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December 07, 2003



thanks, as a side note I think the conservative dislike of the revolution insurance policy is that it seems, to them, to be a bribe given to the lower classes to keep them from going communist.

Now that communism is no longer a viable political philosophy, there seems to them to be no more reason for paying the bribe.

Russell Arben Fox

"I guess the simple way to state the point I’ve been ineffectively noodling around with, lo these last several paragraphs: if Frum really had some simple, potent conservative philosophy, he would be more of a communitarian than he seems to be."

Damn straight. Great job John. I think this Frum post easily surpasses the first one. I have a few quibbles (and may write about them sometime) but for now, let me reiterate what I said last time: you've got a book on your hands here. A good one.

Abu Frank

. . . welfare programs can have negative externalities (is that the fancy word for this stuff?)

"Negative externalities" would be one of those fancy words with a space in the middle?

The term of art is "moral hazard". Not to be confused with "moral danger", which (at least in Australia) is a situation in which an adolescent girl might do things that middle-aged men know she shouldn't.


I think the proper term of art is just "unitended consequences", which includes moral hazard (the specific example John gave) but is broader. (See e.g. Raymond Boudon, The Unintended Consequences of Social Action.)

While on the subject of pedantry: "negative feedback" is when the system's response to a change is in the opposite direction from the change; "positive feedback" is when it's in the same direction. The usual vicious-cycle argument is a claim that there will be positive feedback, with negative results.


I haven’t read Frum’s book. Nor do I plan to. So take this for what it is: namely, an a priori analysis of what I think Frum likely means, or ought to mean, based on an broader acquaintance with conservative and ‘American right’ thought. (Again, Frum may be worse than I think, so please freely substitute “the ideal Frumian” where that helps).

I believe your interpretation goes wrong awry here:

I got email and comments objecting that it isn’t nutty to think that it would be nice for people to be tough and self-reliant, not fat-bellied. Also, it is reasonable to be concerned about the government trying to do too much, making things worse, perhaps by encouraging dependency, which is undignified, economically inefficient, so forth.

But my point was that Frum just isn’t – and cannot – be making any of these reasonable points. Among a host of reasons: everyone agrees with these points, and Frum thinks he is saying something the majority of the people won’t agree with.

But in fact, not everyone agrees with Frum on self-reliance (alternately read: “personal responsibility”). Or rather, not everyone agrees on the importance of encouraging self-reliance when designing policy. Here’s an example: welfare reform. Here’s another: the ‘root-causes’ approach to crime. And -- what do you know? -- on both of these issues you’d find the electorate breaking fairly predictably along partisan lines. So Frum looks reasonable so far.

The escape hatch for the Frum-equals-madman reading is the claim that “welfare is just insurance.” This claim does lots of work, so it’s important to note that it’s false. If there were a market for unemployment insurance, it would look nothing like the 1980s American welfare system. Similarly, if there were a market for family farm insurance it would look nothing like American agricultural subsidies. In both cases these aren’t just (or even primarily) insurance schemes administered by the government, they are government mandated *transfer payments*.

This claim will provoke opposition (possible objection: it is so insurance, and who cares what a market would look like, you heartless fetishizer of markets, etc. etc.). And at some point Frum the political scientist or Frum the philosopher will need to answer tough questions about the effect of pure insurance on self-reliance. For now, however, just stipulate that some aspects of the welfare state involve transfer payments, and that those are the elements of the welfare state opposed by Frum. If so, it seems (again) that Frum has a concept of self-reliance that can generate differentiated policy positions.

But what about the all important Donner party issue? If we read Frum this way, does “self-reliance-increasing” just translate into “hardship imposing?” Doubtful. There are many ways to increase self-reliance without advocating privation. But Frum must acknowledge some increases in hardship – namely, citizens will not be insulated by the state against hardships they bring upon themselves through their own vices. And (just to belabor the insurance point with a trivial example) insuring one’s house against fire because one smokes in bed will not, on this view, be analogous to a policy whereby the government uses general tax revenue to purchase insurance for you. This analogy will be further strained if as justification for taking the decision out of your hands the government offers any of the following: a) you can’t be expected to quit smoking, b) the market price for such insurance is “too high,” c) you’re too stupid to buy the insurance yourself.

So what in the end, might Frum’s “philosophy paragraph” look like? Let me suggest the following:

“Personal responsibility is terribly important. You may think this obvious, but many do not understand how easily one can view oneself primarily as a passive victim of events. Nor does everyone realize that such a self-conception greatly diminishes the possibility of living a good life. This realization has political consequences. For even if we hold no personal interest in the self-reliance of others (although we should, if we care about them), it’s very important for a state like ours that this virtue be possessed broadly. We must therefore take care that government policy not erode personal responsibility. This can happen when the state insulates citizens from the consequences of their bad behavior or diminishes the natural rewards of good behavior. Bad policies, then, often appear as transfers of money and privileges from the virtuous to the vicious. Above all, when designing social policy, we should avoid systems that look like that.”

