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Tag: conservatism (page 2 of 4)

Brian Barry on Robert Nozick

Here’s something less controversial, courtesy of John Protevi and Lawyers Guns and Money: Brian Barry’s amusing review of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, from 1975.

According to the jacket of the book, “Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia is an eagerly awaited book, widely discussed among philosophers long before its publication.” Sound familiar? Yes, but this product of the Harvard Philosophy Department has the added ingredient: outrageousness. “For,” the blurb continues, “it is nothing less than a powerful, philosophical challenge to the most widely held political and social positions of our age-liberal, socialist and conservative.” I have no idea how true the first claim is but the second seems to me demonstrably false. The book’s conclusions are not in the least unusual. They articulate the prejudices of the average owner of a filling station in a small town in the Midwest who enjoys grousing about paying taxes and having to contribute to “welfare scroungers” and who regards as wicked any attempts to interfere with contracts, in the interests, for example, of equal opportunity or anti-discrimination. There will be nothing unfamiliar in the conclusions of the book to those who have read their William F. Buckley or their Senator Goldwater or have ever paid attention to the output of the more or less batty crusades and campaigns financed by wealthy Texans and Californians. The only thing that is new is that these views are being expressed by someone who is a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard.

Finally the intellectual texture is of a sort of cuteness that would be wearing in a graduate student and seems to me quite indecent in someone who, from the lofty heights of a professorial chair, is proposing to starve or humiliate ten percent or so of his fellow citizens (if he recognizes the word) by eliminating all transfer payments through the state, leaving the sick, the old, the disabled, the mothers with young children and no breadwinner, and so on, to the tender mercies of private charity, given at the whim and pleasure of the donors and on any terms that they choose to impose. This is, no doubt, an emotional response, but there are, I believe, occasions when an emotional response is the only intellectually honest one. The concept of a “free fire zone,” for example, could appropriately be the subject of black comedy or bitter invective but not dispassionate analysis. Similarly, a book whose argument would entail the repeal of even the Elizabethan Poor Law must either be regarded as a huge joke or as a case of trahison des clercs, giving spurious intellectual respectability to the reactionary backlash that is already visible in other ways in the United States. My own personal inclination would be to treat the book as a joke, but since it is only too clear that others are prepared to take It seriously, I shall do so as well…..

Nozick’s vision of “utopia” as a situation in which the advantaged reinforce their advantages by moving into independent jurisdictions, leaving the poor and disadvantaged to fend for themselves, could be regarded as the work of a master satirist, since it is in fact merely the logical extension of pathologically divisive processes already well-established in the United States: the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs while the inner city decays from lack of resources, and the growth of “planned communities” for the wealthy aged and other specially selected groups who are able to shed much of the usual social overhead. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Nozick, jokiness personified in other respects, sees this particular joke, but, thanks to the direction given to public policy by Nixon and Ford and their Supreme Court, the American people have an increasing opportunity to enjoy the joke personally.

For all the contemporary echoes, what I find interesting is the particular rhetoric of the time. The caricature of the gas station owner doesn’t seem like anything that anyone would use today (not even Thomas Frank), nor the particular vision of aspects of the social fabric (middle classes fleeing to the suburbs, planned communities for the elderly, etc.). It’s an unapologetically elitist liberalism that really doesn’t exist any longer. I have no nostalgia for it (it’s exactly this sort of attitude that produces bad books like American Pastoral), but it certainly bears examination as to why it ceased to exist: simple explanations like “the 60s” or “the Great Society” or “the end of the Cold War” don’t really cut it. John Searle evokes some of the mystery in an interview he did with libertarian-mag Reason, in the context of discussing his affection for Hayek:

It seems to me that we don’t have what I would call a political philosophy from the middle distance. Let me give you an example. It seems to me the leading sociopolitical event of the 20th century was the failure of socialism. Now that’s an amazing phenomenon if you think about it, because in the middle years of this century, clever people thought there was no way capitalism could survive. When I was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1950s, the conventional wisdom was that capitalism, because it is so inefficient and so stupid, because there’s not a controlling intelligence behind it, cannot in the long run compete with an intelligently planned economy.

