Thursday, September 27, 2012

Is the traditional lobe of the conservative brain becoming a vestigial political organ?

I normally find David Brooks a bit maddening. One day he says something really insightful and the next he will say something so boneheaded as to warrant reparative cultural therapy. Last Monday was one of his good days.

In his column, "The Conservative Mind," Brooks recalls the conservative days of yore in which those who wore that political label were not only concerned with numbers. In addition to economic calculation, conservatives were also concerned with economy in the ancient sense of that word. Oikos meant "home" and nemein meant "management." The modern neoconservative would bristle at this, and warn of the dangers of government intrusion into private life.

The trouble is, this is all they worry about—which is why we worry about them. Here is Brooks, who refers to the old National Review, which, before its present incarnation as a most libertarian periodical, once bestrode economic and cultural conservatism:
On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.  
But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government. They may know politics, but the idea of the polis is foreign to them. 

... The economic conservatives were in charge of the daring ventures that produced economic growth. The traditionalists were in charge of establishing the secure base — a society in which families are intact, self-discipline is the rule, children are secure and government provides a subtle hand.
The is was the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, who himself was a product of the William F. Buckley, Jr.'s magazine. Brooks argues that this kind of conservatism is in eclipse. In eclipse, yet, but not deceased.
I would argue the even stronger position that any conservatism that concentrates exclusively on economic liberalism is not conservatism at all. When conservatism evacuates itself of the principles of cultural conservation, it has become something else altogether.

Which is just another way of saying that any conservatism that does not conserve should call itself something else.

30 comments:

Lee said...

> This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.

How is that not the same issue, albeit on a larger playing field?

I see liberalism as a cohesive, united ideology in which societal institutions are constantly attacked. Sometimes from the inside, sometimes from the outside, but always attacked, on all fronts, all the time. No rest for the wicked.

Attacking them leaves a power vacuum which the government then swoops in to fill.

When it is the economic system under attack, it is a battle between the government and private sectors. But when instead it is the family, or the church, or some offending part of the Constitution, it is no less due to the ravening leviathan of big government. The "harmonious ecosystem" of liberalism is government, government, government, government, government, government, and government.

The problem faced by conservatives -- defenders of these embattled institutions -- is that they are disunited at the front lines and in the planning rooms. Each embattled institution has its defenders; but the defenders only care about their own pet institution and cannot be bothered with helping out the defenders of other institutions. In fact, being called upon to do so annoys them considerably.

Liberals can attack the church, but secular conservatives don't mind. They can attack the family, but libertarians don't mind. They can attack business and the free market, but "compassionate conservatives" like Focus on the Family and the Huckabee contingent don't care.

Look at the Catholics, for example. On most issues, Catholics are a force for liberalism. Tell them they have to hand out free condoms, though, and they re-discover their conservative roots. Only they have been telling other conservatives to (figuratively) go to Hell for so long, they cannot credibly implore them for aid and comfort now.

Self-identified conservatives outnumber liberals two-to-one, but a disunited front falls every time.

Thomas said...

Lee,

As a formal matter of political philosophy, "liberalism" has three sufficient conditions: (1) the understanding of freedom as the autonomy of the will, i.e., freedom from the commands of others, and (2) locating freedom at the level of the individual, rather than broader groups or communities, and (3) considering voluntary agreement (e.g., contracts) as the paradigmatic form of how we relate to each other in a way that preserves our freedom.

Liberalism is a genus, and it has a number of species: progressive liberalism and libertarianism are two obvious ones. A third is what we in America have come to call conservatism, but is more accurately called neo-liberalism, viz. the idea that a free society is one in which economic activity is left to the free choices of individuals, unencumbered as much as possible by any cultural or moral restrictions not freely chosen by economic agents.

Each of the three species of liberalism belong to the genus of liberalism, because they each fulfill the three sufficient conditions I listed above. They construe them differently: progressives tend to emphasize autonomy in the moral sphere, neo-liberals in the business sphere, and libertarians (most consistently) in both.

