Political Sentiments and Religious Sentiments

My own politics ocillate between liberalism (in the grand historical sense) and conservatism.

I am constantly torn between Burke or perhaps Wendell Berry and Hayek or perhaps Schumpeter.  What does this mean in practical terms?  It means that I love commercial dynamism and tradition.  I love the vision of slow organic growth and chaotic, decentralized destruction and creativity.  I love the richness of authority and community and the possibility of liberty and individualism.  These are not, I am quite aware, entirely consistent loves.  (Love isn’t about consistency is it?)

I dislike the shallow, talk-radio ideologues of the contemporary American Right who want to insist there is no real tension or contradiction between these loves.  I also dislike the administrative state, bureaucracy, central planning, the sanctimonious vacuousness of most contemporary constitutional law and the cant of rent-seeking trussed up in the garb of progressivism.  (I’m talking about you, UAW!)  I think that Woodrow Wilson was a prig.  I don’t think that Carter was a great president or a great ex-President.  I don’t trust Jefferson or FDR.

I think that Calvin Coolidge was a courageous man of principle.  I love John Adams — although not necessarily the version of him served up by David McCullough and Joseph Ellis; spare me hagiography or (worse!) psychology.  I also love Abraham Lincoln, although of course, he was a protectionist, a great expander of the government, and, ultimately and to his lasting glory, a violent attacker of tradition and established hierarchy.  (Did I mention that my loves are not entirely consistent?)  I think that living in a politics dominated by the clash of Disraeli and Gladstone would have been glorious.  I find enduring a politics dominated by the kerfuffling of Obama and McCain (or worse Bush and Kerry) is demoralizing.  I fervently believe that Winston Churchill was the most heroic statesman of all time.

More than any of this, however, I am a Mormon.  I love the Restoration.

One of the persistent puzzles of my life is how I make sense of my political and religious sensibilities.  As a matter of biography, I can’t say that one emerged from the other.  Likewise, as a matter of logic, I don’t think that one forms a set of first principles for the other.  Rather, when I carefully examine my own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings what I find is a swirling chaos of affections and prejudices.  Reflection is not a matter of building an edifice on sure foundations.  Rather, it is the exertion of finding an orderly way of navigating the roil of my own reactions to the world.

It is possible, of course, to read Mormonism as a kind of liberalism.  For example, one could see in Joseph Smith the iconoclast and the liberator, the prophet who turned his back on the prejudices of the past, opened himself to the perfectibility of man, and thrived on the creative destruction of theological innovation upon innovation.  Imagine yourself as a Mormon in the 1830s and the 1840s, squint so as not to notice the apocalyptic expectation of judgment upon the nations, and one’s Mormonism looks liberal, progressive, and even revolutionary.  Likewise, one can read authors like Talmage, Widsoe, Bennion, or to a lesser extent B.H. Roberts and feel that Mormonism is a kind of reasonable and balanced expression of optimism on the human condition.  Education, an open mind, and belief in gold plates and anthropomorphic deity all combine in a vision of enlightened progress.

There are also, of course, ways of reading Mormonism as a kind of conservatism.  I went to college firmly decided against having anything to do with Mormon history or Mormon studies.  This was the early 1990s and the whole project seemed impossibly rancorous.  More even that that, however, my parents had lived at or near the center of so much of Mormon intellectual life in the 1980s that turning my back on Mormon studies was a way of both asserting my independence and avoiding the treacherous emotional politics of their divorce.

What changed this was B.H. Roberts.  During a hot, humid, p-day afternoon in the mission office in Pusan I started reading a battered copy of The Comprehensive History of the Church.  I was enthralled by Roberts’s account of the Raid of the 1880s.  Beneath the veneer of objectivity, one could feel his boiling sense of outrage.  I am quite glad that Mormonism is monogamous.  I think that I have a pretty realistic sense of the difficulties and the heartaches of nineteenth-century plural marriage.  On the other hand, my reaction is detached.  I am not horrified or angst ridden about it.  I can understand, sympathize with, and even admire the nineteenth-century polygamists, while being utterly content that their marital world has passed out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  On the other hand, my emotional reaction to reading about The Raid was intense.  I found myself sharing Roberts’s sense of the wrong, the sense that there was something obscene about law and a distant government violently shredding a community and way of life that had been so laboriously built.  This emotional reaction captures my conservatism.  Indeed, the power of the emotional reaction stays with me, even though on an intellectual level I think Mormonism’s forced abandonment of polygamy was fortunate, even providential.

The relative length of these musings says something about my own liberal and conservative impulses.  The liberal sentiment in my religious experience was captured neatly in a paragraph, one that ended with the rather trite summation of mid-century Mormonism’s faith in the ultimate absence of contradictions.  It was clean, reassuringly progressive, and a little shallow.  Capturing the conservative impulse took a detour of several paragraphs through personal and communal history.  The result was richer, but also conflicted, tragic, and possibly reactionary.  (I don’t care for polygamy.  How dare the nineteenth-century feds try to destroy polygamy!  Wait, do I want to go the barricades for polygamy?)

Try as I might, however, there is no sentiment for Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis in my Mormonism.  Their is some hope and relief in that.

75 comments for “Political Sentiments and Religious Sentiments

  1. June 4, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Thanks for this generous sharing of your conflicted, contradictory thoughts, Nate. Some of the best minds are, I think, continually aflush with such contrasting sentiments; it shows the best kind of openness, I think: an openness which doesn’t take it’s own open-mindedness as a virtue, but rather one which seeks for a foundation upon which all one’s beliefs can be grounded…but nonetheless can’t easily settle on any one ground, because different foundations can make equally strong claims for themselves. It speaks well for you.

