Reihan Salam on Neoconservatism and Bottom-Up

Reihan Salam

Reihan Salam

This interview with my friend Reihan Salam is worth a read. Reihan is generally regarded as a conservative, but he is one of those guys who seems to have read absolutely everything, and he seems to incorporate a little bit of everything he reads into his own views. Thus, he describes himself as something of a libertarian neocon:

The boundaries between the various traditions are, by nature, extremely ill-defined. I definitely identify with a lot of the 1970s-era neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, who embraced certain aspects of the welfare state while also emphasizing the limits of what planners and governments can realistically achieve. Kristol was a great admirer of Jane Jacobs, who led the fight against Robert Moses’s various efforts to raze old neighborhoods in New York city in the name of “rational urban planning,” in the process obliterating flourishing institutions that were hard to discern from a planner’s-eye-view.

I’m a deep believer in the power of bottom-up institutions that are controlled by families and individuals. I worry about sapping authority from ordinary people because I think it undermines our capacity to experiment and to create new and better solutions to social problems. I definitely think the state can and should help give people the tools they need to improve their lives — and sometimes this just means the state can tax some people and give other people money. But again, we have to have a clear sense of what governments can and can’t do well.

In this regard, I’m definitely a great admirer of Hayek, who was a believer in the power of decentralized approaches to achieving social goals. That’s not to say that I’m a doctrinaire libertarian. I recognize that, for better or for worse, richer societies demand more in the way of social protections — actually, Hayek understood this too, and he noted that the basic social minimum guaranteed by the state would vary across societies according to overall wealth and thus overall expectations.

People think of neocons and libertarians as very much at odds, not least because the former are very interested in the idea of promoting “virtue,” in a non-sectarian way. While I think that neoconservatives have taken lots of wrong turns — if we can even talk about this as a coherent category outside of foreign policy — I tend to think of the 1970s-era folks as social policy realists.

One of the embarrassing oversights on my own intellectual resume is that I’ve never actually read the work of the early neocons. I’m associated with an institution whose president uses neocon as a term of abuse, so my reflexive impression of neocons isn’t especially positive. And my view of them hasn’t been improved by the fact that the neocons’ signature policy achievement, the war in Iraq, hasn’t exactly been a shining success.

Still, one element of neocon thought that I do think is worth taking seriously is the point that after a certain amount of time has passed, government programs become deeply woven into the fabric of a society. It’s one thing to argue that, ex ante, the creation of Medicare was a bad idea. But Medicare is now a settled part of the American economic system. Clearly, reforms are needed to ensure the program doesn’t bankrupt the country. But I think libertarians who advocate the immediate abolition of Medicare are guilty of the same kind of top-down hubris that they attribute to those who advocate dramatic expansions of the role of government in health care. Either reform is likely to have unintended consequences, and it’s prudent to approach such reforms cautiously and—if possible—pursue them incrementally.

This, I think, is the hidden wisdom of the now-famous “keep your government hands off my Medicare” comment. Ordinary voters are not policy wonks, and they don’t tend to think about issues in the same crisply ideological terms as policy wonks. But they have a gut-level understanding that dramatic changes in the health care system have the potential to disturb a health care system that’s currently serving seniors pretty well. From the perspective of the average senior, there isn’t that much difference between Medicare and Aetna—they’re both huge bureaucracies that decide which kind of health care you’re allowed to have. Seniors understand that legislation means significant changes, and since they’re relatively happy with the status quo, they’re understandably suspicious of proposals to change it.

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4 Responses to Reihan Salam on Neoconservatism and Bottom-Up

  1. Sarah says:

    Very good points. This is why I’m not 100% libertarian.

  2. Adam Thierer says:

    Tim… If you substituted “copyright” for “medicare” in the following passage, would you still agree with that statement?

    “But I think libertarians who advocate the immediate abolition of Medicare are guilty of the same kind of top-down hubris that they attribute to those who advocate dramatic expansions of the role of government in health care. Either reform is likely to have unintended consequences, and it’s prudent to approach such reforms cautiously and—if possible—pursue them incrementally.”

  3. Chris "Jesdisciple" says:

    I hope he turns a few Republican heads… Whether he’s right or wrong at least his intellectual ethics are better than ours.

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