Wednesday, Jonathan Chait over at The Atlantic published an article about the problems of Josh Barro of all people. Regular readers will know that I am of two minds about Barro. On the one hand, he is a smart and insightful guy—one of the best conservative observers around. On the other hand, every time I see his face, I want to punch it. But that’s a totally irrational reaction; he just seems like someone who badly needs to be punched. When it comes to policy, I am always interested in what he has to say.
So what problem does The Atlantic think that Barro has? It appears that the Republican Party is unhappy that Barro is attacking it, rather than nibbling around the edges like Ross Douthat. Chait speculates why this is without coming up with anything concrete. Then this morning, Ezra Klein offered, Josh Barro didn’t Leave Conservatism. Conservatism Left Josh Barro.
This is not strictly speaking true. Chait even shows this by having Barro go over his own (with Reihan Salam) glowing assessment of Paul Ryan’s 2010 budget. It isn’t that Barro’s outlook has changed in a major way. Rather, he sees now that before he was assuming the best and pushing problems to the side. In other words, he was engaged in apologetics. And that’s what I find with all the more reasonable conservative pundits and wonks. And that still includes Josh Barro on a number of issues.
Consider how the Republican Party has changed on healthcare reform. In the past, it was for what has become Obamacare. Why did it change? Well, it actually didn’t. Its embrace of the individual mandate was always just a cover against more liberal plans like single-payer and Hillarycare. Once those threats were off the table, there was no need to continue embracing any plan at all. So they stopped embracing any plan. In fact, you may have noticed how the GOP originally called for “repeal and replacement of Obamacare.” But they must have figured out that the new plan was no plan because it quickly became simply “repeal Obamacare.”
I don’t think the Republican Party has really changed. What seems to have happened is that Josh Barro got to see the reality of all the lies that Republicans tell themselves (we really do care about the poor; we want to grow the middle class; we support an culture of life). His change in attitude is very similar to my own change in terms of libertarianism. I still think he’s fooling himself with the thought that he just looks at the data. But there is no doubt that he’s a whole lot closer to that ideal than he was only two years ago.
I believe the reason I have such a visceral dislike of Barro is his attitude that somehow he is just coming to objective conclusions based upon the data. I used to be very much like that. It is a very big delusion of libertarians especially. But as Barro now sees when looking at his 2010 Ryan Budget article, it is much less clear. He wanted to believe what Ryan was selling. There was nothing objective in his conclusions, even if every part of the analysis was objective. Over time, I’m sure my impulse to slug Barro will decrease with his smug certainty that he has possession of the Truth.