Classical conservatism was entirely different. Freedom is not understood as being primarily negative or subjective freedom, the freedom to act without constraint. Freedom finds its ultimate expression in fulfilling ones legal and moral obligations within institutions that one has not chosen to enter, such as the state and the family. Consequently, one is not free as an individual, but as a member of a larger group. Finally, voluntary agreements are free only if they contribute to the common good. Classical conservatism was tied in with neo-liberalism because both were united against communism, but they are deeply incompatible. They are not only different species, they belong to a different genus.

So to say Catholics are “liberals” gets it completely wrong. Catholic social theory, which emphasizes the moral obligations we have to each other as the means to freedom, is deeply conservative, though not merely conservative. It has much deeper intellectual (and theological) roots even than traditional conservatism. Now there are Catholics who do not follow the teaching of their church—on the left some deny abortion is a moral evil and on the right many deny that paying less than a living wage is a mortal sin—but insofar as they do this they are not really Catholic; they are progressive or neo-liberal.

We can argue about whether neo-liberalism has it right and conservatism wrong, but there shouldn't be much dispute about the taxonomy I outlined above.

Lee said...

> As a formal matter of political philosophy, "liberalism" has three sufficient conditions: (1) the understanding of freedom as the autonomy of the will, i.e., freedom from the commands of others

Uh huh. How does that jibe with liberalism as the advocate of denying freedom such as, e.g., the freedom to not sign up for ObamaCare, the freedom to speak as you please while attending politically-correct college, the freedom to not show your income spreadsheet to a federal bureaucracy, the freedom to start a business without being descended upon by government bureaucrats with arbitrary rules, the freedom to educate your children in a religion-friendly environment, etc.?

I would say what we call liberalism in today's America today is mostly authoritarian. That's why they chose the name "liberal" in the first place. They appreciate the benefits afforded by camouflage.

It's unavoidable, really. Its fetish for fairness requires force.

Thomas said...

Lee,

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that progressives tend to emphasize positive freedom over negative freedom. That is, they tend to construe freedom as the autonomous action of the will which requires the means to realize its intentions. One might be abstractly free to buy a truck, for example, if there is no law against his planned purpose, but he is not actually free unless he has the funds. Likewise with health care. Progressives argue that the autonomy of the will is inhibited not only when it is prevented from realizing its aims by some violent force (e.g., a police officer) but also by the absence of the necessary resource.

Libertarians and neo-liberals, on the other hand, make the argument that you do because they emphasize negative freedom, that is, the lack of restraint, over positive freedom, that is the provisioning of resources.

Progressives and neo-liberals both accept the basic liberal schema, but they construe them differently. These different construals are what give rise to the different species of liberals, for if the basic principles were not understood differently, liberalism would not be a genus.

Anonymous said...

All this because Romney is a stiff of a candidate, who still might win? Here's something which bothers the heck out of me about Romney...the guy stares into the camera and calls for a 20 per cent across the board tax cut which will be revenue neutral because deductions and credits and loopholes allowed the "wealthy" will be eliminated BUT THEN HE WILL NOT NAME ONE SUCH DEDUCTION! People notice such things and shake their head in amazement. Actually, the best thing American conservatism (and all of its strains) might have going for it is the re-election of Obama.

Lee said...

And that's where the coercion comes in... whose will is it? There always needs to be someone to define what "everyone really wants."

If I'm forced to do something I don't want to do, a liberal can call it "positive freedom" all he wants, but how come I feel less free?

Lee said...

> All this because Romney is a stiff of a candidate...

Romney is playing "Prevent Defense", which any football fan can tell you, the only thing that prevents is your side from winning.

But it's right out of the mainstream Republican playbook. Say nothing that can be construed as "controversial", "hardline" or "ultra-conservative" by the media. Easy does it. This is what the media and old-school Republicans call "electable." In my lifetime, this GOP strategy has succeeded in electing Carter, Clinton and Obama.