    (Though Coolidge was a dweeb, by the way.)

  2. June 4, 2009 at 11:34 am

    “Though Coolidge was a dweeb, by the way.”

    Most Presidents are. Coolidge’s great virtue was to recognize this fact about himself and others rather than mistaking himself for a messiah. It is not an easy thing to do when sitting in the White House.

  3. June 4, 2009 at 11:41 am


  4. June 4, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    “I think that Woodrow Wilson was a prig.”

    I find myself agreeing with this….and I am not quite sure what a prig is.

  5. June 4, 2009 at 12:03 pm


    Thanks for sharing these very interesting thoughts. I am at the start of my dissertation and I am trying to figure out what to do with myself. I am a mainstream Mormon and a political liberal. I find the my love of the Restoration and my love of Rawls work well for me. However, I am trying to decide whether I should bring these two loves together in my academic pursuits.

    Thanks again.

  6. June 4, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Any Mormon sentiments on the current Oval Office denizen?

  7. June 4, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Are you a political liberal, as in Obama-besotted-Democrat ;->, or a political liberal, as in Rawls’s Political Liberalism. (Obviously the two can overlap.) If you are a political liberal in the second sense, then Mormonism doesn’t — indeed can’t — have much to say about your politics. If your Rawlsianism is more of the TJ variety, then it seems to me that you potentially have a whole bunch of interesting philosophical quandaries. The quandaries, however, have less to do with the rather bland prescriptions that Rawls comes up with — Look! The demands of reason and justice conform with uncanny accuracy to the median opinion in at a Harvard faculty mixer! – than with his meta-arguments. What are you to make of the notion of identity in the original position? What are you to make of all his rational choice stuff? What is the point of justice as fairness if reflective equilibrium means that you are always going to modify the procedural conditions to produce outcomes that match your pre-existing convictions? And so on…

    Let me know what you figure out.

  8. Dan
    June 4, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Remove torture and the war in Iraq from the political scene and I’m a centrist.

  9. June 4, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    He’s less pernicious than some, not as harmless as others have blessedly been. He is far too comfortable playing god with the auto industry. The relish with which he does so reveals, I think, a flaw in what is in many ways a laudable character. The sooner the banks cut themselves loose from the Treasury and start telling the White House to go to hell the better off we will all be. (Except of course that that banks will go on to insist that they require an ongoing guarantee of their funding sources and no capital requirements.)

    I’m not what sure to make of him from a Mormon perspective. Indeed, when I start thinking Mormonism I tend to want to resist the temptation to baptize this or that thinker or statesman. Rather, what I start doing is arguing with them from within my religious imagination or else finding religious affinities while keeping their Gentile-ness front and center in my mind.

  10. June 4, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    “Remove torture and the war in Iraq from the political scene and I’m a centrist.”

    Tempermentally or ideologically? My own sense is that temperament ends up driving ideology in the end, so that this or that issue ends up mattering less than the nature of your reaction to it…

  11. June 4, 2009 at 12:20 pm


    Primarily of the Rawlsian variety (and yes, as you know, the two for me do overlap).

    “Let me know what you figure out.”

    I feel that this is a challenge that I need to take on (I have been having this discussion with others quite a bit lately). Maybe I will do it.


  12. June 4, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Oh, and trust me, the challenge about the Harvard-ness of justice (for Rawls) is not lost on me.

  13. June 4, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Nate #9

    He is far too comfortable playing god with the auto industry.

    Though the auto industry apparently needs a god and/or bankruptcy judge {I’ll leave it to you explain the difference–if any} to impart correct principles, upon which they can eventually govern themselves–or at least understand.

    Except of course that that banks will go on to insist that they require an ongoing guarantee of their funding sources and no capital requirements

    Modern American Capitalism at its best.

    Rather, what I start doing is arguing with them from within my religious imagination or else finding religious affinities while keeping their Gentile-ness front and center in my mind.

    Good advice. Excellent post. Thanks for your thoughts.

  14. Dan
    June 4, 2009 at 12:33 pm



    Ideologically. I don’t agree with much of the moral relativism of progressives or with the the rigidness of conservatives. I tend to think many governmental programs are essential (such as Education, Health Care, and Social Security and Defense), but I also have a libertarian streak in that I believe government should stay out of our personal lives as much as possible. I am very passionate, as most of you have noticed, when it comes to torture and the war in Iraq, the two worst things we’ve done as a country in a very long time.

  15. June 4, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    A bankruptcy judge is much, much, much superior to either God or Obama in this situation. Particularlly given the world that Obama is potentially creating.

  16. BRH
    June 4, 2009 at 1:21 pm


    Why does the “liberal” in you have to be described as “clean,” “trite,” and “shallow”? Why does the “conservative” get to be baptized with the (today) academically fashionable acceptance of contradiction and complexity? Doesn’t someone like Isaiah Berlin (as an example) make a hash of such categorization?

    I guess I’m wondering about how you define “liberal” and why you define it that way. And (if you haven’t noticed) I’m skeptical of the definition that seems implicit in your post.

  17. Jones
    June 4, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I struggle to understand where I am politically. Raised in a Mormon and politically conservative household shaped my world view. While the Mormon part has undergone its own testing, the political thinking has been badly brusied and battered over the last decade(s) of adulthood and I find myself trying to get my bearing and understand just what I do believe and hold to be of value and importance. I would love it, Nate, if you’d share some ideas about good reading to help someone like me work at figuring out what my conflicting opinions and ideas really are. I have, by the way, come to the conclusion that while government is bad because it tends toward corruption and deceit, government is also good because it provides infastructure that modern civilization needs and also sets limits on behavior that humans seem to need — especially in our day and age. So we need government, even though it violates its own importance (i.e. torture, etc.).
    I like Calvin Coolidge for a variety of reasons. One interesting fact about him is that he selected and purchased all his wife’s clothing. She was a beautiful woman.
    My current favorite president is Teddy Roosevelt. I feel he was a man of principle. Perhaps he was alittle too enthusiastic on some of his ideas but I don’t think he allowed himself to be corrupted while in office.