It’s hard today to recover how widely that view was held among serious intellectuals. Very intelligent people thought that in the long run capitalism was doomed, and some kind of socialism was our future. Some people thought it was Marxist socialism, and other people thought we were going to have democratic socialism, but somehow or another it had to be socialism.

Where is it today? It’s dead. Even the European socialist parties, though they still keep the names, are adopting various versions of capitalist welfare states. I would like an intelligent analysis of this, and I can’t find it.

Why did that belief die so spectacularly? I’m not convinced that we even have the apparatus necessary to pose an answer to the question. I think we need a conceptual improvement, and it would be piecemeal. It would be like the additions that Max Weber made when he introduced notions like rationalization, charisma, and all the rest of it.

John Searle in interview

I’d like that too. You have it buried in people like Badiou, but stuff like Hardt/Negri books is pretty weak tea in comparison to what I take to be the gestalt in the period Searle is talking about. You can debate who is and who isn’t a “serious intellectual,” but I think it’s undeniable that the remaining “socialist” faction is very, very marginalized today.

Battle Lines

Reductionistic Framework Alert!

I recently ran across an old essay by Lisp expert, venture capitalist, and general software guru Paul Graham. Graham is a very sharp person and his Lisp books are excellent, but he writes almost exclusively from a prism of an engineering-centric, Manicheistic worldview.

A good scientist, in other words, does not merely ignore conventional wisdom, but makes a special effort to break it. Scientists go looking for trouble. This should be the m.o. of any scholar, but scientists seem much more willing to look under rocks. [10]

Why? It could be that the scientists are simply smarter; most physicists could, if necessary, make it through a PhD program in French literature, but few professors of French literature could make it through a PhD program in physics. Or it could be because it’s clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, and this makes scientists bolder. (Or it could be that, because it’s clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, you have to be smart to get jobs as a scientist, rather than just a good politician.)

“What You Can’t Say”

[10] I don’t mean to suggest that scientists’ opinions are inevitably right, just that their willingness to consider unconventional ideas gives them a head start. In other respects they are sometimes at a disadvantage. Like other scholars, many scientists have never directly earned a living– never, that is, been paid in return for services rendered. Most scholars live in an anomalous microworld in which money is something doled out by committees instead of a representation for work, and it seems natural to them that national economies should be run along the same lines. As a result, many otherwise intelligent people were socialists in the middle of the twentieth century.

Some would call him a representative of “scientism,” which is the pejorative term for scientific positivism. Because I’m equally suspicious of reductionistic worldviews as well as quasi-spiritual appeals to the metaphysically irreducible, I’m not going to attack him for presenting the former and make it look like I’m appealing to the latter. I want to talk about him because I’ve been thinking about the future as the new year has come and I have been looking at depressing statistics about employment and poverty like these.

So I’ve been thinking about the future, and Graham seems to be a pure representative of one side of the two dominant power bases that appear to be duking it out for control of the US right now. The battle is between technocrats and ideologues, Whigs and Tories, libertarians and moralists. To avoid using any loaded terms, I’m just going to create two generic types of my own:

  • Type L: libertarian, technocratic, meritocratic, pro-business, anti-government, laissez faire,  pro-science, positivist, secular, elitist, progress-driven, Whiggish, optimistic.
    “The best should have the power.”
  • Type C: tradition-oriented, pro-status quo, nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, xenophobic, social conservative, pro-business, pro-government (at least in regards to furthering other goals), pro-religion, cronyistic, chauvinistic.
    “The powerful should have the power.”

These are not types of voters, but types of people of influence, people who in some way affect the policies that are being made. It’s my own heuristic. I thought about government policies of the last 30 years, from Reagan’s tax cuts to welfare reform to the health care bill, and then excluded all those people whose viewpoints didn’t seem to be reflected in them. This is what I was left with.

(Type C clearly holds assorted beliefs reflected in my less-funny-by-the-day Taxonomy of Conservatives, while Type L has beliefs called out in the taxonomy as not actually being conservative at all.)

