A Short Lesson in Serious Conservatism and Right-Wing Hackery

There could be no better example of the distinction between serious intellectual conservative thought and party hackery than this debate between Joseph Bottum and Michael Novak at First Things. Where Bottum makes the defensible conservative argument that Bush has been a disaster for conservatives because of his utter lack of competence, Michael Novak says that Bush’s mistakes are in fact the fault of government itself! Examine the key quote from Novak yourself, and tell me whether it sounds like the words of a serious intellectual, or an extension of the White House press office:

Bottum’s charge of incompetence is more troubling, although he may expect from government more than government can deliver. A long-established lesson is that, even in the best of times, government is mightily incompetent-and the bigger government gets, the more incompetent it becomes. Think of how much time it takes to obtain a building permit, to go through vehicle registration, to correct a government mistake on tax forms or on public utility bills, etc. Recall how few government offices in the same building communicate with the others, and how often you are shuttled back and forth.

So…Bush’s incompetence is a brief for Novak’s pre-existing dislike of government. This is a man utterly incapable of learning anything, of drawing lessons from experience rather than simply spouting dogma. It is this capacity to be surprised by reality, rather than smothering it in ideology, that marks out what is best about conservative thought. Bottum has it, Novak doesn’t.

When the Republicans lose the presidency in 2008, there will be (or at least ought to be) a purge of the conservative ranks, clearing out everyone who besmirched intellectually defensible conservatism with Bush-toadyism. It won’t be my fight, since I’m not a conservative (as defined today), but I know whose side I’ll take as an ally from outside the fold.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.