Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Goldberg versus Goldberg

I decided to go ahead and wage a shadow-duel against Jonah Goldberg regarding his actual duel with Jonathan Chait. As lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, I doubt that Mr. Goldberg would do us the honor of reading this response; so I'm really not expecting a rebuttal from him. But I wouldn't be a liberal if I wasn't a dreamer, so who knows.

As I mentioned in my last post, Goldberg's rebuttal to Chait was as meandering and themeless as Chait's opening argument; so I will be limiting this discussion to only one part of Goldberg's rebuttal, regarding Chait's own Conservative v. Liberal claim. Specifically, I will respond to Goldberg's rebuttal of Chait's claim that "conservatives believe that smaller government is an end in itself, because it promotes freedom. Liberals, on the other hand, do not see bigger government as an end in itself. Therefore, on economic policy, liberals are much more interested in what works than are conservatives." This is a claim that I happen to agree with, and was glad that Chait drew attention to it. But I won't be addressing that point specifically. I merely want to address Goldberg's supposed response to it.

Classic Conservative

Goldberg's response was the classic conservative argument. He quotes his opponent, humorously implies that he's spotted obvious flaws with talk of "flags on the play", clarifies conservative stereotypes that Chait never issued, tosses out a few liberal stereotypes which are obviously flawed, and then pronounces his work complete. But did he actually address Chait's claim? Not even close. He danced around it, while confirming it in its essence, and then moves on to his next unfinished argument. We'll watch a slo-mo replay to see exactly what happened, but let me address Goldberg's overall argument.

A more simplistic recap of Chait's argument is that the conservative's goal is smaller government, and that the liberal's goal is a good society. He wasn't writing a thesis on the subject to prove it. He was making a grander point and introduced that premise on his way to the bigger argument. He never fleshed out exactly what he meant by "smaller government" or "good society", but he never meant to. It had been my assumption upon reading the initial article that he was addressing it to liberals who already believe it to be true. It wasn't the theme of his argument, but rather an important premise supporting that theme; with the theme being what liberals should do about it. Similarly, a prosecutor shouldn't always have to explain why crime is bad when arguing that we should send a particular criminal to jail. It's a worthy topic, but fairly irrelevant to a specific trial. The point is that we can't always address every point in every argument, article, or essay, or we'd need to write a book every time. And a big book at that.

Yet this is one of the primary attacks that conservatives use; which is to pinpoint key pillars in the opponent's argument and attacking those pillars, while dismissing the theme as being beneath consideration until the pillars are supported. And there's nothing wrong with asking for an explanation for said pillars, but it's absurd to use that as the primary focus of the rebuttal. Yet, if Goldberg's rebuttal can be seen as having a theme, that theme would be that Chait's Con v. Lib comparison was unproven, and therefore Chait was wrong for saying anything. This is not entirely Goldberg's fault as Chait's opener was too themeless to address properly. But Goldberg should have requested the proof that he felt was lacking, rather than pretending that Chait's point was unprovable. Indeed, because he sees Chait's pillars as unproven, he reduces them to the level of "name calling"; itself a provocative insult used more to end debate rather than encourage further discussion.

Goldberg was merely using the old trick of attacking the opponent for not being specific enough, which is always a winner as you can never be specific enough for these people. There's always some level of detail which needs clarification. And eventually, you're so wallowed down in details and specifics that you completely lose sight of the overall argument, like a drunk who forgets the point of his story due to excessive digressions. And at the end of the argument, you're just thankful that you got to the end of the argument. And as I mentioned before, folks like Goldberg thrive for debate. He's not trying to persuade anyone, he just likes to argue. So for him, this kind of debate is the victory. He's like a terrorist using unconventional warfare against a larger foe: he knows a direct assault is impossible, so he opts for a grueling stalemate to win by attrition.


So that addresses Goldberg's overall argument style, where by he attacks Chait for not defining every term, and proving every premise. But what of the slo-mo replay I promised regarding Goldberg's "flags on the play" call? Here it is:

Goldberg first attempts to dismantle Chait's Con v. Lib argument by pointing out that not all conservatives want smaller government. And then explaining that what conservatives really want is limited government for certain undefined government functions, which include national defense, contracts, and civil rights. We'll leave alone Goldberg's own lapse in judgment when he fails to fully define his own terms, and address his intent.

He suggests that some conservatives do not want smaller government. But that is obviously false. Our problem is that when we say "conservative" many people include Social Conservatives. But they are clearly a different breed and shouldn't have been considered part of Chait's term. Not only do Social Conservatives believe that the government should be used to promote certain social norms, they think it's obligated to do so. For them, government should base their laws on religion, teach biblical "science" in school, promote prayer in school, prevent abortions, and all kinds of other things. For them, government is clearly a solution, and whether it is a federal, state, or local government solving these problems is irrelevant.

While these people have "conservative" in their name, they are not what any rational person could lump in with the William Buckley style of conservative, which does not believe that the government should be in the problem-solving business. Nor are so-called "neo-conservatives" actual conservatives, though only the truly ignorant would attempt to classify them as such. It was always a term of derision towards liberals who wanted to expand the use of big government beyond domestic problems, and use America's might to solve the world's woes. Again, clearly the anti-thesis of small government conservatives. While these groups have some common ground to bind them, their ultimate goals are different and they should be considered more of a coalition than a single group.

