Paul Krugman has a post out today titled The Conservative Onion. In it he points out this:
The other thing that I think needs clarification is that it’s wrong to think of conservatives as having a single argument for their preferred policies. What they offer instead is more like an onion, with layers inside layers; every time you strip away one excuse there’s another one inside.
Krugman’s observation is targeted at policy justifications, but is equally true in the conservative philosophy realm as well. On the economic philosophy side of things, conservatives tend to shift in and out of three different frameworks.
When pressed on questions of economic justice, conservatives usually start by appealing to meritocracy and just deserts. That is, the system we have and the inequalities it generates are justified because everyone has an equal opportunity, and those with the most merit and who work the hardest get the most. Social mobility data, evidence of system gaming by the rich (I, II, III), the existence of passive income, rents, and arbitrage all point to the meritocratic picture being false. A system truly designed to cohere with meritocratic ideals and just deserts would look radically different from the one conservatives prefer.
When this problem is raised, conservatives will either deny empirically observed reality or shift. All of a sudden, they no longer care so much about upholding the maxim “to each according to their marginal productivity within a system of fair equal opportunity.” Instead, they become concerned about efficiency and utility. Sure the present system is not anywhere near the meritocratic ideal, but trying to change it, the conservative now argues, will have horrible efficiency-destroying effects that reduces growth and makes everyone worse off. This shift in focus to utility poses another problem: systems which efficiently redistribute income generate more utility than those which do not, at least up to a point. Yet conservatives vehemently oppose such redistribution.
Having swung and missed on desert and then utility, the last justification left for the smart conservative is some sort of half-baked libertarian notion of procedural justice. On this justification, that the system does not track merit, desert, or utility is not a problem. All that matters is that the government should not be redistributing or running programs because doing so involves unjust processes like taxation. The conservative that pulls this justification up seems to regard the historically contingent social institution of permanent, bequeathable, unconditional, property rights as the only institution not predicated upon threats and aggression. This is of course an odd view given that the markets, property ownership, and everything else the conservative holds so dear are built upon state violence (civil courts and police).
The real takeaway from all of this is that conservatives, either in policy or philosophy, are relying upon post-hoc rationalizations. I would hazard that no conservative became that way because he or she derived the necessity of that position based on some bizarre idea of self-ownership or merit. Instead, they have their preferred conclusions already established and work after-the-fact to come up with something to say as to why they support those conclusions. None of those justifications work very well, and so the conservative hops around between them.
In that sense, listening to a conservative debate against a sophisticated opponent does not resemble an onion where layers and layers of justification unfold. The debate just looks like one of scatter-shooting shell games in which the oconservative desperately hopes that one of the internally and externally contradictory justifications can somehow pass scrutiny.