There is a natural instinct in unthinking people—who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on them, and unwilling to lodge blame where they seek no remedy, seek fulfilment in the world as it is—to accept and endorse through their actions the institutions and practices into which they are born.—Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism
Unfortunately, progressive authors rarely spend much time reading conservative authors, let alone refuting their points. Some people neglect to do so because they do not want to platform conservatism or dignify its intellectual credibility. Others are simply not interested in what is often a thankless task: since conservatives form the primary audience for critiques of conservative books, such critiques often meet with hostility from most of their readers.
There are, of course, progressive authors who have engaged with conservative thought. Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction and Ted Honderich’s Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? are both well written and insightful rebuttals of some of the worst right-wing arguments. And Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (which I review for this magazine here) has withstood initial controversy to be hailed as the book that predicted Trump. But for a long time, these books were exceptions to a pretty firm rule.
However, a wave of recent authors have published thoughtful criticisms of right-wing arguments. At the head of this pack is Nathan Robinson, a democratic socialist who started Current Affairs magazine while pursuing a PhD. The prolific Robinson has become famous for his fiery articles refuting the core claims of conservative authors ranging from Ben Shapiro to Charles Murray and Ayn Rand. Robinson has expressed pride in his bookshelf full of conservative tomes, and while he sometimes laughs at the more transparently manic versions of the right, he has consistently warned progressives of the need to take right-wing arguments seriously.
Robinson is now releasing an entire book that does just that. Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments is both modelled on and parodies texts like Gregg Jackson’s Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies. Robinson’s book is intended as a definitive collection of arguments for use in rebutting common right-wing talking points, ranging from the desirability of a capitalist meritocracy to the evils of abortion and the suspect nature of Critical Race Theory. Any book that covers such a broad range of issues is bound to have weaknesses and some of the sections on moral issues like the death penalty and abortion could be tighter. But overall, Responding to the Right is a delightfully readable book from an author who never fails to charm. It deflates the right’s more bombastic claims while making a compelling case for a more progressive standpoint.
Robinson points out that conservative arguments can be very superficially convincing—not least because conservatives are comfortable appealing to traditional authorities for ready-made answers to extremely complex questions, such as those concerning religion, nationalism and the free market. As a result, conservatives can claim to be the only people offering real solutions and certainty in the face of relentless and corrosive questioning by liberals and progressives. Joseph de Maistre’s condemnation of enlightenment philosophy as a fundamentally “destructive force” and his insistence that political truths must operate like dogmas is emblematic of this approach, as is Roger Scruton’s admiration for “unthinking” people who are willing to accept the burdens life imposes on them without seeking social or political recourse. As Robinson puts it:
We can see why conservative beliefs are extremely appealing. First, fixed political ideologies in general are incredibly useful things, because they prevent us from having to engage in the terrifying and painful exercise of thinking things through for ourselves. All I need to do is check what the rules say. How do I know that criminals deserve their sentences? Because they broke the law. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Immigrants who came to our country illegally violated the rules. I don’t need to ask whether the rules are fair, and whether deporting them is a proportional punishment to their moral offense. All I need to know is that rules are rules. Political psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that conservatism is distinguished in part by the emphasis it places on authority and tradition as part of its core moral foundations. In practice, this can mean demanding that the will of those in charge be respected because they are the ones in charge. If you believe in enforcing the rules because they are the rules, it is very easy to evade otherwise sticky moral dilemmas.
Another major part of conservatism’s appeal, according to Robinson, is that people on the right are often better communicators. This doesn’t mean that their arguments are necessarily better—in fact, Robinson argues that conservative writing is more readable precisely because it is more facile. It draws a lot of its power from people’s anxieties about loss of status and control and from the endless repetition of well-worn tropes. Drawing on Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction, Robinson points out that much right-wing rhetoric relies on one of three core arguments that are mechanically wheeled out in the face of almost any progressive change. These are the perversity thesis—that a change will bring about the opposite of what it intends—the futility thesis—that change is impossible, given immutable facts about society or nature—and the jeopardy thesis—that even a positive change may endanger some other cherished achievement.