If, like most people reading this, you don’t fit into either of these types, congratulations! Your opinion is probably not relevant to the dominant discourse in America. You’ll notice that what is not covered in these two types is any sort of socialist attitude advocating government intervention to encourage equality and welfare. This attitude appears to have vanished amongst the influential forces in American life, possibly owing to the decline of labor unions. When you realize that Paul Krugman is several degrees to the right of John Maynard Keynes, you see exactly how little purchase any sort of genuinely socialist attitude has in the country.

These two types are darker analogues of the “conservative” and “liberal” classes described by Leszek Kolakowski in his short essay “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” Here are the ideas that fall under his “socialist” type:

A Socialist Believes:

1. That societies in which the pursuit of profit is the sole regulator of the productive system are threatened with as grievous–perhaps more grievous–catastrophes as are societies in which the profit motive has been entirely eliminated from the production-regulating forces. There are good reasons why freedom of economic activity should be limited for the sake of security, and why money should not automatically produce more money. But the limitation of freedom should be called precisely that, and should not be called a higher form of freedom.

2. That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. The kind of conservative anthropological pessimism which led to the astonishing belief that a progressive income tax was an inhuman abomination is just as suspect as the kind of historical optimism on which the Gulag Archipelago was based.

3. That the tendency to subject the economy to important social controls should be encouraged, even though the price to be paid is an increase in bureaucracy. Such controls, however, must be exercised within representative democracy. Thus it is essential to plan institutions that counteract the menace to freedom which is produced by the growth of these very controls.

I really don’t see much evidence of any of these attitudes in any of our ruling elites. Do you? I don’t think of myself as a socialist and I don’t endorse these views over those of Kolakowski’s other two classes, but the absence of fierce advocates for these views amongst the powerful is a really bad thing.

Democrats and Republicans as well as those calling themselves “conservative” and “liberals” each consist of various proportions of these two sides, but the mix is such a mess that I suspect there will be some serious realignment in the next ten or fifteen years. However, since the disconnect between what people say they believe and what policies they actually endorse only seems to be growing, I don’t dare predict what shape this realignment will take. It is very hard to predict how those depressing statistics will affect voting patterns. (Please see Larry Bartels’ “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas? to understand how wrong the conventional wisdom about voter bases can be. Stick with the raw statistics.)

So obviously Paul Graham is Type L and Glenn Beck is Type C. Why divide people in the middle by these two categories? Because this is where the social fissures seem to lie. The sharp engineering Type L’s like Graham want to be left alone so that their genius can rain prosperity down on society. Though they may believe in a social safety net, they are hostile to any sort of traditional authority structure not based in purportedly objective measures of merit. They don’t want to deal with people who haven’t earned their place beside them, and they definitely don’t want to work for them. The Type C’s have no such standard. They like people who are like themselves, and would much rather work with someone who shares their hobbies than with someone smarter than them. Type L will advocate for equality of opportunity and scholarships for smart kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Type C most certainly do not want the best and the brightest of the unwashed masses rising up. They’re still unwashed, after all.

Graham is representative of many science and engineering types, the sorts that the US so desperately cultivated during the Cold War to keep pace with Soviet technology. Now they are cultivated by tech companies. Their strong libertarian streak comes from their (frequently mistaken) belief that talent and skill will deservedly win out and help improve the world, and so the more talented are entitled to more wealth and the fruit of their labors. They are not necessarily Ayn Rand sorts, but they are generally enamored of the view that competition encourages progress and efficiency. (I agree, to a point.)

It is a major mistake to think that the CEOs and bankers of today are Type L. While many of them lack the overt social conservatism and xenophobic stances of many Type C’s, they have no love for what Joseph Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” of capitalism. They have endorsed free trade and laissez faire policies because they have been good for their own interests, but they will beg for government handouts in a second and see no problem with colluding with the government to crush their competition and enemies. Lemon socialism, crony capitalism, socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor; whatever it’s called, Type C loves it. Type L will sometimes, when push comes to shove, concede defeat and accede to a rebalancing of the playing field in the hopes of a better tomorrow. Type C wants the playing field tilted forever in their favor.

