June 19th, 2011
02:58 PM ET

Zakaria: Conservatism has lost touch with reality

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

I've been watching the Republicans on the campaign trail and what strikes me so far is that conservatives in America have gone through a strange transformation.

It used to be that conservatism was a hard-headed set of ideas rooted in reality.

Unlike the abstract theories of Marxism and socialism, it started not from an imagined society, but from the world as it actually exists.

"This is the way things work," conservatives would patiently explain to wooly headed liberal professors. "Whatever you may want it to look like, this is what it really looks like."

But consider the debates over the economy these days. The Republican prescription is cut taxes - slash government spending, then things will always bounce back.

Now, I would like to see lower tax rates in the context of simplification and reform, but what is the actual evidence that massive tax cuts are the single best path to revive the U.S. economy? Taxes as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest levels since 1950. The U.S. is among the lowest taxed of the big industrial economies.

So the case that America is grinding to a halt because of high taxation is not based on facts, either past or present. It is simply a theoretical assertion.

The rich countries after all are in the best shape right now with strong growth and low unemployment are ones like Germany, Denmark and Canada - none characterized by low taxes.

Meanwhile, many Republican businessmen have told me that the Obama administration is the most hostile to business in 50 years.


More than that of Richard Nixon, for example, who presided over tax rates that reached 70 percent, regulations that spanned whole industries like airlines and telecommunication and who actually instituted price and wage controls?

In fact, right now any discussion of any government involvement in the economy - even to build vital infrastructure - is impossible because it is a cardinal tenet of the new conservatism that such involvement is always and forever bad.

That's the theory.

Meanwhile, in practice across the globe the world's fastest growing economy, China, has managed to use government involvement to create growth and jobs for three decades.

From Singapore to South Korea to Germany, evidence abounds that some strategic actions by governments can act as catalysts for free market growth.

But conservatives now resemble the old Marxists who refuse to look at actual experience. "I know it works in practice," the old saw goes, "but does it work in theory?"

Republicans often praise businessmen. Well, one of the first steps any business now takes when confronting a problem is to ask, "How are other companies around the world handling this? Is there a best practice we can learn from?" But in any area, from infrastructure to health care to education, to ask these questions is heresy on the right.

It's a shame. I think we need smart, market-friendly conservative reforms that streamline government, cut costs in health care and empower individuals, but they need to be rooted in reality, drawn from best practices around the world and based on practical measures of what seems to work.

What we have instead are policies that are simply recitations of some free market theory taken out of some book based on no actually existing national economy.

It turns out conservatives have become the wooly headed professors after all.

For more on this, you can read my column in this week's TIME Magazine.

soundoff (299 Responses)
  1. bailout

    where do you come up with this stuff. anyone who is on the fringe or extreme is not good for the debate. not the staunch over religious conservs. not the radical over throw the govt. libs nor the progressives who want to give everything we PERSONALLY worked to everyone else because they'll feel better.
    the conservs have not lost touch by any means they want people lke to be Respectful our our country and share with you our good life and aspirations and dreams with you and your family. radicals/libs don't care whayt happens as long as it happens no matter the consequenses. wow now that it a sub teenager's view of everything i'm right and i'll shout yo down to prove i'm smart. oh yes, you do it isesantly.
    fareed take responsibility for your bretheren tell them they are usually to loud out of line and stop kicking the poor guy selling baseball caps at town hall meetings {seiu thig bet down} and the the black panters voting polling place batting practice.
    you guys ae amazing how you justify rudness, violence, intimidation, and now brainwashing our kids in school from k-12. by the time they reach college they're numb from your propoganda and can't think their own thoughts. {all those who parents left it up to the "schools" to raise their kid}.
    luckily a large % of us nurtured our kids and guided them with solid foundational tools of thought , civility, and tolerence. they'll stop the downward spiril you guys promote so vigorously.

    June 26, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  2. Paul Sabino

    Dear Fareed,
    It is wrong to use China as an example.
    It is stil a Central Control economy even if loose around the edges.
    By doing thing the FREE way they are improving themselves to a degree, because they dug themselves into a communist waste hole in the first place.
    Even I could do much better with the same level of controls. Even You.

