Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Conservatism is in the Middle of a Web

There is a web of values which we have inherited from our ancestors, a large set which form the moral substance of the ways of life which we love and which make for good and decent lives. They hang together in mutual support in the way that a the strands of a spider web do.

Unfortunately, some of the strands may be pursued monomaniacally. Fetishizing one value over the rest, away one goes off on a tangent away from the central network. One leaves the other strands behind, gives them short shrift, allowing one's preferred thread to trump all the others. Libertarianism is an example of this monomania. Go to a local libertarian meeting. Half the room will turn out to be anarchists. Liberty is a trump, so government is not allowable.

Some of the strands do not fit in with the rest of the web. Moral and political debate is supposed to ferret out these elements and discard them, just as one discovers and erases whichever of the entries in a crossword puzzle is incoherent with the rest.

Some people make fetishes out of an improper strand instead of properly discarding it. An example is the effort to redistribute wealth. There is no justice in the redistribution of wealth. It also does no good. It is a bad value. Yet many base their political points of view on it, fetishizing it, making it trump all the other values in the web. They, too, end up far away from the central cluster of values, out on a tangent. But, unlike the libertarian, they sacrifice all else to a bad value, not a good one.

Conservatism is the intent to preserve the cluster, to prevent any drift of one's morals or of the body politic in any direction away from the center. The cluster is worth preserving. None of the strands in the cluster, whether proper or improper, is more valuable than the entire set.

So-called moderates? They are people who drift from the center in whichever direction, only not very far.

This is a decent picture of conservatism and its alternatives. As I've argued in previous posts, the left-right spectrum is a very poor model.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Conservatism is Indexical

Reader Stephen Krueger writes in:
I've read some of John Ray's writings on the meaning of "right" and "left". What I took away from it is he was defining them as conservative and progressive, respectively. Conservatism meaning a general temper for experience or what came before, and progressivism meaning a temper for changing the standing order. The terms are not to be taken as determining what level of government is acceptable. So your statement: "It means that libertarians are to the right of conservatives, and anarchists still further to the right," doesn't fit.
Well, yes, but there is more to be said.

By "indexical" I mean referring to a certain thing. Political and moral conservatism is a conservative stance about a certain thing; it is not just a conservative stance about anything. And it that certain thing is a certain set of ways of life; it is not just any ways of life. There is a reason that there are no leftist conservatives, and it's not a superficial reason.

Of course conservatives are known for loving and preserving traditional ways of life inherited from history. This being so, one might set of a right-left spectrum in which those who want a new society are on the left and those who do not - conservatives - are on the right. This dichotomy might render the terms "left" and "right" more sensibly than the dichotomy between totalitarianism and liberty. In this way one could not be too conservative and anarchists would not be nonsensically placed to the right of conservatives.

However, this allows for the possibility of communist conservatives, anarchist conservatives, and so forth. In any society in which totalitarianism or anarchy held sway, the conservative, we would have to say, would favor maintaining the totalitarianism or anarchy. You might be satisfied with that sense of "conservative," in which the term applies to anyone who wants to keep his society the way it has been for some time. But this is not the best sense of the term.

The term "conservative" is indexical. It refers to the desire to preserve the ways of life suitable to our nature; "our" is an indexical term, a pointer. Take an analogy: "great lover." We don't mean someone who demonstrates deft and fervently amorous behaviors behaviors about just anything - bicycles, twigs, people, water, string, chunks of ice in Saturn's rings, etc. We mean he does demonstrates these behaviors toward human beings, and even certain human beings, at that, ones worthy of his affections. Similarly a man who reflexively aims to preserve his countries old totalitarian, welfare-statist, or anarchist system is not a conservative any more than a member of the Charles Manson clan would have been had one of them devoutly tried to preserve its traditions.

Therefore, what drives conservatism is human nature. Conservatism aims at obtaining and maintaining moral and political values which are appropriate to the kind of beings we are, which promote our flourishing and enable us to live decent and good lives. Fondness for tradition isn't conservatism without this tether to human nature. Conservatism is a disposition to keep to traditions but within the constraint that the traditions track the facts about human nature. You needn't be fully aware of this tethering and tracking to be a conservative; you need only have a sense that something like this is what you are trying to do in preserving your values.

