9.6.07

PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED? I could make a very short Book Review No. 1617 simply by noting that I purchased Joe Conason's Big Lies in October 2003 and only recently finished it. (Again, I may have to go cold turkey on polemical material for book reviews.) The book went to press shortly after the fall of Baghdad and some of its national-security content is overtaken by events. Its purpose appears to be to shore up (old-style?) liberals against the more over-the-top criticisms from talk radio and tabloid television. Mr Conason, however, is not above offering a few statements of faith of his own. Consider his version of the New Deal Credo.
If your workplace is safe; if your children go to school rather than being forced into labor; if you are paid a living wage, including overtime; if you enjoy a forty-hour week and you are allowed to join a union to protect your rights -- you can thank liberals. If your food is not poisoned and your water is drinkable -- you can thank liberals. If your parents are eligible for Medicare and Social Security, so they can grow old in dignity without bankrupting your family -- you can thank liberals. If our rivers are getting cleaner and our air isn't black with pollution; if our wilderness is protected and our countryside is still green -- you can thank liberals. If people of all races can share the same public facilities, if everyone has the right to vote; if couples fall in love and marry regardless of race; if we have finally begun to transcend a segregated society -- you can thank liberals. Progressive innovations like those and many others were achieved by long, difficult struggles against entrenched power. What defined conservatism, and conservatives, was their opposition to every one of those advances.
Had Mr Conason taken his credo as the organizing principle for his book, and spent some time supporting some of those points, he'd have a much longer book. And had he properly engaged some of the controversies he treats as given, he might have been surprised by what he could learn. Compulsory schooling for children: not as an alternative to paid work, but as a form of indoctrination into Protestant America. Children at paid work (or more often for many years, unpaid work on a family farm): an understandable response to the realities of the Say Aggregation Principle. Fortunately Mr Conason doesn't trot out the wheeze about two incomes required to support a family -- his work doesn't get anywhere near that rigorous. Shorter workweeks: income and substitution effects lead to workweeks codified much later in labor standards acts. Dangerous food and water (and other consumer goods): how many of the "malefactors of great wealth" of the so-called Progressive Era made their fortunes (and attracted the attention of trust-busters) by making products better, safer, cheaper? Paging Alfred D. Chandler ... Medicare and Social Security: unfunded contingent liabilities. Could we have a debate on the merits of private accounts that isn't presented as if it's Visigoths sacking a cathedral, which is what little we get from Mr Conason? The history of government-mandated segregation, and its later repeal, is not one that makes self-styled "progressives" look good. The latest Reason runs an article on a libertarian synthesis of hippies and evangelicals in which the Liberal Establishment really stood in opposition to both. (And that confusion is one that observers of the popular culture can properly be frustrated by: many a talk-radio fulmination about "liberals" is better understood as a gripe about Sixties agitators still at odds with an Establishment that isn't always an ally.) Pollution: smoke is fuel wasted. In many instances the policy disagreement between conservatives and liberals is over methods, not ends. Nobody really likes dirty water. Nobody really likes being unemployed. Mr Conason's credo, however, does not admit of the possibilities of tradeoffs, such as environmental regulations inducing migration of dirty factories to developing countries or to smokestack-chasing counties in the States.

But it's probably more fun to catalog faux-populist plutocrats, war planners with no military experience, latter-day Arthur Dimmesdales, revolving-door capitalists becoming advisors to executive and legislative officials, and intellectually inconsistent pundits taking opposing views.

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