This is, more or less, the major reason why Microsoft was sued by the government while banks, energy companies, and so many others were left untouched. Microsoft didn’t think it needed to pal around with the old boy network. They were wrong. Tech companies have learned their lesson and now employ lobbyists as aggressively as those other companies, but their tendency toward Type L put them behind the Type C executives of most corporations when it came to politicking. You can get some idea of whether a company tends toward Type C or Type L by seeing to what extent minorities and women have infiltrated their executive ranks: Type C will keep them out without even realizing they’re doing it. Another good post facto signal for identifying Type L: they sometimes admit they were wrong. Type C will go to the grave believing in their divine right to be at the top of the ladder. While JFK’s “best and the brightest” might have had some loose claim to the title, Enron’s “smartest guys in the room” were so flagrantly not that it dirties the term “intelligence” to claim it for them.

Put in such stark terms, it’s easy for me to pick a side, but it doesn’t make me any happier with the choices.

One of the major annoyances with Type L is how shallow the use of reason often runs, leading to thinks like Graham’s conclusions above. This is not even a problem of scientific positivism per se, but just cursory laziness in its application. Yes, at the top of the heap there are good, searching thinkers like Joseph Schumpeter and a number of other economists, but the majority of the Type L people in the ruling class get their rigorous intellectual precision from Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt, Kenneth Pollack, and other proof-by-anecdote writers. They often commit the fallacy of thinking that others have as rigorous standards as they do, when (a) not only are their own standards not rigorous enough, but (b) others have even sloppier standards.

Paul Graham almost certainly has more raw brainpower than I do, but the mental heuristics used to assess evidence and theories in the hard sciences are usually catastrophic when applied to the social sciences. His statement is doubly ironic because he admits that theories in the sciences are more easily assessable even as he is declaiming The Way People Are with the same certainty with which Newton laid down his physical laws.

Type L are prone to believing in simple social laws for the same reason why scientists have so often been duped by psychics: they aren’t used to being tricked. Psychologists and economists aren’t deliberately trying to trick people, but their theories are built on sand compared to those of math and science, and so what they call a “conclusion” or “evidence” is usually an insult to the history of science. This is why things like Social Darwinism, The Bell Curve, and assorted other “scientific” justifications for inequality persistently make their way into supposedly rational people’s conventional wisdom. (The price of rationality is eternal vigilance. And eternal skepticism.)

For a perfect example of this sort of slippage from quantitative to qualitative, check out the collected works of Richard Posner. True to Type L, he has recently changed his views while still maintaining faith in efficient rational markets. Admitting a failure in the current implementation of free market capitalism is within his intellectual horizon; admitting irrationality into his view of the world is not.

So those are the two sorts of rulers I see. They got along reasonably well for a while, but the continuing economic problems are going to make it harder for them to paper over their differences as frequently. Let’s hope they look out for us all. Happy new year to you all and thanks for reading.

PS: As for the people who aren’t part of the above two power structures and receive their beliefs and dictats in a bewildering variety of ideologies and forms only tenuously linked to the real motivations at work…well, I quote Yes, Prime Minister:

Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers:

  • The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country;
  • The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country;
  • The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country;
  • The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country;
  • The Financial Times is read by people who own the country;
  • The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country;
  • And The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?
BernardSun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.

Three Versions of Conservatism

Reductionistic Framework Alert!

Since “conservatism” has had such bizarre associations in the United States for a long time now, I thought I’d give brief accounts of the three breeds that I most often think of in connection with the classical sense of conservative (that is, the sense that still has something to do with the meaning of the word).

1. Classic Conservatives

These types are drawn from the political literature of the last few centuries.

a. Elitist Conservative

Firm believer in the natural superiority of a small elite. Worries about the danger of the unwashed masses having too much power, surely leading to chaos and mob rule. Thinks they already have too much power. Dismissive of egalitarian doublespeak such as “rights” and “liberty.” Seeks to vest power in the hands of the enlightened, the cultured, and (of course) the rich. Almost certainly belongs to one of these groups.