  18. June 4, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    You say “This emotional reaction captures my conservatism” — now I don’t know nearly as much about Mormon history, but I think I know what you’re talking about, and I think I share basically the same emotional reaction, but I would call that liberalism, and moreover, I’d think it fits nicely into your liberalism too. Not that you can’t give it a conservative spin, but isn’t this an area where conservatism and (grand historical sense) liberalism are exactly in harmony?

  19. June 4, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Sasha: I suppose that what makes my reaction not simply liberal but also conservative is that what I find objectionable is not simply the attack on individual choice but the destruction of a whole community’s way of life, a way of life I would add that had many authoritarian and anti-liberal tendencies. I do think that there is a great deal of overlap between (grand historical sense) liberalism and conservatism, precisely in that they are both skeptical of the violent use of state power to reconstruct societies. That said, I do think that there are real tensions, particularlly if one’s liberalism takes a more perfectionist bent, so that liberal individualism is not simply a useful way of constraining the abuses of the state but also becomes a model of the good life independent of political concerns.

  20. Steve Evans
    June 4, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Volokh?! There goes the neighborhood.

  21. June 4, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    BRH: I was describing my own liberal account of Mormon history as clean, progressive, and trite. For what it is worth, I think that most attempts to cast Mormonism purely or largely in these terms are trite. (Here I have in mind specifically someone like Sterling McMurrin or even Lowell Bennion.)

    As for liberalism, I don’t have a good definition, implicit or otherwise. I am more comfortable thinking of it as a family of ideas including individualism, optimism about human perfectability, suspicion of hierarchy and authority, and the valorization of human choice. I am sure that there are dark, complex, brooding liberalisms, and Berlin’s is as good a candidate as any for that title. Indeed, it is precisely my own sense of the incommensurablity of the various senses of the good that I find appealing that makes my sympathetic to Berlin’s brand of pluralism. That said, I think that historically there is a good case to be made that liberalism has been more prone to shallow optimism than has conservatism. On the other hand, it is also less prone to nasty bouts of reactionary violence. Dark, deep, brooding, and conflicted may be academically hip but that hardly means that it is a good set of ideas for ordering political life.

  22. Adam Greenwood
    June 4, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Indeed, when I start thinking Mormonism I tend to want to resist the temptation to baptize this or that thinker or statesman.

    Until they’re dead, of course.

    Baptism for the dead and the subsequent temple ordinances reflect your quandary, Nate O.

    They are liberal. They demand that the gentile past be judged by and conform to the standards of the Mormon present; they are universalist; they are procedural; and they offer conceptually simple answers to the knotty problem of human sin and error.

    But they are conservative. They turn our minds pastward; they honor and redeem the past instead of rejecting it; they bind us in specific family relationships. But most of all, in sealings they literally bring our dead into authority over us.

  23. June 4, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Adam: I don’t have a lot to say in response, but I really like this way of reading temple ordinances a lot. It very nicely captures these tensions.

  24. June 4, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I like the way you describe how commitments and ideas come about. Anything too neat is a bit scary almost all of the time.

  25. June 4, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    And I do add that the car bail out gives me big pause.

  26. Rosalynde
    June 4, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Very good post, Nate, and a great comment, Adam.

    Your vocabulary here has helped me crystallize something I love about my father (who may be reading this!). He is religiously quite liberal, at least in his thinking, but he’s a convinced political conservative. In the past this has seemed to me confused, or at least contradictory–a contradiction that has had a deep influence on me and my own approach to life, no less. You’ve given me a way to understand him as temperamentally liberal, but politically conservative: he brings a particular kind of liberal outlook even to his conservative politics.

    Another way to think of it might be that he bring liberal forms to essentially conservative content.

  27. Rick M
    June 4, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    I’ll comment more on this later but wanted to say that I, too, am right-leaning libertarian. I live my life in a conservative manner but believe government is way too big and the pork fat needs to be trimmed.

    I like the way you think, Nate. I’m sure we will disagree on some things but government should be run in a more libertarian fashion.

  28. Ronan
    June 4, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    I’m a British conservative because my parents were. My parents loved Maggie. I tried to resist but failed. It’s as simple as that.

  29. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    June 4, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    When I was a political intern during the 1972 election campaigns, the local Utah versions of the Democratic and Republican parties were more analogous to the two focuses (focii) of an ellipse, with the average of positions distinguishable, but the majority of people in either party could have been comfortable in the other one. Both parties were pretty much equally popular in Utah in those days.

    However, the victory of the left wing of the Democratic Party in the 1972 presidential campaign, and their dominance of the national convention, began to push the policies of that party further and further to the left, and with the election of Reagan in 1980 the Republicans had settled on a marketing strategy that contrasted them with the Democrats of the left. As the Democratic Party officially became the sponsor of abortion and skepticism toward the armed forces, and adopted American guilt as the theme of domestic and international policies, the Republican Party found it profitable to be the alternative choice on these issues.

    The resulting migration of Mormons in Utah and other western states away form the Democratic Party, which had been the home of many LDS leaders for decades, was the result of that change in the national party, even as the local party tried to retain a more conservative stance among many of its candidates.

