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How Much Intellectual Steam Did the Conservative Movement Ever Have?

Richard Posner writes that the American conservative movement is losing intellectual steam:

Is the Conservative Movement Losing Steam? Posner: Until the late 1960s (when I was in my late twenties), I was barely conscious of the existence of a conservative movement. It was obscure and marginal... Barry Goldwater... Ayn Rand, Russell Kirk, and William Buckley--figures who had no appeal for me. More powerful conservative thinkers... Milton Friedman... Friedrich Hayek... George Stigler, were on the scene, but were not well known outside the economics profession.

The domestic disorder of the late 1960s, the excesses of Johnson's "Great Society," significant advances in the economics of antitrust and regulation, the "stagflation" of the 1970s, and the belief (which turned out to be mistaken) that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War--all these developments stimulated the growth of a varied and vibrant conservative movement... free-market economics... "neoconservatism" in the sense of a strong military and a rejection of liberal internationalism... cultural conservatism, involving respect for traditional values, resistance to feminism and affirmative action, and a tough line on crime.

The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge of prosperity worldwide that marked the global triumph of capitalism, the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement.... By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes.... I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of "originalism," the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded. All these became causes embraced by the new conservatism that crested with the reelection of Bush in 2004....

[T]he policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings... weak in conception... failed in execution... political flops.... The major blows to conservatism... have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression. These unanticipated and shocking events have exposed significant analytical weaknesses in core beliefs of conservative economists concerning the business cycle and the macroeconomy generally. Friedmanite monetarism and the efficient-market theory of finance have taken some sharp hits, and there is renewed respect for the macroeconomic thought of John Maynard Kenyes, a conservatives' bête noire...

At least Posner knows (unlike his co-blogger Gary Becker) what "conservatism" means.

But is he arguing that conservatism has lost steam or that it never had much steam in the first place?

Richard Posner sees things wrong with Bush era conservatism:

  • fiscal incontinence
  • the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect
  • cultural-conservative issues ("continued preoccupation with abortion" "religious criteria in the selection of public officials")
  • the failure of military force as a first resort in attempting to achieve U.S. foreign-policy objectives

But weren't these also the key components of the Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan was the original fiscal incontinence. And the substitution of will for intellect--was it ever any greater than in the rush to cut taxes to raise revenues, or in Alexander Haig's belief that U.S. national security would be enhanced if the IDF gave the Syrian army a thrashing in Lebanon? We had to rely on the alliance of Nancy Reagan and her astrologer to get a sane policy toward Gorbachev, for God's sake. And cultural conservatives--if I understand Posner, his complaint is that Reagan paid them only lip service and they patiently sat in the back of the bus and were quiet, while Bush, Palin, and Joe the Plumber take them seriously.

And, of course, the piece of Reagan-era conservatism of which Posner was most proud--deregulation and the trimming-back of government--has either turned out to be (a) destructive, or (b) accomplished by Carter and Clinton.

How much intellectual steam did hte conservative movement ever have?