To be conservative, then, you have to get it right. Conservatism is indexical. If you haven't pointed your conservative dispositions at the right set of ways of life, you are not a conservative. You may be a crank or a reactionary, but you aren't a conservative. You might think you are a conservative, but you would be mistaken, just as a child who doesn't know anything about soccer at all may play with a ball and think he's playing soccer but be utterly mistaken.

There are two points downstream of this. First, the right-left spectrum is still not very helpful here. There is a sweet spot called conservatism in which we get a variety of values right and intend to preserve them. Then, again, there is a variety of directions in which one may diverge from these values: libertinism, anarchism, libertarianism, welfare-statism, and totalitarianism. I suppose if you would like to call the sweet spot in the middle "the right" and all the deviations away from it collectively "the left," then you may. But I don't know why anarchists and totalitarians are leftists. No, the left-right spectrum is not useful.

Secondly, conservatism is indexical but has a less-than perfectly strict threshold for accuracy. If you took yourself to be a conservative but in aiming to preserve all the right values you didn't get everything right, but got almost everything right, then you would still be a conservative. The more you get wrong, however, the more we are inclined to remove you from the category "conservative" and place you in the category of "ideologue" or "reactionary crank." (Do not confuse "conservative" with "reactionary." Leftists can be reactionaries and there are many such leftists about today. A reactionary who will not take any criticism of his tendentious and unproven views seriously but will instead excoriate his critics.) Still, like many other concepts, "conservatism" is one the fulfillment of which doesn't require absolute perfection. This is why conservatism is a big tent. Conservatives have much to deliberate about, to disagree on, and to debate. It isn't easy to get all the right values right.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Cause of the Financial Crisis Was Government Interference

I notice that some people continue to blame "greedy" businessmen and underregulation of the market for the crisis. The idea is that it was they and not the CRA that caused the crisis. One fact adduced in favor of this theory is that most of the bad loans did not go to poor people. That's as deep as the theory goes. It's very shallow, but it gets you to where you want to go: to support for your leftist welfare state and your hatred of free markets.

So, let's rehearse this again. (Prior posts here and here.)

CRA. Must make bad loans. Artificially low interest rates? Why not.

Need to pool risk. FNMA FMAC MBS. Plus CDS/CDO.

Hey. I can dump all sorts of crappy loans into these MBS's! FNMA and FMAC are happy to cover for me. I'll make bad loans to middle class and even richer folk.

I'm making a killing. Flipping houses. Making crappy loans.

All of a sudden: POP! Oh, well.

Now let's go back in time and do this without government interference: without CRA/low interest rates/MBS/FNAC/FNMA.

Ready? Here we go:

Did you miss it? No, you didn't miss anything. Nothing happened. No bubble. No pop.

Let's even stipulate that the government allowed financial institutions to diversify in banking and investment and to get overleveraged. So, what? Nothing happened. It would have been a great world.

But alas, we live in this world, in which government interference is considered normal and in which the bad effects of stupid and immoral businessmen are amplified beyond belief, rather than squelched by market forces. Oh, well, at least it gives the leftists a chance to claim the crisis as a reason for even more government interference.

There will always be stupid and immoral businessmen. It's almost as unavoidable as stupid and immoral politicians. The free market and prudent laws are normally able to crush these people. But government over-interference in the market is not unavoidable. It is purely optional.

Government over-interference in the market kills and ruins lives by the million, yet you continue to support it because you hate the rich, you find in your pseudo-support for the poor (you give nothing to charity) a satisfactory facsimile of moral depth, and because you believe that this time, after all the failures of the last 100 years, a welfare state will finally work. You still believe that Keynesian stimulus will work someday because you hate the alternative: the free market. You still hate the fact that tax cuts for investors stops recessions. In fact, you are so far gone that all you need to dismiss these concerns is to wave your hand at the notion that moneyed forces have raised them. You are so far gone that you are all but satisfied by "that's just health insurance company propaganda" as a retort to every argument against socialized health care. Etc. You really are in quite a state of befuddlement. And you're proud of it.

You should re-examine your beliefs. Start by considering whether they are based upon hatred, rather than fact. Part of the problem is that much of your university education taught you that critical analysis means inventing moneyed interest behind every argument against your leftist ideology. This has crippled your intellect by allowing the muscle that dissects actual arguments to atrophy. You also have lost hold of the notions of the rights to life, liberty, property, free association and contract, and so forth. You have a lot to reflect upon.