Religion: None, but thinks everyone else should go to church.

Worst Fear: Jacobins.

Mascot: Alexander Hamilton. Leo Strauss.

Representative Artist: D.H. Lawrence.

 

b. Sentimental Conservative

Loves their country. Loves their country more than other countries. Sheds a tear for the flag. Embraces the beautiful traditions that make his society what it is. Insists on civility, manners, and respect for one’s betters. Thinks they contribute to the benevolence and stability of the culture. Hates to see the traditional order of things upset by multiculturalism, class mobility, etc. Uses “fireman” instead of “firefighter.” Trusts in the benevolent hand of the upper classes to take care of the lower classes. May use the phrase “white man’s burden” unironically.

Religion: The state’s.

Worst Fear: Minorities and immigrants.

Mascot: Edmund Burke.

Representative Artist: Norman Rockwell.

 

c. Cynical Conservative

Ridicules those who think society can be improved. Believes in the fundamental rottenness of humanity. Jeers at futile attempts to improve our lot. Thinks we’re lucky we have what we do. Wildly inegalitarian. Thinks stereotypes are funny because they’re true. Sees liberals as priggish, humorless idealists chasing rainbows. Certain that things will get worse.

Religion: Are you kidding?

Worst Fear: Political correctness.

Mascot: Thomas Malthus.

Representative Artist: Henry de Montherlant.

 

2. Degenerate Conservatives

Each of the three accounts above can degenerate into a less appealing form under the right circumstances. (E.g., today.) Respectively:

a. Natural-Order Conservative

Enthusiastically embraces the status quo. Believes that things are the way God (or Nature) made them: it’s not only useless to try to change them, it’s wrong and distasteful. Thinks people naturally float to wherever in the great chain of being they belong. Admires the Great Men of history. Looks forward to the slow disappearance of society’s inferiors as Social Darwinism takes hold. Failing that, enjoys the labor provided by these inferiors, especially its surplus value.

Religion: Calvinism.

Worst Fear: Not being one of the elect.

Mascot: William Graham Sumner.

Representative Artist: Thomas Carlyle.

 

b. Paranoid Conservative

Turns to law and order to save them from any and all persecutors. Believes the thin blue line needs to be as thick as possible. Fears the great unwashed, lower-class resentment, and teenagers. Looks to religion, law, and any other socially repressive organization to prevent disaster. Jumps to endorse war with other countries, but worries we aren’t at war with the right countries. Never, ever joins the armed forces. Trusts government, usually.

Religion: Any of the Good ones.

Worst Fear: Too many to mention.

Mascot: Roger Ailes.

Representative Artist: Artists are degenerates, but if you must: H.P. Lovecraft.

 

c. Fatalist Conservative

The most boring of the conservatives, liable to talk your ear off with their endless theories of history and the inevitable future of this or that society. Probably has a dim view of humanity, but this is overshadowed by crankish ideas about what humanity must be at each stage of history. Dismisses activism as attempts to fight indisputable truths. Predicts a grim future because the past was so grim and history repeats.

Religion: Their own.

Worst Fear: Other competing theories of history.

Mascot: Oswald Spengler. Arnold J. Toynbee.

Representative Artist: Artists are mere products of history.

 

Update: Non-conservatives

People say I seem to have left out certain types. Hence this appendix.

Libertarian: I assure you that the Ancien Regime really didn’t give a fig for “individual rights,” much less natural ones. Things don’t seem to have changed that much, leaving real libertarians as eccentrics whose unifying trait is that they never hold any actual power. Some of them are exploited as useful idiots, such as the good people of the Cato Institute, who were thrown to the wind by the Republicans once the Cato folks ceased to agree with them). Didn’t see that coming. See The Libertarian FAQ for further details.

Neocon: Haphazardly invading and occupying small but troublesome countries in order to spread freedom or what have you is not very conservative, and quite expensive to boot. Excusable during the cold war, but not anymore.

