Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled? A Footnote

Near the end of Sir Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature, I came upon a discussion that bears directly on my post, “Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?“. Scruton’s point is essential and merits a spotlight. Further, it applies not only to libertarianism (i.e., classical liberalism) but also to its offshoot — modern “liberalism” — neither of which, as rationalistic philosophies, bear any resemblance to conservatism, properly understood.

Here is the essential difference between conservatism and the varieties of liberalism, in Scruton’s words:

[W]e find near-universal agreement among American moral philosophers that individual autonomy and respect for rights are the root conceptions of moral order, with the state conceived either as an instrument for safeguarding autonomy or — if given a larger role — as an instrument for rectifying disadvantage in the name of “social justice.” The arguments given for these positions are invariably secular, egalitarian, and founded in an abstract idea of rational choice. And they are attractive arguments, since they justify both a public morality and a shared political order in ways that allow for the peaceful coexistence of people with different faiths, different commitments, and deep metaphysical disagreements. The picture of the moral life that I have presented is largely compatible with these arguments. But it also points to two important criticisms that might be made of them.

The first criticism is that the contractarian position fails to take our situation as organisms seriously. We are embodied beings, and our relations are mediated by our bodily presence. All of our most important emotions are bound up with this: erotic love, the love of children and parents, the attachment to home, the fear of death and suffering, the sympathy for others in their pain or fear — none of these things would make sense if it were not for our situation as organisms…. If we were disembodied rational agents — “noumenal selves“… — then our moral burdens would be lightly worn and would amount only to the side constraints required to reconcile the freedom of each of us with the equal freedom of our neighbors. But we are embodied beings, who are drawn to each other as such, trapped into erotic and familial emotions that create radical distinctions, unequal claims, fatal attachments, and territorial needs, and much of moral life is concerned with the negotiation of these dark regions of the psyche.

The second criticism is that our obligations are not and cannot be reduced to those that guarantee our mutual freedom. Noumenal selves come into a world unencumbered by ties and attachments for the very reason that they do not come into the world at all…. For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity, the field of obligation is wider than the field of choice.  We are bound by ties that we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements. In the attempt to encompass these values and challenges, human beings ahve developed concepts that have little or no place in liberal theories of the social contract — concepts of the sacred and the sublime, of evil and redemption, that suggest a completely different orientation to the world than that assumed by modern moral philosophy.

(See also “The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems” and “Rawls vs. Reality“.)

Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?

This post is inspired by an article in The Objective Standard, which proclaims itself

the preeminent source for commentary from an Objectivist perspective, objectivism being Ayn Rand‘s philosophy of reason, egoism, and capitalism.

The writer, with whom I have jousted sporadically for 15 years, will go unnamed here because I want to emphasize his ideology, of which he is merely a representative advocate. He is either an Objectivist who happens to be a libertarian or a libertarian who happens to be an Objectivist.

In either case, his article manifests libertarianism as it is widely understood: an ideology of individualism — the right of the individual to lead his life he sees fit. That central tenet of libertarianism is a condensation of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [On Liberty (1869), Chapter I: Introductory]

By the same token, a consistent libertarian rejects conservatism’s emphasis on social norms. Mill is clear on that point:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism. [Ibid.]

Mill thus rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases” by either the state or “society” (ibid.). This exception is a cop-out, a slippery way of trying to eat one’s cake and have it, too. What Mill is saying, really, is that there are some social norms he would like to see enforced and many that he claims not to care about. Thus Mill reveals his inner authoritarian: the “decider” about which social norms are good and which are bad. (Mill isn’t alone among libertarians in there willingness to resort to statist coercion, as I will point out later.)

Lest anyone misunderstand Mill’s overt position about social norms, he expands on it a few paragraphs later:

These are good reasons for remonstrating with [a person who acts contrary to social custom], or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil [including social censure] in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated [intended] to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

By that “logic”, an individual is a law unto himself, and may do as he pleases as long as he believes (or claims to believe) that his conduct is not harmful to others. (What is an “obvious” exception to Mill may not be obvious to the ardent individualists in a Millian nirvana.) Is that what the writer believes?

I doubt that he would directly acknowledge such a belief. But it is implicit in his glorification of the Enlightenment and attack on conservatism. In particular, he praises some unexceptionable cases of personal liberation, which he characterizes as a illustrative of Enlightenment values. From there, he attacks a contemporary critic of the Enlightenment and the godfather of conservatism, Edmund Burke.

To begin at the beginning, the article opens with vignettes about three women: one who was raised an Orthodox Jew, put into an arranged marriage, and later left Orthodox Judaism (the fate of her marriage is left unmentioned); one who escaped the totalitarianism of North Korea; and one who fled an oppressive Muslim upbringing Africa and Saudi Arabia. The common theme of the stories is that

these remarkable women from such diverse backgrounds ultimately found freedom and a world of ideas and experiences to enrich their lives [which] is a cause for celebration and for reflecting on how fortunate we are—those of us who did not face such daunting odds. It’s also cause for reflection on the millions of people today who still live in the silent, senseless darkness of ignorance and terror.

Further,

in the light of history, the experiences these women escaped are not only not rare, but are in fact how most people have lived for most of their lives in most of the nations of the world. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and disease are by a wide margin the most common state of affairs in which humanity has found itself. It is only in the past two centuries that a portion of the human race has risen out of darkness into enlightenment. And it has done so in a manner very much like the stories these women tell.

What I mean is that although these are stories of personal liberation and discovery, Western civilization as a whole went through something similar on a culture-wide level beginning around 1700, in a period that we, appropriately enough, call the Enlightenment.

The article ends there (for non-subscribers). A subsequent excerpt at the writer’s blog zooms in on the Enlightenment:

[O]ne of the more prominent conservative enemies of the Enlightenment today, Sorhab [sic, it’s Sohrab] Ahmari, … recently wrote in the religious journal First Things that the Enlightenment is responsible for “the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, community solidarity, and much else,” and has led to “the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.”…

… When Ahmari writes of “permanent truths,” he does not mean the natural rights of mankind, let alone the economic forces of supply and demand or the scientific laws of biology. He means religious dogma, handed down by an established church.

When he speaks of “family stability,” he does not mean harmony attained by respecting and nourishing the value of every family member. He means the subordination of each one to unchosen obligations; the prohibition of the right to marry for large portions of our society; and opposition to the right of unhappy spouses to divorce and to value their own flourishing and happiness along with their family commitments.

When he speaks of “communal solidarity,” he means the right of the community to sacrifice the happiness and freedom of individuals within that community—to censor people; to dictate how they may use their property and what jobs they may take; to tell them what books they may read and what movies they may watch.

And when he denounces “the cult of competitiveness,” he means the right to excel, the right to aspire, the right to pursue happiness and achieve one’s dreams. He is mounting a direct attack on the value of enjoyment. When Ahmari denounces what he calls the “fetishizing of autonomy,” his meaning is unmistakable: individualism—the right of the individual to his or her own life—is his primary target.

Ahmari and his admirers pledge themselves to a society of—in Burke’s words, “submission,” “obedience,” “subordination,” and “servitude.” And they do so while wrapping themselves in the American flag.

How does the writer know what Ahmari means by “permanent truths”, “family stability”, “communal solidarity”, and “the cult of competitiveness”? The footnotes to the article (conveniently available to the non-subscriber) list two pieces by Ahmari. The first is a long epistle signed by Ahmari and fourteen other persons. The second is a later article in which Ahmari addresses some criticisms of the letter. In fact, Ahmari legitimately criticizes the consequences of the “liberalization” of society by government interventions and cultural warfare, “liberalization” to which some so-called conservatives (he calls them “consensus conservatives”) have been party.

The writer is keen to present horror stories that illustrate (in his view) the consequences of the failure of the Enlightenment to arrive in every part of the globe. But as a defender of liberty he should be equally keen to present horror stories that illustrate the consequences of Enlightenment “liberalism” in the West.

One such story is the increasing frequency of mass shootings in America, which has occurred (not coincidentally, I believe) with the decline of religiosity and the tearing down of traditional social norms.

Another such story, which the writer skips over, is the legalization of pre-natal infanticide — known otherwise as abortion — which Ahmari refers to as “the culture of death”. If the writer has reversed his long-held pro-abortion stance, I can find no evidence of it on his blog. But that is entirely consistent with his implicit endorsement of the harm principle, according to which every person is a law unto himself.

I return now to the article and the writer’s brief discussion of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. How does the writer know that Burke’s kind of society is one of “submission”, “obedience”, “subordination”, and “servitude” — or what Burke meant by those terms? Perhaps there are clues in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which the writer cites four times. The following passage seems to be at the heart of the writer’s j’accuse:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [the Queen of France] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!

Romantic twaddle? Perhaps, but Burke isn’t so much lamenting the demise of the monarchy of France as he is contrasting it with what followed.

As Burke understood — and conservatives understand — in the real world one doesn’t get to choose (or build) a perfect world. At best, one gets to choose between a tolerable world, a less-tolerable one, and an intolerable one. Burke foretold in Reflections that the revolutionaries of 1789 were laying groundwork for something intolerable; for example:

They are aware that the worst consequences might happen to the public in accomplishing this double ruin of Church and State; but they are so heated with their theories, that they give more than hints that this ruin, with all the mischiefs that must lead to it and attend it, and which to themselves appear quite certain, would not be unacceptable to them, or very remote from their wishes.

Those who would argue that the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror were preferable to the excesses of the monarchy would — if they were consistent — argue that the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent reigns of terror were preferable to the rule of the Tsars. (I duly note that the writer has sympathy for the victims of communism; perhaps he should therefore be more understanding of Burke’s sympathy for the victims of the French Revolution.)

What did Burke really believe? I will draw on Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. I have reviewed the book and found it wanting, but not because Levin fails to capture the essence of Burke’s political philosophy. (Follow the link in the preceding sentence to understand my reservations about the book.) Here are relevant excerpts of Levin’s book, which (as I say in my review) capture the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine:

Paine lays out his political vision in greater detail in Rights of Man than in any of his earlier writings: a vision of individualism, natural rights, and equal justice for all made possible by a government that lives up to true republican ideals. [Kindle edition, p. 34]

*     *     *

Politics [to Burke] was first and foremost about particular people living together, rather than about general rules put into effect. This emphasis caused Burke to oppose the sort of liberalism expounded by many of the radical reformers of his day. They argued in the parlance of natural rights drawn from reflections on an individualist state of nature and sought to apply the principles of that approach directly to political life. [Op. cit., p. 11]

*     *     *

For Paine, the natural equality of all human beings translates to complete political equality and therefore to a right to self-determination. The formation of society was itself a choice made by free individuals, so the natural rights that people bring with them into society are rights to act as one chooses, free of coercion. Each person should have the right to do as he chooses unless his choices interfere with the equal rights and freedoms of others. And when that happens— when society as a whole must act through its government to restrict the freedom of some of its members— government can only act in accordance with the wishes of the majority, aggregated through a political process. Politics, in this view, is fundamentally an arena for the exercise of choice, and our only real political obligations are to respect the freedoms and choices of others.

For Burke, human nature can only be understood within society and therefore within the complex web of relations in which every person is embedded. None of us chooses the nation, community, or family into which we are born, and while we can choose to change our circumstances to some degree as we get older, we are always defined by some crucial obligations and relationships not of our own choosing. A just and healthy politics must recognize these obligations and relationships and respond to society as it exists, before politics can enable us to make changes for the better. In this view, politics must reinforce the bonds that hold people together, enabling us to be free within society rather than defining freedom to the exclusion of society and allowing us to meet our obligations to past and future generations, too. Meeting obligations is as essential to our happiness and our nature as making choices. [Op cit., pp. 91-92]

Paine is the quintessential “liberal” (leftist) — a rationalistic ideologue who has a view of the world as it ought to be. And it is that view which governments should serve, or be overthrown. In that respect, there is no distance at all between Paine and his pseudo-libertarian admirers (e.g., here). Their mutual attachment to “natural rights” lends them an air of moral superiority, but their conception of “natural rights” as innate in human beings — like the harm principle — is made of air. Natural rights, properly understood, arise from the social norms that writer seems to disdain (though if he does, I wonder how he has managed to survive and thrive in a world dominated by social norms).

To the writer’s great disappointment, I’m sure, the truth of the matter is that social norms — including political and economic ones — are emergent. (This is not a morally relativistic position.) Michael Oakeshott, a latter-day Burkean, puts it this way:

Government, … as the conservative … understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

… [A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. [Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31]

As for the Enlightenment in which the writer puts so much stock, it has a fatal flaw, which is reason (a.k.a. rationalism). As Wikipedia puts it,

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge….

Where reason is

the capacity of consciously making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, applying logic, and adapting or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.

But reason is in fact shaped by customs, instincts, erroneous beliefs, faulty logic, venal motivations, and unexamined prejudices. Objectivism, for example, is just another error-laden collection of “religious” dogmas, as discussed here, here, and here.

On a higher plane, what could be more revealing of the prejudices and emotions upon which reason ultimately rests than the long-running Einstein-Bohr debate, which stemmed from Einstein’s reasonable prejudice that quantum mechanics gives an unrealistic (indeterminate) depiction of reality. (The interpretation of quantum mechanics still remains unsettled, more than 90 years after the debate began.)

Further, as the Wikipedia article admits, the Enlightenment — like its subsequent manifestations in politics and pseudo-science (e.g., Malthusianism, Marxism, Objectivism, “climate change”, “social justice”, “equality”) — relies on reductionism, which is

the practice of oversimplifying a complex idea or issue to the point of minimizing or distorting it.

(Thus the shallowness and inconsistency of secular ethical systems, which include but are far from limited to libertarianism and Objectivism.)

Reductionist reason fails us:

Love, to take a leading example, is a feeling that just is. The why and wherefore of it is beyond our ability to understand and explain. Some of the feelings attached to it can be expressed in prose, poetry, and song, but those are superficial expressions that don’t capture the depth of love and why it exists.

The world of science is of no real help. Even if feelings of love could be expressed in scientific terms — the action of hormone A on brain region X — that would be worse than useless. It would reduce love to chemistry, when we know that there’s more to it than that. Why, for example, is hormone A activated by the presence or thought of person M but not person N, even when they’re identical twins?