So, leaving out the Social and Neo Conservatives, ALL conservatives want smaller government. That is the definition of conservatives. When we speak of "true" conservatives, we merely are separating out the ones that call themselves "conservative" but don't believe in smaller government. And what's funny is that, once you get passed the flim-flam, Goldberg himself admits that this is the intent of conservatives. But rather than being honest, he throws in more flim-flam. He suggests that they don't necessarily want "smaller government", they want "limited government" which retains certain key functions. But is there anyone who believes that conservatives want no government? Of course not. Those people are called anarchists. We all fully acknowledge that conservatives want "small" or "limited" government, constrained to certain specific functions. And for conservatives, those functions are generally defined as the ones explicitly written in the constitution, as interpreted by those with a strict or "conservative" view of the constitution. This is all by definition.

So essentially, Goldberg pretends to rebut Chait's claims by simply giving the widely accepted definition of what conservatives stand for. Am I crazy, or is this not a rebuttal at all? Rather, he gives some definitions which clearly fit within Chait's context, while then admitting that this is the goal of conservatives. So he's confirming Chait's contention that limited government is the ends that conservatives seek.

Liberal Goldberg

And I'll throw something else in there. I could be wrong as I rarely have read any of Mr. Goldberg's writings, but I'm fairly confident that Goldberg is not really a conservative at all. I suspect that, when all is said and done, he is really a liberal who simply wants to constrain the powers of government; but that, deep down, he believes the purpose of government is to help people and that, when it is able to do so, it should do so. And that is the definition of a liberal.

As I've said before, he's not an ideologue intent on pushing the conservative mantra to it's end glory; but rather a partisan who just likes a good fight. And I appreciate that as I obviously like a good fight too, though my liberal policy views always come first. And this is why Goldberg is so bewildered by Chait's claim. Because he doesn't really see limited government as a conservative end because he wrongly sees himself as a conservative and he doesn't see limited government as an end. But it's not the conservative end that is mistaken, but Goldberg himself. Like most people, he has adopted the Government Cure idea from the liberals, and is merely a liberal Republican intent on helping Republicans, not conservatives. This is the very same socialist indoctrination that folks like Goldwater dreaded, but it was quite unavoidable. Government is often a good answer, even if you don't think it should always be used.

Illiberally Defined

Now I'll address the second part of Goldberg's "flags on the play" statement. In it, he makes the very same offense that he had just falsely accused Chait of making. While Chait did not define exactly what he meant by "conservative" and never suggested that it meant they wanted no government; Goldberg does define liberal, and does so in an absurd way that no one would agree with. Specifically, he suggest that liberals believe "government can have a role in any problem". They do? Any problem? That seems a bit vague. But then goes on to agree with Chait that for liberals "very often government is the best means to their ends". So where's the flag? He's in agreement with Chait and can't figure out what the difference is; yet this draws a flag from Goldberg's refs?? His only distinction is that he defines liberals as having "a well-deserved reputation for bringing a hammer to every problem". Every problem? Indeed.

And again, Goldberg's problem is that he's really a liberal, so he had to define liberal in such a way that it wouldn't include him. He obviously believes that the government should be used to solve problems, such as civil rights (the only contentious problem he identified). Yet, we don't have to look far to see that many conservatives do not consider civil rights as something the government should interfere with. They think it's yet another problem that would solve itself if the government stopped interfering. And while Mr. Goldberg didn't detail other more contentious powers the government should have, I suspect he would include the SEC, FCC, IRS, and many other powers that conservatives once rallied against. Though he would likely disagree with the level of power they currently have, he would not disagree with their overall function.

And that's the thing. Liberals could argue specifics with Goldberg as to what powers the government should and shouldn't have, but it wouldn't be between a liberal and conservative. It would be between two liberals hashing out details on how much power government should have, and which problems it should solve. But that's not what Goldwater and Reagan were about. Reagan believed that the government wasn't the solution to our problems. Government WAS the problem. And that's clearly not Goldberg's opinion, but was Chait's initial premise: that conservatives viewed smaller government as the goal, while liberals viewed larger government as a means. And as long as we use the regular definitions to define both these categories, it is indisputable. Nor should it be disputed. Goldberg didn't like it because he wrongly defines himself as a conservative; with the actual definition of conservative seeming absurd to him. It's that way to me too, which is why I'm not a conservative. So while he sung a tough tune about Chait not giving enough specifics, he essentially confirmed the very premise he was attempting to rebut.

In the end, Jonah Goldberg is a liberal Republican who uses the conservative rhetoric without fully understanding it's historical significance; and thus does not and can not refute Chait's initial premise. He argues with Chait, not out of ideological disagreement, but because it's his job. It's nice work if you can get it, and if you can get it, won't you tell me how.

Now that I've essentially written a book on the subject, and still didn't address most of Goldberg's rebuttal, I'll quit. And if someone can get this to him, I'd be much obliged. I don't expect a rebuttal, but I wouldn't mind him linking to me again. Even if I can't debate him personally, I wouldn't mind taking on a few of his minions. Just one at a time, please. It's tax season right now and I waste too much time as it is without facing an onslaught of furious emails.
P.S. There are conservatives who I admire, such as Reagan, Buckley, and Goldwater who I do not refer to as liberals. So please don't try to suggest that my critique of Goldberg somehow applies to all conservatives. It does not. I don't agree with them, but I respect their opinions. Nixon was a fairly liberal Republican (though I didn't respect him, for other reasons), and they used to have a good reputation before the "Reagan Revolution". Now they're a dying breed, which will eventually be adopted into the D-category. Or so says I.

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