Welcome to TP Ideas‘ fourth installment of our roundup of the week’s best conservative writing! Every Friday, I look at three pieces by right-of-center writers intelligently articulating core elements of the conservative 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. “Pity the Vassals of Moscow” — Michael Totten, World Affairs Journal
Michael Totten has been around since the old-school blogging days of the mid-2000s. Funded by donations from appreciate readers, Totten has traveled around the Middle East, Balkans, and Caucasus, doing smart reporting and analysis from a neoconservative-inflected.
It didn’t surprise me, then, that Totten had the best piece in the conservative press on the Ukraine crisis this week. Equal parts fatalistic and outraged, Totten’s basic argument is that Crimea is almost certainly lost to Russia — Putin cares more about holding it than Western countries do about pushing him out, and he’s got enough military power to make it stick. This isn’t unique, but what’s particularly smart is his analysis of the foundations of Western-Russian relations:
Kiev is almost certainly on Putin’s side of the red line, but no one has actually said that, so it’s ambiguous, as it should be. Ambiguity lends itself to restraint. Russian leaders tend more toward paranoia than American leaders at the best of times. And the expansion of NATO frightened the Russians as much as the expansion of the Warsaw Pact would have alarmed Americans had the Soviets won the Cold War…
There are various ways to signal a yellow if not a red. Retired Admiral James Stavridis shared a few ideas in Foreign Policy magazine. Michael Barone has more. Parking destroyers in the Black Sea off Yalta might be a good place to start. The US sent ships to that region when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The Russians didn’t withdraw from occupied Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but at least they stopped where they were, withdrew from Gori, and left the capital Tbilisi alone.
Totten is, quite subtly, reminding us that the entire Western relationship with Russia is structured around NATO: that is, an anti-Russian alliance that forcibly deters Russian expansionism in the future. Absent that security architecture, who knows whether Putin’s Russia would be more aggressive than it already is?
This incisive analysis, together with specific policy proposals for deterring Russia, shows that much-mocked neoconservative bromides about “strength” and “resolve” aren’t always easily dismissable. The American-led military alliance systems structures our world in profound ways, ones that are often easily taken for granted.
2. “Free-Market Bashers Aren’t Helping the Poor” — Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg View
If you’re a progressive who hasn’t been regularly been reading Ponnuru’s work, then shame on you. A senior editor at National Review, he’s one of the sharpest conservative writers on economic and social policy out there, a rare thinker who combines a willingness to criticize the Republican Party’s basic platform with serious influence inside the GOP.
That influence, of course, stems from his demonstrated ability to intelligently defend core conservative principles — the purpose of his Bloomberg piece this week. Ponnuru’s stated goal is debunking an argument by Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels that the free market “has done nothing at all” to improve the lives of America’s poorest. Ponnuru makes a reasonably convincing case, particularly on this critically important point:
A bigger flaw with the argument comes with Bartels’s second piece of evidence. He cites scholars at Columbia University who have concluded that Social Security, the earned income tax credit and other programs are responsible for the entirety of the decline in one measure of poverty over that period. The measure those scholars used, however, changes over time as the economy does.
It counts you as poor if you make less than a household at the 33rd percentile of household expenditures spends. The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers said in a recent report that to the extent poverty is measured in relative terms like this, ending it “may be nearly impossible.”
This measure also stacks the deck in favor of government and against markets as an anti-poverty tool — or, more precisely, in favor of redistribution rather than economic growth. If economic growth doubled the income of the poorest households but also increased that 33rd-percentile baseline for spending by a comparable amount, the poverty rate would remain unchanged.
If, on the other hand, you took money from households that made more than this relative poverty line and gave it to households that made less, you’d reduce the poverty rate. The measure of poverty the scholars used is a reasonable one for some purposes, but it’s inappropriate for the purpose Bartels is using it for.
Basically, Ponnuru is saying that markets, by virtue of how they work, have the power to make everyone’s lives better by making everyone wealthier and giving them access to better stuff. Economic growth produces real gains for the poor (particularly around the world), meaning that markets have made huge contributions to the massive improvements in human welfare we’ve seen in the past century. Progressives can acknowledge this point without denying the pressing need to address poverty and inequality — a tightrope walk Ponnuru’s column manages well.
3. “Religious Liberty Should Be A Liberal Value, Too” — Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week
I’ll confess to some bias here. Dougherty is a friend and sparring partner; I also occasionally contribute to The Week. But his characteristically insightful Friday column is very much worth your time.
Dougherty, a traditional Catholic with a unique approach to political conservatism, does a great service by moving the “religious liberty” debate beyond Arizona’s S.B. 1062, focusing instead on the principled question of how and why we value religious liberty. The freedom of believers of all stripes to participate in public life was one of America’s original purposes — its protection should be paramount:
Partisans of the egalitarian project define pluralism down. The free exercise of religion is reduced to “freedom of worship.” You’re allowed to believe whatever you want, but when you act in any way that touches public life, you must act according to the ideology of the state. This is a convenient way of defining freedom of conscience and free exercise of religion down to the very last things the liberal state would care to interfere in: what happens once a week at churches and what thoughts you may be thinking. In other words, diversity is okay so long as it remains behind closed doors and in your head. Why even bother with a First Amendment if religion is such a trivial phenomenon?…
Real pluralism preserves the possibility of critique emerging within a liberal state. The interplay of individuals and diverse institutions encourages liberality and understanding at the ground level of citizenship — the gratitude for people very different from you who are still very solicitous of your needs. Whereas the strict ideological hen-pecking of the state creates a kind of existential dread, and intensifies the panic of the culture war — the fear that a loss on principle in one case is the loss of all power and recourse in the future. Legislators and jurists would do best to retain these two essential liberal values, by finding solutions that deftly avoid setting them against each other.
Dougherty’s argument presses progressives to define when, and it what ways, our campaign to expand the state’s role comes at the expense of the liberal commitment to tolerance of diverse ways of life. By abstracting away from charged contexts like birth control and discrimination, Dougherty’s piece should serve to prompt real reflection about the appropriate boundaries of the progressive project.