The world of science is of no real help about “getting to the bottom of things.” Science is an infinite regress. S is explained in terms of T, which is explained in terms of U, which is explained in terms of V, and on and on. For example, there was the “indivisible” atom, which turned out to consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons. But electrons have turned out to be more complicated than originally believed, and protons and neutrons have been found to be made of smaller particles with distinctive characteristics. So it’s reasonable to ask if all of the particles now considered elementary are really indivisible. Perhaps there other more-elementary particles yet to be hypothesized and discovered. And even if all of the truly elementary particles are discovered, scientists will still be unable to explain what those particles really “are.”

Reason is valuable when it consists of the narrow application of logic to hard facts. I want bridge-builders and aircraft-makers to use the mathematical tools and physical facts at their disposal. It should be noted, however, that the origins of those tools and the gathering of those facts long preceded the Enlightenment, and that their subsequent development was (and is) a project unto its own. To take a notable example, Isaac Newton, among other things the inventor of calculus as we know it (contemporaneously with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz), was religious (though unorthodox), a student of the occult, and an alchemist (see this). Even children of the Enlightment can be — are often are — supremely irrational and steered by psychological forces beyond their ken.

In sum, reason has almost nothing to do with most of life — and especially not with politics, social norms, religion, or rebellion. The last is too often an act of emotion and interest-group advancement, which can be (and has been) justified by reason.

Just as reason fails us, so has the Enlightenment and much of what came in its wake.

A particular feature of the Enlightenment was that its rationalism gave rise to leftism. Thomas Sowell writes about the wages of leftist “intellectualism” in Intellectuals and Society:

One of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important. [p. 303]

In my view, the

left’s essential agenda is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible).

Freedom from social bonds and social norms is not liberty. Freedom from religion, which seems to be the objective of rationalists (like the writer), is bound to yield less liberty and more crime, which further erodes liberty.

I put it to you this way: Would you rather live in the rationalistic world of libertarian-Objectivists or in Burke’s (and Oakeshott’s) real one?

Here’s a clue to the answer that I hope you will choose: The ideal world of a rationalist cannot be attained by real people acting in mutually beneficial cooperation, which is the essence of the free markets about which the writer claims to care so much. Rationalism is destructive of religion (which on balance is a bulwark of liberty), long-standing social norms (which in fact enable liberty), and the necessary right of free people in society to make mistakes and learn from them.

The writer’s diatribe reminds me of the old, sad story that has been repeated innumerable times throughout mankind’s recorded history. The quest for perfection along one or another moral dimension breeds fanaticism. Fanaticism turns into an unrelenting evil of its own. Just ask one of the innumerable victims of communism, some of whom have survived it.

Moreover, as I have pointed out many times, the kind of libertarianism espoused by the writer isn’t the real thing. A true libertarian is a traditional conservative who

respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Which isn’t to say, by any means, that a place in which traditional norms prevail will be perfect. Far from it — and some places, such as those cited by the writer — are farther than others. But the route to improvement can’t be found by shredding norms willy-nilly and declaring that every man is a law unto himself. In fact, what some libertarians urge, paradoxically, is the selective shredding of social norms by the state. (another manifestation of the smug authoritarianism of the “liberal order”). That is the “logic” of so-called libertarianism.

What really happens, of course, is that the shredding of social norms creates a void that is filled by chaos and then by the rule of power. The rule may be brutal like those of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, or “benign” like those of today’s coercively governed Western “democracies”. But it will be a rule that so-called libertarians will rail against — in vain. The perfection of “rational” ideologies — libertarianism as well as fascism and socialism —  is indeed the enemy of the good. (Conservatism, properly understood, isn’t an ideology, though it has ideological implications.)

I conclude that libertarianism of the kind preached by the writer and his ilk cannot be reconciled with conservatism. But they should be allied against their common enemy: the oppressive state.

Conservatism vs. Libertarianism

Returning to the subject of political ideologies, I take up a post that had languished in my drafts folder for these past 18 months. It begins by quoting an unintentionally prescient piece by Michael Warren Davis: “The Max Bootification of the American Right” (The American Conservative, April 13, 2018). It’s unintentionally prescient because Davis boots Boot out of conservatism at about the same time that Boot was declaring publicly that he was no longer a conservative.

By way of introduction, Davis takes issue with

an article from the Spring 2012 issue of the Intercollegiate Review called “The Pillars of Modern American Conservatism” by Alfred S. Regnery. Like the [Intercollegiate Studies Institute] itself, it was excellent on the main. But it suffers from the grave (albeit common) sin of believing there is such a thing as “modern” conservatism, which can be distinguished from historic conservatism….

The trouble with “modern” conservatism … is that historic conservatism didn’t fail. It has not been tried and found wanting, as Chesterton would say; it has been found difficult and not tried….

The genius of fusionists (what is generally meant by “modern” conservatives) like William F. Buckley and Frank S. Meyer was joining the intellectual sophistication of traditionalism with the political credibility of libertarianism. The greatest traditionalists and libertarians of that age—Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek, respectively—protested vehemently against this fusion, insisting that their two schools were different species and could not intermarry. It was inevitable that “modern” conservatism would prioritize the first principles of one movement over the other. That is to say, this new conservatism would be either fundamentally traditionalist or fundamentally libertarian. It could not be both.

Regnery’s article proves that the latter came to pass. “Modern” conservatism is in fact not conservatism at all: it is a kind of libertarianism, albeit with an anti-progressive instinct.

Consider the subheadings: “The first pillar of conservatism,” Regnery writes, “is liberty, or freedom… The second pillar of conservative philosophy is tradition and order.” This is an inversion of the hierarchy put forward in What Is Conservatism?, a collection of essays edited by Meyer and published by the ISI in 1964. According to Meyer’s table of contents, essays with an “emphasis on tradition and authority” (Kirk, Willmoore Kendall) rank higher than those with an “emphasis on freedom” (M. Stanton Evans, Wilhelm Röpke, Hayek).

The ordering is no coincidence. This question of priorities became one of the principal logjams between the Kirkians and Hayekians. As Kirk explained in “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries,” published in the Fall 1981 issue of Modern Age:

In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise.

This seems rather straightforward in terms of domestic policy, but we should consider its implications for foreign policy, too. The triumph of the “emphasis on freedom” is responsible for the disastrous interventionist tendencies that have plagued all modern Republican administrations.

We again turn to Kirk in his essay for What is Conservatism? titled “Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom.” Here he warned:

To impose the American constitution on all the world would not render all the world happy; to the contrary, our constitution would work in few lands and would make many men miserable in short order. States, like men, must find their own paths to order and justice and freedom; and usually those paths are ancient and winding ways, and their signposts are Authority, Tradition, Prescription.

That is why traditionalists oppose regime change in the Middle East. Freedom may follow tyranny only if (as in the Revolutions of 1989) the people themselves desire it and are capable of maintaining the machinery of a free society. If the public is not especially interested in self-government, they will succumb either to a new despot or a stronger neighboring country. We have seen both of these scenarios play out in post-Ba’athist Iraq, with the rise of ISIS and the expansion of Iranian hegemony.

It is also why traditionalist conservatives are tarred as pro-Putin by liberals and “modern” conservatives. If Putin is indeed a neo-Tsarist, we may hope to see Russia follow C.S. Lewis’s maxim: “A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” Communism is the error, and while Putinism is by no means the solution, we may hope (though not blindly) that it represents a return to the pre-communist order. Those are, if not optimal conditions for true liberty to flourish, at least the best we can reasonably expect.

More important, however, is that we recognize the absurdity of “modern” conservatives’ hopes that Russia would have transitioned from the Soviet Union to a carbon copy of 1980s Britain. We do the Russian people a disservice by holding President Putin to the example of some mythical Tsarina Thatcherova. That is simply not the “ancient and winding way” Providence has laid out for them.

Such an unhealthy devotion to abstract liberty is embodied in Max Boot, the Washington Post’s new conservative [sic] columnist. Consider the opening lines of his essay “I Would Vote for a (Sane) Donald Trump,” published last year in Foreign Policy:

I am socially liberal: I am pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-abortion rights, pro-immigration. I am fiscally conservative: I think we need to reduce the deficit and get entitlement spending under control… I am pro-free trade: I think we should be concluding new trade treaties rather than pulling out of old ones. I am strong on defense: I think we need to beef up our military to cope with multiple enemies. And I am very much in favor of America acting as a world leader: I believe it is in our own self-interest to promote and defend freedom and free markets as we have been doing in one form or another since at least 1898.

Boot has no respect for Authority, Tradition, and Prescription—not in this country, and not in those manifold countries he would have us invade. His politics are purely propositional: freedom is the greatest (perhaps the sole) virtue, and can be achieved equally by all men in all ages. Neither God nor history nor the diverse and delicate fibers that comprise a nation’s social order have any bearing on his ideologically tainted worldview.

Boot, of course, was hired by the Post to rubber-stamp the progressive agenda with the seal of Principled Conservatism™. Even he can’t possibly labor under the delusion that Jeff Bezos hired him to threaten Washington’s liberal establishment. Yet his conclusions follow logically from the pillars of “modern” conservatism.

Two choices lie before us, then. One is to restore a conservatism of Authority, Tradition, and Prescription. The other is to stand by and watch the Bootification of the American Right. Pray that we choose correctly, before it’s too late to undo the damage that’s already been done.

Boot was to have been the Post‘s answer to David Brooks, the nominal conservative at The New York Times, about whom I have often written. Boot, however, has declared himself a person of the left, whereas Brooks calls himself a “moderate“, which is another way of saying wishy-washy. Both of them give aid and comfort to the left. They are Tweedeldum and Tweedle-dumber, as a wag once observed (inaccurately) of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey (opponents in the 1968 presidential election).

Returning to the main point of this post, which is the difference between conservatism and libertarianism, I will offer a view that is consistent with Davis’s, but expressed somewhat differently. This is from “Political Ideologies“:

There is an essential difference between conservatism and libertarianism. Conservatives value voluntary social institutions not just because they embed accumulated wisdom. Conservatives value voluntary social institutions because they bind people in mutual trust and respect, which foster mutual forbearance and breed social comity in the face of provocations. Adherence to long-standing social norms helps to preserve the wisdom embedded in them while also signalling allegiance to the community that gave rise to the norms.

Libertarians, on the other hand, following the lead of their intellectual progenitor, John Stuart Mill, are anxious to throw off what they perceive as social “oppression”. The root of libertarianism is Mill’s “harm principle”, which I have exposed for the fraud that it is (e.g., here and here)….

There’s more. Libertarianism, as it is usually explained and presented, lacks an essential ingredient: morality. Yes, libertarians espouse a superficially plausible version of morality — the harm principle, quoted above by Scott Yeonor. But the harm principle is empty rhetoric. Harm must be defined, and its definition must arise from social norms. The alternative, which libertarians — and “liberals” — obviously embrace, is that they are uniquely endowed with the knowledge of what is “right”, and therefore should be enforced by the state. Not the least of their sins against social comity is the legalization of abortion and same-sex “marriage” (detailed arguments at the links).

Liberty is not an abstraction. It is the scope of action that is allowed by long-standing, voluntarily evolved social norms. It is that restrained scope of action which enables people to coexist willingly, peacefully, and cooperatively for their mutual benefit. That is liberty, and it is served by conservatism, not by amoral, socially destructive libertarianism.

I rest my case.

Political Ideologies

I have just published a new page, “Political Ideologies”. Here’s the introduction:

Political ideologies proceed in a circle. Beginning arbitrarily with conservatism and moving clockwise, there are roughly the following broad types of ideology: conservatism, anti-statism (libertarianism), and statism. Statism is roughly divided into left-statism (“liberalism”or “progressivism”, left-populism) and right-statism (faux conservatism, right-populism). Left-statism and right-statism are distinguishable by their stated goals and constituencies.

By statism, I mean the idea that government should do more than merely defend the people from force and fraud. Conservatism and libertarianism are both anti-statist, but there is a subtle and crucial difference between them, which I will explain.

Not everyone has a coherent ideology of a kind that I discuss below. Far from it. There is much vacillation between left-statism and right-statism. And there is what I call the squishy center of the electorate which is easily swayed by promises and strongly influenced by bandwagon effects. In general, there is what one writer calls clientelism:

the distribution of resources by political power through an agreement in which politicians – the patrons – make this allocation dependent on the political support of the beneficiaries – their clients. Clientelism emerges at the intersection of political power with social and economic activity.

Politicians themselves are prone to stating ideological positions to which they don’t adhere, out of moral cowardice and a strong preference for power over principle. Republicans have been especially noteworthy in this respect. Democrats simply try to do what they promise to do — increase the power of government (albeit at vast but unmentioned economic and social cost).

In what follows, I will ignore the squishy center and the politics of expediency. I will focus on the various ideologies, the contrasts between them, and the populist allure of left-statism and right-statism. Because the two statisms are so much alike under the skin, I will start with conservatism and work around the circle to them. Conservatism gets more attention than the other ideologies because it is intellectually richer.

Go here for the rest.

Conservatism vs. “Libertarianism” and Leftism on the Moral Dimension

I said this recently:

Conservatives rightly defend free markets because they exemplify the learning from trial and error that underlies the wisdom of voluntarily evolved social norms — norms that bind a people in mutual trust, respect, and forbearance.

Conservatives also rightly condemn free markets — or some of the produce of free markets — because that produce is often destructive of social norms.

What about “libertarianism”* and leftism? So-called libertarians, if they are being intellectually consistent, will tell you that it doesn’t matter what markets produce (as long as the are truly free ones). What matters, in their view, is whether the produce of markets isn’t used to cause harm to others. (I have elsewhere addressed the vacuousness and fatuousness of the harm principle.) Therein lies a conundrum — or perhaps a paradox — for if the produce of markets can be used to cause harm, that is, used in immoral ways, the produce (and the act of producing it) may be immoral, that is, inherently and unambiguously harmful.