Could there be a great deal more to explain, or understand, about this paragraph? Sure. It’s highly contentious, and may indeed be largely false. Self-reliance may not be important for living a good life or for the success of representative government. State policy may have little effect on the self-conception of citizens. Or other concerns (like need, or efficiency) may often/usually outweigh the value gained by enhancing self-reliance. But the above paragraph doesn’t say anything absurd(nor, relatedly does it tacitly endorse cannibalism). And Frum would sign on to it in a heartbeat.

Adam Stephanides

To those who didn’t read the preceding thread, I'm the "one commenter in particular" John mentions in his third paragraph. (Incidentally, I didn't intend to "press" you for anything. When you didn't reply as quickly as you said you were going to, I assumed that you either were short of time, had decided on reflection that you didn't really have anything to add to what you'd already said, or had just lost interest. It's happened to me.) And I agree with Russell that this post is much better than your first one. Then, you were ridiculing Frum. Now you're refuting him.

As I said before, I'm not out to defend Frum. I certainly don't wish to assert that the welfare state should be abolished, or that abolishing the welfare state would have the social effects Frum claims it would, or that the political strategy Frum advocates would succeed. Insofar as you're arguing against these propositions, I'm on your side. But I still think you're underestimating Frum, and by extension conservatism in general.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, a couple of minor points. With all due respect, if anyone is "obsessed" with the Donner Party, it's not Frum but you. Frum mentions the Donner Party exactly twice, as far as I know (the passage you quoted, and on the following page); it doesn't even show up in his index, though P. J. O'Rourke and Philip Roth do. And while unsympathetic commentators can deride them, it's perfectly plain to me what Bennett meant when he referred to it, and what Frum means when he refers to it. Rather than belabor the point, I'll just invite people to read the book and decide for themselves, or at least the full chapter in which the Donner Party appears. And the same applies to Frum’s alleged hatred of beards. (Even if the passage you quoted indicated that Frum hated beards, which it doesn’t, it’s still the only mention of beards in the book afaik. How you can claim that Orwell is in control of his “obsessions” but Frum isn’t, I don’t understand.)

On to more substantial matters. First of all, your characterization of Frum's opposition to the welfare state as "silly" and "an irritable mental gesture." baa has already pointed out the falsity of the "welfare state equals insurance" argument. (I'd add that, while there is a problem of "moral hazard" in private insurance, insurers do charge higher premiums for, or refuse to insure, those whose behavior makes them bigger risks, whereas the government usually does not.) But there's a deeper problem with your argument. Frum is not arguing that individuals should voluntarily decline to avail themselves of the government safety net because it will build their character. He's asserting that we collectively, as a society, should give up the safety net because its bad social effects outweigh its material benefits. This may be wrong--I think it is--but it's not "silly," or at any rate you haven't shown that it is. As for Orwell's "Ye Olde Tea Shoppe" quote, frankly that seems to me a much clearer example of "aesthetic politics" or "an irritable mental gesture" than anything in Frum. (And is it really true that "So long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it"? Is someone who walks five blocks to the library or coffeeshop when they could hop in their car and drive there indulging in "dilettantism"? What about someone who cooks a meal from scratch when they could just pop a frozen entree in the microwave?)

Next, Frum vs. Orwell. According to you, the reason that Orwell is a great man with some crankish tendencies, while Frum is just an intelligent crank, is that Orwell has a “simple, potent” political philosophy (in a broad sense) and Frum doesn’t. And you summarize Orwell’s philosophy as follows: “Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all co-operate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”

First of all, the final clause is just wrong. There are, and have been, millions of people (many of them poor) who reject socialism, rightly or wrongly, and are not doing so because they have corrupt motives for clinging to capitalism. But that aside, this “philosophy” does not seem to me as solid as you contend. Taken literally, it seems to imply a worldwide command economy, which a lot of people would be unwilling to accept, including me. If, on the other hand, it means just that poverty and unemployment are bad, then that’s a nice sentiment, but it hardly constitutes a political philosophy, even in a broad sense; nor does it imply socialism. And if it means neither of these things, what does it mean? (The above is solely directed at your paragraph, not at Orwell: it’s been years since I’ve read anything by Orwell except 1984, so I have no idea how adequate your summary of Orwell’s philosophy is.)

And as baa points out, it isn’t hard to extract a “philosophy” from Frum on the same level as this. He’s given one version (though it goes beyond Frum in places). A terser alternative would be: “People should take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, because if nobody does so, then society will collapse. Therefore, governments should avoid policies that undermine such responsibility.” Whether or not you agree with this, I’d bet that a majority of Americans would assent to it. Of course, there would be problems attempting to put this philosophy into practice, but the same is true of your rendering of Orwell’s philosophy.

