ZUCKER: Co-opting conservative ideas

If idealism reaches its peak in college, then it is especially easy to unconditionally accept liberal values at Yale. In academics, politics and service, we live in a liberal echo chamber, with little incentive to self-critique. But four years here have taught me the value of five ideas that liberals at Yale — and everywhere — tend to neglect.

First, liberals allow conservatives to claim exclusive title to the gospel of personal responsibility. While liberals object that circumstances can be nearly insurmountable, conservatives maintain simply that individuals must be held responsible for their actions. This mantra allows the right to claim credit for work-based programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit while painting leftists as proponents of unconditional, perpetual cash transfers.

Of course, that distinction is fictitious; rejecting the universality of personal responsibility does not entail erasing it. But liberals should not forget that responsibility is an excellent rule of thumb, and policy should — usually — help citizens regain it. Weaning long-time welfare recipients off of benefits, if they are willing and able to work, is a no-brainer. Universal responsibility is nonsense given individuals’ radically different circumstances, but complacency in the face of unnecessary dependence is demeaning and just as dangerous.

Second, liberals are too quick to dismiss the power of markets. Liberals are largely correct to reject the radical privatization of the Reagan Revolution; Friedman-esque blind faith in the market has brought us failed schemes like voucher schools and private-insurance-based universal health care. But just as conservatives can mindlessly advance privatization for its own sake, liberals often adopt a righteous distaste for any reform with a private business involved. Markets often fail, but they define capitalist society and they deliver the overwhelming majority of goods and services. When private means can indeed ethically and effectively achieve liberal ends, liberals should enthusiastically accept them — not reject them for fear of conservatism-by-association.

Third, Republicans have long been the only skeptics of the welfare state. They (questionably) cite its costs and (reasonably) question its success in addressing our society’s ills. As terrified hostages, liberals have unconditionally defended welfare policies, hoping to keep the little that is left. But liberals should be, if anything, more skeptical of the welfare state than our conservative counterparts. If policy has made inadequate progress in fighting poverty, then we must condemn existing policies.

The difference is in the takeaway. Conservatives deduce that government supports never work and proceed to dismantle social programs. Liberals should reflect, study and build a better system. We are in an age of unprecedented research; more knowledge on social policy is being created every day. Critique does not imply that all is lost; it is a call to build the safety net this country deserves.

Fourth, and similarly, conservatives have long cast a disdainful eye on well-intentioned liberals whose organizations fail to achieve much change. Unqualified defense of these “do-gooders” comes from leftists who hope to bring everyone into the fight, valuing service, struggle and passion. Unconditional support for independent initiatives, however, is just as futile as unconditional support for government welfare. As with public programs, there are good and bad private nonprofits — and the ineffective ones waste resources and engender skepticism that anything can create change. Liberals should have the courage to discriminate between effective social ventures and well-intentioned failures.

Finally, the Republican party purports to be the party of values. Conservatives publicly hold firm to deontological beliefs of loyalty, individuality and freedom, alleging that liberals are weak-willed moral relativists.

Liberals have been too eager to concede this point. With a well-founded fear of cultural imperialism, liberals often enthusiastically relinquish universal values and focus on ad hoc, utilitarian arguments. But liberals must embrace the extremely strong values we already hold, denying that conservatives have exclusive title to values. Liberals do hold absolute values — equality, justice, opportunity and cultural difference, to name a few. Liberals must remember these strong intellectual counterweights to conservatism.

None of these five ideas are things liberals reject. The New Deal was built on social insurance so as to put personal responsibility center-stage. The civil rights movement was a huge exercise in value-rooted liberalism. In the 1940s and 1970s, liberals proposed full employment legislation as a cornerstone of the safety net — a policy rooted in markets. Now, in an era of embattled liberalism, is not the time to abandon them.

Gabriel Zucker is a senior in Pierson College. Contact him at gabriel.zucker@yale.edu.


  • River_Tam

    Conservativism and liberalism are mindsets, not policy prescriptions. It’s why John Huntsman is not a conservative, despite prescribing many Republican policies, and why Ted Olson is not a liberal despite advocating for gay marriage. It’s why Andrew Sullivan looks like an idiot when he proclaims that he is a conservative, not a liberal.

    > Liberals do hold absolute values — equality, justice, opportunity and cultural difference, to name a few.

    Opportunity? Like aligning all the incentives to encourage illegal immigration rather than legal immigration? Like taxing the hell out of small business owners for the sake of propping up the failing ponzi scheme of Social Security?