    The fact is that Utahns elect Democrats who are more conservative and Republicans who are in fact more liberal than the national “base” of the two parties. Jon Huntsman as a McCain supporter epitomizes that, but the fact is that Mitt Romney is not far different from Huntsman on many matters.

    The Mormon political ethic is, as I see it, a strong belief in moral principles, but restraint in using government to enforce morality on those who disagree. Compassion is strong but it is wary of coercing others to provide the resources to implement that “compassion”. National defense is worthy, but the impulse toward preemptive war would be, I believe , more restrained than was the case with Bush’s invasion of Iraq (with the precedent of the Book of Mormon campaigns agains the Gadianton rebels). This contrasts with the current focuses (focii) of both major national parties, which are ready to use coercive means to enforce their opposing views of morality and social justice.

    The failing of the Republicans is that they have failed to be true to announced principles, while the failing of Democrats is that they have been all too true to their own principles. Both parties have been ready to use coercive power in various spheres, differing only in which spheres they choose to use that instrument, the one international and the other domestic.

  30. Dan
    June 4, 2009 at 7:16 pm


    The Mormon political ethic is, as I see it, a strong belief in moral principles, but restraint in using government to enforce morality on those who disagree.

    Except of course gay marriage…

  31. Mark D.
    June 4, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Except of course gay marriage…

    On the contrary, if the government were not in the marriage benefit granting and enforcing business, the Mormon position on gay “marriage” would be inconsequential.

    In the era of no-fault divorce, one wonders why government is still in the marriage business at all.

  32. Dan
    June 4, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    I’m with you Mark. I think marriages should be handled by religions and not the government. It solves many problems. For those with homosexual tendencies who prefer to live with their significant other, there are religions plenty that will gladly accept them and give their unions legitimacy. For Mormons, that would mean no threat at all, at least from the government, for its temple marriages. See, everybody happy. :)

  33. Mark D.
    June 4, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I would generally be satisfied if the government struck the word ‘marriage’ from all its laws, rules, and regulations replaced it with the word ‘civil union’ instead. That and stay out of the business of promoting any particular perspective on which civil unions are marriages and which are not.

    Of course, I don’t think that many of those rules providing for differential treatment by marital status really ought to exist anyway. Why should any married individual filing jointly or otherwise qualify for preferred tax treatment solely on the basis of his or her marital status? Not to mention the rampant discrimination and counter-discrimination practiced by employers relative to health benefits.

  34. Mark D.
    June 4, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    The term ‘civil union’ of course…

  35. Dan
    June 4, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Why should any married individual filing jointly or otherwise qualify for preferred tax treatment solely on the basis of his or her marital status?

    See Mark, there are things aplenty we agree on. :)

  36. June 4, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Ronan #28: Does this mean that you have given in and learned to love Maggie or are you simply reconciled to the coming of David Cameron? In a way I think that British politics are more to my taste than American politics. You have the possibility of a real Tory-ism. In Thatcher you had a more classically liberal and Hayekian pol than we’ve had in America. You even have a strain of European statism and corporatism that I could really enjoy loathing.

  37. June 4, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    I also prefer England. Actually thinking of moving there (mostly because I prefer their academic approach to political theory). Of course I would be a Liberal Democrat there. (Nate, does that mean that you would loathe me?)

    Did Thatcher actually govern as a Hayekian or was she mostly just Hayekian is rhetoric. It is my impression that the Conservative rule of Thatcher of the 1980s was very much also a Burkean response to the chaos and malaise of the 1970s in England. The British Conservatism which Ronan has spoken of before seems to be more of the Burkean-type, though I think that Nate would be confortable with a Burkean Conservatism as well. Your classical liberalism seems to have a Burkean temperment in that it is cautious and thoughtful. Neither is it overly ideological. Very un-American.

  38. June 4, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Sorry, left out a number of question marks in the above comment.

  39. June 4, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    In a way I think that British politics are more to my taste than American politics.

    Agreed. At the very least, British conservatism is superior in all most every way to the contemporary American variety. German conservatism too, actually.

  40. Mark D.
    June 4, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    I am not so sure that British style conservatism is dead in America, and don’t think the stereotype of American conservatism is particularly accurate, at least not among Americans who actually call themselves conservatives.

    The idea that conservatives are in favor of big business per se is misleading. Big businesses themselves tend to lean to the left, and benefit relative to their smaller competitors every time government regulators lift a finger. American conservatism is more accurately regarded as the party of small business, and if big businesses benefit under the same laissez faire principles (in contrast to corporate welfare and the regulatory state) that is fine.

    In addition, to the degree that communitarianism survives in contemporary America, its stronghold is among traditional conservatives (especially the much derided Christian right).

    Finally, the way things have been going lately, it seems that British conservatism is in a far more precarious state than American conservatism. Either way, we won’t be able to give a fair evaluation until a couple more elections have been held.

  41. Mike M.
    June 4, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    Excellent post, Nate. I share many of your contradictory impulses.

  42. Dan
    June 5, 2009 at 5:28 am


    Big businesses themselves tend to lean to the left, and benefit relative to their smaller competitors every time government regulators lift a finger. American conservatism is more accurately regarded as the party of small business,

    Huh? Big businesses LOVE the Republican brand because conservatives give them loopholes so they can create a shadow of themselves on uninhabited islands and place all their successful portions of their business there and NOT pay their taxes. Big businesses love how conservatives stand up for them against regulations that dare inhibit how big business wishes to run things. For example, conservatives come up to bat against unions (as an example of the ridiculousness, a couple of days ago, on the Morning Joe show on that supposed “liberal” MSNBC, Joe Scarborough had on this guy Sorking from that supposed “liberal” New York Times and the ever present GE dude Jim Cramer who could not, for the life of them think of a successful unionized corporation! For the love of all that’s good, I was shocked that the unionized camera workers around them didn’t rise up against them and throw that Starbucks coffee in their faces! GE, Joe and Jim’s employer uses unions! Sorkin’s New York Times uses unions!). Unions are supposedly anti-business. Or say, the banking industry. They love their Republican politician who bats for them against, say, credit card reform, or bankruptcy reform (the messed up bankruptcy law that was passed not long ago which made it harder for the little guy to go into bankruptcy is one of the leading causes of people walking away from their overpriced homes, btw).

