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. “Following the Science” — Patrick Deneen, The American Conservative
Science has become yet another battleground in America’s political wars, with liberals claiming they are the ones “following the science,” and conservatives either chafing under their involuntary ownership of the opposing mantle — or claiming the science does not say what the science says. But this week at The American Conservative, Patrick Deneen laid out an argument that both sides’ approach to science actually shares a deeper affinity.
As Deneen argues, science does not actually “lead” anywhere to “follow.” It is merely knowledge, and human beings must decide what to do with that knowledge. Deneen contrasts Aristotle’s idea of science as purely exploration with Francis Bacon’s idea of science as the power to reshape the natural world. Deneen then turns to the example of the pill and fossil fuels: the pill provides control over fertility while also marginally increasing risks of cancer, while fossil fuels have unleashed unparalleled economic growth while also threatening the sustainability of the global ecology. Moral judgments must be made between competing costs and benefits — hence the left and right disagreement over the two — but those judgments also hide a deeper similarity between the pill and fossil fuels as quests for power:
In both cases, the aim is what Bacon described as “the relief of the human estate,” which has become tantamount to the securing of the greatest expansion of human autonomy. While the left and right appear to fight titanic battles over issues such as the size of the national deficit, both engage in a deeper fundamental shared project of expanding the scope of human autonomy with the assistance of applied science, or “technology.”
And if one finally considers the record, it is the advance of this shared commitment that has proven to be the heart of success of both the right and the left. The right has generally “won” in the economic realm, expanding trade and globalization, while generally losing in the realm of “social issues.” The left has generally won (and continues to gain ground) on these same “social issues,” without decreasing a jot the production and consumption of fossil fuels around the world. There is a reason why a growing number of millenials exhibit a consistent ethic of libertarianism, describing themselves in growing numbers as “socially liberal and economically conservative.” They are the progeny of the marriage (feigned as a battle) between the modern left and the right, Baconians all.
We do “follow the science” — the path laid down by the modern scientific project to master nature — down the path to ever-increasing human autonomy, which in fact requires the architecture of massive government for its achievement. And down this path lies finally the mastery of ourselves, which is also our ultimately complete subjugation. Living autonomously through technology on a ravaged planet might not have been Bacon’s hope, but it is our destiny if we continue to “follow the science.”
The question, of course, is whether the ultimate end of the Baconian approach is as apocalyptic as Deneen fears, or if the pursuit of autonomy is simply one force that must be held in balance with others. The human condition may just be a permanent question of sustaining certain paradoxes, rather than the pursing “harmony” with nature.
But there’s also the underlying point that no use of science is morally neutral. Brandon McGinley also expanded on that point this week, pointing out that Americans ideas of freedom and tolerance are not neutral either, but rest on assumed limits and parameters that themselves rest on pro-active moral judgments about what is right and wrong. The challenge for liberals is to attend directly to the cost-benefit analysis; to be able to say when the quest for autonomy is genuinely improving “the human estate,” and when it has circled back around to poison it; to be able to say why the pill passes that cost-benefit analysis but fossil fuels do not. And to stand up forthrightly for the moral judgments that underly those calculations.
2. “A Pessimistic Case For Hope” — Yuval Levin, First Things
Republicans may be winning state-level battles on abortion. But with the snow-balling triumph of gay marriage and the simmering fights over birth control policy, the general mood among social conservatives is one of grim retreat.
Yuval Levin, a leading light of the “reform conservative” mini-movement, took to the pages of First Things on Thursday to tell conservatives to buck up. Part of his argument is to simply pull back and have some historical perspective: as recently as 2004, social conservatives were as flush with a since of victory as social liberals are now. “The false dawn of 2004 should actually temper today’s dire mood,” Levin writes, “precisely because it was false.” But he also makes a deeper argument, that human nature is destined to cyclically rebound in conservatives’ favor:
We are certainly witnessing some distressing social trends and battles, and we find ourselves having to defend the virtue and value of family, work, learning, and faith — all of which are under assault in the elite precincts of the culture and are growing weaker among the poor and vulnerable too. These are the essential prerequisites to human flourishing, and also to the liberal society itself, so a great deal is at stake in our culture wars.
But today’s cultural conservatives exhibit the wrong sort of pessimism about all this. They are too pessimistic about their cultural and political prospects because they are not pessimistic enough about the limits of human nature. A clearer sense of those limits should help us see not only why traditionalism never triumphs in the liberal society but also why progressivism can never suffice.
The permanence of the human longings for attachment and transcendence means that the endless parade of temptations and distractions we confront in modern life can yield an endless series of opportunities for the truth to recapture our imagination and prove itself indispensable. Traditionalists should therefore work to build room for their ways of living in the modern world not only as a means of defense and survival but as a means of persuasion and progress.
