Three Things Conservatives Wrote This Week That Made Us Think

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Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.

So let’s get started.

1. “What About Ageism Against The Young And Talented?” — Reihan Salam, National Review Online

By my lights, Reihan Salam is the conservative at National Review most worthy of liberals’ attention. He combines an almost super-human capacity for consuming oddball studies and theoretical arguments with a knack for coming at liberals sideways, hitting us in ways we wouldn’t expect. His latest target is Noam Scheiber’s big piece in The New Republic, which charges Silicon Valley with an implicit and particularly relentless bias against anyone past their early 30s. I found Scheiber’s account compelling, and the older tech industry hands he chronicled deeply sympathetic, so I was interested to see where Salam would go with this. His post pokes a few modest-but-reasonable holes in Scheiber’s evidence, but the core of Salam’s argument is here:

[I]t could be that Silicon Valley is one domain in which young people aren’t being actively discriminated against, and so we see a decent number of young people getting a chance to prove themselves. […] Who doubts that there are young people in other institutions — non-tech firms, for example — who wouldn’t knock it out of the park if given a chance? But they’re not. And if you don’t get at-bats, it’s really hard to get better. The tech sector is unique because of the Cambrian explosion of tech entrepreneurship: a proliferation of enabling technologies (Amazon’s cloud computing to build a backbone, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android marketplaces to facilitate distribution, oDesk to find talent, GitHub to share code, etc.) have lowered barriers to entry, lowering the cost of entrepreneurial at-bats. So we see more young people in leadership roles, and also more people with heavy accents, autism spectrum disorders, and other qualities that might make it hard to climb a corporate ladder.

This is interesting because it takes a classic left-wing critique — that for historically privileged groups, the sudden arrival of a level playing field can feel like oppression — and uses it to make an ostensibly right-wing point. It depends on whether you actually buy the idea that older Americans can still be considered a privileged group in this segment of the market world. And, admittedly, solid and extensive data on wither side of the argument is hard to come by. By Salam’s argument is a particularly coherent defense of the libertarian-inflected culture of creative destruction that Silicon Valley champions.

2. “What If There Were No Public Schools?” — Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The Week

P.E. Gobry is a defender of free markets and Catholicism, and an esoteric conservative writer. One of his bugaboos is education policy. He defends incrementalist right-of-center reforms, but informed by an underlying view that the entire way we organize education in America is a mess and should be scrapped.

In this piece for The Week, Gobry indulges that radical underlying idea in an enjoyably whacky way: imagine an alien invasion of Earth that just focuses on utterly eliminating the country’s public education system, and then forbids the government from rebuilding it in any way on pain of total destruction. How would Americans go about educating their children? Obviously, they would start with an ad-hoc national market of private schools. Then what?

[T]here’s a lot of data to suggest that those prices would be driven down — possibly way down. Currently, schools make almost no use of technology. There are no large education corporations, meaning there are no economies of scale (the Catholic Church is a big institution, but Catholic schools are operationally and financially independent — and the church is hardly known for its management acumen). Competition is hindered by the school district catchment system, and there is little incentive for innovation, given the fact that private schools are undercut by free public education.

Another thing you would see, therefore, would be a lot of innovative schools. You would see a lot more Montessori schools, given the overwhelming research that suggests that this almost 100-year-old method of education produces the best results. Think about it this way: In what kind of industry would a significant productivity enhancement method be ignored by the profession for several generations?

The idea is certainly out there, but give Gobry this: it’s a highly unusual way of trying to get past status quo bias, which admittedly affects everyone across the political spectrum and limits what we imagine to be possible and workable. It then gets at the classic conservative point that decentralized markets at least have the potential to deliver results lots of people on both the left and the right should value: innovation, rapid embrace of proven methods, more freedom for individuals and communities to live their lives on their own terms, and lower costs.

Anyway, that’s the first half. In the second half Gobry argues this thought experiment would work out well even for the poor, because private philanthropy would step in. I found that latter idea very hard to swallow; private philanthropy’s actual historical record in this regard is not impressive. Also, Gobry’s preferred world of endlessly self-reinventing, decentralized private education could presumably live happily alongside government efforts to distribute cash directly, rather than building an entire national school system top-to-bottom.

3. “The Republic Of Fear” — David Brooks, the New York Times

Along with Ross Douthat, David Brooks is one of the two prominent conservatives in the New York Times’ line-up of regular columnists. In my experience, he’s at his best when he tackles the distinctly social aspects of human existence and interaction, and addresses policy only indirectly, in how it’s impacted by the ways we live our lives together as groups.

Here he focuses on how the social experience relates to getting economic growth off the ground in the world’s poor and underdeveloped countries. It’s not a critique of any specific policy so much as an experiential dive into what it’s like, on the ground level, to live in a society in which basic law and order and social trust cannot be relied upon:

We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold. Our fundamental security was established by our ancestors. We tend to assume that the primary problems of politics are economic and that the injustices of the world can be addressed with economic levers. When empires like the Soviet Union collapse, we send in economists with privatization plans instead of cops to help create rule of law. When thuggish autocracies invade their neighbors we impose economic sanctions.

But people without our inherited institutions live on the other side of the threshold and have a different reality. They live within a contagion of chaos. They live where the primary realities include violence, theft and radical uncertainty. Their world is governed less by long-term economic incentives and more by raw fear. In a world without functioning institutions, predatory behavior and the passions of domination and submission blot out economic logic.

This combines two staples of conservative thought: that human nature is not reliably benevolent, and as a result the social trust the developed world takes for granted is the product of decades — if not centuries — of effort to build reliable institutions and cultures that direct people towards cooperation. I don’t think it should be seen as a judgment on the merits of any particular culture, but an attempt to point out how lucky those of us who inherit functioning institutions are. They are not, in other words, a given.

It’s certainly possible that some forms of economic aid are much better suited to this kind of environment than others. But obviously, technocratic solutions to global poverty — like targeted resource distribution — are going to be hamstrung if people in those societies simply can’t trust property, law enforcement, and all the rest to reliably function.