A couple of subsidiary points: you deride Frum for believing that the welfare state is caught in a vicious spiral in which welfare programs create dependency, which leads to expanded welfare programs, which create further dependency, etc. And to show that this won’t happen, you use the analogy of seatbelts. Once again, while Frum is probably wrong, your seatbelt analogy doesn’t prove it. There are two crucial differences between seatbelts and the welfare state. First, while people wearing seatbelts may be less careful drivers, they don’t deliberately set out to get in accidents. In contrast, if welfare payments are at all adequate, there will be people who prefer receiving welfare to working. No doubt there are far fewer of them than conservatives claim, but the "progressive" insistence that this never happens is equally disingenuous. And the more generous the welfare payments, the more such people there will be. Secondly, if I wear a seatbelt and drive carelessly, that doesn’t reduce the incentives for other people to drive carefully--quite the opposite, in fact. But when I receive money from the government, this has to be paid for by taxes (or inflation), which arguably does reduce the incentives for other people to be thrifty and work hard, at least in a system in which the government gets most of its revenue from payroll and income taxes.

Finally (!), a couple of times you refer to Frum as “standing athwart history shouting ‘stop!’” with the implication that efforts to roll back the welfare state are futile. I wish I could agree with you. As it is, though, this sentiment seems to me not only wrong but dangerously complacent. At the moment, it feels more like it is we liberals and leftists who are “standing athwart history.” Throughout the industrialized world (let alone the “developing” one) governments are cutting back on the welfare state, or trying to. To be sure, it’s not likely that welfare programs will be entirely abolished, particularly those benefitting the middle class. Nor will the rollback happen because conservative philosophers have persuaded the electorate of the evils of such programs, as Frum wishes. More likely, once the full costs of Bush’s tax cuts kick in (plus whatever further tax cuts he’s able to pass), Republicans will suddenly rediscover the evils of twelve-figure deficits and proclaim that even the diminished welfare state we have is “unsustainable,” while still being able to block any tax increases, thanks to the endless drumbeat of conservative propaganda and the bloated political clout of the wealthy. That will leave “us” with a choice between drastic cuts in Social Security and Medicare, and galloping inflation: while I’d put my money on the latter in this situation, the former can hardly be ruled out.


Thanks to baa and Adam again for very worthy and – in Adam’s case – lengthy criticisms. It all deserves yet another full-length response post, but I lack the will, and I expect most readers of this fine blog would lack the patience. So this will have to do.

First, a point Baa rightly picks on: welfare is not like private insurance schemes. This is right. I meant to explain myself better; I didn’t. Point to Baa, no dispute. But here’s what I meant, but didn’t say. Welfare isn’t insurance, to put it crudely, because Bill Gates would be nuts to buy unemployment insurance, but without Bill Gates’ pay-in, the scheme won’t fly. So really welfare is progressive taxation/wealth redistribution. The people getting ‘insured’ are not the same as those doing the paying. Hugely important difference. Nevertheless (we are now digging deep into my thought-processes as I composed my post) Frum does not argue against progressive taxation, per se, in his book. And he is not alone. Lots of conservatives are not, per se, opposed to progressive taxation. Or at least they are not willing to press their flesh to that especially hot third rail. Think about how all the other Republican candidates tore a piece out of Steve Forbes for his 17% flat tax, or whatever the rate was going to be. To put it another way: Frum is very clear that, whatever his version of conservatism is, it is not libertarianism – not even close. He doesn’t just say: progressive taxation is wrong.

So by calling it insurance I was just speeding past a point of debate – the propriety of redistribution – which is not being presently debated. In other words, I was speeding without a seatbelt.

The importance of the insurance comparison, for all its inaccuracy, can be brought out with regard to Baa’s proposed one-paragraph conservative philosophy. He concludes it by saying, roughly: we should avoid systems that diminish the rewards for good behavior. The problem is: technically, this is too strong. Because buying fire insurance diminishes the rewards for good behavior. (I take it to be obvious what I mean but I’ll just say it: if all your fire prevention measures work, and your house doesn’t burn, you aren’t going to get a refund on the insurance premiums paid. So your reward is less than the guy whose house didn’t burn, who didn’t buy insurance.) Once you admit that sometimes it’s OK to discourage good behavior in a marginal sort of way, because of the net benefits, you are no longer in a debate about principle but a debate about optimum balances. I think Frum would admit as much, but in the book he consistently hints as if there is some point of iron conservative principle around here.

