Is Optimism Possible?

I have been, for many years, pessimistic about the future of liberty and prosperity in America (e.g., here). I am not alone, of course. The estimable Arnold Kling isn’t as openly pessimistic, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines of his many posts about the present state of affairs. Take this one, for example, in which he writes about

some possible outcomes for the future:

1. The “good left” ([Jonathan] Rauch and others) overpowers the illiberal Woke left. p = .05

2. The illiberal Woke left suffers a catastrophic electoral defeat at the hands of a non-populist right. p = .05

3. The illiberal Woke left and the populist right continue to dominate political dynamics, with today’s level of discomfort or more. p = .40

4. The U.S. experiences an era of Woke totalitarianism that lasts for a couple of decades, but which eventually collapses into something else (not necessarily good) p = .25

5. Academia, journalism, traditional media, and government become empty battlegrounds, as technological change results in very different forms of social organization (call this the Balaji scenario, if you will). p = .25

There is a sixth possibility, or perhaps it’s a combination of Kling’s #1, #2, and #5, with a higher probability that Kling assigns to them.

People, except for a small but loud minority, will simply quit caring about ideology and just get on with living their lives and engaging personally with people who matter to them. This turn of events won’t be obvious at first, but it will begin to show in such ways as the declining use of social media. Astute politicians who have been too quick to embrace “wokeness” will sense the turning tide and begin to moderate their positions in the hope of appealing to a broader electoral base. As things go in politics, this new moderation will catch on. The illiberal left won’t shrink in numbers or volume, but the moderate (i.e., more liberal) left will grow in influence. And there will be much more common ground for the empowered moderate left to share with the sane liberal right (i.e., actual conservatives as opposed to attitudinal zealots). A new center will form around deeply shared values (defense of life, liberty, and property) as opposed to fatuous slogans (defund the police, all whites are racist, etc.). The media, in turn, will embrace this new zeitgeist and quit antagonizing viewers with daily injections of wokeness. And so it will go, until something line the zeitgeist of the 1950s has been restored.

A lot of history would have to be overcome, including (but far from limited to) decades of leftist indoctrination in public schools and universities, massive dependency on big government, political and bureaucratic inertia, and the degree to which key institutions (e.g., schools and media) have become locked in to wokeness. But if history teaches us anything, it is that the tides of human affairs do turn.

I don’t expect to see the tide turn (by very much) in what remains of my lifetime. But I still hold out hope that it will, for the sake of my children and grandchildren and on down the line.

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.