A bad conservative is not a liberal

No, Peggy, being a bad conservative doesn’t make you a liberal. George Bush is yours, and you’re stuck with him.

Peggy Noonan repeats a nonsense line that has long been floating around the conservatarian blogs: that since liberals favor raising domestic spending, while conservatives claim to oppose it, any increase in domestic spending by a conservative politician is a demonstration of liberalism. That is to say, a liberal is merely a bad conservative.

But no sane person favors spending in itself. Expenditures are costs, not benefits. Sane people favor spending money on public programs &#8212 foreign or domestic &#8212 whose benefits are sufficiently greater than their costs to make up for the deadweight losses from taxation and the inefficiencies of public-sector decision-making and implementation.

When it comes to domestic spending programs, liberals differ from conservatives in three ways: (1) we have different ideas about what count as good results that might justify the costs of public programs; (2) we prefer a more equal distribution of income and wealth to a less equal one, and therefore favor programs and laws that help the non-rich catch up with the rich; and (3) we lack the conservative reflex that opposes any public spending that doesn’t involve inflicting, threatening to inflict, or preparing to inflict, violence (i.e., defense and law enforcement).

Foolish and reckless domestic spending doesn’t constitute liberalism, any more than lynch mobs and death squads constitute law and order. No, George W. Bush is a conservative &#8212in the vicious and debased sense that term has in the mouths of most of the people who now call themselves “conservatives”&#8212 and they’re welcome to him.

Hat tip: Josh Marshall, who points out that budgetary recklessness reflects a character disorder, not an ideology.

Update While Peggy Noonan thinks that a bad conservative is a liberal, David Bernstein thinks that a policy that’s bad by conservative standards, such as the BushCo prescription drug benefit, must be good by liberal standards. Not so. A policy can simply be rotten by any reasonable standard.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com