I’ll make another quick point about Baa’s paragraph: the trouble with it is that almost everyone will sign-on, because everyone will choose to understand what it means in a way that is consistent with whatever outlook – conservative or liberal – they may have. The paragraph even anticipates this problem with it’s stern ‘you may think you know what this entails, but’ warning. But everyone will just interpret the warning differently.

I think that Frum will have genuine difficulty writing a paragraph-long statement of what he believes, which will be even approximately consistent with what he says more generally, and that isn’t too bland. Frum needs a philosophy that will REQUIRE him to go off in the wilderness. I think what Frum actually is fighting for – the tax burden should be shifted from the rich to the middle-class and poor wage-earners – is a good candidate for ballot box office poison, if you just state it as baldly as that. The voters will indeed send you to the wilderness. Why would the middle-class and poor vote against their interest, since they don’t by and large think a bit of redistribution is unjust? But ‘milk the middle and bottom on behalf of the top’ isn’t the high-toned philosophy Frum wants.

This brings me to Adam’s post, and his point about Orwell’s philosophy. Here again is something I meant to say and didn’t: I didn’t mean to imply that Orwell’s philosophy is obviously a wise philosophy. He is basically just saying: ‘I hope there is some way to extract from each according to his ability, and give to each according to his needs, without having a boot crush the face of humanity forever more. Anyway, that’s what I’m placing my long-shot bet on.’ Now it was supposed to be part of my point that (as Adam points out) this is not exactly a popular philosophy these days, and for very sound reasons. But it really is Orwell’s, and it is rather remarkable that Orwell’s honesty in espousing it is very winning. He wins the respect, even passionate allegiance, of people who think socialism is a terrible idea, because he is obviously personally repelled by all the bad things people worry about. If the face boot is inevitable, Orwell would turn against socialism in a heartbeat. This is related to Frum because, in a way, this is what Frum is looking for: a conservative philosophy that most people think is a terrible idea, but which wins their grudging respect for its honesty and humanity. I think Frum does not have such a philosophy, whereas Orwell does. That was supposed to be my point. A very unclearly made one it turned out to be.

Adam makes the same points as Baa about how it isn’t crazy – in fact, it’s smart – to have a philosophy that boils down to: encourage people not to lean on government, because government can actually collapse under that sort of pressure. The problem, basically, is that this is not enough for Frum, because there are any number of liberal and libertarian and other sorts of philosophies that are consistent with this, so Frum does not hereby get at what is truly distinctive about his view. I think he lacks anything to make his view distinctive. Also, Frum seems to me strangely oblivious to the likely destabilizing effects of removing welfare safety nets. A good conservative should be more worried about hungry poor people erecting barricades in the streets. But I do admit that all my antic hopping around in my posts, exaggeratedly whacking the man, was not the most economic way to make my point. He is, at the end of the day, a very shrewd fellow and I haven't shown him enough respect for that.

I know you’ve got a few more points, Adam. Don’t mean my relative brevity as a brush-off. I just lack the will to keep hammering away. The proper thing to do at this point is pretty much to drop Frum as a target/defense, and just debate various issues. Which I am always willing to do. Thanks for being good interlocutors, you two.


A psychological point:

Why do I strive to prevent fires in my home? Why do I drive at reasonable speeds? Why do I have a job and work hard at it? I submit that the answers to these questions have nothing to do with gov't policy. Or rather: gov't policy would have to be much more extreme than it is to substantially affect these behaviors. My tax burden could be much higher or much lower and I wouldn't behave much differently. I drive safely and work hard because I love my family, I know I am important to them, and I want to take good care of them. I grew into self-reliance organically, through becoming invested in the world and people around me. Nobody forced me, through cleverly designed policies, or could have.

This might seem a trivial point, but everybody's talking like the role of gov't is vital in such matters. Human nature is the real driver. It's true that hardship brings out many admirable qualities. It's also true, as John keeps saying, that nobody will seriously propose to deliberately impose hardship to get those qualities. Given our current freedom and wealth, simple compassion demands that we don't allow any group of people to sink into total privation; simple human nature dictates that some subset of people is going to rely to an unhealthy degree on that compassion.

When conservatives like Frum rant against the softening of our natures, they are ranting against what is an inevitable side effect of our success. Either they should openly advocate artifical means of creating hardship--which they won't--or they should concentrate on their own damn characters. Anything else is, in fact, an irritable mental gesture.


Has Mr. Frum responded?


No, I never heard from the guy, Aaron.


When conservatives like Frum rant against the softening of our natures, they are ranting against what is an inevitable side effect of our success. Either they should openly advocate artifical means of creating hardship--which they won't--or they should concentrate on their own damn characters. Anything else is, in fact, an irritable mental gesture.



Spam comments always add a piquant air of what the fuck to a long-forgotten blog post, don't they?


All cleaned up. Thanks for noticing.

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