    June 26, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  3. quieteye

    Great Depression – Savings & Loan Debacle – Great Recession
    Who do people continue to vote the party who's policies and positions eventually create a wreck?
    Is it political tribalism?
    Is it a blind faith in a message of freedom & liberty / small government / low taxes
    Subjecting the nation for years with results that demonstrate incompetence, imbalance, and elite entitlements?

    June 26, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  4. todd saed

    ideas have consequences, so that is reality, means nothing, it changes everyday, right ideals motivate people, the bean counting number crunchers who only use economic arguments are insipid and vacuous, the primitive notions of conservatives, those opposed to change , with an archaic social darwinism , deserve no comment, those who do, those who work, day to day , like eveybody wants to, especially the twenty percent unemployed in the US, find these arguments laughable, my truth is not your truth, when the ideals become real, new ones come, better ones, it is happening, the world awakes each day to the new sun, does not matter what anybody says. This is going forward, and all the crazy politics and religions of history cannot stop that ,or the people.

    June 26, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  5. Dave Mann

    Zakaria, You need to get a clue and look at the history of lowering and spreading taxes and rates. It has worked every time. Revenues go up. And that's setting aside the notion that the liberal approach has led to $14T in Debt and deficit spending overtaking more and more of our annual budget costs! Some day the debt must be faced directly and as far as we in the Tea Party are concerned the time is now. Obama has to go and all of his deranged clowns too. I only hope we can get as afar as Tax Reform and Privatization before the tides turn. America will work through the rest. ~ Dave

    June 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  6. EricKuma

    Ann Coulter is a Huge Grateful Dead Fan...
    ...talk about cognitive dissonance...
    ...or does it just make even more sense?
    bah, I am so confused... lol.
    "You are what you do when it counts."

    June 27, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  7. Sen

    As the owner of a small business that is healthy for now, I just can't understand the 35% federal corporate tax rate. I work in the area of software component development in which we have strong overseas competition. The fact that these companies already have cheap labor added to their ridiculously low corporate tax rates puts us at a huge disadvantage. To be brutally honest, what's going for us right now is that our team's talent is clicking and demand outweighs supply. If this changes in the future then we'll be in trouble.

    June 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  8. Daniel

    Absolutely, totally, 100%, dead-on-ba11$ right! Conservatives used to be the smart ones, the educated ones, the realistic ones-rooted in reality of fact. I fear many are mouth breathing, knuckle dragging, short-bus-to-school riding fools now. The odd part is not only do they not try and HIDE their ignorance, they CELEBRATE it...I quote Ronald Reagan, "...facts are pesky things.". As are science, the failure of Reaganomics, the takeover of the Republican party by illiterates, and the ultimate failure of modern conservatism..to wit...to CONSERVE. Whether it be time, money, effort, energy, across any modern subject, modern conservatives don't actually conserve a thing...check out the parking lot of any suburban, white, Republican leaning church parking lot on any Sunday in any city in this country and count the number of gas guzzling SUV's vs. carpooling/transit/flexfuel/electric/hybrid vehicles. This from the Right wing which promotes "what about the children? It.s all about THEIR future!" while destroying everything the future holds AT EVERY TURN.

    June 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • DC

      Are you talking about "conservatives" like Al Gore and his high carbon footprint jet, suvs & house? Most of the SUV owners I ask are Democrats...... Dems motto is "Do as I say, Not as I do" How many "poor" Dems attend 138,000 dinners? Do your homework and learn.

      June 29, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  9. DC

    Fareed Zakaria writes another editorial every time CNN thinks it's time to stir up the masses again. What will the next one be on? illegal imigration?

    June 29, 2011 at 12:23 am |
  10. TheMostWise

    Religious ideas=Immorality=unethical ideas=immoral ideas=tea party=republican party=extremely bad ideas
    Who, with a thinking mind, could imagine the republican party doing anything else given its vulgar and repulsive proclivities for all the phony notions that religion (particularly christianity) affords them? Congratulations if you have the imagination to think that they are capable of any thing different. Admittedly, I just can't! Regarding the imagination on this issue of finding some redeeming quality in the conservative republican cause, I concede the trophy to someone else. Republicans know full well that tax cuts have produced no useful results the past decade; but contrawise have produced utter catastrophe. The republicans deserve all the credit for this mess. This is not going to go 'unnoticed'!!