    What you basically imply Mark is that conservatives claim they are the supporters of “small business” but in reality that’s not true at all. The claim for support of “small business” is a cover to attempt to placate the little guy that Republicans stand for them, when in reality big business uses that cover to get everything they want at the expense of the little guy. Thus it always was and thus it always will be. How exactly do conservatives ensure big business doesn’t abuse this little cover? They don’t. They have no problem with the big corporations siding with them. That’s where the money is.

    Secondly, small businesses thrive in Democratic leaning states that have higher taxation laws, like New York and California. They have, on average, more small businesses per capita than say a state like Texas. Higher taxation, for example, doesn’t actually drive businesses away from an area. Where demand is, there supply will also be.

    Now, if American conservatism is more accurately regarded as the party of small businesses, then you’ve gotta show where American conservatism protects the small business OVER the big corporation. Show where you ensure big corporations don’t abuse the system, because frankly, these past 30 years have been REALLY good to big business…

  43. Nate Oman
    June 5, 2009 at 6:43 am

    Dan: The question of taxes and small businesses can’t be answered by comparing different states. What you need to do is compare a state with high taxes with that same state without high taxes. Cross state comparisons are only useful if the states are otherwise identical, which they never are. In order for cross state comparisons to be meaningful, you would have to control for the other relevant characteristics of the state. I can pretty much guarantee you, however, that there is no pundit on Fox, MSNBC, or Daily Kos that is likely to tease out these facts properly.

    From my time on the Hill and K Street, my impression is that big business is extremely pragmatic and has very little party loyalty. They dislike regulation, but in the face of regulatory costs they have two comparative advantages over small businesses: 1. They can more effectively lobby for exceptions; and, 2. they can better absorb the fixed costs of compliance for what they can’t get loop holes.

    Unions may be lovely, but once GM comes out of bankruptcy, I suggest that you short the stock. The chances that management dominated by unions and the state is going to succeed are quite low in my opinion.

  44. Nate Oman
    June 5, 2009 at 6:55 am

    Mark D: The last I head if a general election was held today in the UK, David Cameron and the Tories would trounce Gordon Brown and Labour. Of course, Cameron’s Tories are hardly a Burkean lot.

    Chris H.: Where in the UK do you want to do political theory? From my ill informed perch here the Lib Dems seem to specialized in sanctimony and extremely limited electoral significance. As for Maggie and Hayek, she certainly didn’t govern in a Hayekian way. No one really does. She did, however, privatize much of Britain’s schlerotic public sector and revitalize its economy through a Hayekian inspired freeing up of markets. It is worth remembering that the post-war social welfare state and the nationalization and unionization of British industry had put national finances in such a mess that by the 1970s the UK required an IMF bailout for crying out loud. Maggie, to her great credit, made the hard choices necessary to rescue the British economy for a fate similar to Argentina. She then trounced Argentina over the Falklans and quoted Burke at Mitterand during the ceremonies commemorating the bicentenntial of the French Revolution. I love Thatcher.

  45. Dan
    June 5, 2009 at 6:59 am


    Unions may be lovely, but once GM comes out of bankruptcy, I suggest that you short the stock. The chances that management dominated by unions and the state is going to succeed are quite low in my opinion.

    Heh, I’ve been shorting that stock! :)

    And frankly, I’ll take the state and unions over the management that ran GM to the ground. I think they will surprise you. Frankly I don’t get why you think a state can’t succeed in running an organization. I mean, just look at the United States government, the largest business in the world! It’s quite solvent, been quite successful, and doesn’t look to go under anytime soon.

    And unions? Why wouldn’t a heavily unionized corporation NOT succeed? They do, over in Europe, quite well, frankly. Or are you saying American workers don’t equal the workers of Europe in managing their companies? The rhetoric just doesn’t match reality for me Nate.

  46. Nate Oman
    June 5, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Dan: I have nothing good to say about GMs management. I think that they should have been in bankruptcy some time ago. My preference for private management over the state is that the feedback mechanisms are better, so that idiotic management is more likely to be punished. The feedback mechanisms are far from perfect, but they are better than in the state. My point is not that the private sector is smarter or more virtuous than the public sector (although this is sometimes the case). Rather, my point is that the private sector operates in a less insulated environment than the state. On the other hand, I am a Coasean when it comes to the theory of the firm, so I expect that at some size large firms begin showing the same pathologies as government entities. The difference is that private firms are subject to the feedback effects of the market. Now I should also in fairness add that the state is subject to feedback mechanisms in the form of war, elections, and the bond markets. These are important, but they are not, I would submit, as effective as market activity. The federal government is not a well run business. It provides a number of invaluable services, but the notion that it does so in an especially efficient manner is not compelling. Certainly, if I need overnight delivery I will opt for FedEx over the Postal Service every time.

    Heavily unionized companies in Europe “work” because they operate in an environment where they are heavily shielded from entrants. They are also more likely to be the benefits of state largess. Finally, they tend to have higher labor productivity because the higher costs of labor means that less productive workers are simply unemployed. (Continental Europe has historically higher levels of unemployment than the UK or the USA.) The result is a relatively stable system with high-wages for incumbent workers and management. The down side is high unemployment, a two-tiered labor market, and great difficulty in breaking into the labor market.