They should see themselves fighting not against the liberal society but for it. They should live out their faiths and their ways in the world, confident that their instruction and example will make that world better and that people will be drawn to the spark. This means traditionalists must see both the good and the bad in modern life, and must accept that our society is always getting both better and worse.
It’s hard not to shake one’s head at Levin’s assertion that “the fight to defend religious liberty is the most important political struggle of the moment,” or that the current cultural fights “have been carefully, if not cynically, orchestrated by the White House.” But such is the nature of the left-right disagreement.
And Levin’s point about the permanent aspects of human nature is worth contemplating. The mores and values of social conservatism did not arise in a vacuum; they arose as a possible solution to the vagaries and failures and pains of being human. Liberals should be working just as hard to offer their own solutions, while pointing out that where conservatives have arguably fallen down is in allowing their proposed mores and values to become shot through with loopholes and biases that favor the privileged and powerful.
3. “How Corporate Tax Reform Can Combat Crony Capitalism” — Reihan Salam, National Review Online
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) had a piece in the Wall Street Journal this week laying out a preview for a new tax reform proposal. It sounds pretty sweeping, but over at National Review Online, Reihan Salam focused in on how the reform would deal with the corporate tax. The case he makes lays out how a version of Lee and Rubio’s reform could make the tax more efficient in a way liberals could perhaps stomach, and more importantly curb the kind of corporate recklessness that leads to recessions, in ways liberals could actively cheer:
As important as the fight over the Ex-Im Bank might be, the corporate tax code is where the battle over crony capitalism will be won or lost. The first two steps, 100-percent expensing and single-layer taxation, will make the U.S. a far more attractive destination for capital investment. But curbing the debt bias is potentially an even bigger deal. As Robert Pozen has argued, the debt bias in the tax code encourages firms to take on more leverage than they would under a truly neutral tax code, which in turn raises the risk of bankruptcy and the economic dislocation that follows from it. Curbing the debt bias will also weaken the relative position of incumbent firms, which can borrow cheaply, vis a vis upstarts. California Rep. Devin Nunes has long championed lowering taxes on business investment, and NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru has championed his cause. One challenge, however, is that lowering taxes on business investment creates a revenue hole that has proven hard for tax reformers to fill. Reducing the debt bias is an excellent way to raise revenue while reducing economic distortions, per Pozen. So these elements of Lee and Rubio’s proposal fit together perfectly.
Moving to a territorial tax system is another matter. A territorial tax system would make it far less likely that U.S. multinationals would change their tax domicile, as they’d no longer have to pay U.S. taxes on income generated abroad. In this sense, at least, the corporate inversion problem would be solved. But as the left-of-center Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has warned, a territorial system would make it more attractive for U.S. multinationals to shift economic activity to low-tax jurisdictions, as they wouldn’t have to go through the headache of a corporate inversion to take full advantage of tax havens overseas. Robert Pozen has offered a compromise — U.S. firms would pay one rate on their domestic profits and they would pay a separate “global competitiveness tax” rate on on their foreign profits, the latter of which would be pegged to the rates found in other market democracies. This would, according to Pozen, minimize the incentive for U.S. multinationals to shift economic activity abroad without unduly burdening them. (Moreover, the global competitiveness tax would raise revenue that could then be used to lower taxes on domestic profits, thus shrinking the wedge between these two rates.) It is easy to imagine other affluent countries moving in the same direction, which would be a good thing insofar as it would encourage firms to make location decisions on the basis of economic fundamentals rather than differing tax rates. Merits aside, Pozen’s approach might also prove more politically palatable, as it doesn’t appear to reward U.S. companies for shipping facilities and jobs out of the country.
Eliminating the corporate tax code’s current bias towards firms financing themselves with debt is certainly a worthwhile goal in aftermath of the 2008 crash. Also most other European countries have hybrid tax systems rather than genuinely territorial ones — though Republicans often claim they do to make the case for such an approach here in the States. So Salam’s idea of adding Pozen’s “global competitiveness tax” onto the Lee-Rubio reform could yield a more palatable hybrid system that liberals should keep in mind.
A few words of caution: Lee and Rubio don’t merely want to reform the corporate tax, they want to cut it. But all the benefits of structural reform Salam describes hold regardless of what the rate of the tax is. It’s also not clear what Lee and Rubio mean by “integrating all forms of business taxation into a consolidated, single-layer tax.” But if their goal is eliminating the double taxation of investment, the simplest way to do so is by treating capital gains as ordinary income under the income tax. Given the GOP’s political and ideological commitments, this seems an unlikely move, as it would constitute a big tax hike on the well-off. What Lee and Rubio appear to propose instead is a kind of integration of the capital gains tax into the corporate tax. If they’re also planning on cutting the corporate tax rate, that would likely result in a big tax cut for the elite.