    June 29, 2011 at 2:04 am |
  11. macthebear

    Ask why businesses why they aren't hiring. Uncertainty over this Administation destruction of American industry. EPA regulating carbon dioxide, Obamacare, drilling restrictions, take over of the student loan industry in obamacare, tax cuts that expire in 2012, the breaking of contract law with GM's secured debt holders giving half of GM to the UAW. All fiat currencies eventually return to their intrinsic value. ZERO. Who would invest in anything but gold. There you have it Fareed. Gold proves that America is being finished off by the global elites and your Trilateral Commission. What sort of new global currency will appear and will the anti-american Left cheer when their entitlement check is paid in dollars that worth(less) and can't afford their prescription painkillers.

    June 29, 2011 at 2:23 am |
  12. OldMo

    The first mistake is confusing Republicans with legit conservatives. Republicans are just Dems that use a different brand of b.s. to get into power. Really, there's a one party system in America with just enough hollow rhetoric to fool most people into thinking they have choices.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:22 am |
    • macthebear

      Exactly OldMo. It is like two criminal gangs. When they both smile for a photo opt like in passing TARP or bailouts you know who just got screwed over. We need more choices, Conservative, conservative libertarian,Tea Party. The left can have their socialists, communists(I mean progressives),union democrats.

      June 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  13. Truth

    Liberals love to spend other people's money. I think that is loosing touch with reality. You can only raise taxes so many times before the economy implodes.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • TheMostWise

      Whose money do the liberals love to spend that hasn't already been spent by conservatives(republicans)...er morons?

      June 30, 2011 at 2:20 am |
    • Gary Sawyer

      What Liberals love to do is to work towards a society where justice prevails, and the primary motivation in both life and business is not helping the haves take advantage of those with less power and/or money. What Liberals do not want do do is spend 'other people's money', whatever that may mean.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  14. Engineer

    Zakaria has hit the nail on the head and I'm proud of his bold statements on national television. The problem is that conservatism in its purest form is very American and not necessarily bad. Poll Americans and the minority consider themselves 'liberal'. This is because we believe in individual responsibility and lack of government interference. We are now in a situation that if the government doesn't interfere however, we will never stay competitive. In other words why on earth should a youngen today be paid 40K /yr. with his philosophy degree when in China someone will work harder for a fraction the cost? In a total free-market America wouldn't necessarily fail, but it certainly would diminish in power (international institutions with proportional global representation wouldn't help either).

    So as China builds infrastructure for the future and high-demand green technologies while we sit with our free-market mind numbing philosophy..we will see what the future holds. Governments in global economies invest in their countries, its not communism. It's socialism, and our own country has been socialist forever so don't assume otherwise just because a non-republican is currently in the office.

    June 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  15. OneAmerican

    "Shovel-ready was not as ... uh ... shovel-ready as we expected." –President Obama, laughing about 9.1% unemployment and the failed stimulus on June 13, 2011.

    China doesn't work in America. Get with the program, Fareed.

    June 30, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  16. Gary Sawyer

    There were only a very few people who commented here that showed any evidence that the either read Fareed's article, or understood it. By and large just reactionarionies playing with themselves trying to get a rise out out of people passing by – much like monkeys in the zoo. This collection of comments illustrates both the promise and the failure of forums like this. There are a couple of pithy, germane nuggets in all those words above, but you have to weed through a lot of dung to get to them. Mostly people calling each other morons while demonstrating their own lack of understanding of history, economics, culture, language, etc. It's sad. By the way, we need more Fareeds putting forth reasoned, cogent analyses about the state of affairs. I don't agree with every point, but I appreciate the ideas put forth in that way. It get's you thinking. If more of the respondents thought before they wrote, and wrote about something vaguely related to the topic at hand, we could really have something. Instead we have something else.

    July 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  17. John E. Mudd

    Or maybe the slick political commentator has lost contact with reality. Your shows in general are informative and lively but you seem to have the same disbelief of America's exceptionalism as President Obama has. "The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all." Ecclesiastes 9:11 and by the way, I am not a Christian, just appreciate well written books.

    July 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  18. Curt Doolittle

    Fareed is just earning his money from CNN.

    Conservatives have simply put their foot down, and said 'no more'. This is largely because white people are becoming a minority and so they are beginning to act like one. They are done with compromises. And they're looking for a conflict. This is entirely rational behavior given the circumstances.

    Straw men are just that. Fareed is arguing against a straw man.

    July 10, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
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