    You see the same pattern at the level of corporations themselves. If you look at the U.S. S&P 500 there are only about 50-70 firms on the listing who were on the listing in the 1950s. Go back to 1930 and the number of surviving firms is even lower. If you look at a comparable index in say France or Germany the numbers will be reversed. In other words, the number of new companies will be quite low as will be the level of corporate mortality. What this suggests again is that you have a system that works well for incumbents but is extremely difficult for new entrants.

  47. Mark D.
    June 5, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Nate: I realize that the Tories are on an upswing in Britain. I mean to refer to the trend over the past twenty years or so, where Britain is increasingly coming to look like the sick man of Europe, and where Thatcherite conservatism has been all but moribund.

    Dan: Management didn’t run GM into the ground. The UAW ran GM into the ground. They are the number one reason why GM can’t compete. Putting them in charge is not likely to help matters. In addition, New government mandates on fuel economy are likely to destroy the profitability of the one area where GM has been competitive until recently: trucks and SUVs.

    If you doubt the inclination of large business to lean to the left, and why left-liberals prefer businesses to be large rather than small, you should read The New Industrial State, by John Kenneth Galbraith, the most prominent statist economist of the last century.

  48. Nate Oman
    June 5, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Mark D: In fairness to the UAW (and it pains me to treat them fairly), GM’s management had problems beyond legacy liabilities and high labor costs with the unions. They held on too long to the GM business model of producing lots of different brands that could cover the entire spectrum of the market. Typical of their problems was the creation of Saturn as an alternative and then the decision to let it shrivel rather than cutting their other brands. Of course, their ability to shutdown brands was limited by the unions, but there were other contracts as well — especially with dealers — that kept them locked into a losing business model. It’s one of the reasons they should have been in bankruptcy long ago.

    The other fundamental issue is that there is simply too much car creating capacity on the planet, mainly because governments tend to prop up their domestic auto-industries because of a toxic cocktail of domestic politics, national pride, and a misplaced sense that military security depends on automotive self-sufficiency. There are a lot of car makers on this planet that will ultimately need to fail, and I suspect that only those that are exceptionally well run are going to survive in the long run.

  49. June 5, 2009 at 9:32 am

    “Where in the UK do you want to do political theory?”

    I am looking at the University of Newcastle. My masters chair is now at LSE, but I think I am part of the reason he fled to the UK.

    “From my ill informed perch here the Lib Dems seem to specialized in sanctimony and extremely limited electoral significance.”

    Well, sure, but I figured that since I was dreaming about Europe and the British Isles from my office in Rexburg, ID, I shouldn’t limit myself to political reality.

    I too will honor Maggie. Clearly one of the great political figures of the 20th century.

    BTW, I think that Hayek is by far the most respectable of the “classical liberal” or “libertarian” thinkers. Chandran Kukathas argues (and I hope I get this right) that Hayek is in a way quite Kantian. That his classical liberalism is informed by a moral outlook makes it much more tolerable for me. Others, such as Milton Friedman, lack moral and political sensibility. Von Mise, and the rest of the Austrian school that gets much attention in the US, are really just Hayek wannabees (and not very good ones at that).

  50. bbell
    June 5, 2009 at 9:43 am

    I personally think that its nigh impossible to make small cars profitably in the US unless you are a foreign company operating plants in the South without Unions and Blue State tax and regulatory schemes.

    GM could survive if they dropped small cars and focused on Trucks, SUV’s, commercial trucks and vans. There is money in this. But the new milage requirements make this impossible. So I think GM is a dead man walking. its just a matter of time.

    The idea that the US government is solvent is a joke. They are borrowing 50 cents for every dollar spent right now.

  51. Mark D.
    June 5, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Nate: I agree that a real chapter 11 bankruptcy would be far superior to the highway robbery the government is currently conducting. Why would anyone in his right mind ever lend money to a troubled American industry ever again?

    When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt bondholders got something like 92 cents on the dollar. GM bondholders (who by rights should own all of GM) are being stuck with a tiny fraction, while the government confiscates the rest of their share and gives it to the UAW, in stark violation of the bankruptcy code.

  52. Mark D.
    June 5, 2009 at 9:54 am

    bbell: GM can’t drop small cars, even though they make them at a loss. They are forced to produce small cars in order to meet corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, which are now scheduled to get much more severe than they are at present.

  53. Peter LLC
    June 5, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Heavily unionized companies in Europe “work” because they operate in an environment where they are heavily shielded from entrants.

    I submit that they “work” because of the corporatism you love to loathe. And what one person says is heavily shielded from entrants, another might say they level the playing field: workers can count on similar wages and working conditions throughout an industry, and owners can be sure of predictable labor costs and that competitors are paying the same.

    Sure, this means that Kia can’t undercut VW by skimping on benefits like it can GM in the US, but the model seems to work pretty well in a number of small, open European economies where unemployment is, in fact, lower than the US.

  54. Nate Oman
    June 5, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Peter LLC: The playing field, of course, is NOT level. If it were we would expect a higher level of corporate mortality and a lower level of unemployment. I understand that you can make the system work if you trade off growth and employment to get stability and security. The benefits of stability and security, however, are not evenly distributed. They go mainly to older, incumbent workers. Smaller, high employment European countries are, I think, an interesting intermediate case. My understanding, however, is that their labor markets are considerably more flexible than say Germany or France.