Problem with that approach is two-fold. On the one hand, it cedes the initiative to the other side.

And on the other hand, the news media is going to depict *any* Republican utterance as controversial, etc.

So, since the media will crucify the Republican candidate anyway, they might as well make it a campaign about the ideas underlying each party's approach.

But they won't. Old-guard Republicans don't like ideas, and do their best not to have any or tolerate them from others on their staff.

Lee said...

> Now there are Catholics who do not follow the teaching of their church—on the left some deny abortion is a moral evil and on the right many deny that paying less than a living wage is a mortal sin...

Problem is, there is no such thing as a quantifiable "living wage".

And if there were, you cannot arbitarily dictate that a given employer pay a given employee $X a year due to moral considerations -- for the simple reason that paying an employee $X is not going to automatically make that employee's labor worth the price.

Since employment itself is a voluntary arrangement, the employer can look at the situation and decide that he can do without the employee's services altogether rather than pay more than those services are worth.

But from the other side of the equation, it's simply a bogus construct. Someone who shares an apartment with three friends has a different "living wage" than someone who owns a house and a mortgage in the suburbs. Someone who uses public transportation has a different living wage than someone who maintains two or three cars. Someone without kids has a different living wage than someone with a wife, five kids, and an ex. Someone who eats canned tuna fish and Campbell's soup has a different living wage than someone who insists on eating steak.

In the Soviet Union, they had such a housing shortage that entire families had to join together to rent a single two or three room apartment. In America, we wouldn't call that a "living wage," but somehow in the Soviet Union they did it and "lived."

Anonymous said...

Brooks was blinded by the sharp crease of Obama's slacks and his superficial intelligence. No wonder the New York Times makes room for his constipated navel gazings.

Thomas said...

"If I'm forced to do something I don't want to do, a liberal can call it 'positive freedom' all he wants, but how come I feel less free?"

I'm not sure you're grasping the concept of positive liberty. Coercion is necessary to secure both positive and negative liberty. We pay for police departments, we have laws prohibiting assault, trespass, harassment, and so on. All these inhibit autonomous wills for the sake of securing negative freedom.

Progressives differ because their idea of freedom is broader: the free exercise of the will requires not only minimal restraints but (again) the means to actually exercise the will. Both progressives and neo-liberals (and libertarians) would have the government exercise coercion to secure freedom for citizens. It's just that they differ on how freedom as autonomy gets worked out.

Thomas said...

As far as the issue of a living wage goes, I'm not sure from your objections that you're familiar with the concept. For instance, you seem to assume (1) that proponents of a living wage must establish the level of the wage in abstraction from particular socio-economic conditions and historical eras, and (2) that in order to be coherent, there must be some precise number above which is a living wage and below which is not.

Neither of these assumptions is made by catholic social teachers, nor any other living wage advocate that I am familiar with.

Lee said...

> I'm not sure you're grasping the concept of positive liberty. Coercion is necessary to secure both positive and negative liberty. We pay for police departments, we have laws prohibiting assault, trespass, harassment, and so on. All these inhibit autonomous wills for the sake of securing negative freedom.

I understand you just fine. And I would say that liberals obviously do not grasp the concept of liberty.

The distinction here is over whether government should have the power to make someone do something for "his own good."

If so, then all of a sudden, we need someone in Washington to tell me what's for my own good.

It's far from a simple task for government to perform only those acts of coercion that prevent Mr. Smith from harming Mr. Jones. But there is no limit to the kinds of power, or the mischief that can be wrought, when we grant government the moral authority to make us do things for no other reason than someone in Washington says it's for our own good.

There is no natural limit, no obvious line of demarcation, where we can say, "The government has the right to do this, but not this." When it's for our own good, everything is political. There is no "not this." Everything is subject.

It's a tradition that runs entirely counter to the "pursuit of happiness," unless we cede that only government has the right to pursue its happiness or to determine what constitutes happiness. Now I have to ask the progressives what will make me happy, because they know and I don't.