Guns aren’t a good example because they can be (and are) used in peaceful and productive or neutral ways (e.g., hunting for food, target-shooting for the enjoyment of it). Their use in self-defense and in wars against enemies, though not peaceful, is productive for the persons and nations engaged in defensive actions. (A war that contains elements of offense — even preemption — may nevertheless be defensive.)

Child pornography, on the other hand, is rightly outlawed because the production of it involves either (a) forcible participation by children or (b) the exploitation of “willing” children who are too young and inexperienced in life to know that they are subjecting themselves to physical and emotional dangers. Inasmuch as the produce (child pornography) can result only from an immoral process (physical or emotional coercion), the produce is therefore inherently and unambiguously immoral. I will leave it to the reader to find similar examples.

Here, I will turn in a different direction and tread on controversial ground by saying that the so-called marketplace of ideas sometimes yields inherently and unambiguously immoral outcomes:

Unlike true markets, where competition usually eliminates sellers whose products and services are found wanting, the competition of ideas often leads to the broad acceptance of superstitions, crackpot notions, and plausible but mistaken theories. These often find their way into government policy, where they are imposed on citizens and taxpayers for the psychic benefit of politicians and bureaucrats and the monetary benefit of their cronies.

The “marketplace” of ideas is replete with vendors who are crackpots, charlatans, and petty tyrants. They run rampant in the media, academia, and government.

If that were the only example of odious outcomes, it would be more than enough to convince me (if I needed convincing) that “libertarians” are dangerously naive. They are the kind of people who believe that disputes can and will be resolved peacefully through the application of “reason”, when they live in a world where most of the evidence runs in the other direction. They are as Lord Halifax — Winston Churchill’s first foreign secretary — was to Churchill: whimpering appeasers vs. defiant defenders of civilization.

The willingness of leftists (especially office-holders, office-seekers, and apparatchiks) to accept market outcomes is easier to analyze. Despite their preference for government dictation of market outcomes, they are willing to accept those outcomes as long as they comport with what should be, as leftists happen to see it at the moment. Leftists are notoriously unsteady in their views of what should be, because those views are contrived to yield power. Today’s incessant attacks on “racism”, “inequality”, and “sexism” are aimed at disarming the (rather too reluctant and gentlemanly) defenders of liberty (which isn’t synonymous with the unfettered operation of markets).

Power is the ultimate value of leftist office-holders, office-seekers, and apparatchiks. The inner compass of that ilk — regardless of posturing to the contrary — points toward power, not morality. Rank-and-file leftists — most of them probably sincere in their moral views — are merely useful idiots who lend their voices, votes, and money (often unwittingly) to the cause of repression.

Leftism, in short, exploits the inherent immorality of the “marketplace of ideas”.

Is it any wonder that leftism almost always triumphs over “libertarianism” and conservatism? Leftism is the cajoling adult who convinces the unwitting child to partake of physically and psychologically harmful sexual activity.


* I have used “sneer quotes” because “libertarianism” is a shallow ideology. True libertarianism is found in tradistional conservatism. (See “What Is Libertarianism?” and “True Libertarianism, One More Time“, for example.)

(See also “Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare“, “An Addendum to Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare“, and “The Left-Libertarian Axis“.)

Conservatism’s Fundamental Dilemma: Markets vs. Morality

Conservatives rightly defend free markets because they exemplify the learning from trial and error that underlies the wisdom of voluntarily evolved social norms — norms that bind a people in mutual trust, respect, and forbearance.

Conservatives also rightly condemn free markets — or some of the produce of free markets — because that produce is often destructive of social norms.

Conservatism, Society, and the End of America

To be wary or skeptical of that which is different is not a matter of close-mindedness, hate, racism, or other such “evil” tendencies. Wariness and skepticism, rather, are deep-seated and salutary survival instincts. They are evolved psychological responses analogous to the physiological phenomenon of foreign-body reaction.

Wariness and skepticism are the basis of conservatism: the preference for ideas, methods, materials, and customs which have been repeatedly tested in the acid of use. Conservatism is the opposite of novelty for novelty’s sake, thrill-seeking, and hope-based change — from which stem many an unwanted consequence.

Society, properly understood, is conservative. A society is an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another. No one who gives it much thought would say that America is or ever was a society. The word is used too loosely. But America was, from the aftermath of the Civil War until the early 1960s, at least, an interlocking set of societies, bound more or less tightly by shared social norms (not the least of them being an unashamed belief in the Judeo-Christian God), a common language (most immigrants sought to assimilate), pride in what “America” stood for (remember the Pledge of Allegiance?), and a willingness to defend a nation under the Constitution and laws of which Americans enjoyed a great deal more freedom and prosperity than the denizens of most other nations.

“Liberalism” of the kind fomented by the Enlightenment, by political philosophers like J.S. Mill, and by today’s leftists (including most so-called libertarians), is insidiously destructive of society. “Liberalism” denigrates and attacks the things that bind people, most notably social norms (which include religious ones) and patriotism. (Leftists, ironically, attack identification with America and its history — much of it proud — while touting the virtues of various and sundry identity groups.)

It is no great exaggeration to say that America is no more. Where once upon a time products could be sold by appealing to “baseball, mom, hot dogs, and apple pie”, the slogan would now invite scorn and ridicule throughout much of the land, and especially on the two Left Coasts.

America (taking it as a collective for the moment) has lost its soul, like continental Europe and the British Isles before it. By soul, I mean the common beliefs and norms that bound most Americans as Americans.

There are still remnants of “Old America” where “baseball, mom, hot dogs, and apple pie” hold appeal — especially when coupled with God. But the left, with the connivance of the internet-media-academic complex, has marginalized “Old America”. Even to speak of traditional marriage, personal responsibility, limited government, color-blind justice, the importance of two-parent families, genetic inheritance, performance-based advancement, religion as a civilizing influence, science as a method (not a producer of “truth” to be worshiped), etc., is to be branded a far-right, fanatic who is unfit to hold public office and who should be publicly and vocally scolded (or worse) as a privileged white racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe, Islamophobe, hater, and science-denier.

How did it happen? How did “Old America” spawn something that is its opposite, nay, its enemy? How did “Old America” spawn forces of suppression that daily seem to grow more powerful in their ability to ostracize, penalize, and dictate to the rest of us? How did this new dispensation come to dominate the institutions that shape culture: academia, public education, (many) churches, the media (including “news” and “entertainment”), and much of the political machinery of America?

I would say these three things, for a start:

Prosperity has separated most Americans from the “real life” and thus from the need for wariness and caution.

The decades-long dominance of leftist ideas in most public schools has fostered the emergence of the left-biased and vastly influential information-entertainment-media-academic complex.

Politicians, whose power has been elevated to undreamed of heights by the abrogation of the Constitution, have joined the leftward throng, when they haven’t been leading it. In particular, government has subverted conservative ideals (marriage before family, hard work rather than handouts and crime, etc.).

I believe that the situation is irredeemable. Many interconnected trends are at work, and they will not cease their work unless they are interrupted by a cataclysm of some kind that forces most Americans to confront “real life” and cooperate in survival.

Conservatism vs. Extremism

Conservatism, properly understood, is the polar opposite of extremism. Conservatism is the practice of observing and defending those time-tested social norms that bind people through mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. Extremism is the destruction of those norms by using the vast power of the state and the academic-media-information technology complex.

A Flawed Ideological Taxonomy

UPDATED, 11/04/18

Arnold Kling points to

a study by Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Miriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon, helpfully summarized by Yascha Mounk, who writes,

According to the report, 25 percent of Americans are traditional or devoted conservatives, and their views are far outside the American mainstream. Some 8 percent of Americans are progressive activists, and their views are even less typical. By contrast, the two-thirds of Americans who don’t belong to either extreme constitute an “exhausted majority.” Their members “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.”

Hawkins et al. devised this ideological taxonomy, which they call The Hidden Tribes of America (percentages refer to the sample of almost 8,000 persons on which the results are based):

Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry (8%).

Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious (11%).

Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned (15%).

Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial (26%).

Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant (15%).

Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic (19%).

Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising, patriotic (6%).

The “wings” — or “extremes” — consist of Progressive Activists (on the left) and Traditional and Devoted Conservatives (on the right). The groups in between, according to the authors, make up the “exhausted majority”. Who are they? This is from the executive summary of the paper:

These are people who believe that Americans have more in common than that which divides them. While they differ on important issues, they feel exhausted by the division in the United States. They believe that compromise is necessary in politics, as in other parts of life, and want to see the country come together and solve its problems.

Kling questions the authors’ ideological taxonomy:

I am skeptical of this breakdown. Where do African-Americans or Hispanics fit? Libertarians and others who with some beliefs that align left and other beliefs that align right?

I also question the taxonomy because I don’t fit into it neatly. I am:

Highly engaged (by blogging), secular, cosmopolitan, angry (about the intrusive role of government) — Progressive Activist

Older, retired, rational, cautious (which is really a Traditional Conservative trait) — Traditional Liberal

Distrustful (mainly of politicians and their promises), disillusioned (about governance in America) — Passive Liberal

Distrustful (mainly of politicians and their promises), patriotic — Politically Disengaged

Patriotic, moralistic (Judeo-Christian morality as traditionally observed in America: marriage before children, etc.) — Traditional Conservative

White, retired, highly engaged (by blogging) uncompromising, patriotic — Devoted Conservative.

What am I, really? A traditional conservative (small “t”, small “c”).

In any event, I don’t understand the authors’ designation of Traditional Conservatives as part of the “extreme” on the right. Traditional Conservatives, as define by the authors, are no more “extreme” than Traditional Liberals. And it wasn’t long ago — 1990, say — that Traditional Conservatives were a main part of the “mainstream”.  Further, I expect Traditional Conservatives to be just as “exhausted” as any other group in the “exhausted majority”. If there are “wings”, they are the highly engaged ones: Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives (whatever that means).

The authors offer a tantalizing thesis, which Kling pounces on:

The old left/right spectrum, based on the role of government and markets, is being supplanted by a new polarization between ‘open’ cosmopolitan values and ‘closed’ nationalist values.

This observation has superficial appeal, but it comes up short — like the authors’ political taxonomy.

The left-right spectrum is based on much more than the role of government and markets. The juxtaposition suggests that the left favors government over markets, while the right favors markets over government. By that definition, so-called libertarians belong on the right. The fact that they do not consider themselves as being on the right — but are floating in an exalted state above the fray — points to one flaw in the simplistic government vs. markets. metric.

The left-right divide is also about the role of civilizing social institutions — family, church, club, etc. — which inculcate social norms and enforce them through social means. (Leaving government as the enforcer and defender of last resort.) The left wants a different set of social norms than those that have arisen voluntarily and slowly — by trial and error — over the eons. (The battles over same-sex marriage and transgendersism are but two of the many that have pitted and continue to pit left vs. right.)

The left wants government to enforce its version of social norms, mainly because they’re not the norms of their ancestors. (Leftism is an extension of adolescent rebellion.) The right believes that social institutions should continue to do the job. In this matter, so-called libertarians often align with the left. (Government is the villain of libertarian ideology, except when it isn’t.)

There are other differences, too, which are addressed at length in many of the items listed below (especially those marked with an asterisk, which directly address ideological distinctions). The starkest difference these days (other than in matters sexual) has to do with sovereignty. Leftists are all for unfettered immigration and generally against maintaining strong defenses. Those positions are consistent with their disdain for the European Judeo-Christian culture upon which America was founded, and which is responsible for its economic and social (yes, social) vitality.

In their dangerous flirtation with socialistic one-worldism, leftists are spoiled children of capitalism. They believe that they can flirt with impunity because they are protected by the police and defense forces that they disdain, and cosseted by the capitalism that they profess to despise.

In the end, if leftists succeed in destroying society and disarming the forces that protect them, their comeuppance at the hands of the string-pullers behind the mob will be richly deserved. But, unfortunately, everyone else will go down with them.

UPDATE:

I took the quiz on which Hawkins et al. base their findings. I am, according to the underlying algorithm, a “Traditional Conservative”. But to echo Arnold Kling: Ugh! What a terrible survey instrument. It’s a terrible as the terrible taxonomy discussed above.


Related pages and posts (items marked * specifically address ideological distinctions):

Leftism
Social Norms and Liberty

The Adolescent Rebellion Syndrome
* Parsing Political Philosophy
* Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
* True Libertarianism, One More Time
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
The Culture War
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
* Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Round Up the Usual Suspects
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
* My View of Libertarianism
Academic Ignorance
The Euphemism Conquers All
Defending the Offensive
Superiority
The War on Conservatism
A Dose of Reality
Immigration and Crime
God-Like Minds
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
* Another Look at Political Labels
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
* Consistent Conservatism
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Left and “the People”
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
Liberal Nostrums
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Retrospective Virtue-Signalling
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
FDR and Fascism: More Data
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited
* Rescuing Conservatism
If Men Were Angels
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
Immigration Blues
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
My View of Mill, Endorsed
Social Norms, the Left, and Social Disintegration
Suicide or Destiny?
“Liberalism” and Virtue-Signaling
* Conservatism vs. Ideology
O.J.’s Glove and the Enlightenment
James Burnham’s Misplaced Optimism
Do We “Belong” to Government?

An Ideal World

Roger Scruton, in Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, makes this observation:

Many accuse conservatism of being no more than a highly wrought work of mourning, a translation into the language of politics of the yearning for childhood that lies deep in us all.

Conservatism is more than nostalgia. It is, as I have written,

a disposition, that is, a temperament or tendency….

The conservative disposition is cautious, but not stuck in the mud. As Michael Oakeshott puts it,

a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight. [“On Being Conservative” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition]

A conservative (by disposition) will respect — or at least inspect — the views of others. A conservative’s default position is to respect prevailing social norms, taking them as a guide to conduct that will yield productive social and economic collaboration. Conservatism isn’t merely a knee-jerk response to authority. It reflects an understanding, if only an intuitive one, that tradition reflects wisdom that has passed the test of time. It also reflects a preference for changing tradition — where it needs changing — from the inside out, a bit at a time, rather from the outside in. The latter kind of change is uninformed by first-hand experience and therefore likely to be counterproductive, that is, destructive of social and economic cohesion and cooperation.

