Friday, December 3, 2010

Who’s Acting Like a European Ideologue?

David Brooks is an interesting guy, not only because he has interesting things to say, but because he’s an interesting ideological specimen. He’s a journalistic graduate of conservative publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard. But, while he still retains the intellectual respect of his (erstwhile?) conservative comrades, he has turned himself into liberals’ favorite center-right pundit. In that capacity, he’s uniquely positioned to explain Obama’s liberalism to conservatives, and conservatism to liberals. So we should listen to what he has to say.

Brooks is a diligent student of the consensus historians (like Louis Hartz) who argued that, compared to the ideological diversity of respectable opinion in Europe, the differences between American liberals and conservatives are superficial. So he bristles at the notion that Obama Democrats are the ideological cousins of the European social democrats determined to change the terms of the American social contract.

Here, for example, is how Brooks describes a debate he recently had with Paul Ryan, a rising star of movement conservatism (my emphasis):
“Ryan and I differed over President Obama and the prospects for compromise in the near term. Ryan believes that the country faces a clearly demarcated choice. The Democratic Party, he argues, believes in creating a European-style cradle-to-grave social welfare state, while the Republicans believe in a free-market opportunity society. There is no overlap between the two visions and very little reason to think they can be reconciled.

“I argued that Obama and his aides are liberal or center-left pragmatists and that nothing they have said or written suggests they want to turn the U.S. into Sweden. I continued that Ryan’s sharply polarized vision is not only journalistically inaccurate, it makes compromise and politics impossible.”
So, as far as Brooks is concerned, ideologically polarizing politicians, Republicans like Ryan and Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, are the ones acting like disagreeable European ideologues. Their distaste for bipartisanship is a symptom of a failure on their part to understand where they and their political opponents fit into American political traditions.

It’s not hard to imagine Ryan’s reply. He’d probably say that the ideological differences between European Tories and Christian Democrats on the one hand, and Social Democrats and Socialists on the other, are now superficial because, after World War II, the Tories and the Christian Democrats lost the decisive ideological battle that he and his Republican colleagues are now waging. Given the stakes as the Ryans and Pelosis of this world see them, it’s entirely appropriate for Democrats and Republicans to be playing ideological hardball, even if it bruises the tender sensibilities of Washington pundits.

The politics of the next two years will tell us a lot about who’s right. If it's Brooks there ought to be a politically viable bipartisan way out of the present political impasse. So it’s fair to ask him what it is. His answer is comprehensive tax reform. Here’s his advice to Obama:
“Sometime over the next couple of weeks, President Obama issues a statement that reads: ‘Over the past several months, Republicans and Democrats have been fighting over what to do with the Bush tax cuts. I have my own views, but it’s not worth having a big fight over a tax code we all hate. Therefore, I’m suspending this debate. We will extend the Bush rates for everybody for one year, along with unemployment benefits. But during that year we will enact a comprehensive tax reform plan.

“‘The plan we will work on this year will look a bit like the 1986 reform plan. We will clean out the loopholes. We will take on the special interests. We will lower rates and make the tax code fair.’”
Well maybe.  The main terms of Brooks's political bargain are clear enough: conservatives get lower tax rates (and more of what they see as “liberty”) in exchange for giving liberals a simpler but more progressive tax code (and more of what they see as “justice”). That sounds like a pretty sweet deal for both sides until you start considering what he has left off the term sheet.

Every tax loophole that Brooks would close represents a collective decision to the effect that some conduct is preferable to other conduct and therefore worthy of a public subsidy. That makes the tax code a principal medium of social engineering.  That's true whether you're talking about conservative social engineering (think of tax deferred health savings accounts or a lower rate for capital gains than ordinary income) or liberal social engineering (think of the earned-income and college-tuition tax credits). The across-the-board obliteration of tax deductions and credits that Brooks is contemplating would represent a drastic diminution of public influence over private behavior, much of which could not be counteracted by social policy operating outside the tax code.

Do you really think that Republicans and Democrats who can’t agree on whether and how to extend the Bush tax cuts are going to be able to agree on that?  I don't.

4 comments:

Taser M said...

You sound a lot like Tom McGuire and the crew over at Justoneminute--http://justoneminute.typepad.com/main/2010/12/tax-cut-fever-dream-or-trial-balloon.html#comments

The Edge said...

Hegel said that there are points where changes in quantity turn into changes in quality. Although one likes the idea and the other doesn't, Pelosi and Ryan agree that ObamaCare brought us near a tipping point There are, and can be, no tipping points in Brooks-world.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Hegel also say that "it takes a heap of liv'in to make a house a home"?

Lone Wolf said...

No, that was Schopenhauer.