C.S. Lewis said it best: "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."










Lee said...

> Neither of these assumptions is made by catholic social teachers, nor any other living wage advocate that I am familiar with.

Of course they don't. Havign to specify demystifies their assertions and ruins the rhetorical ambience. That's what the term "living wage" is: pure rhetoric.

Thomas said...

I think we're eliding two conversations here. The first is what the genus of liberalism is and what species it contains. Nothing you have said indicates you disagree with the taxonomy I offered: the three differentia of the genus of liberalism and the species which fall under it.

The second conversation is which of these species has the better interpretation of the three conditions of liberalism. It's important to keep these two conversations separate, because the first account is descriptive and the second normative.

I can grant for the sake of argument that the kind of neo-liberalism (or, it seems more likely, libertarianism) you are advancing is the better interpretation of the basic principles of liberalism than positive liberty. (I say for the sake of argument because Charles Taylor demonstrated in his essay Atomist that as a matter of formal logic, negative rights entail positive rights. But I don't want to make that argument here.)

So granting for the sake of argument that you are truer to the basic liberal principles, I would just point out that you will find it very difficult to justify many important conservative (even modern conservative) positions.

For example, you object to the government defining the good. As a liberal, you hold that is an individual decision. If you were then ask to explain whether you support the ban on physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, you will have a choice: adhere to your liberal principles and say that the government has no right to tell persons what is good for them or what sort of medical care they find appropriate and support suicide, or else violate your liberal principles by saying that in this case a political community can forbid a person from received a medical service that is contrary to the objective human good, in spite of what the individual thinks.

Thomas said...

Lee,

What arguments have you read for a living wage? Because I have no idea what you are talking about.

You seem to think that in order to advocate a living wage, one has to establish a precise dollar amount that demarcates a living wage from a non-living wage. But this is as silly as saying that in order to distinguish a few grains of sand which do not constitute a heap from an actual heap, one must come up with the precise number of grains which demarcate a heap from a non heap.

Or else you might suggest that it is irrational to assert that Abraham Lincoln had a beard. After all, one or two errant whiskers is not a beard, and no-one has put forward the exact number of facial hairs that demarcate a beard from a bad shave job.

Your objection is frivolous, and ought not be taken any more seriously than one who denies the existence of sand heaps or beards.

ZPenn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Old Rebel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Old Rebel said...

"When conservatism evacuates itself of the principles of cultural conservation, it has become something else altogether.

Which is just another way of saying that any conservatism that does not conserve should call itself something else."

Amen. They call themselves Neocons, the ideological progeny of Irving Kristol. It was Kristol who utilized the philosophy of Trotsky and the language of conservatism to create a political movement of big government and perpetual war with the ultimate aim of a global empire.

That's why Neocons favor open borders and revere Martin Luther King, the chief mascot of the benevolent DC Empire.

Lee said...

> For example, you object to the government defining the good. As a liberal, you hold that is an individual decision.

To say that it is not a decision for government is not to say that it is necessarily an individual decision, at least not in the sense that I think you mean it. There are other institutions besides the government and the individual. The family and the church are two other sources of authority, and I think we could come up with others if we sat and thought about it.

I cede certain decisions to both my family and my church on a regular basis and submit voluntarily to the authority of the church in various parts of my life. I think it used to be this way with more people. The church is certainly not always right, any more than the government is always right, but it sure is a lot easier to break with and run away from if they were to start getting crazy with their demands.

With today's flavor of liberalism, however, they are trying to collect all the authority previously vested in parents and churches for themselves. Michelle Obama's telling us what to eat. The State Dept. is telling us which religious utterances are deplorable. There is no limit to the power they can wield if it's for our own good. Read today about a hamburger joint in Southern California, has been in business for fifty years, but now it's closed down because...? Because the counter is to high. An affront to handicapped folks. Omnipotent moral busybodies is a good way to put it.

> I would just point out that you will find it very difficult to justify many important conservative (even modern conservative) positions.