Yes, childhood is often remembered as a golden time. But I doubt that golden memories of childhood, or even mourning for its passage, are unique to conservatives. Take Paul Krugman, for example. He is a “liberal” in the modern, fascistic sense, and he waxes nostalgic for the 1950s, when he was a child.

Krugman’s nostalgia is probably rooted in golden memories of his childhood in a prosperous community, though he retrospectively supplies an economic justification. The 1950s were (according to him) an age of middle-class dominance before the return of the Robber Barons who had been vanquished by the New Deal. This is zero-sum economics and class warfare on steroids — standard Krugman fare.

There is, nevertheless, something to the idea that the years between the end of World War II and the early 1960s were something of a Golden Age. (See this post, for example.) But it was that way for reasons other than those offered by Krugman.

Civil society still flourished through churches, clubs, civic associations, bowling leagues, softball teams and many other voluntary organizations that (a) bound people and (b) promulgated and enforced social norms.

Those norms proscribed behavior considered harmful — not just criminal, but harmful to the social fabric (e.g., divorce, unwed motherhood, public cursing and sexuality, overt homosexuality). The norms also prescribed behavior that signaled allegiance to the institutions of civil society (e.g., church attendance, veterans’ organizations) , thereby helping to preserve them and the values that they fostered.

Yes, it was an age of “conformity”, as sneering sophisticates like to say, even as they insist on conformity to reigning leftist dogmas that are destructive of the social fabric. But it was also an age of widespread mutual trust, respect, and forbearance.

Those traits, as I have said many times (e.g., here) are the foundations of liberty, which is a modus vivendi, not a mystical essence. The modus vivendi that arises from the foundations is peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior —  liberty, in other words.

The decade and a half after the end of World War II wasn’t an ideal world of utopian imagining. But it approached a realizable ideal. That ideal — for the nation as a whole — has been put beyond reach by the vast, left-wing conspiracy that has subverted almost every aspect of life in America.


Related reading:

Fred Reed, “Decline in the Fall (or Late Summer Anyway): by Fred Gibbon“, Fred on Everything, August 15, 2018

Gilbert T. Sewall, “1968: Freedom without License“, The American Conservative, August 16, 2018


Related pages and posts:

Leftism
Social Norms and Liberty
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Well-Founded Pessimism
America: Past, Present, and Future
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
The View from Here
The Culture War
O Tempora O Mores!
A Home of One’s Own
Surrender? Hell No!
Decline
Two-Percent Tyranny
1963: The Year Zero
Society
How Democracy Works
“Cheerful” Thoughts
How Government Subverts Social Norms
Turning Points
The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
My Platform
How America Has Changed
Civil War?
Red-Diaper Babies and Enemies Within
Death of a Nation
Down the Memory Hole
“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”
Mass Murder: Reaping What Was Sown
“Democracy” Thrives in Darkness — and Liberty Withers
Whence Polarization

Conservatism vs. Ideology

In “Rescuing Conservatism” I distinguish between “true” conservatives — persons who are conservative by disposition, not ideology, — and faux conservatives — bloviators like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Michael Savage.

I go on to say that

[in] the conservative view, government would … be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what [Michael] Oakeshott calls “collisions.” And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by a superior force.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior (which really encompasses economic behavior). Behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

Taking a stance about the proper scope of government might seem to be an ideological position. And it is one, in the hands of anarchists, who imagine that their “ought” — no government (of any kind) — can be transformed into an “is”. The conceit of anarchism is that human beings are always peacefully cooperative and never driven by power-lust.

Government of some kind is as inevitable as conflict and the urge to control others. It is therefore better to form an accountable state — and strive to keep it accountable — than to have one thrust upon you.

The argument for government, as I have just posed it, isn’t ideological. It doesn’t begin with a particular view about the need for government, or the lack of such a need. It simply takes human nature into account and argues that government is inevitable. Given its inevitability, it is better to take the bull by the horns and shape it in a way that serves the interests of the persons subject to it.

Most sentient beings of the human persuasion, having better or more urgent things to do with their time, skip over the argument for government and go directly to the power it ought to have. Again, this isn’t necessarily a matter of ideology, a prefabricated belief in what “ought” to be. But it has become primarily a matter of ideology, for the reasons given by Joseph Sobran in his “Pensees: Notes for the Reactionary of Tomorrow“. (Sobran, despite his egregious blind spot regarding the Holocaust, was a brilliant thinker and writer.) Sobran writes:

Most of the world is a mystery. Consciousness is a little clearing in a vast forest; every individual has his own special relation to the area of mystery, his own little discoveries to impart. Discovery is by definition unpredictable, and it is absurd for the state to foreclose the process of learning. There are moods when we are too exhausted to imagine that there is still more to be learned; an ideology is a system of ideas that wants to end the explorations we are constantly making at the margin of consciousness, and to declare all the mysteries solved. This is like the congressman who introduced a bill a century ago to close the U.S. Patent Office, on the ground that every possible invention had already been invented.

And so, as a result of the system of indoctrination known as public education — with reinforcement from the internet-media-academic complex — most Americans (like most human beings) have adopted this ready-made belief: Government exists not just to protect citizens and their beneficially cooperative behavior, but also to “solve their problems” — as those problems are defined by government officials and parties with vested interests in the adoption of certain “solutions”.  (This is nothing new, of course. Go here and read “The Framers’ Fatal Error”.)

The ready-made belief is an ideology. Or, rather, it is a meta-ideology which has been sliced and diced into a range of specific ideologies (many of the inchoate) about the proper scope of government power.

The range of ideologies includes some that have been called conservative. That is to say, there are conservative ideologies, as distinct from conservatism, which is a disposition. James Burnham addresses that distinction, and others, in Suicide of the West (1964):

As a rule it is not the several values (ideals, goals) to which a man adheres that reveal most about his character and conduct, but rather the order of priority in which the values are arranged. It tells us little about John Doe to know that for him life is an important value. So it is for nearly all men; not quite all, but nearly all. But we will have learned much about John if we find out whether life is for him a value more important than any other; or, if not, what other value is more important than life. Better Red than Dead? . . . Liberty or Death? . . . Death before Dishonor? . . . My life, that another may live? . . .

Suppose that we use the term “Liberty” to designate national independence and self-government — the meaning that was presumably in Patrick Henry’s mind; “Freedom,” to designate the freedom, or liberties, of the individual; “Justice,” to mean distributive justice of a more or less social welfare sort — that is, a reasonable amount of material well-being for everyone along with an absence of gross exploitation or discrimination; 1 and “Peace,” to signify the absence of large-scale warfare among major powers.

Liberty, Freedom and Justice are the three primary social values or goals that have been approved or at least professed by nearly everybody — not quite everybody, but nearly everybody — in Western civilization, whatever the political philosophy or program, since the Renaissance. The fourth — Peace — has moved into the front rank during the present century, especially since the advent of nuclear weapons.

Most people want, or think they want, all four of these values; but, the way the world goes, it is not possible to realize the four equally on all occasions. One value must be subordinated or sacrificed to another, or others. Whether we wish to or not, each of us is compelled for practical purposes to arrange the four values in a certain hierarchy — if liberals will permit the word — or order of priority.

For the older liberalism of the nineteenth century [as epitomized by John Stuart Mill], the standard order, starting with the value that was regarded as the most important, was:

Freedom
Liberty
Justice
Peace

For twentieth-century liberalism up to a decade or so after the First World War [i.e., Progressivism], the order became:

Justice
Freedom
Liberty
Peace

From that time until after the Second World War, the last two tended to shift positions, so that the liberal ranking became:

Justice
Freedom
Peace
Liberty

Since the coming into being of full-scale nuclear systems, the standard liberal order has become:

Peace
Justice
Freedom
Liberty

This evolution expresses summarily the rise in the relative importance, for liberalism, of the ideas of social reform and the Welfare State, and the gradual shift of stress from national sovereignty to internationalism.

The significance of these ratings becomes more marked when we contrast them with non-liberal orders. For example, the form of contemporary self-styled conservatism that is really a kind of right-wing anarchism [i.e., standard libertarianism] accepts an order that is the same as that of nineteenth-century liberalism, except for a displacement of Peace:

Freedom
Peace
Liberty
Justice

However, this ideology (for this form of conservatism is also an ideology) grades the last three so much below the first that they must almost be thought of as belonging to a different scale; and it tends to interpret Freedom primarily in terms of laissez faire economics.

The form of contemporary conservatism that might be called traditional — which is not an ideology [emphasis added] — would not judge, or feel, that there is any fixed order of priority for the major social values. Under the specific circumstances of this specific time, it would probably rate the four here under consideration as:

Liberty
Freedom
Peace
Justice

I would say that this is now the standard leftist (“liberal”) ordering of the four values:

Justice – Peace

Freedom – Liberty

With a huge gap between the first pair and the second pair.

Burnham’s ranking of the values of ideological “conservatism” (i.e., standard libertarianism) seems to fit today’s “libertarians”. (The “sneer quotes” are explained in some of the posts listed below.)

Most important, Burnham correctly characterizes conservatism as a non-ideology and hesitantly ranks the values of conservatives of the day (early 1960s). Speaking for myself, he has it right, and not just for the early 1960s. Burnham’s ranking aligns with what I call rightminarchism. It is an ideology that seems to fit the conservative disposition comfortably.

As argued in many of the items listed below, conservatism is true libertarianism. Indeed, many so-called libertarians seek to impose particular values on the populace, even going so far as to enlist the power of the state to that end.


Related page and posts:
Social Norms and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
Understanding Hayek
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Liberal Nostrums
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
“Liberalism” and Leftism
Disposition and Ideology
My View of Mill, Endorsed
Order vs. Authority
Suicide or Destiny?

Perfect vs. Good

One of the many things — perhaps the essential thing — that separates conservatives and leftists (“liberals“) is their outlook on life. (You can also call it temperament or disposition.)

Leftists seem to be addicted to bad news. Injustice and disaster are everywhere. Why? Because they see life through the lens of what should be, in an unattainable, perfect world. In their zeal to right “wrongs” — most of which are just Nature and benign human nature in action — they create bigger problems: sluggish economic growth, racial resentment, loss of property rights, suppression of speech, etc. etc. etc.

The leftist mentality exemplifies the adage that “perfect is the enemy of good“. The conservative instinctively knows this. He achieves the good by starting with what exists and improving it in ways that do not defy Nature or human nature. (The latter includes some predilections that are scorned by — and shared by — leftists; for example, ambition, acquisitiveness, and “tribalism”.)

It is the sad fate of conservatives to be cast as “mean” and “selfish” for resisting the left’s nostrums, even despite their demonstrable damage to social comity and economic well-being.

Can Left and Right Be Reconciled?

TWO DIMENSIONS OF POLITICAL THOUGHT

The political views of left and right* should be understood as ideological and psychological phenomena. Left and right aren’t distinguished just by what people think, but more deeply by why people think as they do. Some people just see the world differently than others. And that fundamental difference is reinforced and magnified by identifying with a particular political camp, imbibing the views that issue from it, and seeking out evidence for those views to the exclusion of contrary evidence (confirmation bias).

Why is the key to the irreconcilability of hard leftism and staunch conservatism.  What matters, but it is a less definitive discriminator between left and right because what people think is more malleable.

WHAT IS A MOVEABLE FEAST

What people think is influenced heavily by family, friends, neighbors, church, club, co-workers, professional colleagues, and so on. The urge to belong and the need for approval have a lot to do with what one says to others. The need for cognitive consonance pushes people in the direction of “believing” what they say. Thus it is easy to say what meets with the approval of one’s key social groups, to move one’s opinions as the opinions of the groups move, to believe that those opinions are correct, to seize on supporting “evidence” (anecdotes, slanted news, etc.), and to reject information that doesn’t support one’s opinions.

An introvert is more likely to seek facts — or what he takes to be facts — than to be swayed by groupthink in forming his views. By the same token, it is probably easier for an introvert to change his views than it is for an extravert to do so. In any event, a person who is open to new ideas, and whose social milieu changes in character, may find that his views evolve with time. He may also be struck by an insight (“mugged by reality”) to the same effect.

There is also the kind of person who is temperamentally unsuited to the political views that he holds as a matter of social conditioning. That kind of person, unlike the person whose views are matched to his temperament, will be more open to alternative ideas and to insights that may reshape his views.

Overlaid on social influences are signals emitted by authoritative sources. For many persons, the morality of a particular behavior (e.g., divorce, abortion, same-sex “marriage”) depends on how that behavior is depicted in news and entertainment media, or is treated as a matter of law.

Though a person who is temperamentally predisposed to conservatism, or leftism, is unlikely to switch sides for any of the reasons discussed thus far, there is what I call the “squishy center” of the electorate that swings many an election — and thus government policy.

For example, every week since the first inauguration of Barack Obama, Rasmussen Reports** has asked 2,500 likely voters whether they see the country as going in the “right direction” or being on the “wrong track”. During Obama’s tenure, the percentage of respondents saying “right direction” ranged from 13 to 43; the percentages for “wrong track” ranged from 51 to 80. If voters were consistent, a majority would have said “right direction” and a minority would have said “wrong track” since the inauguration of Donald Trump. But “right direction” has garnered only 29 to 47 percent thus far in Trump’s presidency, while “wrong track” is still almost always in the majority, at 47 to 65 percent.

Here’s my interpretation: Hard leftists said “right direction” when Obama was in the White House; staunch conservatives have been saying “right direction” since Trump moved into the White House; and the “squishy center” has all the while been swinging from one side to the other, depending on passing events.

Scraping away the squishy center, I estimate that about one-third of the electorate is hard left and about one-third is staunchly conservative; thus:

Figure 3

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of what people think. Bandwagon effects are powerful politically. I am convinced, for example, that Justice Kennedy’s 5-4 majority opinion in favor of same-sex “marriage” (Obergefell v. Hodges) signaled to the squishy center that being on the “right side of history” means siding with the libertines of the left against long-standing social norms.

