Friday, 17 June 2016

The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman




This book, by renowned economist Paul Krugman, is less an apology for liberalism and more of a polemic against conservatism, or at least its American variety. This is not necessarily a fault; there is much about conservatism that deserves to be criticised. Nevertheless, it is only really in the last chapter that he establishes the positive case for liberalism. I would have liked him to talk more about what it means to be a 'liberal,' as I am not altogether sure if I am one. I suppose in a British context, I would be considered a moderate conservative and in an American context I would be considered a moderate liberal.

The reader will learn much about the history of the USA in the Twentieth Century. Krugman argues that America before the Depression was a deeply unequal society, in which the wealthy possessed enormous power. This changed with the Depression, the New Deal and the Second World War, which had an enormous leveling effect. Krugman is a Kenynesian economist and he emphasizes the role of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes in the post-war economic settlement of America. He points out that in his time, Keynes' ideas were actually very conservative. Nearly all of Keynes' intellectual contemporaries believed that capitalism would fall and socialism and a planned economy were the future. Keynes, however, offered a way to save capitalism from Communist revolution by offering full employment and protection against depression. Our author argues that the period from the Second World War until the late Sixties was a middle-class golden age, during which the average American family enjoyed an higher standard of living than they do now.

Krugman's Darth Vader is 'movement conservatism.' This began with William Buckley, the founder of the National Review magazine. Buckley had some good things to say, in my opinion, but he was also prone to some extreme views, for instance his identification of Keynesian economics with atheism and Communism. Krugman likes to point out Buckley's support for Francisco Franco. Franco's regime in Spain was certainly brutal, but it should not be forgotten the threat to Spain of godless anti-Christian Communism. The emerging movement conservatism under Buckley's wing gave a platform to Neocon intellectuals and radical free market economists, most notably Milton Friedman. The movement formed a network of institutions which rewarded loyalty to those taking their line and blocked the career of those who were insufficiently conservative. Post-war Republicans often took very moderate positions on taxation and welfare. Nixon had offered very strong support to the welfare state. With the rise of movement conservatism, this was no longer possible, as any Republican politician who showed a wobbly voting record could be attacked by the financial and political pressures of the movement. As a result, the Democrat and the Republican Parties have drifted further apart.

It is interesting that the once powerful conservative movement begun by Buckley has now been torn apart by its failure in the 2016 primary. The aging radicals of the movement have come to be dismissed as 'establishment moderates,' usurped first by the fiscal fury of the Tea Party and now by the populist nationalism of Trump. How the new politics of the right will play out in the future is deeply uncertain. It is regrettable that this book was written before these developments. Likewise the book is also written to early to comment on the successes and failures of the Obama administration. This is particularly unfortunate in his chapter on healthcare.

Given that the conservative policies of low taxation for the rich and minimal welfare spending do not (in his view, and probably correctly) benefit ordinary Americans, how have Republicans come to win so many elections? Krugman looks at a number of factors. Controversially, he identifies race as the most important. Republican politicians were able to win votes in the South by carefully tapping into white anxieties about blacks. Without showing any overt racism, Ronald Reagan was able to send out racial dog-whistles, such as the buzzword 'welfare queen.' Foreign policy has also been used by conservatives, in part a result of support among the senior military. Republicans created the narrative that they, unlike the Democrats are strong on defence. Our author suggests this has now been shattered by the stumblings of the Iraq War. Nevertheless, it would seen that Obama's caution about overseas intervention continues to reinforce the notion that Democrats are unreliable on defence. He does not talk a lot about the fascinating subject of the role of Evangelical religion in conservative politics, suggesting that this would require a book in itself. He is uncertain whether Evangelicals have been used as a tool by movement conservatism, or whether Evangelicals have exploited the movement for their own agenda. These factors are important. I imagine if I was an American citizen, I would vote Republican just because I'm pro-life and a foreign policy hawk.

Krugman believes that the ultimate success of liberalism is assured. Americans are no longer satisfied, in his view, by the answers of conservatism and the racial complex that bound American politics is breaking down. Certainly, it looks likely that we will see Hilary Clinton take the White House for the Democrats. Our author believes that liberals are actually the true conservatives. They want to restore the post-war securities that Americans enjoyed in the fifties and sixties, while the conservatives want to achieve a radical small government utopia of their own imagining.

I enjoyed this book and found it deeply interesting. I think Krugman makes a strong case for the unhealthiness of movement conservatism, though I think it is less successful at providing a positive manifesto for liberalism. For my money, I would like to see another Republican president like Eisenhower or Nixon, a conservative who is willing to be flexible on social security and welfare.

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