Objectivist/Capitalist Utopian: Elitist, yes, but the funny thing about most Objectivists is that they think the world is a meritocracy and the people at the top deserve to be there, so if they work hard enough they’ll get there too, if only the government and bureaucracy didn’t stand in their way. Suckers.

Hermann Broch: Geist und Zeitgeist

This essay was written in 1934: Broch is in Austria and Germany, the world is falling apart around him, and he places the blame on positivism? (He means it in the secularist sense, and he reserves special praise for the “unique sensitivity” of the Catholic Church.) I’m fond of Broch’s The Death of Virgil, but when it comes to ideas, his moral conservatism is limp and useless next to the work of Musil and Cassirer.

Hegel’s Conservatism (and McGoohan’s Too)

Again on the subject of Hegel’s conservatism. I’m not really trying to convince anyone here, only to provide a verbal formulation for those who already suspect deep in their hearts that something about Hegel is deeply tradition-bound and backwards-looking. (Whatever his faults, Marx is not guilty on that charge.)

Jurgen Habermas to the rescue, then. He makes two points against Hegel in <b>The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity</b>. The first is that because Hegel cites the need for social and political institutions for human will to express itself, revolutionary movements that sufficiently reject the state don’t qualify as expressions of reason at all, and are therefore invalid. Habermas cites Hegel’s opposition to the English Reform Bill, but whatever Hegel’s political views at the time, I grant him some slack on this point. The notion of these institutions is sufficiently vague that I don’t see an open and shut case against revolution in Hegel’s writings on these grounds alone.

The second point is more damning though. Citing an early 1802 essay, Habermas says:

Hegel distinguishes two kinds of criticism. One is directed against the false positivities of the age; it understands itself as a maieutic of repressed life that pushes out of rigid forms: “If critique does not allow the work and the deed to be valid as the figure of the idea, still it will not deny the quest; thereby the properly scientific interest in stripping away the husk which keeps the inner striving from seeing the light of day.”…Hegel directs another kind of critique against the subjective idealism of Kant and Fichte. Of them it is true to say “that the idea of philosophy has been more clearly recognized, but that subjectivity has striven to guard itself against philosophy to the degree that it becomes necessary to save itself.” Here it is a question of discovering and laying bare a limited subjectivity which closes itself off to a better insight that has long since been objectively accessible. The Hegel of the Philosophy of Right regards critique as justified only in this second version.

Rephrasing: early Hegel is willing to grant the existence of minority and individual movements that strive to actualize repressed existence that the current system is currently suppressing. Later on, he rescinds this point. Hell, he contradicts it, implying that the subjective viewpoint is the object of criticism, and so the model of criticism is not the individual against the group but the group against the misled individual (or group of individuals that view themselves as subjective individuals in an objective world, Kant-style). The misled individual is not a symptom of the social order but merely a localized case of arrested development, to be corrected by the totality. Now doesn’t that sound ominous? Again, I don’t think it quite breaks down cleanly into government vs. individual, but Hegel does want to restrict criticism to those who are doing it thoughtfully and intelligently. Like philosophers.

From whence comes Marxism and left Hegelianism? From this, let’s go to The Prisoner. People everywhere quote “I am not a number, I am a free man!” as some defense of anarchist individualism, but Patrick McGoohan was and is a social and political conservative, and the ethos was far more Hayek than Marcuse. Remember this speech from the final, McGoohan-penned episode?

We have just witnessed two forms of revolt. The first: uncoordinated youth, rebelling against nothing it can define. The second: an established, successful secure member of the establishment turning upon and biting the hand that feeds him. Well, these attitudes are dangerous. They contribute nothing to our culture and are to be stamped out!

And then #6 gets effusively praised for his more thoughtful and consistent form of revolt. It’s arguable if these words are really McGoohan’s own beliefs, but they seem awfully congruent. Either way, it’s the same old manifestation of the elitism that Habermas trashes in Hegel. Revolt has to be done the right way, the polite way, and it must be done in good conscience, fully aware of the stakes of the battle. Otherwise, it’s just mindless violence. If you’re going to be that picky about the right form of revolt, all I can say is: don’t wait up.

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