Obergefell v. Hodges certainly emboldened the hard left. As I put it on the day of Justice Kennedy’s fateful ruling,

for every person who insists on exercising his rights, there will be at least as many (and probably more) who will be cowed, shamed, and forced by the state into silence and compliance with the new dispensation. And the more who are cowed, shamed, and forced into silence and compliance, the fewer who will assert their rights. Thus will the vestiges of liberty vanish.

Just look at the increasingly anti-male, anti-white, anti-conservative, anti-free-speech behavior on the part of Facebook Google, the other left-dominated social media, and much of academia. It has gone from threatening to frightening in the past three years.

GETTING TO WHY: A PRELIMINARY EXPLANATION

There is something deeper than social conformity at work among the hard left and staunch right. That something rules out reconciliation.

My earlier attempt at pinpointing the essential difference between left and right is here. I say, in part, that

“Liberals” are more neurotic than conservatives. That is, “liberals” have a “tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability.”…

Anxious persons are eager to sacrifice better but less certain outcomes — the fruits of liberty — for “safe” ones. Anxious persons project their anxieties onto others, and put their trust in exploitative politicians who play on their anxieties even if they don’t share them. This combination of anxieties and power-lust yields “social safety net” programs and regulations aimed at reducing risks and deterring risk-taking.. At the same time, American “liberals” — being spoiled children of capitalism — have acquired a paradoxical aversion to the very things that would ensure their security: swift and sure domestic justice, potent and demonstrably ready armed forces.

Conservatives tend toward conscientiousness more than liberals do; that is, they “display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations.” (This paper summarizes previous research and arrives at the same conclusion about the positive correlation between conscientiousness and conservatism.) In other words, conservatives (by which I don’t mean yahoos) gather relevant facts, think things through, assess the risks involved in various courses of action, and choose to take risks (or not) accordingly. When conservatives choose to take risks, they do so after providing for the possibility of failure (e.g., through insurance and cash reserves). Confident, self-reliant conservatives are hindered by governmental intrusions imposed at the behest of anxious “liberals.” All that conservatives need from government is protection from domestic and foreign predators. What they get from government is too little protection and too much interference.

A DEEPER LOOK AT WHY

My hypothesis is consistent with that of Stephen Messenger (who blogs at The Independent Whig). Messenger’s hypothesis, which builds on the work of Jonathan Haidt, is spelled out in a recent article at Quillette, “Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics“. Here’s some of it:

In brief, my theory holds that the political Left and Right are best understood as psychological profiles featuring different combinations of ‘moral foundations’ … and cognitive style…. To define ideologies in terms of beliefs, values, etc., is to confuse cause and effect.

Moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception, subconscious intuitive cognition, and conscious reasoning described by Haidt in The Righteous Mind….

Haidt allows that there are probably many moral foundations, but he has focused his efforts on identifying the most powerful. He’s identified six so far, summarized as follows in The Righteous Mind on pages 178-179 unless otherwise noted:

  • Care/Harm (sensitivity to signs of suffering and need)
  • Fairness/Cheating (sensitivity to indications that another person is likely to be a good or bad partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism)
  • Liberty/Oppression (sensitivity to, and resentment of, attempted domination)
  • Loyalty/Betrayal (sensitivity to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player)
  • Authority/Subversion (sensitivity to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly given their position)
  • Sanctity/Degradation (sensitivity to pathogens, parasites, and other threats that spread by physical tough or proximity)….

He calls the first three foundations the “individualizing” foundations because their main emphasis is on the autonomy and well-being of the individual. The latter three are “binding” foundations because they help individuals form cooperative groups for the mutual benefit of all members….

Cognitive styles … are ways of thinking; operating systems, if you will, like Windows and iOS, that process information received from the social environment. There are two predominant cognitive styles, traced through 2,400 years of human history by Arthur Herman in his book The Cave and the Light: Plato and Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, in which Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for each, summarized in the following two short passages:

Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things.  They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealizable without it. (p. 61)

The twentieth century’s greatest ideological conflicts do mark the violent unfolding of a Platonist versus Aristotelian view of what it means to be free and how reason and knowledge ultimately fit into our lives (p.539-540)

Plato thought that everything in the real world is but a pale imitation of its ideal self, and it is the role of the enlightened among us to help us see the ideal and to help steer society toward it. This is the style of thinking behind RFK’s “I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” President Obama’s “Fundamentally Transform,” and even Woodrow Wilson’s progressivism.

Aristotle agreed that we should always strive to improve the human condition, but argued that the real world in which we live sets practical limits on what’s achievable. The human mind is not infinitely capable, nor is human nature infinitely malleable. If we’re not mindful of such limitations, or if we try to ‘fix’ them, our good intentions can end up doing more harm than good and lead us down the proverbial road to hell.

These two cognitive styles can be thought of, respectively, as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and holistic. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt describes the peculiarities of WEIRD individuals, as follows:

WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object). (p. 113)

[WEIRD thinkers tend to] see a world full of separate objects rather than relationships. (p. 113)

Putting this all together, it makes sense that WEIRD philosophers since Kant and Mill have mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. (p. 113-114)

Worldwide, this kind of thinking is a statistical outlier because most people and cultures think holistically.3 Holistic thinkers tend to see a world full of relationships rather than objects, and they have a stronger tendency toward consilience. As Haidt explains:

When holistic thinkers in a non-WEIRD culture write about morality, we get something more like the Analects of Confucius, a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes that can’t be reduced to a single rule. (p. 114)

WEIRD Platonic rationalism and holistic Aristotelian empiricism can be thought of as the two ends of a spectrum of cognitive styles. Few people are at the extremes; most are somewhere in between.

The psychological profiles of Left and Right differ in the degree to which they tend to favor the cognitive styles and the moral foundations. A series of studies of cognitive styles has found that “liberals think more analytically (more WEIRD) than conservatives”:

[L]iberals think more analytically (an element of WEIRD thought) than moderates and conservatives. Study 3 replicates this finding in the very different political culture of China, although it held only for people in more modernized urban centers. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives in the same country think as if they were from different cultures.4

Haidt’s studies of moral foundations show that liberals tend to employ the individualizing foundations and, of those, mostly the care/harm foundation, whereas conservatives tend to use of all of them equally. There’s no conservative foundation that’s not also a liberal foundation but, for all practical purposes, half of the conservative foundations are unavailable to liberal social cognition. The graphic below comes from Haidt’s TED Talk [link added], and it shows that this pattern holds true in every culture studied on every continent, suggesting it is a human universal.

….

In sum, the liberal psychological profile tends toward the Platonic cognitive style combined with the three-foundation moral matrix.  The conservative profile leans toward the Aristotelian cognitive style with the all-foundation moral matrix. The libertarian profile seems to be made up of the Aristotelian style combined with a moral matrix that emphasizes liberty/oppression more than the other foundations. [Ed. note: So-called libertarians are like realists who view the world through a pinhole instead of a picture window.]

As I have argued before, concepts like liberty, equality, justice, and fairness take on different—even mutually exclusive—meanings depending on which psychological profile is interpreting them. The Left’s bias toward outcome-based conceptions of ‘positive’ liberty seems to follow naturally from its profile of Platonic rationalism focused on the moral foundation of care. The Right’s tendency to favor process-based conceptions of ‘negative’ liberty follows from its profile of Aristotelian empiricism in combination with all of the moral foundations.

It’s almost as if Left and Right are speaking different languages, in which each uses the same words but attaches starkly different meanings to them. Both sides agree that liberty is a great thing, but because neither side realizes that their understanding of it is different from that of the other they talk past one another, or worse, assume their opponent is stupid, ignorant, or wicked due to the failure to grasp concepts that in their own minds are self-evident.

The American economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell describes the way these two profiles have played out in the real world since the late 1700s in his book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Liberal psychology is reflected by thinkers like Godwin, Condorcet, Mill, Laski, Voltaire, Paine, Holbach, Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and G.B. Shaw. The conservative profile is seen in the likes of Smith, Burke, Hamilton, Malthus, Hayek, and Hobbes.

A Cognitive Theory of Politics can help us to improve our understanding historical events. For example, Sowell observes that the liberal ‘vision,’ or psychological profile, can be seen as the engine of the French Revolution. Jonathan Haidt made the same observation in a lecture he gave at the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE) entitled “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege.” In contrast, Sowell argues that the American founding was a fundamentally conservative movement. A reading of The Federalist Papers through the lens of the Cognitive Theory of Politics bears him out, and Burke—who supported the American Revolution but opposed the French Revolution—would probably agree….

… The political polarization of America described by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart is best understood as a self-sorting of the population based primarily on cognitive styles.

SYNTHESIS AND CONCLUSION

Putting it all together, leftists are attached mainly to the moral foundation of harm/care because of their nueroticism. But they pursue security for themselves and those to whom they are neurotically attached — various “victim” groups — by seizing upon idealized solutions. The apotheosis of those idealized solutions is big government, which has the magical power — in the left’s idealization of it — to right all wrongs without a misstep. (Defense is excluded from the magical thinking of the left because the need to defend the nation implies that America is worth defending, but it isn’t — to the leftist — because it falls so far short of his idea of perfection. Defense is also exempted because it draws resources from the things that would make America more perfect in the fascistic mind: socialized medicine, a guaranteed income, free day-care, free college for all, and on and on.)

Staunch conservatives, on the other hand, know that government is flawed because its leaders and minions are fallible human beings. Further, it is impossible for government to possess all of the information required to make better decisions than people can make for themselves through mutually beneficial cooperation. That cooperation occurs in the myriad institutions of civil society, which include but are far from limited to markets for the exchange of products and services. Staunch conservatives — who can also be called right-minarchists or libertarian conservatives — therefore decry the expansion of government power beyond that which is required to protect civil society from domestic and foreign predators.

Messenger, despite those fundamental differences, is hopeful about a reconciliation between left and right:

A Cognitive Theory of Politics offers a new lens through which we can better understand human history and more clearly see ourselves and each other. Using this tool, we can better understand how we got to where we are, what’s happening to us now, and the available paths forward. A more accurate, science-based, universal understanding of the ‘Social Animal’ (humans) by the social animal might break the language barrier between Left and Right and provide a common foundation of knowledge from which productive debate can ensue.

I disagree. Hard leftists and staunch conservatives are “wired” differently, as Haidt has shown, and as Messenger has acknowledged.

The staunch conservative sees civil society as a whole, understands that it is unitary, knows that it is self-correcting because people learn from experience, and accepts its outcomes as the best that can be attained in a real world of real people.

The leftist can’t see the forest for the trees. He sees particular outcomes that displease him, and is willing to use the power of government to rearrange civil society in an effort to “remedy” those outcomes. He doesn’t understand, or care, that the results will be worse: a weaker economy, fewer jobs for those most in need of them, more racial tension, more broken families, and so on, up to and including an irremediably polarized nation.

Moreover, because leftists are at bottom self-centered, they cannot tolerate dissent. Dissent from a leftist regime is ultimately dealt with by suppression and violence. What we see now on campuses and in social media is merely a foretaste of what will happen if the left succeeds in its aim of seizing firm control of America. All else will follow from that.

This leads to an obvious conclusion: Left and right — the hard left and staunch conservatism, in particular — are irreconcilable. They are in fact locked in a death-struggle over the future of America. The squishy center is along for the ride, and will change its tune (what it says) and allegiance opportunistically, in the hope that it will end up on the “right side of history”.
__________
* Given the actual stances of those who are usually identified as “left” and “right”, there is absurdity in a conventional characterization of the left-right political spectrum like this:

Generally, the left-wing is characterized by an emphasis on “ideas such as freedom, equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism”, while the right-wing is characterized by an emphasis on “notions such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism”.

The truth of the matter is almost 180 degrees from the caricature presented above. But Wikipedia is the source, so what do you expect?

I have explained many times (e.g., here) that the left is fascistic, while the right — excluding its yahoo component and some of its so-called libertarian component — is liberty-loving. (Liberty is properly defined as an attainable modus vivendi rather than an imaginary nirvana). So the real question of the title should be: Can American fascism and (true) anti-fascism be reconciled?

But I have refrained from using the “f” word, despite its lexical accuracy, and stuck with “left” and “right” despite the erroneous association of conservatism (i.e., the right) with authoritarianism (i.e., fascism). Just remember that “right” is often used to mean “correct”, and if anything is correct when it comes to striving for liberty, it is conservatism.

** I cite Rasmussen Reports because of its good track record — here and here, for example. Its polls are usually more favorable toward Republicans. Though the polls are generally accurate, they are out of step with the majority of polls, which are biased toward Democrats. This  has caused Rasmussen Reports to be labeled “Republican-leaning”, as the other polls weren’t “Democrat-leaning”. There is a parallel with the labeling of Fox News as a “conservative” outlet (though it isn’t always), while the other major TV news outlets laughably claim to be neutral.


Related posts:
Libertarian-Conservatives Are from the Earth, Liberals Are from the Moon
The Worriers
More about the Worrying Classes
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Society and the State
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Getting Liberty Wrong
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Turning Points
There’s More to It Than Religious Liberty
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Left and “the People”
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
Liberal Nostrums
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Equality
Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech, and the Demise of Civility
Self-Made Victims
Leftism
Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm
What Is Going On? A Stealth Revolution
Disposition and Ideology
How’s Your (Implicit) Attitude?
Down the Memory Hole
“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
Mass Murder: Reaping What Was Sown
Andrew Sullivan Almost Gets It
Utopianism, Leftism, and Dictatorship
Pronoun Profusion
“Democracy” Thrives in Darkness — and Liberty Withers
Preemptive (Cold) Civil War
My View of Mill, Endorsed
The Framers, Mob Rule, and a Fatal Error
Abortion, the “Me” Generation, and the Left
Abortion Q and A
Whence Polarization?
Negative Rights, Etc.
Social Norms, the Left, and Social Disintegration
The Lesson of Alfie Evans
Order vs. Authority

“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection

It is no secret — except to leftists — that they engage in psychological projection of their own authoritarianism when they try to pin the authoritarian label on conservatives. (See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this, for example.)

Another label — which so-called libertarians also like to throw at conservatives — is “tribalists”.  And another one is “haters”. The usual targets of these labels are white, heterosexual, conservative males of European descent.

