Michael R. Strain, an AEI guy writing on The Corner at NRO has a great post on philosophical debates. Michael is talking about conservatism debates but we have seen it in numerous academic situations. We had a colleague who was sincerely convinced that if we came to an agreement on principles that every other issue could be resolved from those principles. Our accounting/economics background lets us play the principles game but we realize that the practical needs more than principles. Michael seems cut from the same cloth. Perhaps we can make him an honorary accountant. Oh, and we think of that as a great honor for an economist.
Do read all of Michael’s post. We have a long quote below because we need it for our discussion of conservatism. Michael starts out:
Rich’s post this morning, which builds off Matthew Continetti’s excellent column, addresses a feature of the intra-conservative debate that has been on my mind for quite some time: The emphasis on doctrinal discussion above specifics.
Rich’s post is forward looking. He accurately observes: “The questions, What and How? almost never appear, i.e., what policies are we talking about and how are we going to achieve them?”
There is a backward-looking component to this as well. I commonly come across some variant of the following: “I’m a free trader. I just think trade should be put in its proper place. It isn’t more important than family and community.” But what, specifically, does that mean? [f we are honest it means the speaker is not a free trader.] Was the president right not to enter TPP? Should the United States not have formed NAFTA? Should we have actively tried to keep China out of the global trading system?
In his first paragraph we think Michael is being kind about the contributions of Rich and Matthew but kindness is a good thing. The conclusion is exactly right because doctrinal discussions don’t lead to specifics. They can be useful but we need both doctrine and specifics.
The second paragraph is exactly right except he (or Rich) leaves out priorities. We would end the last sentence in the second paragraph with “rather than others.”
The third paragraph shows how folks defeat proposals that they do not agree with or are not their priorities. The bold phrases can be rearranged so that the first two are something specific like free speech, lower taxes, or entitlement reform. You could change the third one to any meaningless generality or keep it the same.
Rather than dissing David French let’s find some specific proposal that we can support. The Donald and the Democrats may make passage problematical but we need to get specific on a good proposal. It could be health care but we can’t find Avik Roy’s proposal. If we don’t like it then Michael tells us how to answer.