gets to serve 8 years tops. Why should anyone in the government, except the Supreme Court, serve longer than that? If Congress serves longer, they have more authority by far over the federal bureaucracy, and whaddya know.)
It is possible to cut the government. But in order to do it, you would need a vast Congressional reform movement as well as a movement for increased state and local control that was serious. What would happen is that the rhetoric of “federalism” would be used in concert with policies where power could be taken from the federal government and given to states/localities immediately. When Gingrich led the “Contract with America” Republicans, they got half of this correct; changing state and local political culture, though, is near impossible. To wit: How does one just as a citizen keep up with the school board, the mayor’s office, the county government, the state legislature, the governor?
You’d need far more conservatives than we have now in order to try this, and they’d need to be skillful at understanding issues at all levels of government, keeping the public informed and engaged, and they’d need to be actually active in government in some way. In other words: you’d need a class of conservative bureaucrats or statesmen.
2. Conservatism isn’t “obvious,” it isn’t “common sense.” American conservatism is a fusion of ideologies with an effective agenda, and it needs people who are very capable to understand and implement that agenda.
I can safely tell you that the capability isn’t there right now. When you don’t have any control over education, the ability to shape the future is as good as finished.
As the quote from the WSJ demonstrates, there may be other issues besides education involved here. The major issue is the ability of Democrats to gather into their party elements that they can give real benefits to. They can get money and benefits to constituent groups; if you’re a defense contractor, that might be your only reason to vote Republican, and you still have to compete with other contractors to win a bid.
However, the most notable group in the Democratic party receiving benefits – the one that has virtual control over it – are the teacher’s unions. It is almost the height of irony that the major problem with conservatism today is education, and that the core fundamentalists of Democratic dogma control our schools. The problem with the teacher’s unions is so severe right now that even the Democratic party is torn over their influence: it’s pretty clear our schools are terrible in deep ways, and yet how do you tell a group that comprised nearly 10% of the delegates to your national convention that they’re doing a bad job? How do you do it knowing that some children do have to be left behind, that some people can’t be educated properly no matter what (if you doubt this, then answer: should the Columbine killers have gone to school? It’s a perfectly reasonable question – when you want everyone to do something, you have to own up to the consequences).
You shouldn’t take the Democrats’ wrangling over teachers’ unions too seriously, though: the fundamental issues are over technicalities, such as charter schools or national testing. The debate is between “experts” and unionists, and that debate is always going to resolve badly for those of us interested in having educated people. They’re interested in the “form” of education – we need to be interested in the “content.”
3. An emphasis on “form” will almost always result in an inability to think for oneself or be articulate on issues. For example, many homeschoolers I know are obsessed with getting “great books” in the hands of their kids. Ostensibly this is a nod to content, but given that there are about 4 people on Planet Earth I’d trust to work with on the Aeneid, it really is a brazen attempt to dictate “form:” the old stuff was good and rigorous, so any of it will do.
An emphasis on content starts with asking what sorts of people we consider educated. The most important thing to note is how diverse this group is: for me, it includes everything from statisticians who watch way too much football (footballoutsiders.com) to musicians who are folk-rock stars (The Weakerthans) to hippies who know more about Eastern culture than I ever will to the usual answers of scholars or librarians or that dude who won more games on Jeopardy! than anyone else.
What we’re aiming for are people who can be free but be sensibly engaged. You might say at this point, “That’s not what I want. I want my kid to cure cancer” or “I want him to be able to survive and take care of himself” or “I would really like it if they’d stay pious.”
The last one is the most important problem I’ve confronted, so I’ll give you my personal experience. If you try to create kids more pious than yourself, it’ll work too well. Trust me on this – your kids will be lecturing you on what is holy without knowing any of the issues or having any of the experiences that led you to Truth. You think you want this, but you really don’t. As much as I love my evangelical and fundamentalist friends, if I started listing the various levels of dysfunction I’ve encountered over the years you’d think hardcore porn might be the only thing on this Earth that was honest with itself.