Now, as Robinson and Hirschman both stress, the fact that the right often recycles the same arguments doesn’t necessarily mean that those arguments are wrong. But they have been proven wrong multiple times in the past. Eighteenth-century conservatives like Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke predicted that the extension of basic rights to the lower classes would lead to the unravelling of society. Conservatives objected to universal male suffrage on similar grounds, when it was first promoted by nineteenth-century liberals like John Stuart Mill; and when twentieth-century civil rights activists fought for the extension of the vote to people of colour, conservatives like William Buckley warned that that was a dangerous idea. Now, universal suffrage is among the most cherished achievements of liberal democratic states—though even now there are conservatives who are working to roll it back.
The bad conservative arguments that Robinson proposes to deconstruct concern everything from voting rights to environmental policy, labour unions and abortion. Each response opens with a long series of quotations affirming the central conservative argument, after which Robinson summarizes it in his own words and responds. The responses range from a few hundred words to a long essay with extensive footnotes.
The best essays focus on democratic socialist issues, especially the minimum wage and unionization.
Robinson rebuts the idea that a $15 minimum wage would lead to the loss of low-skilled jobs. He cites an array of economic studies showing that any temporary job losses caused by a minimum wage boost are quickly offset by the new jobs created by the concomitant rise in consumer demand and cites literature that suggests that wage increases decrease poverty and precarity among the most vulnerable populations.
Robinson’s essay on unions is especially persuasive. He references John Ahlquist’s 2017 summary of the literature in the Annual Review of Political Science, together with other studies that stress that unionized workers typically earn 15–25% more than their counterparts, as well as enjoying more benefits and reporting higher levels of job satisfaction. Drawing on the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, Robinson points out that unionization redresses the often inequitable power dynamics of the workplace by providing workers with additional leverage and protections. He also points out that the golden age of American economic growth coincided with peak unionization rates and that the Nordic social democracies that enjoy the world’s highest quality of life also have stronger than average labour unions.
These essays show Robinson at his analytical best, tackling issues that can be answered by the social sciences. He is less confident when discussing complex moral issues like abortion and the death penalty. Robinson describes himself as “somewhat of a utilitarian” and it is easy to see why. His strongest essays follow in the tradition of radical consequentialists like Jeremy Bentham and liberal socialists like John Stuart Mill, in their clear writing and appeal to well-established facts to deflate the claims of conservatives, who justify their own views with reference to sublime laws of nature—even when they are defending the use of sweat shops.
But while conservatives sometimes defend both the death penalty and abortion restrictions on consequentialist grounds—and Robinson is good at critiquing those claims—consequentialist thinking isn’t usually at the core of such arguments. Conservatives generally defend the death penalty on the basis of a retributive, punitive conception of justice, not because they think it is an effective deterrent. Likewise, anti-abortion activists sometimes hold that both the pregnant women themselves and society in general will be better off if fewer pregnancies are terminated, but usually their core argument is that personhood begins at conception, and it is morally wrong to kill a person.
While Robinson has some provisional responses to these positions, he sometimes evades deeper exploration of them by arguing that it is almost impossible to talk someone out of a moral conviction. This strikes me as untrue. Philosophers since Socrates have recognized that moral theory is intellectually laborious and emotionally charged and there is a vast range of mutually exclusive competing theories. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t make powerful moral arguments on topics like the death penalty and abortion—and philosophers like H. L. A. Hart and Judith Jarvis Thomson have done so. Progressives should feel confident about building on such arguments.
Robinson has written a work that should interest both progressives and conservatives. In this impressive book, he takes conservative arguments seriously without taking himself too seriously. The book is funny and accessible, even when he tackles weighty subjects. With any luck, Responding to the Right will provoke some passionate responses.