“Bush the liberal”? Again?

Is fake liberalism the same as liberalism?
Is bad conservatism the same as liberalism?
David Bernstein seems to think so.

Ezra Klein points out that, because such liberal causes as environmental protection enjoy widespread popular support, George W. Bush has to pursue his anti-environmental policies under pro-environmental names such as “Clear Skies.”

Ezra further claims that this applies to a much wider range of policy issues: while “liberalism” as a political label is out of fashion, lots of “liberal” ideas are too popular to oppose overtly, and reactionaries such as Bush need to oppose them covertly.

Matt Yglesias points out that in many ways the Bush Administration has been grossly unfaithful to conservative principles such as small government, fiscal responsiblity, free trade, and federalism.

Note that this is not the same point as Klein’s point, though it’s also true. Klein is talking about pursuing conservative ends under liberal labels, while Yglesias is talking about abandoning conservative principles. A conservative voter without much scruple about fooling the voters into doing what he thinks is the right thing might applaud “Clear Skies,” etc., but would presumably deplore the abandonment of conservative principle.

David Bernstein tries to spin all of this into agreement with his palpably silly claim that Bush has been running a basically liberal administration. It’s obvious that fake liberalism — wrecking the environment in the name of environmental protection — isn’t the same as real liberalism. It’s only marginally obvious that betraying conservative principles in the service of right-wing interests and political gain also doesn’t bring you closer to liberalism.

The proposed anti-gay-marriage amendment, for example, moves an important decision from the state level to the federal level, thus violating the “state’s rights” principle conservatives claim to hold. But only in Looking-Glass Land does that that make it a “liberal” proposal.

Bernstein’s line of reasoning makes sense only if “liberal” and “conservatives” are simple opposites, like “acid” and “base.” In the actual world, a fake conservative isn’t the same as a liberal, any more than a transvestite male is a female. Nor is a bad conservative the same as a liberal, any more than a bad electrician is a plumber.

I leave it to the reader to decide whether Bernstein is deliberately making a grossly false argument (or, as he puts it, a “slightly tongue in cheek argument”), or whether his understanding of liberalism (and conservatism) is really as shallow and distorted as he pretends.

Update: Matt Yglesias deconstructs my analysis.

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

One thought on ““Bush the liberal”? Again?

  1. Gender Trouble

    Mark Kleiman's right but, he's gotta keep a closer leash on his analogies:In the actual world, a fake conservative isn't the same as a liberal, any more than a transvestite male is a female. Nor is a bad conservative the…

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