As for survival: congrats. Our emphasis on survival has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams: every one has access to large lines of credit, and there are part-time jobs everywhere. What? You mean to tell me people are spending most of their lives paying off debt, and that material comfort comes at a higher and higher price each day? That an emphasis on survival is almost indistinguishable practically from living comfortably? Yeah, our debt culture comes from this logic – since we set the bar so low in terms of what is good and didn’t bother to say anything intellectual was good, the only right one has is to get into debt. You can get whatever you want, all you have to do is pay for it, and since time is money, you’ll pay with years of your life. European-style social aid is an extension of the debt culture, strangely enough. They moved to that sort of thing because they had to rebuild after two extraordinarily devastating wars. We’re doing it because the right to get into debt pretty much sucks.
Finally, I’ve discussed the problems with training people for producing technology at length, but they’re quite obvious if you care to look. We do this every day now, and it’s not clear we’re better people even as we make the world more liveable.
So what I’m making here is the deep argument why people should be taught to be free: it has nothing to do with “being an American” as much as the ability to consider and choose what is good. A system of education needs to be in place to do that.
4. So what should the system look like? What I would like to see is a very decentralized network form now, where all of us as adults – forget the kids at this moment – start catching up on their reading and talk to someone who has competence with the book/work. This includes me: I’m pretty weak on Aristotle and the thinkers of the Middle Ages and could definitely use a few more Greek classes.
Now the neat thing for all of you is that you don’t need to be in class to learn about Lincoln and the Federalist, if you don’t know that stuff. I kinda need to be in class and listening to lectures, still, because the subject has gotten very specialized for me. But in terms of going over the Founding documents, most of the Federalist papers are a few pages long, the Gettysburg Address is less than 300 words, the Constitution isn’t very long. In terms of intellectual history, i.e. learning about nearly every political position that can be conceived, the Bible isn’t terribly hard reading, many Platonic dialogues are short, influences on the Founders like Francis Bacon have accessible works. Many of the best ideas are expressed in stories – there’s not much in modern thought that Thucydides didn’t cover and go beyond, and that’s all in The Peloponnesian War, which is perfectly readable even by a 15 year old.
So what are you going to do with this? Go around and brag that you know Thucydides and can rule? Shouldn’t the approach be more direct? Shouldn’t we run classes on how to run a campaign, shouldn’t you be learning about specifics of health-care policy and what not?
The problem with the “direct” approach is that you don’t have time to do that, and specializing weeds people out. If we’re going to educate as a party, then we need to be on the same page for the most part. We need to have a standard, and a fairly high one, but not one that excludes nearly everyone.
To me, the standard is the following. You should:
- Know your own heritage and how complicated it gets.
- Be able to articulate where you stand and discuss at length the best counterarguments to your position. This is a skill, not a recited series of positions, hence you can’t just read the news all the time.
- Be able to discuss other countries intelligently in terms of what matters to other peoples. The American Constitution emerged from English, Scottish, Roman and French thought, at the least. Even if you read no poetry, you should know just as an educated person who Neruda is and what his significance to Chile is.
- Be able to ask your fellow Americans questions and take their stories seriously, without having media do this for you.
Now quite obviously, while these aren’t the highest goals – I’m not asking everyone to read Plato necessarily and tell me about the nature of Being – this sort of thing takes a lifetime. But I think it is something a party can easily do with minimal resources. I’m not asking the people running gop.com for a link. All they’d have to do is put forth a reading list – something with stuff like Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” or Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” forward, and say that Republicans might want to acquaint themselves with these sorts of things whether they agree with them or not, and go a bit further and maybe link to discussions of the works they thought enlightening.
All the party needs to do is set up a slight standard for actually being Republican. That would get the ball rolling for the rest of us to understand what we’re doing better, and maybe convince others to join the party merely by what we’re doing in the party, not merely what we’re doing for the party.