Yes, aren’t we just so, so tribal and hate-driven? Unlike (not) like Black Muslims, Hispanic reconquistas, feminazis, queer persecutors of cake-makers, illiberal-arts professors, campus radicals, “liberal” yuppies in their chi-chi enclaves, MSM and Hollywood hypocrites, Silicon Valley smuglies, and many another identity-group that takes advantage of America’s liberty and prosperity to spew hate against increasingly powerless white, heterosexual, conservative males of European descent.

It’s psychological projection on steroids.

“Conservative” Confusion

Keith Burgess-Jackson is a self-styled conservative with whom I had a cordial online relationship about a dozen years ago. Our relationship foundered for reasons that are trivial and irrelevant to this post. I continued to visit KBJ’s eponymous blog occasionally (see first item in “related posts”, below), and learned of its disappearance when I I tried to visit it in December 2017. It had disappeared in the wake of a controversy that I will address in a future post.

In any event, KBJ has started a new blog, Just Philosophy, which I learned of and began to follow about a week ago. The posts at Just Philosophy were unexceptionable until February 5, when KBJ posted “Barry M. Goldwater (1909-1998) on the Graduated Income Tax”.

KBJ opens the post by quoting Goldwater:

The graduated [income] tax is a confiscatory tax. Its effect, and to a large extent its aim, is to bring down all men to a common level. Many of the leading proponents of the graduated tax frankly admit that their purpose is to redistribute the nation’s wealth. Their aim is an egalitarian society—an objective that does violence both to the charter of the Republic and [to] the laws of Nature. We are all equal in the eyes of God but we are equal in no other respect. Artificial devices for enforcing equality among unequal men must be rejected if we would restore that charter and honor those laws.

He then adds this “note from KBJ”:

The word “confiscate” means “take or seize (someone’s property) with authority.” Every tax, from the lowly sales tax to the gasoline tax to the cigarette tax to the estate tax to the property tax to the income tax, is by definition confiscatory in that sense, so what is Goldwater’s point in saying that the graduated (i.e., progressive) income tax is confiscatory? He must mean something stronger, namely, completely taken away. But this is absurd. We have had a progressive (“graduated”) income tax for generations, and income inequality is at an all-time high. Nobody’s income or wealth is being confiscated by the income tax, if by “confiscated” Goldwater means completely taken away. Only in the fevered minds of libertarians (such as Goldwater) is a progressive income tax designed to “bring down all men to a common level.” And what’s wrong with redistributing wealth? Every law and every public policy redistributes wealth. The question is not whether to redistribute wealth; it’s how to do so. Either we redistribute wealth honestly and intelligently or we do so with our heads in the sand. By the way, conservatives, as such, are not opposed to progressive income taxation. Conservatives want people to have good lives, and that may require progressive income taxation. Those who have more than they need (especially those who have not worked for it) are and should be required to provide for those who, through no fault of their own, have less than they need.

Yes, Goldwater obviously meant something stronger by applying “confiscatory” to the graduated income tax. But what he meant can’t be “completely taken away” because the graduated income tax is one of progressively higher marginal tax rates, none of which has ever reached 100 percent in the United States. And as KBJ acknowledges, a tax of less than 100 percent, “from the lowly sales tax to the gasoline tax to the cigarette tax to the estate tax to the property tax to the income tax, is by definition confiscatory in [the] sense” of “tak[ing] or seiz[ing] (someone’s property) with authority”. What Goldwater must have meant — despite KBJ’s obfuscation — is that the income tax is confiscatory in an especially destructive way, which Goldwater elucidates.

KBJ asks “what’s wrong with redistributing wealth?”, and justifies his evident belief that there’s nothing wrong with it by saying that “Every law and every public policy redistributes wealth.” Wow! It follows, by KBJ’s logic, that there’s nothing wrong with murder because it has been committed for millennia.

Government policy inevitably results in some redistribution of income and wealth. But that is an accident of policy in a regime of limited government, not the aim of policy. KBJ is being disingenuous (at best) when he equates an accidental outcome with the deliberate, massive redistribution of income and wealth that has been going on in the United States for more than a century. It began in earnest with the graduated income tax, became embedded in the fabric of governance with Social Security, and has been reinforced since by Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc., etc., etc. Many conservatives (or “conservatives”) have been complicit in redistributive measures, but the impetus for those measures has come from the left.

KBJ then trots out this assertion: “Conservatives, as such, are not opposed to progressive income taxation.” I don’t know which conservatives KBJ has been reading or listening to (himself, perhaps, though his conservatism is now in grave doubt). In fact, the quotation in KBJ’s post is from Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. For that is what Goldwater considered himself to be, not a libertarian as KBJ asserts. Goldwater was nothing like the typical libertarian who eschews the “tribalism” of patriotism. Goldwater was a patriot through-and-through.

Goldwater was a principled conservative — a consistent defender of liberty within a framework of limited government, which defends the citizenry and acts a referee of last resort. That position is the nexus of classical liberalism (sometimes called libertarianism) and conservatism, but it is conservatism nonetheless. It is a manifestation of  the conservative disposition:

A conservative’s default position is to respect prevailing social norms, taking them as a guide to conduct that will yield productive social and economic collaboration. Conservatism isn’t merely a knee-jerk response to authority. It reflects an understanding, if only an intuitive one, that tradition reflects wisdom that has passed the test of time. It also reflects a preference for changing tradition — where it needs changing — from the inside out, a bit at a time, rather from the outside in. The latter kind of change is uninformed by first-hand experience and therefore likely to be counterproductive, that is, destructive of social and economic cohesion and cooperation.

The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.

In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions”. And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by the kind of superior force wielded by government.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior. That behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; that behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

Finally on this point, personal responsibility and self-reliance are core conservative values. Conservatives therefore oppose state actions that undermine those values. Progressive income taxation punishes those who take personal responsibility and strive to be self-reliant, while encouraging and rewarding those who shirk personal responsibility and prefer dependency on others.

KBJ’s next assertion is that “Conservatives want people to have good lives, and that may require progressive income taxation.” Conservatives are hardly unique in wanting people to have good lives. Though most leftists, it seems, want to control other people’s lives, there are some leftists who sincerely want people to have good lives, and who strongly believe that this does require progressive income taxation. Not only that, but they usually justify that belief in exactly the way that KBJ does:

Those who have more than they need (especially those who have not worked for it) are and should be required to provide for those who, through no fault of their own, have less than they need.

Did I miss KBJ’s announcement that he has become a “liberal”-“progressive”-pinko? It is one thing to provide for the liberty and security of the populace; it is quite another — and decidedly not conservative — to sit in judgment as to who have “more than they need” and who have “less than they need”, and whether that is “through no fault of their own”. This is the classic “liberal” formula for the arbitrary redistribution of income and wealth. There’s not a conservative thought in that formula.

KBJ seems to have rejected, out of hand (or out of ignorance), the demonstrable truth that everyone would be better offfar better off — with a lot less government involvement in economic (and social) affairs, not more of it. That is my position, as a conservative, and it is the position of the many articulate conservatives whose blogs I read regularly.

It is a position that is consistent with the values of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Conservatives embrace those values not only because they bestow dignity on those who observe them, but also because the observance fosters general as well as personal prosperity. This is another instance of the wisdom that is embedded in traditional values.

Positive law often conflicts with and undermines traditional values. That is why it is a conservative virtue to oppose, resist, and strive to overturn positive law of that kind (e.g., Roe v. Wade, Obergefell v. Hodges, Obamacare). It is a “conservative” vice to accept it just because it’s “the law of the land”.

I am left wondering if KBJ is really a conservative, or just a “conservative“.


Related reading: Yuval Levin, “The Roots of a Reforming Conservatism“, Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2015

Related posts:
Gains from Trade (A critique of KBJ’s “conservative” views on trade)
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
My View of Libertarianism
The War on Conservatism
Another Look at Political Labels
Rescuing Conservatism
If Men Were Angels
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
Disposition and Ideology

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXI)

An occasional survey of web material that’s related to subjects about which I’ve posted. Links to the other posts in this series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

Fred Reed, in a perceptive post worth reading in its entirety, says this:

Democracy works better the smaller the group practicing it. In a town, people can actually understand the questions of the day. They know what matters to them. Do we build a new school, or expand the existing one? Do we want our children to recite the pledge of allegiance, or don’t we? Reenact the Battle of Antietam? Sing Christmas carols in the town square? We can decide these things. Leave us alone….

Then came the vast empire, the phenomenal increase in the power and reach of the federal government, which really means the Northeast Corridor. The Supreme Court expanded and expanded and expanded the authority of Washington, New York’s store-front operation. The federals now decided what could be taught in the schools, what religious practices could be permitted, what standards employers could use in hiring, who they had to hire. The media coalesced into a small number of corporations, controlled from New York but with national reach….

Tyranny comes easily when those seeking it need only corrupt a single Congress, appoint a single Supreme Court, or control the departments of one executive branch. In a confederation of largely self-governing states, those hungry to domineer would have to suborn fifty congresses. It could not be done. State governments are accessible to the governed. They can be ejected. They are much more likely to be sympathetic to the desires of their constituents since they are of the same culture.

Tyranny is often justified by invoking “the will of the people”, but as I say here:

It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.


I am pleased to note that my prognosis for Trump’s presidency (as of December 2016) was prescient:

Based on his appointments to date — with the possible exception of Steve Bannon [now gone from the White House] — he seems to be taking a solidly conservative line. He isn’t building a government of bomb-throwers, but rather a government of staunch conservatives who, taken together, have a good chance at rebuilding America’s status in the world while dismantling much of Obama’s egregious “legacy”….

Will Donald Trump be a perfect president, if perfection is measured by adherence to the Constitution? Probably not, but who has been? It now seems likely, however, that Trump will be a far less fascistic president than Barack Obama has been and Hillary Clinton would have been. He will certainly be far less fascistic than the academic thought-police, whose demise cannot come too soon for the sake of liberty.

In sum, Trump’s emerging agenda seems to resemble my own decidedly conservative one.

But anti-Trump hysteria continues unabated, even among so-called conservatives. David Gelertner writes:

Some conservatives have the impression that, by showing off their anti-Trump hostility, they will get the networks and the New York Times to like them. It doesn’t work like that. Although the right reads the left, the left rarely reads the right. Why should it, when the left owns American culture? Nearly every university, newspaper, TV network, Hollywood studio, publisher, education school and museum in the nation. The left wrapped up the culture war two generations ago. Throughout my own adult lifetime, the right has never made one significant move against the liberal culture machine.

David Brooks of The New York Times is one of the (so-called) conservatives who shows off his anti-Trump hostility. Here he is writing about Trump and tribalism:

The Trump story is that good honest Americans are being screwed by aliens. Regular Americans are being oppressed by a snobbish elite that rigs the game in its favor. White Americans are being invaded by immigrants who take their wealth and divide their culture. Normal Americans are threatened by an Islamic radicalism that murders their children.

This is a tribal story. The tribe needs a strong warrior in a hostile world. We need to build walls to keep out illegals, erect barriers to hold off foreign threats, wage endless war on the globalist elites.

Somebody is going to have to arise to point out that this is a deeply wrong and un-American story. The whole point of America is that we are not a tribe. We are a universal nation, founded on universal principles, attracting talented people from across the globe, active across the world on behalf of all people who seek democracy and dignity.

I am unaware that Mr. Trump has anything against talented people. But he rightly has a lot against adding to the welfare rolls and allowing jihadists into the country. As for tribalism — that bugbear of “enlightened” people — here’s where I stand:

There’s a world of difference between these three things:

  1. hating persons who are different because they’re different
  2. fearing persons of a certain type because that type is highly correlated with danger
  3. preferring the company and comfort of persons with whom one has things in common, such as religion, customs, language, moral beliefs, and political preferences.

Number 1 is a symptom of bigotry, of which racism is a subset. Number 2 is a sign of prudence. Number 3 is a symptom of tribalism.

Liberals, who like to accuse others of racism and bigotry, tend to be strong tribalists — as are most people, the world around. Being tribal doesn’t make a person a racist or a bigot, that is, hateful toward persons of a different type. It’s natural (for most people) to trust and help those who live nearest them or are most like them, in customs, religion, language, etc. Persons of different colors and ethnicities usually have different customs, religions, and languages (e.g., black English isn’t General American English), so it’s unsurprising that there’s a tribal gap between most blacks and whites, most Latinos and whites, most Latinos and blacks, and so on.

Tribalism has deep evolutionary-psychological roots in mutual aid and mutual defense. The idea that tribalism can be erased by sitting in a circle, holding hands, and singing Kumbaya — or the equivalent in social-diplomatic posturing — is as fatuous as the idea that all human beings enter this world with blank minds and equal potential. Saying that tribalism is wrong is like saying that breathing and thinking are wrong. It’s a fact of life that can’t be undone without undoing the bonds of mutual trust and respect that are the backbone of a civilized society.

If tribalism is wrong, then most blacks, Latinos, members of other racial and ethnic groups, and liberals are guilty of wrong-doing.

None of this seems to have occurred to Our Miss Brooks (a cultural reference that may be lost on younger readers). But “liberals” — and Brooks is one of them — just don’t get sovereignty.


While we’re on the subject of immigration, consider a study of the effect of immigration on the wages of unskilled workers, which is touted by Timothy Taylor. According to Taylor, the study adduces evidence that

in areas with high levels of low-skill immigration, local firms shift their production processes in a way that uses more low-skilled labor–thus increasing the demand for such labor. In addition, immigrant low-skilled labor has tended to focus on manual tasks, which has enabled native-born low-skilled labor to shift to nonmanual low-skilled tasks, which often pay better.

It’s magical. An influx of non-native low-skilled laborers allows native-born low-skilled laborers to shift to better-paying jobs. If they could have had those better-paying jobs, why didn’t they take them in the first place?

More reasonably, Rick Moran writes about a

Federation for American Immigration Reform report [which] reveals that illegal aliens are costing the U.S. taxpayer $135 billion.  That cost includes medical care, education, and law enforcement expenses.

That’s a good argument against untrammeled immigration (legal or illegal). There are plenty more. See, for example, the entry headed “The High Cost of Untrammeled Immigration” at this post.


