The Intellectual Disaster of American Conservatism (Liberalism)

by Mario Rizzo

I watched a rather good debate this morning on the ABC News program This Week. The participants were journalist George Will and Congressman Paul Ryan (on the “right”) and Congressman Barney Frank and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich (“on the ‘left”). You can watch it now or simply read the transcript. The topic for the debate was “There is too much government in my life.”

I thought the “right” handled the economic questions very well. I was especially impressed (because I don’t know him as well) by Paul Ryan’s knowledge and debating skill. But I kept wishing that George Will was in one of his libertarian moods because the “left” exposed some glaring inconsistencies on matters of social and military policy. For whatever reason, Will played the good conservative in the debate (perhaps to avoid causing splits on the “conservative” side of the debate).

I think the “left” (mainly Barney Frank) played an excellent card. He stressed how he was for more government in the economic sphere but for less government in the social and military sphere. On the other hand, the “right” did not try to exploit the inconsistencies between the “left’s” philosophy of economic regulation and its support of liberties in other areas.

I am more interested in the inconsistencies of conservatism than I am in the inconsistencies of liberals, so-called.  I cannot really explain why. Perhaps it is because I think that conservatives are more teachable on the social issues than “liberals” are on the economic issues. Or perhaps it is because I am an economist and I spend more of my time thinking and discussing economic issues. Therefore, I gravitate toward people who share my views, namely conservatives.

So now I can turn to two conclusions from watching the debate : (1) Barney Frank made powerful points against Will and Ryan; (2) Will and Ryan seemed anemic, sometimes non-existent,  in their responses –perhaps even somewhat embarrassed by the conservative “cross” they had to bear (okay that is clearly my interpretation).

Take a look. (The dashed lines mean that parts of the discussion have been omitted.)

Barney Frank:  On the other hand, and my conservative friends who claim that they are for small government are the ones who tell us that an adult shouldn’t be able to gamble on the Internet. We have the leading judicial conservative, Antonin Scalia, absolutely in a snit because you can’t be sent to jail if you have personal sexual relations of which he does not approve. We have a series of interventions by the conservatives in those choices that should be left to individuals.

Paul Ryan: I fault the president for thinking that society is transparent and easy to regulate.


George Will: Well, I’m worried, actually, by the mad proliferation of cameras following us through our lives. It does seem to me that when you say when does X trump personal liberty? Almost never.

Christiane Amanpour: When it’s a matter of saving lives?

Will: I don’t want to make safety parallel with, equal to, let alone trump personal liberty.

Frank: I would welcome — I do — there’s a complication when you’re driving a car, because it implicates others. But I would assume, George, you’re going to sign on with me and Ron Paul in removing the criminal penalties on the use of marijuana and on stopping this terrible regulation of the Internet in which we tell adults that they can’t gamble.  

And frankly, here is where the right wing is very much for big government. They are the ones who want to regulate personal choices. Birth control, whether or not — we’ll leave aside abortion, which is more controversial — they want to regulate the use of birth control. As I said, gambling. Private sexual practices. Who can get married. I have never understood why heterosexuals who want to get married, believe that if I were to marry a man, they would somehow lose interest in their wives. I am not — I am not aware of what my attractive role would be there.

So, in fact, it is the case — there’s also the case of course with the military, and again, we didn’t get any take-up of that, but a major reason for the expansion in American government, taxation, et cetera, is an overly extended American military, which is committed all over the world to accomplish all kinds of social and economic purposes far beyond defense.

But, let’s talk about individual liberty. Gambling, marijuana, personal sexual practices, what people can read — here is the case where, frankly, it is the right wing, particularly the social issues component of the right wing, that has been the ones fostering big government.


Ryan: I noticed, Barney, you have a big thing with the national defense, with the Defense Department. That’s the primary function of the federal government. You may not like what they do.

Frank: But to build bridges in Afghanistan — where in the Constitution is that?

Frank: Can I get an answer on marijuana, George? Are you with me on it? I mean, personal liberty, if someone wants to smoke marijuana who’s an adult, why do you want to make them go to jail?

Will: As you know, first of all, on the Internet gambling, as you know, I’m on the — a supporter of the Barney Frank bill.

Frank: Yes.

Will: With regard to marijuana, I need to know more about — whether it’s a gateway to other drugs. I need to know how you’re going to regulate it, whether you’re going to advertise it. I am open to the–

Frank: Oh, you’re just a copout.

Will: We’re not–

Frank: It’s been around for a long time. The gateway — anything is a gateway to anything. That’s — and let’s put it this way, that’s the slippery slope argument, which is a very anti- libertarian argument. The fact is that if someone is doing something that’s not in itself wrong, that it might lead later on to something else, then stop the something else. Don’t lock them up for smoking marijuana.

Will: What you’re calling a copout is I’m calling a quest for information.

Frank: How long is it going to last, George? We’ve been doing it for decades.

Will: I understand liberalism’s aversion to information because it often does not go in their direction.

Frank:  No, I’m averse — I’ve been studying this for a long time. You know, you’re on Medicare, and how much longer are we going to have to wait for you to make up your mind?

I excerpted the parts that I believe expose the conservative inconsistencies best. You should read or listen to the entire debate. It is one of the few political interchanges on tv worth your time.

In conclusion, I would echo Barney Frank’s point to George Will: Hurry up and decide the marijuana issue – your days are numbered (as are all of our days).

