Monday, January 02, 2012

Lilla on conservativism

Mark Lilla objects to Corey Robin's The Conservative Mind as conflating distinct categories or axes of thought, most conspicuously "conservative" and "reactionary." Good stuff.
What we have not seen much of, except on the fringes of American politics, are redemptive reactionaries who think the only way forward is to destroy what history has given us and wait for a new order to emerge out of the chaos. At least until now.

The real news on the American right is the mainstreaming of political apocalypticism. This has been brewing among intellectuals since the Nineties, but in the past four years, thanks to the right-wing media establishment and economic collapse, it has reached a wider public and transformed the Republican Party. How that happened would be a long story to tell, and central to it would be the remarkable transmutation of neoconservatism from intellectual movement to rabble-rousing Republican court ideology.
... Yglesias links to a critique* of Lilla's review, and himself poses a test question: if Lilla is right and Robin wrong, then why is low taxes for the super-rich the cornerstone of the GOP platform? (My metaphor, not Y's: do platforms *have* cornerstones?)
And the story here seems to be very much in line with Robin's framework. High income individuals have never been excited about progressive income taxation, and over the past few decades they've mobilized politically against it. At the same time, income inequality has grown and over the past 10-15 years it's grown very specifically with a concentration in the hands of a very small number of people. Naturally, in a political democracy if "the one percent" end up with a larger and larger share of national resources you're going to see a coalition mobilize to try to take those resources for various purposes. The richer the one percent get, the more attractive they become as a target and the more they counter-mobilize on behalf of their own interests. And conservatives in American politics today are largely united by a decision to embrace the one percent's side of the argument.
A blog debate between Lilla and Robin would be useful.

(Also, if I'm not mistaken, Slate pays someone to proofread Yglesias's blog posts. Good idea.)

... Sheri Berman also regrets Robin's book, and points out something so obvious that we forget to notice it:
The questions Robin and his ideological confreres should really be asking themselves is why the contemporary left has been so bad at this, particularly in contrast to the contemporary right. Why, in an era of extreme unemployment, rising inequality and social dislocation, is it the right rather than the left that generated a movement like the Tea Party? Why are mass protests railing against tax increases rather than demanding more progressive and activist government?
Indeed. The ability of the GOP to mobilize voters *against* their economic interests is masterful.

(I don't think Occupy Wall Street etc. are really counterexamples; how many OWS candidates are there for public office? Sixties-style "protests" play into the opposition's hands, is my fear.)

* Call me a sissy, but I would refuse to subscribe to a magazine that uses a guillotine victim as its promo art, even if it is called Jacobin. That's just despicable.


  1. Many of us are not against raising taxes on the rich because we love the rich, but because of our believe that money avoids taxation. Yes, people will quit working as hard. Yes, people will move their investments from income producing investments to inflation-protecting investments.

    I've mentioned to you before that I support a very low tax on wealth, say one percent annually on the petty rich, two percent on estates of $10 million, three percent on estates of $100 million and four percent on estates of a billion or more. With this said, be aware that the bulk of the money is earned by the middle class, and that's where the tax revenue is. Any effort to raise taxes is going to hit these people, too.

    Finally, on issues like immigration, the liberal elites have taken positions that obviously hurt lower-class Americans. This is truly a mystery to me. Why should American workers support this?

  2. Problem is, Colonel, your position on taxation puts you far to the left of the GOP. Grover Norquist ain't gonna give his imprimatur to that.

    Re: immigration, neither party seriously wants it curbed - the business cmty. depends on it too much. You may recall from NMC's blog that I'm open to reconsidering birthright citizenship. I also suspect that immigrant labor is helping keep wages depressed: citizens "won't do those jobs," not because we're lazy, but b/c hard work deserves better pay. But when you can pay Mexicans $5/hr or whatever, with no benefits, why change that?

  3. Many of us are not against raising taxes on the rich because we love the rich, but because of our believe that money avoids taxation. Yes, people will quit working as hard.

    This is the traditional Econ 101 view, but I've never really understood it in the context of the U.S.'s current tax system that measures income on an annual basis for purposes of the marginal rate.

    How many people that hold jobs or run businesses can just say on, e.g., November 15th, "well, I now prefer leisure to income from work, so I'll stop working until January 1" and suffer no ill effects?

    I can't think of any. The closest I can come in my experience is an investment banker who makes 90% of his comp on bonus and has had a bad year deciding to slow-walk his latest deal to push it into the next fiscal year so his bonus is that much bigger in 2012 rather than 2011. Maybe a salesman?

  4. I read right past that, because when I saw "money avoids taxation," I thought of tax shelters, etc.

    How a *wealth* tax could work is mysterious to me.

    ... Crooked Timber has been discussing Lilla and Robin in much smarter terms than I can manage, here and here.

    I am becoming curious to read Robin's book (which OUP has sternly declined to discount, judging by and Amazon). It now seems to me that conservatism is defined by its anti-liberalism, so that conservatives are united only in what they're against, not in what they're *for*. So it's plausible to summarize them as "reactionary," whatever problems that has in applied practice.