    The whole issue of benefits gets odd because of course even non-unionized companies in the U.S. probably provide more in the way of benefits than do many European companies, because the for the European companies a significant share of medical and retirement benefits are provided by the state. Of course in the U.S. we also subsidize this stuff, but we do it via the back door through the tax code. For what it is worth, my sense is that if you are going to subsidize, a direct, European-style subsidy is probably more efficient and politically transparent.

  55. Ronan
    June 5, 2009 at 10:57 am


    I have voted for virtually every political party bar Labour. I simply cannot vote for Labour. My hand will not mark a cross on a Labour ballot. Why is this? Alas, I can offer no good political reasons, especially given that Tony Blair was in many ways indistinguishable from the Conservatives. I can only ascribe it to the politics of my youth.

    My earliest political memory was of the Falklands and Maggie’s heroics; my earliest political lesson was from my dad who told me that only riff-raff football hooligans voted for Labour. I cannot escape this, just as my friends cannot escape their parents’ hatred of the Tories because of the miners’ strike, the poll tax, or the running-down of the NHS.

    P.S. I like Cameron. Brown is dead.
    P.P.S. None of this would transfer to support of the GOP in its present state.

  56. Peter LLC
    June 5, 2009 at 11:24 am

    The playing field, of course, is NOT level.

    Well, ok. I guess what I meant was in any given industry, the employers and employees are bound by the same rules. (More or less; special treatment can always to be had.) That forces a newcomer’s competitive innovation to amount to more than lowering wages, cutting benefits and ignoring safety standards, which admittedly keeps out a lot of potential competition that would otherwise be happy to compete provided they didn’t have to pay social security, which brings me to the next point:

    for the European companies a significant share of medical and retirement benefits are provided by the state.

    My observations here are limited to one small European state, but in its case, the cost of medical and retirement benefits are shouldered 50/50 by the employer and employee. I don’t know how much funding for the state social insurance scheme comes from other sources, but I have the sense that labor bears the brunt.

  57. Nate Oman
    June 5, 2009 at 11:28 am

    “P.P.S. None of this would transfer to support of the GOP in its present state.”

    Does the GOP have a present state ;->?

  58. Nate Oman
    June 5, 2009 at 11:33 am

    “the cost of medical and retirement benefits are shouldered 50/50 by the employer and employee.”

    How does this work? If there is some sort of a payroll tax or the like it seems to me that what you really have is something like a minimum wage law, where the social insurance is a form of compensation. Like most minimum wage laws it would serve to benefit incumbent workers by creating a barrier to entry for new workers. I would also be interested to what extent the social insurance is fully funded by the 50/50 split you talk about. Finally, to the extent that the residue is funded from general tax revenues, it seems rather unlikely that the brunt is borne by labor as it is simply difficult for a modern state to meet its demands for revenue without the rich paying most of the taxes. Squeezing the poor or even the middle class simply doesn’t generate enough money.

  59. Nate Oman
    June 5, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Ronan: I suppose that you could justify yourself by noting that Labour MPs use government expense accounts to buy porn for their husbands, while Tory MPs use government expense accounts to have their moats cleaned…

  60. Dan
    June 5, 2009 at 12:35 pm



    My preference for private management over the state is that the feedback mechanisms are better, so that idiotic management is more likely to be punished.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a socialist and would prefer most businesses be in the hands of private industry. There are only a few exceptions that I have with this rule (military, education, social security, and health care). In those areas, private industry doesn’t do very well for the whole country, for every single citizen and their children. Private industry works well for those who are able to pay for the services out of their own pockets, and as much as I would like for that to be the case, put simply capitalism just doesn’t distribute wealth well enough to cover every single person born into this country. But overall, private industry, mixed with well enforced government and private oversight works quite well. GM should definitely have gone under long ago. It should have been eased into bankruptcy back under Bush (and as Dick Cheney recently revealed, Bush didn’t want to do that because he didn’t want the consequences to be on his shoulders—can’t tell you how happy I am he is no longer in power).

    And no, Mark, GM’s faults do not lie with the union, but with the vision, or lack thereof of the company itself. Ford is also highly unionized and they will survive this downturn just fine without major restructuring as you will see with GM and Chrysler. Ford caught on early enough that they needed to get better small cars. GM had a decision to make back in the 1990s. They were compelled by the state of California to create a zero emissions vehicle, which they begrudgingly did. It was a marvelous car, a pure electric vehicle. It would have worked. The state of California worked at creating the infrastructure to power the vehicle away from home. Demand for the vehicle was high. But GM was merely throwing a bone to those greenies. They destroyed the electric car and chose the Hummer instead. That is the beginning of GM’s downfall. Not the union. The vision. The lack of foresight.


    The difference is that private firms are subject to the feedback effects of the market.

    To a point. As shown in the recent financial industry failure, certain private corporations were able to avoid the scrutiny of the market and go well beyond safe limits in over leveraging their debt. Don’t know why most analysts at these major firms thought housing prices would continue skyrocketing. They got greedy. This was unsustainable, and the market collapsed. If not for government intervention, the financial industry would have completely collapsed, at least here in America. The Chinese banks would have ruled the world (I guess technically they do right now).

    It provides a number of invaluable services, but the notion that it does so in an especially efficient manner is not compelling.

    And I don’t make that argument. I simply don’t believe the argument that a state run corporation is somehow never profitable, or solvent. It’s just not the case. I can understand people being against state run corporations, but I expect a better realization that they do work, albeit not as efficiently as a privately run company.


    In addition, New government mandates on fuel economy are likely to destroy the profitability of the one area where GM has been competitive until recently: trucks and SUVs.

    Sounds great to me. :) I prefer sports cars, low to the ground, almost hugging the ground. Can’t get better driving than that. :)

  61. Dan
    June 5, 2009 at 12:40 pm


    I personally think that its nigh impossible to make small cars profitably in the US unless you are a foreign company operating plants in the South without Unions and Blue State tax and regulatory schemes.

