Why David Frum is wrong

Max Borders Editor, The Freeman
Font Size:

A few years ago — shortly after the election of President Obama — I was eating a sandwich and listening to a speaker at an event hosted by the John Locke Foundation. I got a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn’t the sandwich.

David Frum was speaking. At the risk of misremembering his talk, I will offer no quotes from that day. But it became clear to me that Frum was deeply concerned about demography, the sensibilities of the young, and the future of the GOP. If the party didn’t change, it would die. The left had succeeded in capturing the imagination of the youth. Frum referred specifically to poll numbers showing youth disaffection with orthodox conservatism.

Fair enough.

Frum then proceeded to argue that, to rescue the right, conservatives were going to have to become more like Democrats, as Frum himself had done. This is not his exact phrasing. But Frum’s tack amounted to: sell off your principles, piece by piece, until you look enough like your opposition to capture some of their sheep. It was clear that Frum was not only committed to a kind of demographic determinism, but to the empty tribalism of party.

More recently, Frum wrote:

Through the debate over health-care reform in 2009-10, I urged that Republicans try to reach some kind of deal. The Democrats had the votes to pass something. They could not afford to lose. Providing health coverage to all is a worthy goal, and the core mechanisms of what we called Obamacare should not have been obnoxious to Republicans. In fact, they were drawn from past Republican plans.

Even if Frum is right that members of his party had, for years, been offering policies made out of thinner, more tepid leftism, isn’t it a little disingenuous to criticize Republicans for actually trying to find their principles again? Instead of offering the right a moral compass, Frum offers the U.S. equivalent of Majorism (as in John), when what we need is something closer to Thatcherism.

The wilderness

Needless to say, Frum’s strategy of regaining power through deliberate soul-thinning didn’t sit well with me. It was not just that Frum was in denial about the big-government conservatism of 2000-2006. It was that Frum’s was not a strategy to catalyze a people or to rescue a Republic. His plan was to stretch an already contorted platform to fit the opinions of college kids. Frum had conveniently forgotten that his party had already strayed into that wilderness where no principle lives. Because Frum is a prince in this wilderness, it’s no wonder his suggested method for preventing his party’s decline is to drag the GOP even further into it.

Consider another quote from the sour-grapes piece Frum did for New York Magazine:

[I]t’s one thing to point out (accurately) that President Obama’s stimulus plan was mostly a compilation of antique Democratic wish lists, and quite another to argue that the correct response to the worst collapse since the thirties is to wait for the economy to get better on its own.

John Maynard Keynes couldn’t have said it better. And that is the problem.

Political Keynesianism

David Frum is not just an economic Keynesian. He is a political Keynesian, too. If economic Keynesianism is more or less the idea that you should look at the macro data, drop largesse from on high, make message adjustments and pray, political Keynesianism is the idea that you should look at the poll numbers, drop largesse from party coffers, make message adjustments and pray.

This is, indeed, how mainstream Republicans have been doing things for some time. As wunderkind strategist Jon Henke wrote back in 2009:

[I]sn’t that exactly how Republicans have approached politics in recent decades? They adopt a certain policy because it shores them up with this interest group, avoid another policy because it alienates a demographic, and try to play both sides with other policies because they “can’t afford to lose a seat in …” In the short term (e.g., 2000-2004), they eked out the appearance of success (though, not much in the way of actual progress). But then, the whole thing fell apart. And why not? It was an agenda crafted by political Keynesians.

The political Keynesians of the GOP had been inflating both political and economic bubbles. When it all came crashing down, the American people were ready to believe a national snake-oil salesman and his Chicago consigliere.

As with economic Keynesianism, political Keynesianism doesn’t work — at least in the long run. The trouble with such a view is: 1) The local level is where most of the action is — i.e., the economic devil is in the details among millions of people coordinating their activities; 2) Long-term prosperity occurs through a complex and ongoing process of coordination at that level; and 3) These details are far too complex to be reduced to aggregates that can be manipulated by tweakers from on high — at least, not in the long term. Dropping largesse from a helicopter is not “sustainable” economics, as Arnold Kling reminds us. It’s not sustainable politics, either.

Bottom-up politics

Then, like a bolt, came the Ron Paul Revolution (which I’ve argued elsewhere can also be an evolution). Ron Paul didn’t win the Republican nomination. But he saved the party. He not only saved the GOP from demographic decline, he steered it away from David Frum’s wilderness. Whatever you think of Paul, he showed that Republican politics could be done differently. He showed, a la Steve Jobs (or J. B. Say), that supply creates its own demand. All Ron Paul did was supply more constitutional principles and Austrian economics. These started selling like iPhones.

Consider one of the products of this sea change, profiled by a snarky liberal in a piece called “Attack of the hipster conservatives”:

[Ryan] Mitchell, 23, is tall, favors oversize glasses, and runs a startup. She was president of her college’s tattoo club. On weekends, she goes clubbing at Heroes and Videodrome and the Pill. She’s also a right-wing libertarian who opposes gun control, Obamacare, and the welfare state. She’s going to vote for Romney.

