It has become a staple of the political left to brand Republicans the anti-science, anti-reason party. This narrative congealed in a breathless 2005 book by journalist Chris Mooney entitled—does the phrase sound familiar?—The Republican War on Science. Those fueling the narrative today seize on occasional unfortunate remarks about rape or evolution by Republican fringe figures, as well as on the skepticism of many Republicans about man-made global warming, to make their case.
The narrative, however, also taps into a deeper and more sinister view of conservatives that dates back at least to Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 article “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter painted conservatives as conspiracy-minded, change-resistant authoritarians fearful of the liberating power of knowledge and unable to entertain a world in which many answers are provisional and not absolute.
It takes no talent to cherry-pick examples of ignorance from either Republicans or Democrats. More worthwhile is a systematic look at some major fault lines between the two political parties. Let’s consider four significant domestic policy areas where Democrats and Republicans differ—the economy, energy, global warming, and abortion—and see which party can fairly lay claim to being the party of reason.
We will see a pattern. In each case, Democratic thinking will unfold in three stages: (1) Policy is predicated on reality as one wishes it to be, not as it is. (2) That policy fails. And (3) its advocates explain the failure by demonizing their opponents. The demonization of political opponents to cover policy failures is an all too reliable indicator that the policies rest on unsound, anti-scientific, irrational foundations.
The Republican party is the party of economic growth, and the Democratic party is the party of redistribution. This, to be sure, is a gross generalization; Republicans support many redistributive policies, and Democrats pay at least lip service to the importance of economic growth. But the two parties clearly have different centers of gravity. Republicans press for tax reform, regulatory relief, and other measures to stimulate economic growth; Democrats express concern about economic inequality and support higher taxes and expanding redistribution programs.
Most societies throughout history have consisted of small pockets of wealth and widespread poverty. As the economist Deirdre McCloskey has noted, a graph of real per capita income would run flat, and very close to the x-axis, from the earliest peoples until roughly 1750. The new capitalist system and its accompanying social values made possible productivity gains that created widespread per capita income growth for the first time ever. It also made possible for the first time significant income redistribution.
Economic growth is and has always been the only meaningful way to raise real per capita income and thus alleviate widespread poverty. Redistribution can doubtless provide short-term relief to those at the lowest end of the economy. But there is no known example of any nation permanently lifting its people out of poverty by redistributing the finite resources of its national product. Indeed, redistribution at any given moment is made possible only by prior economic growth, without which there would be little or nothing to redistribute. Economic growth is the necessary precondition for increasing per capita income, as well as for broad redistributive policies.
This is a fundamental lesson from the economic history of mankind, compared with which everyday policy debates (how long to provide unemployment compensation, which measure of inflation to use to index Social Security benefits, and the like) are second-order questions. Which political party understands the priority of economic growth? Which party understands that putting redistribution before growth changes incentive structures so as to result in slower economic growth—and thus ultimately less wealth to distribute? Which party has learned this elementary lesson from history?
On the other hand, which political party demands that reality conform to its redistributive wishes? And when redistribution fails to alleviate poverty—as it always does—which party seeks external forces to blame? When the good intentions of redistributors fail to bend reality, which party seeks villains and malefactors to explain its failure? Here is where denunciation of the 1 percent, the rich, talk radio, the oil industry, and lately the Koch brothers begins. Redistribution would work, so liberals say, if only it were not sabotaged by villains at every turn. We must double down on the policy and ferret out the villains.