    Justice? Like persecuting Duke Laxers and George Zimmerman for invented offenses while calling for the freeing of cop-killers like Mumia, Troy Davis, and Tookie?

    Equality? Like taxing people at higher rates because they make more money?

    Cultural difference? (I assume what’s meant here is ‘respect for cultural difference’, since ‘cultural difference’ itself is not a value) Like the open disdain for the South that is prevalent at Yale and other northeastern bastions of liberalism?

    • grumpyalum

      1) Well, the incentives to encourage illegal immigration are also largely promoted by the right; absurdly difficult barriers to legal entry incentivize illegal behavior.

      2) Pray tell, what would you replace as a safety net for the elderly? Market-based retirement plans that don’t provide that guarantee ? You could simply argue that you would rather not have a safety-net for those too old or unable to be in the workforce….

      3) George Zimmerman is being tried and now a real investigation is going to be launched. I’m mostly convinced that there’s no way to charge him as guilty, as there is some doubt, but that’s going to be about an interpretation of the stand-your-ground law. However, it seems clear that him being put on trial is a proxy for the lax investigation that was conducted.

      4) Like actual equality, not simply the perverse belief that where you start in your life should determine your ability to do well in life.

      5) Oh, yeah, liberals value cultural difference. Umm, I don’t think I do, but I don’t claim Leftism is about loving other cultures, just protecting those disempowered.

      • River_Tam

        > However, it seems clear that him being put on trial is a proxy for the lax investigation that was conducted.


        • grumpyalum




          • River_Tam

            You can’t just charge and try someone for a crime in lieu of an investigation. That’s not justice, contextual or otherwise.

          • grumpyalum

            BUT WE DID!

            On a serious note, I do in fact think it’s justice. Justice is a proper investigation of the causes of death, particularly when you killed a person (which, even if it was legally defensible, only happened because you followed someone you didn’t need to follow).

            Justice is figuring out why 17 year old was dead and whether someone needs to be punished for it. No investigation meant no justice and if him being arrested and tried is the only way for that to happen, I’ll take the lesser of two evils and try him.

            This is not an ideal solution.

    • jinjdkla

      1.I hate illegal immigration and I fully support making the process of legal immigration easier.

      2. I believe none of them were innocent

      3. Yes, because it promotes equality of opportunity, and because of the existence of diminishing marginal returns.

      4. As a Californian I do think that California in fact, does know how to party and thus better than any state in the Union, and yes, especially the South.

      But in reality I don’t believe in cultural relativism in defending anything non-European. Of course, I also do think that focusing too much on the “special-ness” of Western Civilization is ridiculous too.

      I still remain a democrat, and I still consider myself liberal for all intents and purposes.

  • lakia

    Why oh why, River_Tam do you not write these opinion pieces? Sometimes, i skip all of the rhetoric and scroll down to your reply. It is usually far more informative and entertaining. I mean that in all sincerity. Your “voice” is a breath of fresh air (and reality).

  • RebelYale00

    Yes, River_Tam, why don’t you start your own opinion piece? All joking aside I really enjoy your writing and the lack of detritus in your retorts. It would be a service to all these yankees to have more of your views.

  • btcl

    I feel like they would let her submit under her columnist name at this point. The only thing is whether or not it would be a Point / Counterpoint with theantiyale (but she would win every battle ever hands down)

    • ldffly

      Not a bad idea, but I’m not sure the YDN has ever had an alumni column. Those kids guard their territory and I don’t blame them. Maybe a column from time to time for the alumni would be nice.

      • InterestedInBiology

        Alumni write columns all the time; I don’t know where you get your “guard your territory” nonsense but there’s at least one column a month by an alum – if not more. An alumma wrote a column about a week ago after the death of Zach Brunt about her former suitemate’s suicide. Joe Lieberman and Fareed Zakaria, among others, have also written columns.

  • croncor

    Intellectual poverty abounds. What is really needed is the rectification of names.

  • connman250

    Yale has it both ways. The conservative old Yale and the liberal agenda all rolled up into one. The liberal mantra of equality and the education of students to be better then their peers. Does one attend Yale merely to be equal to the next person, or to excel in their endeavors?

  • YaleMom

    Co-opting, huh? There’s a co-op where we live. I love it, but the hubby complains when I buy my fruits and veggies there because everything is organic and some of the cashiers smell funny.