Why do conservatives lack confidence in democracy?

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've written before about the power of the idea of liberal democracy.  Now I'd like to address something that's puzzled me for some time: Why do conservatives so often underestimate the power and resiliency of that idea?

In the wake of Egypt's eruption into direct democracy aimed at gaining representative democracy, you would think that those who most loudly proclaim the superiority of our system of government would be ecstatic.  Some conservatives are instead skeptical, while liberals are pretty uniformly agreed that events in Egypt are encouraging.

Mind, I'm not at all certain how things will play out in Egypt, but I am certain of how those who risked their lives (and in about 300 cases, lost them) to depose a tyrant and impose democratic government and the rule of law want it to play out.  Clearly, democracy is something that appeals to people of many cultures.

But when Glen Beck, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and other leading lights of the conservative movement claimed the revolution in Egypt is a threat to America, I had to wonder at their lack of confidence in the idea of democracy.

Of course, not all conservatives feel this way, and it's frankly a relief to see conservatives debate something between themselves instead of quickly settling on talking points and sticking to them regardless of new information.  But a lack of confidence in liberalism is nothing new for conservatives.

Frederick Hayek, in his 1973 essay on liberalism written for an Italian encyclopedia, noted that the period of prosperity following World War II "seemed to promise a return to liberal economic principles," yet cautioned:

"But the endeavours to prolong the prosperity and to secure full employment by means of the expansion of money and credit, in the end created a world‑wide inflationary development to which employment so adjusted itself that inflation could not be discontinued without producing extensive unemployment. Yet a functioning market economy cannot be maintained under accelerating inflation, if for no other reason than because governments will soon feel constrained to combat the effects of inflation by the control of prices and wages. Inflation has always and everywhere led to a directed economy, and it is only too likely that the commitment to an inflationary policy will mean the destruction of the market economy and the transition to a centrally directed totalitarian economic and political system."

Oh, ye of little faith.  Nixon was the last president to try price controls.  The Fed chairman under Jimmy Carter, Paul Volker, had much greater success wringing out inflation with monetary policy.  Carter's policies helped in other ways, as his deregulation of the airline and trucking industries brought down prices in those sectors.

Carter was the liberal conservatives loved to hate, but he showed that liberalism was not, as Hayek claimed, "a name for essentially socialist aspirations."  But Hayek's lack of confidence in the power of the ideas of classical liberalism is shared by many conservatives.  It causes them to mistake  liberals for socialists and to see the Muslim Brotherhood under the Egyptian protesters' blue jeans.

Sometimes it appears that they don't even trust their own ideas for market-based solutions.  The Affordable Care Act was based on ideas championed by  Republicans and the Heritage Foundation, and put into practice in Massachusetts by then-Gov. Mitt Romney.  The first cap-and-trade program was introduced by George H.W. Bush as a market-based way to deal with acid rain, and it was a roaring success, reducing the sulfur dioxide emissions responsible for acid rain at far less then the estimated cost.

One would think that these policy successes would please conservatives, as they demonstrate that markets can be structured to  solve problems that have more often been approached through regulation.  But the current thinking on the right seems to be that if they persuade their opponents that their policy is right, the policy must be wrong.

Of course, the other issue is that conservatism has changed a great deal since the 1990s.  Anything that shows government can be used to solve problems now seems to be anathema to them. The very notion that markets are human institutions that can be structured well or badly seems to offend many conservatives nowadays. They prefer to think of markets as naturally occurring phenomena that are discovered, rather than made.

Yet consider the experience of the Russian economy, where the lack of the rule of law undermined efforts to build a capitalist economy after the fall of the Soviet Union should have forcefully reminded us that while markets are useful, they are artifacts of human culture. As a businessman, I'm a committed capitalist, and I think I'd be a worse businessman if I did not understand the nature of markets, and a worse citizen as well.

As a believer in liberal democracy, I can understand Hayek's fear that excessive government interference in markets could undermine freedom, but because I've studied the theory and history of liberal democracy, I understand that our relationship to property is not our only relationship.

Of course, the other problem is that there are people on the left and the right who have little faith in what Marxists used to call "the masses."  Lenin believed that the intellectual vanguard should guide the masses, even if to do so required deceiving them. It was one point where he agreed with Hitler. I'd say we need to keep an eye on those who don't trust the people but want to guide the people. And we should be careful, as well, of those who deceive the people to guide them.