There’s a fatuous argument that a massive influx of illegal immigrants wouldn’t cause the rate of crime to rise. I’ve disposed of that argument with one of my own, which is supported by numbers. I’ve also dealt with crime in many other posts, including this one, where I say this (and a lot more):

Behavior is shaped by social norms. Those norms once were rooted in the Ten Commandments and time-tested codes of behavior. They weren’t nullified willy-nilly in accordance with the wishes of “activists,” as amplified through the megaphone of the mass media, and made law by the Supreme Court….

But by pecking away at social norms that underlie mutual trust and respect, “liberals” have sundered the fabric of civilization. There is among Americans the greatest degree of mutual enmity (dressed up as political polarization) since the Civil War.

The mutual enmity isn’t just political. It’s also racial, and it shows up as crime. Heather Mac Donald says “Yes, the Ferguson Effect Is Real,” and Paul Mirengoff shows that “Violent Crime Jumped in 2015.” I got to the root of the problem in “Crime Revisited,” to which I’ve added “Amen to That” and “Double Amen.” What is the root of the problem? A certain, violence-prone racial minority, of course, and also under-incarceration (see “Crime Revisited”).

The Ferguson Effect is a good example of where the slippery slope of free-speech absolutism leads. More examples are found in the violent protests in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” has become the right to assemble a mob, disrupt the lives of others, destroy the property of others, injure and kill others, and (usually) suffer no consequences for doing so — if you are a leftist or a member of one of the groups patronized by the left, that is.

How real is the Ferguson effect? Jazz Shaw writes about the rising rate of violent crime:

We’ve already looked at a couple of items from the latest FBI crime report and some of the dark news revealed within. But when you match up some of their numbers with recent historical facts, even more trends become evident. As the Daily Caller reports this week, one disturbing trend can be found by matching up locations recording rising murder rates with the homes of of widespread riots and anti-police protests.

As we discussed when looking at the rising murder and violent crime rates, the increases are not homogeneous across the country. Much of the spike in those figures is being driven by the shockingly higher murder numbers in a dozen or so cities. What some analysts are now doing is matching up those hot spots with the locations of the aforementioned anti-police protests. The result? The Ferguson Effect is almost undoubtedly real….

Looking at the areas with steep increases in murder rates … , the dots pretty much connect themselves. It starts with the crime spikes in St. Louis, Baltimore and Chicago. Who is associated with those cities? Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald. The first two cities experienced actual riots. While Chicago didn’t get quite that far out of hand, there were weeks of protests and regular disruptions. The next thing they have in common is the local and federal response. Each area, rather than thanking their police for fighting an increasingly dangerous gang violence situation with limited resources, saw municipal leaders chastising the police for being “too aggressive” or using similar language. Then the federal government, under Barack Obama and his two Attorney Generals piled on, demanding long term reviews of the police forces in those cities with mandates to clean up the police departments.

Small wonder that under such circumstances, the cops tended to back off considerably from proactive policing, as Heather McDonald describes it. Tired of being blamed for problems and not wanting to risk a lawsuit or criminal charges for doing their jobs, cops became more cautious about when they would get out of the patrol vehicle at times. And the criminals clearly noticed, becoming more brazen.

The result of such a trend is what we’re seeing in the FBI report. Crime, which had been on the retreat since the crackdown which started in the nineties, is back on the rise.


It is well known that there is a strong, negative relationship between intelligence and crime; that is, crime is more prevalent among persons of low intelligence. This link has an obvious racial dimension. There’s the link between race and crime, and there’s the link between race and intelligence. It’s easy to connect the dots. Unless you’re a “liberal”, of course.

I was reminded of the latter link by two recent posts. One is a reissue by Jared Taylor, which is well worth a re-read, or a first read if it’s new to you. The other, by James Thompson, examines an issue that I took up here, namely the connection between geography and intelligence. Thompson’s essay is more comprehensive than mine. He writes:

[R]esearchers have usually looked at latitude as an indicator of geographic influences. Distance from the Equator is a good predictor of outcomes. Can one do better than this, and include other relevant measures to get a best-fit between human types and their regions of origin?… [T]he work to be considered below…. seeks to create a typology of biomes which may be related to intelligence.

(A biome is “a community of plants and animals that have common characteristics for the environment they exist in. They can be found over a range of continents. Biomes are distinct biological communities that have formed in response to a shared physical climate.”)

Thompson discusses and quotes from the work (slides here), and ends with this:

In summary, the argument that geography affects the development of humans and their civilizations need not be a bone of contention between hereditarian and environmentalist perspectives, so long as environmentalists are willing to agree that long-term habitation in a particular biome could lead to evolutionary changes over generations.

Environment affects heredity, which then (eventually) embodies environmental effects.


Returning to economics, about which I’ve written little of late, I note a post by Scott Winship, in which he addresses the declining labor-force participation rate:

Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) makes the argument that the decline in prime-age male labor is a demand-side issue that ought to be addressed through stimulative infrastructure spending, subsidized jobs, wage insurance, and generous safety-net programs. If the CEA is mistaken, however, then these expensive policies may be ineffective or even counterproductive.

The CEA is mistaken—the evidence suggests there has been no significant drop in demand, but rather a change in the labor supply driven by declining interest in work relative to other options.

  • There are several problems with the assumptions and measurements that the CEA uses to build its case for a demand-side explanation for the rise in inactive prime-age men.
  • In spite of conventional wisdom, the prospect for high-wage work for prime-age men has not declined much over time, and may even have improved.
  • Measures of discouraged workers, nonworkers marginally attached to the workforce, part-time workers who wish to work full-time, and prime-age men who have lost their job involuntarily have not risen over time.
  • The health status of prime-age men has not declined over time.
  • More Social Security Disability Insurance claims are being filed for difficult-to-assess conditions than previously.
  • Most inactive men live in households where someone receives government benefits that help to lessen the cost of inactivity.

Or, as I put it here, there is

the lure of incentives to refrain from work, namely, extended unemployment benefits, the relaxation of welfare rules, the aggressive distribution of food stamps, and “free” healthcare” for an expanded Medicaid enrollment base and 20-somethings who live in their parents’ basements.


An additional incentive — if adopted in the U.S. — would be a universal basic income (UBI) or basic income guarantee (BIG), which even some libertarians tout, in the naive belief that it would replace other forms of welfare. A recent post by Alberto Mingardi reminded me of UBI/BIG, and invoked Friedrich Hayek — as “libertarian” proponents of UBI/BIG are wont to do. I’ve had my say (here and here, for example). Here’s I said when I last wrote about it:

The Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), also known as Universal Basic Income (UBI), is the latest fool’s gold of “libertarian” thought. John Cochrane devotes too much time and blog space to the criticism and tweaking of the idea. David Henderson cuts to the chase by pointing out that even a “modest” BIG — $10,000 per adult American per year — would result in “a huge increase in federal spending, a huge increase in tax rates, and a huge increase in the deadweight loss from taxes.”

Aside from the fact that BIG would be a taxpayer-funded welfare program — to which I generally object — it would necessarily add to the already heavy burden on taxpayers, even though it is touted as a substitute for many (all?) extant welfare programs. The problem is that the various programs are aimed at specific recipients (e.g., women with dependent children, families with earned incomes below a certain level). As soon as a specific but “modest” proposal is seriously floated in Congress, various welfare constituencies will find that proposal wanting because their “entitlements” would shrink. A BIG bill would pass muster only if it allowed certain welfare programs to continue, in addition to BIG, or if the value of BIG were raised to a level that such that no welfare constituency would be a “loser.”

In sum, regardless of the aims of its proponents — who, ironically, tend to call themselves libertarians — BIG would lead to higher welfare spending and more enrollees in the welfare state.


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Disposition and Ideology

In two recent posts (here and here), I’ve drawn a line (perhaps a fuzzy one) between disposition and ideology. I claim that conservatism is first of all a disposition, that is, a temperament or tendency. By contrast, such “isms” as libertarianism, modern (statist) “liberalism”, straight-out socialism (undisguised as “liberalism”), and faux conservatism are ideologies, that is, doctrines or beliefs — though often inchoate and malleable.

An analogous and useful distinction is the one between process and outcome. Temperament is a mental process, a way of approaching politics (among other things). Ideology expresses the desired outcome(s) of the political process. Thus it is that many (most?) “conservatives” in this country are really ideologues who apply the label to themselves, even though they are not conservative by temperament.

In this post I will explore that distinction more rigorously than I have in previous posts. But first I must explain what I mean by politics. It is not just the formal politics of elections, law-making, and other governmental acts. Politics, in its broadest sense, is the means by which human beings regulate their behavior, which usually (but unnecessarily) is divided into social and economic components.

The purpose of regulating behavior — whether the regulation is explicit or implicit, imposed or voluntary — is to sustain or change the modes of human interaction, and the outcomes that derive from human interaction. Politics predates government, and it usually operates independently of government, in accordance with evolved social norms.

In the rest of this post I will address the types of political disposition and the connection between political disposition and political ideology.

MORAL FOUNDATIONS THEORY

Moral Foundations Theory is a good place to start. The Wikipedia article about Moral Foundations describes it (accurately, I believe) as

a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. It was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, building on the work of cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder; and subsequently developed by a diverse group of collaborators, and popularized in Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

Further:

Researchers have found that people’s sensitivities to the five moral foundations [Care/Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity] correlate with their political ideologies. Using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, Haidt and Graham found that liberals [i.e., leftists] are most sensitive to the Care and Fairness foundations, while conservatives are equally sensitive to all five foundations.

(These seem to be solid findings. See “Robustness of Liberal-Conservative Moral Foundations Questionnaire Differences” at YourMorals.org blog.)

This does not mean that disposition and ideology are the same thing. It means only that persons of a certain disposition are likely to hold a particular ideology. Further, Haidt and Graham are wrong to characterize conservatism (properly defined) as an ideology. Granted, it has certain policy implications, but it is not an ideology.

An instrument with five dimensions can yield many different outcomes. Certainly there are persons who are neither fish nor fowl, scoring high on, say, three or four dimensions but not on all five; or scoring low on most or all dispositions.

It’s also certain that many people score high on certain dimensions because they want to give the “right” answers. Do leftists, for example, (a) really “care” or (b) do they respond as they do because (for them) “caring” justifies government intervention? The right answer is probably (b), in most cases.

(For more about Moral Foundations and my score — which conforms to my conservatism — go to “My Moral Profile” and scroll down to Moral Foundations Questionnaire.)

POLITICAL DISPOSITIONS

I posit three coherent political dispositions: anarchistic, conservative, and authoritarian. Persons of the anarchistic disposition probably score low on all five dimensions, with the possible exception of Purity. Conservatives, as noted above, tend to score high on all five dimensions, while “liberals” score high only on Care/Harm and Fairness.

That leaves the field open for the wide swath of “centrist” Americans whose dispositions are as incoherent as their stance on political issues. They are in company with legions of opportunistic politicians, who either lack a substantive disposition or submerge it for the sake of attaining political power and prestige.

Although the incoherent disposition is dominant, it is uninteresting with respect the the connection between disposition and ideology. I will therefore focus on the anarchistic, conservative, and authoritarian dispositions.

THE THREE DISPOSITIONS AND THEIR IDEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS

Anarchistic

The anarchistic disposition rejects authority. This disposition is rarely held, even among persons who proclaim themselves anarchists. Most self-styled anarchists really belong in the authoritarian camp. Theirs is the authoritarianism of violence.

The true anarchist is not only one by disposition but also one by ideology. That is, he believes that there should be no government of any kind. More than that, he believes that rules, including social norms, are oppressive. The true anarchist wouldn’t belong to an organization that promotes anarchy. To do so would contradict his temperament. A true anarchist would live alone, à la Unabomber, fending for himself and avoiding the encumbrances of social intercourse, paid employment, credit cards, etc.

There is nothing more to be said about the anarchistic personality because it is so rare and so withdrawn as to be an insignificant force in matters of governance.

Conservative

The conservative disposition is cautious, but not stuck in the mud. As Michael Oakeshott puts it,

a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight. [“On Being Conservative” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition]

A conservative (by disposition) will respect — or at least inspect — the views of others. A conservative’s default position is to respect prevailing social norms, taking them as a guide to conduct that will yield productive social and economic collaboration. Conservatism isn’t merely a knee-jerk response to authority. It reflects an understanding, if only an intuitive one, that tradition reflects wisdom that has passed the test of time. It also reflects a preference for changing tradition — where it needs changing — from the inside out, a bit at a time, rather from the outside in. The latter kind of change is uninformed by first-hand experience and therefore likely to be counterproductive, that is, destructive of social and economic cohesion and cooperation.

The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.

In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions”. And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by the kind of superior force wielded by government.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior. That behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; that behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

If there is an ideology that comports with a conservative disposition, it should be libertarianism. But I reject the label, as do many (perhaps most) persons of conservative disposition. I reject the label because libertarianism and self-styled libertarians are too often dismissive of the wisdom and social cohesion the flows from voluntarily evolved social norms.

I have dealt with the defects of libertarian ideology at length elsewhere, as I have also explained that true libertarianism is to be found in conservatism. (See this post, for example, and follow the links therein. See also a later post, which takes up the theme.)

If there is an ideology to which I can subscribe, because it suits my conservative disposition, it is a particular branch of libertarianism known as right-minarchism. (See this post for a discussion of right-minarchism in the context of a taxonomy of political philosophies.)

Authoritarian

The authoritarian disposition has no patience for caution. The authoritarian insists on overriding social norms to fulfill his ideology.

What is that ideology? The specifics change with the winds of elite opinion. At bottom, the ideology is a belief that people must be made to behave correctly (whatever that means at the moment). There is no place for trial-and-error. “Reason” and “science” (which are really neurotic emotion and magical thinking) must be made to prevail. Thus force is the preferred instrument of the authoritarian — whether it is the force of mob rule or the force of government.

You will have guessed by now that it is leftists (“liberals“) who are usually authoritarian by temperament. This is no news to anyone who has read about “liberal” fascism. I have written much about it, from many angles. (See this, also.)

