Thursday, January 17, 2008
David Frum: Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Review)
Author: David Frum.
Title: Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.
Publication: New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-358-51533-7, 214 pages, hardcover, indexed, 9 Chapters.
Mr. Frum is attempting to redefine the directions of conservatism so that it can meet the real needs of constituencies and voters, which have certain drifted away from the results of the current Bush administration’s strategy.
He makes a number or practical suggestions in a number of areas. For “smarter taxes” he discusses the idea of a consumption tax (the Bradford tax) and supports the idea that a consumption tax (instead of the income tax) could become progressive by starting with consumption at a particular level. He carefully notes the complications that can come from wholesale clubs. Likewise, he suggests that a carbon tax, on companies and at least indirectly on people, would then goad the market into developing really effective forms of clean energy. As things are now, he notes, oil is still the cheapest fuel, even with all the recent international price run-ups; there have to be fundamental policy changes before the market will support clean and green energy properly. He does support the idea of “green conservatism.” Like all conservatives, he is very concerned about rising and raises the prospect of future drastic cuts in social security benefits (since it had originally started as an old-age welfare program, not as a forced savings annuity), and suggests use of “USA Savings” accounts.
On the issue of dealing with radical Islam, he takes a very long view. European history shows many problems, centuries long, of “Christians” learning to accept democracy, and so does Chinese and Asian history (in fact, China is still an authoritarian, if much more prosperous now, state). So it should not be surprising if Muslims will experience the same difficulties, that could extend for decades or centuries. That is not by itself to give up on the idea of a more progressive Muslim world.
Likewise, he is appropriately critical of both our education (the fiasco of “No Child Left Behind,” whose intention is more admirable than its execution) and immigration policies. We need to insist on skill levels for more people who enter the country, and have much more realistic ways of increasing math and science performance among our students. That’s not new in itself. He has a chapter called “Keeing China Number 2” and here he gets into the more sensitive social issues. People who are relatively stable and prosperous should (in the environment of traditional marriage) have more children and larger families, he says. This is not out of some kind of Vatican morality, but somewhat a demographic necessity. He thinks that the reasons for fewer kids, especially in Europe, are not derived from self-indulgence, but rather from tax policies that hit families with children particularly hard. He suggests that per child tax credits be extended to people who pay no tax, and also adds that the alternative minimum tax, unintentionally perhaps, wipes out the deductions that families would normally get when they have more children. In Europe, he thinks that the social and retirement welfare policies are particularly vicious circle, taxing middle class families into childlessness. Some countries, like France and particularly Russia, have tried to reverse this recently. Furthermore, recent census reports show that the United States has actually increased its birth rate (but particularly among Hispanics), and some observers believe that Americans “like kids” more than many Europeans. That makes me wonder about another debate: mandatory paid family leave policies, which Europeans have but the United States does not.
He has a chapter “New Life for the Pro-Life” and provides a somewhat meandering discussion of the social values connected to the abortion and now end-of-life debates (he mentions the Terri Schiavo case as a watershed). He acknowledges that many people feel that modern cultural individualism has denigrated the value of motherhood or the social connections of family life. On gay marriage, he notes (as did Jonathan Rauch back in the 1990s, even as Rauch tried to promote the concept as a win-win idea) that even if gay people got the right to marry everywhere, relatively few might take advantage of it, outside of situations of specific need (like immigration, health care benefits). Indeed, a lot of heterosexuals don't want to take advantage of it, particularly in Tinselton (note media reports of Matthew McConaughey's "love baby"). Frum believes that a constitutional amendment providing a federal definition of marriage (as one man and one woman only) is unlikely to work, and politically risky for Republicans to pursue. Frum is more concerned about quasi-marriage (“civil union” or “domestic partnership”) arrangements (even among heterosexuals, and recognized in some states) as a threat to marriage than about recognizing gay marriage itself, but he recognizes that the mainstream public is coming to accept these arrangements. He does call for some visible government action, however, with the establishment of an “Office of Marriage and Children” even within the “Office of Public Health.” Some states, even liberal ones like Minnesota, have similar operations in their state governments.
Frum stays away from moralizing too much about the personal aspects of the marriage debate (remember how George Gilder wrote about it in the 1980s with “Men and Marriage”), or about lifestyle values (especially with the Internet). I didn’t see any discussion of national service, or of filial responsibility (which could have come up in conjunction with birthrate issues). However, he does note that Republicans, compare to Democrats, are more likely to live in a manner expressive of what most of us see as family values related to preserving lineage. He does note that Americans “condemn the sniggering cruelty” of the treatment of gays in the past, apparently as a part of collective family image; nevertheless, he notes that we need to recognize “the family was the greatest social welfare institution we have, for an equal chance in life for all American children” (p 111).
At one point, Frum notes the Maoist cultural revolution (in Red China in the 60s), that even tried to replaces people’s names with numbers, and forced intellectuals to soil themselves in the countryside as some sort of retributional moral purification. The far Left, it should be recalled, was, at one time, quite concerned with how “rich people” or “successful” people can justify deserving what they have (and the Left wanted to destroy all inherited wealth). That isn’t as commonly said today as it was forty years ago. But conservatives have always seen the strong family unit and absolute commitment to protecting human life (even when requiring sacrifices from others, as with eldercare or extreme disability in addition to the more touted concerns over pregnancy continuation) as necessary firewalls against social deterioration into this kind of ideological obsession. Liberty without accountability to others can lead to new, subtle schemes to marginalize people while pretending to promote freedom for everyone. The great “ism’s” of the past (and today) have all rationalized some sort of virtue that keeps people in certain places. (Mussolini, by the way, taxed bachelors punitively!) Strong middle class families are a necessary balance against this kind of thinking – but, again, remember that it’s very easy for privileged interest to abuse the concept of the family. Nothing about this is simple.
David Crary has an AP story today (Jan. 17, 2008) "U.S. Abortions at Lowest Rate Since 1974", here. A significant factor is fewer abortion clinics and better contraceptives and family planning information.