Like The “Progressives” of the early 20th century, President Obama and many of his fellow Leftists these days are quite fond of making the claim that they are simply motivated by “what works” and are not driven by ideology the way conservatives are. The philosophical emptiness of such claims is thoroughly amusing and I have always seen it as just too shallow to be worth a reply. Just how empty the claim is can be shown by a simple question: “How do you define “what works”?” — or — “When do you know that something has “worked”?”
The inevitable answer to that has to be in terms of ideology: “Whether something leads to greater economic equality”, would certainly be a common Leftist answer to my question. But that simply shows that the Leftist subscribes to an ideology that economic equality is desirable.
In his latest book, however, Jonah Goldberg is marginally more respectful of the claim. He first documents the claim at some length but instead of wiping it off with a simple question, he devotes a whole chapter to refuting it. And his conclusion is that both Left and Right have ideologies — but ideologies that are different.
Jonah does note however that in the past it was in fact conservatives who abjured ideology and customarily pointed to Leftists as ideologues. And I think that view is essential to understanding conservatism. In his book Inside Right, Ian Gilmour, once Lord Privy Seal of England under Margaret Thatcher, offers an historical study of conservatism and concludes that conservatives are “trimmers”: People with ideas that change with circumstances without much in the way of pre-established doctrines or policy consistency.
In my own historical study of conservative thought I noted many instances of such claims from conservative thinkers and concluded that conservatism can only be understood as a psychological disposition — a tendency towards cautiousness — and that different policy responses may be generated by that underlying psychological conservatism from time to time — though a desire for individual liberty is a common outcome of that psychological disposition.
So I side with the earlier conservative thinkers and say that it is conservatives who are the non-ideological ones. The Leftist claim on that distinction becomes mere trickery. They think that by claiming to be something that is really true of conservatives, they can gain some added respectibility for their policies and deflect attention from whom the real practical people are. It is a sort of reverse-projection: Instead of seeing their own faults in others, they see the strengths of others in themselves.
So I see Jonah as too kind to the Left. They are just crooks who will say anything if it will get them power. Conservatives should not let the Left get away with stealing our clothes. And the best way to do that is to keep asking them my questions above.
Conservatives don’t have to make broad claims about standing for “what works”. Rather we just deal with individual issues as they arise and point out what the consequences of a Leftist response to those issues is likely to be. The track record of socialism is so dismal that that is not hard to do. If anything engenders caution, it is socialism
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see TONGUE-TIED. Also, don’t forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here