(By the way, I am not changing my overall views of Barney Frank. I think the Dodd-Frank bill is terrible, and so forth.)

18 thoughts on “The Intellectual Disaster of American Conservatism (Liberalism)

  1. “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
    Frederick Bastiat

  2. I watched the debate too. I was impressed with Frank’s ability to incapacitate Will, who has always seemed unflappable when facing Paul Krugman, or any of the assortment of liberal demagogues ABC assembles for their regular Sunday morning programming.

    I think Frank was intentionally misleading in hammering the drug issue. Legalization has never been as central a part of the Democrat platform as his passionate sputtering might have suggested.

  3. When he started saying the slippery slope is an anti-libertarian argument, I was thinking that Mario was literally putting words in Frank’s mouth.

  4. The thread is well-titled. Cripes, just agree with Barney Frank on MJ, sex, and imperialism and then beat him to a pulp on economic liberty, crony capitalism, and the economy.

  5. After Tom Campbell left Congress, Barney moved up to being the smartest member. I don’t pretend that is a high standard, but Barney is very smart. And witty, in a cutting way.

    Conservatives are conflicted on liberty and Barney knows how to exploit that conflict. Notably, he always got along with Ron Paul, whom I suspect he recognized as consistent.

  6. Agreed that libs are hardly all for drug legalization. Barney is just plain wrong about “defense” being the biggest driver of big government.. It pales by comparison to the “entitlements” of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

  7. Ah, the bountiful freedom to be poor, to die of treatable diseases for lack of health care, to shiver in a freezing apartment, to eat out of a trash can…. All those wonderful liberties libertarians want to extend to more and more people.

  8. Nobody’s stopping you from helping others, Freddie, and with less taxes and greater output due to less government interference, you’ll have more to help them with. By the way, just wondering: does your generosity with other people’s money extend beyond the borders of the US? If not, why not? If so, do you understand how big of a hit the average American will take, to pay for the medical care and housing and 3 square meals a day for billions of destitute people around the world? How much have you donated so far?

  9. I love this “freedom to starve” nonsense. If it were not for freedom most of the world’s population would starve, almost certainly including “Freddie.”

  10. Mario,

    It’s only a disaster because conservatives have not learned how to use libertarian arguments. So they rely on what APPEARS AND ONLY APPEARS to be conflicting moral postulates.

    Anarcho-Libertarian arguments are not moral postulates – they are logically concrete statements of practical necessity for any and all human interaction.

    The fact that the Rothbardians always run to the extremes of Anarchy at every opportunity only serves to prevent the conservatives from ever learning how to apply libertarian insights into politics and economics.

    The problem for conservatives lies in seeing through the anarchist evangelism at the brilliant insights into politics and economics that the libertarians have provided us with.


  11. (FWIW: WordPress has a plugin that allows comments to be edited for X minutes, so those of us who type at 100wpm can correct the grammatical errors that are a natural consequence of letting our fingers do the talking. It would be good for everyone if you installed it.) 🙂

  12. I’m astonished that none of the commentators here seem to have noticed what a farce the program was as a properly conducted debate. Although the opening and closing statements by the two sides were fairly done, during the main part of the debate, which constituted the majority of the hour-long program, Barney Frank repeatedly interrupted his opponents, taking up way more than his fair share of the program time. Amanapour did nothing to curb this rude and bullying behavior. She was a complete failure as a moderator — deliberately, one suspects, given her own well-known political orientation and her employer’s.

    Her non-feasance was all the more the shame as both teams consisted of highly skilled defenders for their respective sides. In this respect, the ABC debate was the mirror image of the earlier Keynes-Hayek debate in NY, where the debate was conducted with proper formalities but two of the three members of the pro-Hayek team were unqualified. In Sunday’s ABC debate, by contrast, the choice of debaters was excellent but the lack of formal structure for the middle portion of the debate turned it predominantly into a Barney Frank Show — red meat perhaps for libertarians but not a serious intellectual event.

    Also, much of what Frank said in the course of his rude, blabbing Schwaermerei was not apposite to the stated debate topic, the size of government. Whatever one’s opinion on gay marriage, I’m at a loss to see how it affects the size of the Federal payroll or the number of government buildings in DC, whereas drug decriminalization would make a significant difference on the size of government. So would getting out of foreign nation-building adventures. But would Frank be prepared to shift some of the funds saved to missile defense? Not likely.

    In any case, all these issues need to be ventilated in an intellectually serious format, which ABC and Amanapour, like so many talk show hosts, conspicuously failed to provide. One more reason, as though I needed one, to go back to sleeping late on Sundays.

  13. I wish Barney Frank would inform his Progressive media friends, such as Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Chris Matthews, that conservatives do not hate government.

  14. Frank is a proven professional – just check his reelection record. Will and Reich are commentators used to working in writing. Ryan is too inexperienced to take on Frank. This thing was more of a test of who could stay on talking points and rapidly apply them than who has the right positions or who can think.

  15. Sheldon is right that conservatives do not hate government. So the debate was flawed from the outset. It would have been really interesting, but far too confusing for the tv audience which needs to be “protected,” to have had three sides: conservative, liberal and libertarian.

  16. This is exactly what I hate about the Republican Party. I’m crucified on a cross of legislated morality by Republicans and end up with a statist government run by an economically ignorant master of rhetoric, Barack Obama.
    Where is Barry Goldwater when you need him!!!!

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