I'll spot you one: the war on drugs. I have no idea why people cheerfully grant the government the right to regulate the contents of their own blood stream. Of course that power is going to tend to corrupt, and it does, big time. This gives us the growth industry of drug law enforcement at all levels, state, federal and local. And forfeiture laws, which empower the government to steal directly from its citizens without a trial, without so much as an indictment, and no one is answerable. Plus, about half of the black male population is in jail at some time in their lives. We learned this lesson during Prohibition, but obviously it didn't stick.

And talk about policies that are hard to justify with principles... where are the liberals who are complaining about drug laws? I mean, besides Nat Hentoff? Easy. Liberals know a vehicle when they see one, and as long as conservatives are pushing policies designed to grow government, they keep quiet.

> Your objection is frivolous, and ought not be taken any more seriously than one who denies the existence of sand heaps or beards.

Frivolous. Sure.

My objection is that the term "living wage" is pure rhetoric, and rhetoric does not need to be refuted, only exposed. "Everyone should earn a living wage." Sure. Everyone should be handsome or beautiful. Everyone should be healthy and happy. Everyone should like dogs and frisbees. Everyone should be kind to his mother. I can do this all day. So can liberals. Only difference is I don't expect anyone to treat me seriously when I do it.

Forget specific dollar amounts and quantifications. Until you propose a policy that succeeds in making someone's work worth what you think he should be paid, when it isn't, the "living wage" proponents are themselves being frivolous. Argue against it? Might as well stab swamp gas with a pitchfork.

Thomas said...

Lee,

Nothing you have said leads me to believe you can articulate a reason for keeping assisted suicide illegal without violating your neo-liberal/libertarian principles. Your church may condemn it, but you make the decision yourself whether to abide by it, and your church cannot force you to do otherwise. I suppose that's an admission that your political philosophy does not have the resources to say why assisted suicide should be illegal.

"Until you propose a policy that succeeds in making someone's work worth what you think he should be paid ...."

This makes it evident you don't know what a living wage is. There's no point in debating something when you don't particularly want to know what it is you are even debating, so I suppose we will leave the living wage discussion at that.

Lee said...

> Nothing you have said leads me to believe you can articulate a reason for keeping assisted suicide illegal without violating your neo-liberal/libertarian principles.

I don't trust politicians with the power to regulate the commercial dispensation of death. That has more than an academic importance if the government proceeds to take over our health care. You know, conflicts of interest, the finanical burdens of prolonging life, etc.

> This makes it evident you don't know what a living wage is.

I know precisely what "living wage" means. But there is certainly no sense in continuing any discussion it, unless the purpose is to discuss rhetoric.

Thomas said...

Lee,

"I don't trust politicians with the power to regulate the commercial dispensation of death."

So ... the state should not regulate medical services to criminalize physician assisted suicide?

Lee said...

> So ... the state should not regulate medical services to criminalize physician assisted suicide?

There's a reason I call myself a conservative and not a libertarian. Any libertarian impulses I have are not because I think the individual is sovereign, but because I distrust government and do not want to give them the slightest excuse to disrespect human life.

The law states that if someone "helps" someone to die, it's murder. It's a respectful position towards life. I don't want the government to lose that respect.

Thomas said...

I actually agree with the idea that the purpose of the state is respect for human life, but it seems as though you are waffling.

You originally said that you did not think the government should not have the power to make decisions decisions for the good of individuals (presumably that they have not consented to). Now you are saying that the state can use coercion regulate the provision of medical care for the good of individuals involved to override their own judgments about what is good (i.e., human life).

That is, you are now taking the position that there are instances where the state may forcibly decide what is good for individuals even if they do not agree. Correct?

Lee said...

> Now you are saying that the state can use coercion regulate the provision of medical care for the good of individuals involved to override their own judgments about what is good (i.e., human life).

Your construction is correct only if one grants that assisted suicide is medical care.

Thomas said...

