Welcome to TP Ideas‘ fourth installment of our roundup of the week’s best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that intelligently and lucidly articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling progressives how right they are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Was Russia’s WTO Membership a Mistake?” — Seth Mandel, Commentary
Two of the major fault lines separating progressives and conservatives on foreign policy are rogue states and international institutions (i.e., the U.N.) Progressives think the U.S. should engage constructively with rogue states; neoconservatives think it usually ends up covering for their evils. Progressives think the U.N. and international law are worthy projects; neoconservatives are skeptical.
Mandel’s piece neatly ties the conservative side of both arguments together. As you might guess from the title, he’s examining whether Russia’s recent accession to World Trade Organization membership was a mistake. But the substantive questions he raise are much broader:
I’m not suggesting that U.S.-Russia trade suddenly materialized out of nowhere when Russia joined the WTO–of course that’s not the case. But it does raise questions about authoritarian actors joining international institutions that don’t require more sturdy political liberalization (like NATO). I’ve written in the past about “reverse integration,” James Mann’s theory of how China could take advantage of economic integration not to play by international rules but to weaken the threshold for rogue regimes to be granted increased international legitimacy and thus dilute, not enhance, global democracy.
That is not quite the concern here with Putin (or at least not the main concern). Russia’s membership in the WTO doesn’t seem to be de-democratizing economic institutions here or abroad. Rather, Putin has taken advantage of economic integration with the U.S. to dull any American response to his adventuresome foreign policy. Because that response already had virtually no military component, weakening or greatly delaying any financial sanctions would tie both the West’s hands behind its back while he did what he wanted.
Mandel’s point is that closer ties with rights-abusing regimes gives those nations more avenues to enable their abuses. Integrating China and Russia into economic institutions like the WTO gives them more power to shape the codes that govern the institutions, including the rules about using economic power to punish bad actors. It’s a trenchant point, and one that should trouble progressives who believe in international law’s power to make the world a better place.
2. “Our Property Principle” — Richard Epstein, Defining Ideas
When I mentioned that I was including this essay in the roundup to my colleague Ian Millhiser this morning, Ian referred to Epstein as the “godfather” of contemporary libertarian legal thought. Many of the constitutional arguments you see against progressive laws — including the ones used against Obamacare — date back to Epstein’s legal scholarship.
If you want to understand the thinking behind these arguments, then, Epstein’s new column defending an aggressively libertarian theory of constitutional property rights is worth your time. Epstein believes that the Fifth Amendment’s property rights protection (“nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”) reflects a basic philosophical commitment on the part of the founders to strong protection against government seizure of property. The reasons behind this commitment are compelling:
Today, with weak property rights protection, the dangerous dynamic of majoritarian politics can engulf all government actions. In the absence of a strong just compensation requirement, nothing ensures that government takings, even when done for public use, will be worth more to the public at large than to its private owners. Protecting private property does not stand in opposition to the welfare of the community at large, but is thoroughly consistent with it. For example, forcing New York City to put the cost of landmark preservation “on budget” improves the political process by forcing a more candid deliberation of relative costs and benefits. It is the failure to incorporate this check on deliberation that has contributed so much to economic stagnation in New York City and the nation. The City thus labors under the massive misallocations caused by rent stabilization because it refuses to put on budget the losses incurred by landlords from tenants who can force the renewal of their leases at below market rates. It is just this unwillingness to respect financial liens that accounts for the deplorable conduct of the federal government in the continuing scandal over the expropriation of the private shareholders of Fannie and Freddie.
Though Epstein doesn’t out-and-out say it, the subtext here is that property rights are a critical bulwark against the abuse of minority rights by the majority. Given that members of majority, privileged groups tend to dominate government in a democracy, the people most likely to be victimized by government seizure of property are oppressed minorities. Expanding the government’s legal power over the economy, then, isn’t always progressive: in some cases, it can reinforce race-and-class hierarchies rather than undermine them.
3. “Your Questions, My Answers (I)” — Ross Douthat, The New York Times
I think Ross Douthat is the New York Times’ best columnist. That’s not because he’s the Grey Lady’s most *correct* columnist. I often find Douthat’s arguments infuriating, particularly on religion and morality. Rather, Ross wins the op-ed page by performing the most valuable public service of anyone writing in that space: he teaches the Times’ more-liberal-than-not audience why smart people might disagree with them.
A lot of progressives dismiss religious conservatives as pro-tanto irrational or, worse, stupid. Douthat’s sharp writing gives the lie to this stereotype, giving open-minded progressives a golden opportunity to understand a rich worldview they may not come into contact with often. Today’s blog post, where he responds to questions about his views from readers, is an almost perfect example of this function of his work. Take this response to a reader asking about whether conservatives’ “belief in American exceptionalism [is] a rational philosophy or a naive and sentimental view of the world?”
Can’t it be both, depending on how far it’s taken? I think there’s a wise version of American exceptionalism that admires and defends our particular folkways — the religious balancing act I just mentioned, our rich associational life and civic life, our democratic culture and longstanding skepticism of centralized authority, our commercial and technological dynamism, etc. – without taking the naïve and sentimental step of asserting that our way is the Only Way, Period, and that every other culture and society and government should be judged by how closely it hews to our particular model. The first kind is the kind of exceptionalism I endorse, and the kind of conservatism I subscribe to – one that doesn’t see America as perfect and sinless, but thinks that our overall way of life is one of humanity’s great achievement, with major virtues that are worth defending.
And in the specific case of health care, I think that kind of exceptionalist attitude would be willing to look the problems with our system – the cost overruns, the millions left uninsured — squarely in the face, and not just take refuge in the “we have the best health care in the world” assertions that you sometimes hear from Republican politicians. But it would also be conscious of the cultural particularities at work here (policy isn’t the only reason, or even the major reason, why America has higher obesity rates than northern Europe), and the distinctive virtues of our system (we really do drive a lot of the world’s health care innovation), and it would look for reforms that would work with the American grain… rather than just assuming that we can drop Sweden’s system into the American Southwest and get exactly the same outcomes. That’s the goal of a wise exceptionalism, I’d say: Not a resistance to any form of change, but a quest for changes that are in continuity with the American experiment’s best features.
It’s as clear a response to a perennial progressive question (“why can’t conservatives admit that life is so much better for Europeans?”) as one could hope for. It also succintly expresses a number of important conservative insights: policy doesn’t always drive social trends, contextual differences between societies matter greatly, and the the free market in works in subtle ways to make people’s lives around the world better. This is the sort of conservatism that progressives need to take seriously.
One final note: this will be my last week walking you through the best in conservative writing, and at Think Progress in general. But the weekly roundup will live on here, continuing to bring you insightful right-of-center writing well after I’ve gone. Thanks so much for sticking with me — if you want to stay in touch, you can find me on Twitter as @zackbeauchamp or at my new home at Vox.