Reverse engineering Ross Douthat
Responding to the latest attempt to breathe some life into the zombie of “reform conservatism”, Matt Yglesias noted a revealing silence on climate change. As he observed
The thought process that ended with this approach is easy enough to understand. Whether climate change is a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore, 99 percent of scientists, and a dazzling array of foreign governments or a genuine problem is hotly debated inside the conservative movement. Whether or not fossil-fuel producers should be hampered in their activities by regulatory concern about pollution, by contrast, is not controversial. For smart, up-and-coming conservatives to mention climate change, they would have to pick a side on the controversial issue. Do they sound like rubes by siding with the conspiracy theorists, or do they alienate the rubes by acknowledging the basic facts and the coming up with some other reason to favor inaction?
The optimal choice is not to choose.
I made much the same point a year ago in response to Ramesh Ponnuru’s plaintive observation that “To be a good reformer [in liberal eyes] a conservative has to agree that the vast bulk of conservatives are insane.”
In this NYT piece, Ross Douthat tries to respond to Yglesias. He ends up both confirming the point regarding climate change and illustrating the true nature of reform conservatism.
Since Douthat can’t refute Yglesias’ point about the craziness of the Republican base, he doesn’t try. Rather, he dismisses the point as “silly” and moves straight to his own apologia for lining up with the crazies. This is rather challenging. As Douthat admits, its not long since Republicans like John McCain were on the sane side of this debate. And it’s not as if the recent evidence (that is, the evidence coming from science rather than the rightwing parallel universe) has changed anything.
Still, Douthat tries desperately to claim that, in following his party where it leads, he is merely responding to the changed circumstances of the post-2008 economic slump. Supposedly, a relatively modest slowdown in economic growth means that it is now imperative to do nothing about climate change.
The best way to understand Douthat’s piece is by reverse engineering his argument as a constrained minimization problem The objective is to minimize the craziness he needs to embrace, subject to the constraint that he must end up in line with the denialist conspiracy theorists who dominate the base. The best approach is to combine the most inflated estimates of the cost of mitigation, with the rosiest projections of the implications of doing nothing.
This is “reform conservatism” in a nutshell. The Republican party is a coalition of crazies, racists and plutocrats. But there is a political requirement to talk about policy in a way that is not obviously crazy, racist or pro-rich. The task of conservative[^1] intellectuals is to square this circle.
[^1]: Corey Robin would say that this has always been the true function of conservatism. I’m more inclined to believe that a genuinely conservative approach to politics has some potential merit, not realized in actually existing conservatism.