Then it would be true to say that in some circumstances, the government should intervene to protect some moral good whether or not the parties on whom it is imposed agree that it is a moral good or consent to the imposition?

Lee said...

In my opinion, it is the role of government to make moral decisions and enforce them. Without the underpinning of morality, government is really no different than thugocracy.

But the question I raised earlier was whether government has the moral right to make you, Thomas -- or me, Lee -- do something you don't want to do for the simple reason that it is in your personal best interest.

You are prohibited from murdering, stealing, running stop signs, etc. because a moral decision is enforced that you do not have the right to make decisions that adversely affect others in a direct way.

The question is, when you alone are the one who will be harmed by your decision, does the government have the moral right to stop you?

And where is the line drawn? Or is there a line to be drawn?

If government decides that eating candy bars is bad for me, does the government have the right to snatch a Snickers bar out of my hand?

If the government decides that not reading John Rawls is bad for you, does it have the moral right to make you sit in a room with a copy of "A Theory of Justice" and an armed guard until you can pass a written test on the subject?






Lee said...

That latter bit about Rawls sounds far-fetched, I know, but essentially that is the sort of thing left-wing regimes do all over the world. "Re-education camps."

Thomas said...

Unfortunately, I think fewer liberals have read Rawls than Conservative have read Kirk.

The moral principle you are referring to is J.S. Mill's harm principle. Your view that the state can only (or perhaps primarily) proscribe behavior that harms others means that (1) you cannot justify laws that prohibit things like assisted suicide, and (2) there are harmful behaviors you likely don't wish to proscribe. In other words, your principle is both too narrow to justify the laws you support and too broad to avoid justifying laws you don't want to support.

1. You have said you support regulating the medical industry in a way that would impose moral goods to which the providers and consumers have not consented in the case of physician assisted suicide. But in this case the harm is one the parties have consented to. Therefore, you must hold that the government can prohibit voluntary agreements where which are harmful. But this would include the sale of cigarettes. Thus, you either have to accept that the government can impose its view of the morally good on voluntary agreements (in which case cigarettes and assisted suicide would both be illegal) or you can deny the same (in which case cigarettes and assisted suicide would both be legal).

2. The harm principle allows the state to proscribe more behavior than you are likely comfortable with. For example, divorce and pornography wreak havoc on families in ways that damage children, often permanently. (A few days in family court will provide ample examples.) Parents who permit their children to have whatever forms of entertainment they want damages children, again often permanently. If the state can regulate behavior that harms others, social services can vastly increase its purview to the way children are raised; divorce can be prohibited (along with pornography), and so on.

I would suggest that your political philosophy cannot sustain your political positions, because the idea of human nature, the relation of persons to the state, and the nature of moral and political goods is underdeveloped. That's not a shot at you; its a problem for all forms of liberalism, because they all--progressive, libertarian, and neo-liberal--share a view of human nature Charles Taylor calls "Atomism," which is internally contradictory.

Lee said...

> The moral principle you are referring to is J.S. Mill's harm principle.

Mill is the original libertarian, is he not? I don't consider myself a libertarian. I agree in general with this particular construct, but maybe not for the same reasons he does -- the individual should not be mindlessly exalted, but the government should not be blindly trusted.

Still, I think it's a very good, broad general principle, to be transgressed with fear and trepidation. E.g., I might even agree in principle that the government should prohibit the use of narcotic and hallucinogenic drugs. But in practice such laws have costs that simply ought not be borne by society. If I remember my Buckley, I think that's a conservative attitude, not a libertarian one.

> You have said you support regulating the medical industry in a way that would impose moral goods to which the providers and consumers have not consented in the case of physician assisted suicide.

I think a more precise characterization of my view is I do not believe physician-assisted suicide is a legitimate medical good or service to be performed. The existing definition of murder is sufficient. However, laws against suicide are worthless, indeed, frivolous.

That said, I'll take your observations about my political philosophy under advisement. I find you're generally pretty reliable at finding the splinter in my eye. ;)