Is Liberalism A More Pragmatic Approach?
As a theoretical matter, Chait is probably right. Modern liberalism, which is basically progressivism, is by definition more open to policies that would change society for the better. Conservativism is primarily interested in preserving our current practices and traditions, while progressives propose making changes that would allow society to progress in a favorable direction. They support experimenting via government (top-down) and analyzing the outcomes to see if the programs are effective.
Conservatives (I’m parroting Hayek here) oppose this ideology because they presume that traditions that have lasted this long have a presumption of correctness and changes could have unforeseen deleterious effects that are not easily reversed. They therefore support allowing changes to be made organically (bottom-up), without imposition from the government.
So in fact conservatives are certainly are less open to empirical evidence that might point to favorable government programs because they are not willing to risk forcing adverse effects on society. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to look at the evidence and ignore possible, but unforeseen, negative effects.
Nevertheless I believe DB and Chait are wrong for two reasons. First, the argument ignores the evolution of conservative doctrine over the last 30 years – partly spurred by the influence of neoconservative doctrine – from an ideological movement to a more pragmatic governing philosophy. While fifty years ago most conservatives might have opposed high taxes on ideological grounds (that people should be allowed to keep their own money), today conservatives generally oppose high taxation for pragmatic reasons. Supply side economics and the Laffer curve are in vogue in the conservative movement not because they provide justification for low taxation, but because they provide the reasoning behind the idea that high taxation harms our economy. Conservatives oppose high taxes because it negatively affects the economy, and if the evidence would show that high taxes were beneficial, many conservatives would shift their policy preferences accordingly.
Other examples abound. Irving Kristol strongly opposes welfare because it creates a sense of dependence and generates disincentives for work. Many conservatives oppose SSM because they believe it harms families. They oppose rent control and stabilization because it decreases available housing on the market. They support moral legislation because they believe it makes a better society.
Obviously not all conservatives are pragmatists. The religious right and the paleoconservatives are far less likely to allow empirical evidence to change their mind. They usually have ideological positions, and are not going to change because of evidence. The religious right is not going to support SSM no matter how much evidence shows that gay couples are just as likely to have stable families as straights. Paleos are going to support isolationism even if the preponderance of the evidence points to the conclusion that staying out of world politics harms our national interest.
But that just gets me to my second reason: the assumption that liberals are more pragmatic only makes sense from the liberal perspective. The proposition is only sustainable once one assumes that liberal ideology is correct. Let me explain.
Chait’s argument presumes that both liberals and conservatives have ideological positions that are not subject to empirical analysis, but liberals are more willing to subject the methods used to further those positions to empirical analysis. For example, liberals support wealth distribution because it makes society as a whole better off. Conservatives, however, oppose it even if the evidence shows that wealth distribution improves society.
But this analysis begs the question. Conservatives disagree over what constitutes a better society. To better frame the issue, liberals presume that a more equal society is a better society. Conservatives assume that a society that allows people to keep the proceeds of their hard work is a more fair society. When liberals “prove” that wealth distribution makes society better, they mean more equal. Conservatives might agree that wealth distribution makes society more equal, but not that it makes society better. Basically the disagreement is over values, not methods.
Affirmative action is another example that might better shine light on my argument. Liberals argue that society should act affirmatively to ensure that everyone has equal access to society. This argument by nature is an argument for equality. Conservatives disagree. One source of disagreement is that the evidence does not show that affirmative action works (i.e., that it affords disenfranchised minorities equal access to society). But even if the evidence showed that affirmative action was successful to the extent that it fulfilled its objections, conservatives would still oppose it because they believe a better society is one that rewards people for hard work.
Basically conservatives are willing to subject the methods to reach their ideological objectives to empirical testing, but not their ideology itself. In that way liberals and conservatives are no different.