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. “‘Right To Try’ Is The Right Step For States” — E21 Staff
Poking through the arguments of one’s political opponents is usually valuable as a way of testing one’s stances on well-trod issues in the public square. But occasionally, it can also serve up relatively unknown ideas that have yet to be hashed out along ideological lines. Such as the argument made the E21 editorial staff this week — which operate under the aegis of the conservative Manhattan Institute — to loosen up Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules to allow otherwise-terminally-ill patients to experiment with unproven drugs.
The piece lays down a few practical points — FDA has ratcheted up regulatory hurdles and increased its spending 65 percent in four years, while still failing to keep up with the massive onrush of new treatments and medicine modern technological advancement is providing — before they get down to the moral crux of their case:
Exemptions to the requirement of FDA approval can be made for terminally ill patients, but they are rarely granted and are difficult to obtain. Doctors have to complete over 100 hours of paperwork, and it is difficult for average families to navigate the FDA’s convoluted process. […]
Patients with terminal illnesses and their families are desperate. Today, bureaucrats have the legal authority — if not the moral authority — to tell a dying cancer patient they cannot take a one-in-a-hundred chance and try an experimental drug. […] What does it matter to those who are otherwise going to die if the drugs they are taking are not proven to be 100 percent safe and effective for everyone? Tragically, the terminally ill have no other options. Taking experimental drugs at worst provides the sick with hope, and at best saves lives and provides more data on the drugs’ effectiveness.
Decisions regarding one’s life should be left between patients and their doctors — unelected federal bureaucrats should not stand in the way. The FDA must realize it needs to modernize and stop interfering with the fundamental right to life. If it does not, states are more than justified in taking matters into their own hands and passing The Goldwater Institute’s Right to Try legislation.
The cleverness of the argument here is that it actually resonates with liberalism’s emphasis on choice and personal autonomy, while pitching that in tension with liberals’ preference to use government power to ensure those choices are safe. Of course, that’s a sword that cuts both ways: the moral premises of E21’s argument don’t sit well with conservative’s traditional opposition to legalizing assisted suicide, and at the very least they severely complicate the goals of the policy preferences of the pro-life movement.
2. “Denying The Tribe” — Claire Lehmann
This feature has visited the WEIRD (“Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic”) acronym before, in conservative critiques that seek to remind readers that the values liberals often draw upon are based in a highly unusual human social understanding that only emerged recently in human history. This week, blogger Claire Lehmann returned to that topic, pointing out that both a scientific and public failure to grapple with the benefits as well as the dangers of male tribalism specifically has left us ill-equipped to understand the attraction of everything from militant Islam to European nationalism to America’s gun culture.
Dozens of studies have now shown that people from Western, compared to non-Western cultures, think differently. And even among Western cultures, North-American people stand out as being the most different, the “weirdest” of all. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt summarises Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s key finding like this:
“The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.” (p. 96).
In other words, Western psychology views people as separate units. Even Australian culture, which is Western, rich and democratic, is less competitive and less hyper-individualistic compared to that of the US. […] In 2008 Ginges, Hansen and Norenzayan published a paper which demonstrated that Palestinian Muslims who attended mosque most frequently had the highest levels of support for the most extreme forms of parochial altruism: suicide attacks. Frequency of prayer was not predictive. Likewise, priming synagogue attendance (but not frequency of prayer) for Jewish Israelis, predicted the likelihood that they would find a suicide attack carried out against Palestinians to be “extremely heroic”.
If we want to understand the motivations of Islamist jihadists, European white nationalists, or anti-government gun-nuts, we need to understand tribalism. If we deny the pull of the tribe, and only focus on its negative consequences, we set the stage for it to flourish in the most anti-social and destructive of ways.
The tendency to view individuals rather than relationships as the fundamental unit of value is of course a hallmark of modern social liberalism, but interestingly it is not ubiquitous on the left: Marxists and other economic radicals critique capitalism on the grounds that it’s driven by skewed power relations rather than the free agency of trading individuals.
And Lehmann’s post is noteworthy for its nuance. She goes after both those modern liberal assumptions as well as the New Atheists’ habit of view everything through the lens of ideology, while also rejecting the explanations of evolutionary psychology as too reductive. Ultimately she lands on a synthesis of both cultural analysis and scientific study of human evolution and inheritance to try to tease out both the good and the destructive in human tribalism. And she packs in a ton of links to boot.
3. “Work-Promoting Safety Net Reforms Have Helped the Poor” — Scott Winship, Forbes
If you’re looking for someone to poke holes in things like Thomas Piketty’s analysis of inequality or liberal objections to conservative reforms of the social safety net — and to do so with arguments that are substantive and data-heavy rather than merely rhetorical — Scott Winship is your man. His piece in Forbes a few days ago pushes back at a charge leveled by Thomas Edsall that conservative insistence on work requirements is shifting the benefits of the safety net up the income ladder, leaving the poorest of the poor worse off.
Many of Winship’s critiques of liberal arguments relies on a piecemeal approach — pointing out needed tweaks to data here, and a partial conceptual problem there, with the hope that the whole thing adds up to enough problems to tilt the balance of the argument. And much of this article follows a similar strategy. But Winship also makes a broader point about what we are actually looking for when measuring the success of work requirements in anti-poverty programs:
The most successful work promotion policy possible would result in 100 percent of the poverty population consisting of non-working families, because it would move everyone who can work into employment and raise them above the poverty line. The poverty population would be much smaller, and that would be a great achievement.
It simply makes no sense to look at employment rates among the poor to assess how work-promoting changes in anti-poverty policy have affected disadvantaged families. The way to approach this question is to look at employment rates of less-educated people, under the (conservative) assumption that welfare reforms haven’t increased educational attainment. A Department of Education analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the basic trends:
The charts (Figure 4 in the report) show the percentage of each group that is employed, for men and women between the ages of 25 and 64. Work promotion as a policy has primarily been aimed at single mothers receiving cash assistance; there are few work requirements for food stamps, none for housing assistance in all but a few places in the country, and none for other means-tested programs. There has been little decline in employment, if any, among working-age women without a high school diploma (and certainly not until the recession). Even among men, employment among high school dropouts was as high before the recession as it was in 1990.
None of which is to say Winship’s work is dispositive. But he couches his piece in a challenge to his critics to grapple with all the nuances of data, while admitting that at some point values must take over. And he emphasizing doing so with an eye towards negotiating our way to a set of economic policies all sides can live with. It’s a repetitive and evergreen challenge, but one the left should not hesitate to take up.