In the same piece we learn about Zachary Caceres:

If anyone knows the polarizing attributes of politics, it’s Zachary Caceres. As a progressive libertarian, the 23-year-old Brooklynite represents one of the smallest, most misunderstood political groups of all.

“I have sort-of progressive goals, but I’m deeply skeptical of the ability of large institutions, including government, to accomplish those goals,” he says.

Frum wouldn’t put it quite that way at all. He would say I have sort-of progressive goals, and I think large institutions, including government, can accomplish those goals as long as they’re not quite as large as what the Blue Team wants.

Hating on Hayek

Mitchell and Caceres are not how Frum had hoped the GOP would be saved. Ordinary folks — especially the young — have started reading Hayek and Mises. It’s no wonder then that Frum recently joined Josh Barro in attacking the Austrian School.

Barro overshoots — calling Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom “Dianetics” for free-marketeers. Cute, I suppose — and certainly fitting for something written under the banner “Bloomberg.” But Barro fails to offer any examples of macroeconomics texts that might actually move the needle for freedom, much less move a human soul. And though Barro is correct to say that some Austrians can be quick to throw the numbers out with the proverbial bathwater, no Austrian worth his salt would call for abandoning Milton Friedman’s healthy respect for data. Most Austrians are just skeptical of “experts” who come bearing speculative models — the kinds of models that were used to justify the wildly successful American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (see scientism).

Indeed, Barro implicitly ignores the pathetic record of mathematical macro — a sub-discipline that has ensnared a lot of ivory-tower economists. Barro thus underappreciates the power of many Austrian insights. (And so does Frum.) I’m not sure what motivated Barro to crash on the school that gave us such great minds. Maybe he’s angling for a ticket into that Great Power Nexus that only macro can buy. But if he’s serious about limited government, now is not the time to drive wedges between those who self-identify as free market. Instead we should all look for the sweet spot in the overlap between the Friedmanite and Austrian traditions. As for Frum, it’s baffling to me that he would claim any allegiance to Milton Friedman. Frum has defended state activism in the economy, Obamacare, and has shown a genuine desire to compromise his way back to power. While he understood political realities, I doubt Friedman would have been flattered by Frum had the former lived to enjoy his 100th birthday.

The salon or principle

David Frum gets things wrong so consistently, I think, because he believes he’s being intellectually honest. If that’s the case, he’s confusing intellectual honesty with a desire to appease the intelligentsia. Frum probably longs for a Republican Party his Ivy League friends can respect — one without Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck; one that would be welcome in the salon.

The salon, of course, is where elites of the wilderness go to sip wine near those ice sculptures known as “pragmatism” and “progressivism.” Trouble is, when the light of reason shines on those sculptures, we learn pretty quickly that pragmatism doesn’t actually work that well and progressivism doesn’t get us very far. Frum has made a nice business for himself getting amens from the salon, even though he’ll never be welcome there. But because his brand of conservatism is as bland as a table cracker, he may be writing dispatches from his island of ostracism for some time.

To save a party?

So how do Republicans ward off demographic decline? It’s sort of like “creating jobs”: Stop making job creation the goal and start making restoring the principles of prosperity the goal. Jobs will follow. Likewise, stop making “saving the party” the goal. It is in commitment to the timeless ideals of liberty, pluralism and the rule of law that movements are made. Saving your party will follow.

We must demonstrate that our principles offer peace, material abundance and nourishment for the soul. In the long term, this is how America will win, partisan politics be damned. Ron Paul understood this, which is why he did not have to become a shadow of the left to save the GOP. He created new demand for liberty. And that is why an army of millennials has coalesced around nutty notions like fidelity to the Constitution, free markets and, yes, even free banking.

David Frum could be right about this: in the political bubble that is the 2012 election, attenuated principle and political Keynesianism may turn out to be a winning short-term strategy. And I cannot think of a candidate who comes closer to Frum’s ideal than Mitt Romney. Score one for Frum. If Romney wins, we’re all supposed to clap or curtsy because Romney wears a red jersey. Hopefully he’ll at least stop the bleeding. But this is not how the long war is fought. The long war is fought with the courage of conviction.

If Mitt Romney wins, I hope he finds a seed of principle somewhere within him and cultivates it. Would Romney’s election vindicate Frum’s politics of appeasement? I’m not sure. One term of Obama Lite would probably wash away the beachhead gained by all those newly minted liberty lovers. God knows what will come after that. One thing is clear, though: America will continue to drift into the wilderness if Romney finds no core.

What really works

Like it or not, big ideas entwined in principles — not fleeting opinions — animate people in the great swath of history. “Democrat Lite” is not anything around which people can coalesce. It is a faded suit. If, someday, our children are to inherit a nation that is both prosperous and free, we’re going to have to restore the Madisonian framework that gives rise to it. We’re going to have to struggle for what’s right. And we’re going to have to take the moral high ground.

Max Borders is author of the forthcoming Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor (Fall 2012). Contact him here if you’d like to receive notification when the book is out.