    It should be noted that the Toyota and Honda plants in the South pay their non-unionized employees about the same as unionized employees to the north. THAT is the power of unions. Toyota and Honda are forced to pay their workers the same or better than union employees for GM and Ford because they know if they don’t, their employees will force them into unions.

    That all said, again the only reason why GM, Chrysler and Ford have been having woes is not because of unions, but because of the organizational culture: bigger is better. Note that Honda and Toyota have been riding this downturn quite well. That’s because their specialties have always been the smaller vehicle. The smaller vehicle will always survive a downturn simply because it is cheaper and gets better gas mileage. Anything that reduces the costs of the consumer, particularly in a downturn, will be a benefit for the company. That you claim GM and Ford should CONTINUE making trucks and SUVs means you don’t get it.

  62. Adam Greenwood
    June 5, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    But Toyota and Honda aren’t underwater with arcane work rules and golden retirement benefits. THAT is the power of unions. (And their management doesn’t suck either, of course, but that’s partly attributable to unions too–Toyota CEOs don’t have anyone else to blame problems on).

  63. bbell
    June 5, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    No actually Ford and GM are only able to make trucks at a profit because you can mark trucks up enough that the margin is high enough to warrant making trucks. They cannot do it with small cars because the margin is not there. This is well known in the Auto industry. Without trucks and SUV sales this BK with GM would have occurred 15 years ago.

    even Toytoa subsidizes its small car sales with huge margins in trucks and SUVs. In fact Toyota sells the Prius at a loss and subsidizes the loss with huge margins on the tundra and tacoma pickup truck plus all the SUV’s they make in San Antonio

    Ford and GM consistently sell large numbers of trucks and SUV’s and get a profit on each one sold. In fact the consistent #1 and #2 selling vehicle in the country is the Ford F150 and the Chevy Silverado pickup. This is really the only segment they are competitive in.

  64. June 5, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Dan, while GM pays their workers the same wage as Toyota, health care and pension costs are vastly different.


  65. Mark D.
    June 5, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Dan: The reason why “bigger is better”for the Big 3 is because out of control labor costs are a smaller fraction of the total for larger vehicles. It is those labor costs that make it so that none of them can sell affordable small cars at a profit.

    Ford is certainly better managed than GM, but they are only alive because they mortgaged all of their assets to the hilt. They will struggle for essentially the same reasons as GM will for decades to come – Congress has voted to destroy the Big 3’s primary business model, the only one that has been competitive with foreign and non-unionized manufacturers in recent years. The Big 3 will be forced to make smaller, more expensive cars and light weight SUVs but at a typical $3K cost disadvantage to foreign manufacturers with plants in the U.S.

    If all manufacturers are required by law to target the same market sector, why would the average customer go out of his/her way to buy a union car that costs $3K more or is of significantly lower quality at the same price?

  66. bbell
    June 5, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    I personally believe that no matter how much money the Feds pump into GM the liquidation is probably inevitable because of the new milage standards. GM simply cannot make high milage cars and sell them at a profit. So its borrowed money being thrown after bad.

  67. Adam Greenwood
    June 5, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Also, its well known that the UAW kills Christian babies for the Ramadan matzoh crackers.

  68. June 5, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    How sad, a beautiful reflective post overrun by a discussion of the car industry.

  69. Adam Greenwood
    June 5, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    No pun intended.

  70. June 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Of course not.

  71. Dan
    June 5, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    I was hoping we could get some more mileage out of it…

  72. Adam Greenwood
    June 5, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Hope will only get you so far. Sometimes the discussion just comes to a screeching halt.

  73. Dan
    June 5, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    At least we didn’t crash and burn…

  74. Sonny
    June 5, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Can someone please steer this conversation in another direction? I don’t think Nate gave us license to carjack, I mean threadjack.

  75. Mike H.
    June 11, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Very interesting!

    I won’t say much about the US Auto industry here, except it was their Management that shot themselves in the foot, big time.

    Yes, I agree with smaller government in some areas. But, people have been killed by major gas pipelines exploding from corrosion, but the pipeline companies were not required by law to do more than just fly over it to find flaws & leaks. Or, dumping toxics that get into drinking water wasn’t that big a thing for many years, no matter how many people got cancer.

    Right now, I feel there’s too little middle ground in politics.

    So, I feel like we’re getting so polarized in the US that it’s becoming a Neo-Socialism versus Feudalism (like medieval Europe) battle. Neo-Socialism, where the government has to take over businesses since their management went too crazy in profit making & cutting corners, thereby losing many jobs or making medical services too expensive for the average person. Modern Feudalism, where budget cuts make public education useless for the masses, but the wealthy have the better private education for their own, and the money to influence so much that is done by government.

    Looking at past US Presidents is interesting in it’s own right. The anger over Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon cost him the 1976 Election, but 3 decades later most of the public felt a Watergate Witch hunt was not a wise idea after all. I thought at one point that LBJ was inept, but later on I changed my mind about him.

    Teddy Roosevelt is interesting to examine. John McCain was pushing a similar type of agenda in 2000 (“the money is ruining the party”), but the powers that be in his party did such a good smear job on him then that some of those negative charges still stuck around in 2008.

    I’m also seeing a shift in the public, akin to the one lead that to disaster in the 1972 & 1980 Presidential Elections. But, this time the shift seems to be away from the Republicans, not the Democrats. Radio shows calling the public a bunch of unpatriotic idiots won’t fix this for the Republicans, either. Alienation of the public is the LAST thing someone in politics should do.

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