Why, then, do leftists score high on Care/Harm and Fairness? I suggested earlier that leftists “care” because “caring” justifies government intervention. By the same token, “fairness” is important to leftists, because once having defined it they can then marshal the power of the state to enforce it.

Even faux libertarians fall back on government to ensure outcomes that they define as “fair”, such as same-sex marriage.

THE LIE THAT WILL NOT DIE

I must end this post by addressing, not for the first time, the myth that conservatives are authoritarian. The source of this canard is psychological projection by leftists. One of the left’s favorite examples of a “conservative” authoritarian is Adolf Hitler. This is a risible example because Hitler was a leftist.

For much more on these points, see “Leftism“, the associated bibliography., and “Liberty in Chains“.


Normally, I would now add a list of related posts, but the list would be intolerably long. If you want to read more of what I’ve had to say about politics and personality, go to these sections of my “Favorite Posts” page:

I. The Academy, Intellectuals, and the Left

IV. The Constitution and the Rule of Law

VI. Economics: Principles and Issues

VIII. Infamous Thinkers and Political Correctness

IX. Intelligence and Psychology<

X. Libertarianism and Other Political Philosophies

XI. Politics, Politicians, and the Consequences of Government

Because I often build on earlier posts, it’s best to start with the more recent posts in each section, and work your way toward older posts.

 

“Liberalism” and Leftism

Dennis Prager, writing in “Leftism Is Not Liberalism” (Frontpage Mag, September 13, 2017), asserts that “liberalism has far more in common with conservatism than it does with leftism.” He continues:

The left has appropriated the word “liberal” so effectively that almost everyone — liberals, leftists and conservatives — thinks they are synonymous.

But they aren’t. Let’s look at some important examples.

Race…. To liberals of a generation ago, only racists believed that race is intrinsically significant. However, to the left, the notion that race is insignificant is itself racist….

Capitalism…. Liberals did often view government as able to play a bigger role in lifting people out of poverty than conservatives, but they were never opposed to capitalism, and they were never for socialism. Opposition to capitalism and advocacy of socialism are leftist values.

Nationalism…. The left has always opposed nationalism because leftism is rooted in class solidarity, not national solidarity…. Liberals always wanted to protect American sovereignty and borders….

View of America: Liberals venerated America. Watch American films from the 1930s through the 1950s and you will be watching overtly patriotic, America-celebrating films — virtually all produced, directed and acted in by liberals. Liberals well understand that America is imperfect, but they agree with a liberal icon named Abraham Lincoln that America is “the last best hope of earth.”

To the left, America is essentially a racist, sexist, violent, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic country….

Free speech: The difference between the left and liberals regarding free speech is as dramatic as the difference regarding race. No one was more committed than American liberals to the famous statement “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

… [T]he left is leading the first nationwide suppression of free speech in American history — from the universities to Google to almost every other institution and place of work. It claims to only oppose hate speech. But protecting the right of person A to say what person B deems objectionable is the entire point of free speech.

Western civilization: Liberals have a deep love of Western civilization…. The most revered liberal in American history is probably former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who frequently cited the need to protect not just Western civilization but Christian civilization. Yet leftists unanimously denounced President Donald Trump for his speech in Warsaw, Poland, in which he spoke of protecting Western civilization. They argued not only that Western civilization is not superior to any other civilization but also that it is no more than a euphemism for white supremacy.

Judaism and Christianity: Liberals knew and appreciated the Judeo-Christian roots of American civilization. They themselves went to church or synagogue, or at the very least appreciated that most of their fellow Americans did. The contempt that the left has — and has always had — for religion (except for Islam today) is not something with which a liberal would ever have identified.

“Liberalism”, as Prager describes it is not liberalism. (More about that, below.) “Liberalism” is several steps down the slippery slope toward all-out leftist oppression. Thus:

It is “liberals” who insist that race is a social construct, and that there are no inherent differences between races. This view has had a lot to do with the creation of wasteful government programs aimed at “uplift”, and with the the theft of property rights and the demise of freedom of association ushered in by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Government’s destructive economic interventions were mainly instituted by “liberals”. Leftists only want to extend the destruction that “liberals” set in motion.

If “liberals” were and are so keen on freedom of speech — and by extension, freedom of inquiry and expression — how is it that research into such subjects as racial differences in intelligence, the deleterious effects of regulation, and natural explanations of climate change have been practically shut down in wide swaths of academia, that bastion of “liberalism”?

FDR was a long time ago, so he has nothing to do with the supposed love of America felt by “liberals”. Leftists are honest (if abhorrent) in their hatred of America. “Liberals” are often so apologetic about being Americans (as in the recoil from Trump’s UN speech) that it’s easy to infer that their hatred is repressed rather than non-existent. In the case of rising and affluent “liberals”, the suppressed hatred is expressed as a love of things European.

With regard to religion, Prager’s use of the past tense is especially telling. Now, “liberals” like Senator Diane Feinstein deem it perfectly appropriate to challenge nominees for high office because of their religious beliefs. “Liberals” are no different than leftists in their obeisance to the god known as the state. In their view, if religion is to be permitted it must adhere to the policies of the state rather than inform (but not dictate) those policies, as intended by the Framers of the Constitution. But the Framers were true liberals, in the old meaning of the word.

Prager has fallen into the trap of mistaking “liberalism” for liberalism, or classical liberalism as it is now called. Classical liberalism eschews government interventions, except to defend citizens against force and fraud. For its restraint, classical liberalism can be thought of as applied conservatism.

But “liberalism” is not liberalism, and therefore not at all like conservatism. “Liberalism” is nothing more than leftism in disguise, and all the more insidious for it.


Related reading: Ludwig von Mises, “Middle-of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism“, address delivered before the University Club of New York, April 18, 1950

Related posts:
Inventing “Liberalism”
Ethics and the Socialist Agenda
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Euphemism Conquers All
Superiority
Whiners
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Retrospective Virtue-Signalling
The Left and Violence
Four Kinds of “Liberals”
Leftist Condescension
The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
The Left and Evergreen State: Reaping What Was Sown
Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm
What’s Going On? A Stealth Revolution
Leftism and the related bibliography

The Dual Life of a Conservative

I suspect that many conservatives who write about politics lead two lives, as I do. One life is the life of intellectual engagement. The other life is the business of life itself: marrying, raising children, working, paying bills, taking the car in for service, buying groceries, and the thousand other things that make the years seem to roll by so quickly.

I suspect that I’m a typical conservative in that my mundane life isn’t politicized; for example:

I don’t choose the companies that I patronize because they support or oppose divestiture of Israeli bonds or oil-company stocks, unisex bathrooms, “green” energy, or any of the other causes du jour. I choose the companies I patronize because they deliver good value for the money I spend or invest there.

I certainly don’t patronize a grocery chain because of its owners’ politics. Why would I waste money at Whole Foods just because its founder, John Mackey, is supposed to be some kind of libertarian?

I didn’t send my children to private schools (of the right kind) so that they could avoid the left-wing indoctrination that prevailed in the public schools where they grew up.

I listen to music and read books composed, performed, or written by persons whose left-wing views are widely known and often evident in their works. Though I won’t tolerate outright preachiness (shut up and sing), I enjoy that which is good on its own merits and disregard the politics of those who create or present it.

I watch most of the shows presented by PBS on Masterpiece, despite the subsidies it receives directly and indirectly from the federal government. Again, it’s a matter of quality over politics. For the same reason I eschew bombastic “conservatives” like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, whose shtick is as boring to me as that of any left-wing commentator.

I have absolutely no interest in the political leanings of the people I meet, and recoil when they insist on exposing their leanings (as leftists are wont to do). I take people as they come; that is, I evaluate them on the basis of their demonstrated competence, honesty, reliability, sense of humor, and likeability.

Most importantly, my marriage remains strong and happy despite the disparity between my wife’s political views and mine.

In daily life, then, my conservatism reveals itself as non-ideological and pragmatic. Non-ideological because conservatism isn’t an ideology, it’s a disposition. Pragmatic because the conservative disposition prefers the demonstrated value of a person or thing to the symbols of virtue or “correctness” which may attach to that person or thing.


Related posts:
More about Conservative Governance
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Internet-Media-Academic Complex vs. Real Life
Rescuing Conservatism
If Men Were Angels
Death of a Nation
Leftism
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness

Rescuing Conservatism

In a reply to a comment about “Psychological Insights into Leftism,” I said this about an article to which the commenter linked:

[T]he writer’s obvious bias is that change is good, which is really rather a stupid thing to believe. It all depends on what the change is and what effects it will have. Second, conservatives aren’t for stability for its own sake, but because — like good scientists — they believe that the null hypothesis (the status quo) holds true until they see strong evidence to the contrary. That is, they actually rely on evidence, not emotion — and it’s unthinking emotion that often fuels leftists. The global warming scare is a perfect example of this.

Which leads me to Chris Mooney, the Discover staffer who commissioned the piece. Mooney is the author of such books as The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — And Reality. There’s a whole lot of psychological projection going on there. Most anti-scientific activity these days is on the left. In addition to the over-hyped and poorly understood subject of AGW (rife with pseudo-scientific charlatanism), there’s IQ (which leftists like to disparage while claiming at the same time to be more intelligent than conservatives), the Keynesian multiplier (a mathematical con game), guns and crime (how are those strict gun-control laws working out for Chicago?), biological differences between men and women (quite real and wide-ranging), the effect of the minimum wage on unemployment (leftists like to cite the one study out of dozens that shows little or no effect), and on and on.

Later in the comment thread, I added this:

A big part of the problem here (and in general) is definitional. Leftists are statists who seek control of others in order to advance a certain agenda. But there are also right-statists, whose agenda is generally the opposite of the left-statists’ agenda. Right-statists are often wrongly called conservatives. They are not conservatives, who prefer to rely on the institutions of civil society, not the state. But the mislabeling allows leftists to get away with calling conservatives anti-scientific and emotional, when they’re really talking about their kindred spirits: right-statists.

Larry Thornberry highlights the problem of faux-conservatism in “If You Like Your Problem, You Can Keep Your Problem” (The Spectacle Blog, April 24, 2017):

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing Donald Trump with a falling job approval rating — 54 percent disapprove to 40 percent approve — has gotten wide print and broadcast coverage. But most of the coverage has been on how Trump’s numbers have been trending, down from February, and how he compares with previous presidents as this point in his presidency, not so very well.

Digging down to some other non-Trump-related numbers in the poll, conservatives, or anyone else who wishes to “make America great again,” will find even worse news. The poll found that 57 percent of respondents, including 28 percent of Republicans, say that government should be doing more to solve problems and help people. MORE!

I suspect that the percentage of Republicans who say “more” would be a lot higher when push comes to shove (e.g., avoiding cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits, preserving pork-barrel spending that they perceive as beneficial to themselves). It’s also noteworthy that the percentage of all respondents who say that government should do more is the highest for 26 such polls, which date back to 1995.

Here’s a case in point, a not-unusual one I think: My late father-in-law had many admirable qualities. He was a career Air Force officer who flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He was a faithful and considerate husband, a good father to his children (though not around as much as a civilian father would have been), a steadfast friend, a good neighbor, and a fount of jokes and song lyrics. He was thrifty (and thus left his widow with ample funds to see her through her old age), and he kept his yard and garden in good trim.

But after my father-in-law’s second retirement (from the job he took when he retired from the Air Force), he became increasingly outspoken about politics. He adopted the conservative mantle and identified himself as a Republican, like many an ex-Democrat Southerner. He grumbled about big government (reasonably enough), but would defend “his” Social Security benefits; denigrated toll roads (as if roads should be “free”); distrusted market outcomes, often stating that the price of something was “too high,” as if he knew what it should be; claimed repeatedly that he should receive free VA hospital care (though his income and wealth disqualified him); railed against illegal immigration while paying illegal immigrants to clean his house; and listened faithfully to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly (a mirror image of the equally rude and blustering Chris Matthews), parroting whatever lines they were peddling at the moment, without critically evaluating their offerings.

Aside from “ordinary people” like my late father-in-law, there are “conservative” bloviators like Limbaugh, O’Reilly (whose downfall I don’t lament), and Michael Savage. If they’re truly conservative, they hide it well. Their demeanor belies their claims to conservatism.

Which is to say that true conservatism is really an unusual state of mind in America. In order to prevent the election of more leftists than are already in office, true conservatives must rely on the influence of bloviators like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Savage, and on the votes of faux conservatives like my late father-in-law. Further, the true conservative must often hold his nose and vote for the lesser of two evils — who, more often than not, will be a mediocrity, hypocrite, or poseur.

What, then, is true conservatism? It is first and foremost a disposition. That disposition leads to an attitude toward governance. I’ve written about this many times, but what I’ve written bears repetition. So here goes.

A key aspect of the conservative disposition, as I said earlier, is skepticism about change, but not steadfast opposition to it. At the heart of skepticism about change is respect for tradition, which, as Edward Feser explains in “Hayek and Tradition,” is

nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience…. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?)

Michael Oakeshott delves more deeply in “On Being Conservative” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays), from which I have quoted at length in this post and this one.  Follow the links (or buy Oakeshott’s book) if you want to read more than these suggestive passages:

[The conservative] does not suppose that the office of government is to do nothing…. [T]he office he attributes to government is to resolve some of the collisions which this variety of beliefs and activities generates; to preserve peace, not by placing an interdict upon choice and upon the diversity that springs from the exercise of preference, not by imposing substantive uniformity, but by enforcing general rules of procedure upon all subjects alike.

Government, then, as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philososphy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

… [A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble…. [H]e will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances are tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment….

… The man of this [conservative] disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down….

Political conservatism is, then, not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’…. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight.

The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.

In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions.” And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by a superior force.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior (which really encompasses economic behavior). Behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

Civil society is, in the main, self-policing — or it was before the Greatest Generation failed its children and the busy-bodies began seriously to destroy its bonds and usurp its tutelary, disciplinary, and charitable functions.


Related posts:
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Fighting Modernity
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
Getting It Almost Right
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)
Consistent Conservatism
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
Liberal Nostrums
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined