July 13, 2006

Conservatism, part 3

This conversation with Gordon has been fun, and hopefully will continue. I appreciate him taking time to dialogue with us and hope that some of my other readers might join in.

This has spurred me to think about the ideological underpinnings, or perhaps, lack of, to our political dialogue. This isn't a shot at conservatives or Gordon, merely a reflection of American history. We have never been an ideological people. As many European observers noted, we have a penchant for pragmatism. Turner explained that as a product of the frontier.

I suspect that I could quiz many liberals and find them struggling to define what liberals believe. Most of our current beliefs are in the "any thing but W" camp. But I am not convinced that Gordon is presenting (no offense intended, of course) a clear apology for conservatism as a principled ideology.

If I were a conservative.... well, I used to be.

But if I were to defend conservatism, I would start with the fear of an encroaching centralized state. I would suggest that governments have historically been the dominant actors that locked people up without due process, or loaded them onto cattle cars. I would stress that if individual liberties meant anything, they had to exist in a system that cautiously guarded those precious liberties. If I were to continue, I might then try to defend the market economy as the "invisible hand" that offered the best opportunity for ulitimate fairness and predictability, in an essentially darwinian sense, and that those who were left behind or run over by that market system became the responsibilities of the moral framework outside government.

I can argue the first point with some conviction. It seems to me that governments are a threat to personal liberty--ours included. In my study of the past, I understand the fear that government grows almost like a living beast. I have studied the inner workings of Bureaus that began with small intentions and then grew into behemoths that required constant feeding well beyond their intention. I would, and could argue that government has to always fear that explosion.

I could also argue, since I am really unclear on this even as a liberal, that government action can encourage a kind of dependency. I am not talking the mythic welfare queen of Reagan fame, but in many walks of life. In fact, I would argue that many self-identified conservatives bash government and welfare dependency without recognizing how much they benefit from some kind of government action--government action that if withdrawn, would dramatically alter their lifestyle. Perhaps not as much as the welfare mother who relies on government to feed her kids, but still dramatic.

I would argue rather convincingly that as a person of faith, I hate war and any forms of violence, but also recognize that this is a violent world. I would, and have, supported a strong military.

I could do much of that with conviction...

But then my defense crumbles, especially since the modern (read recent) conservative movement, the one who lambasted Clinton for Ruby Ridge and Waco has become rather shockingly complicit in the erosion of civil liberties. I would further argue that the free market economy, so loved by many conservatives, is largely a construct--more mythic than real. When the late Ken Lay had access to either the Clinton administration or the Bush/Cheney "energy" panel, the free market is not free. Certainly not for those smaller energy producers who lack the resources of Kenny Boy.

Further reading suggests that the agricultural market is also incredibly unfree. My small farmer relatives believe they raise cattle in a free market, but don't seem to realize that ADM artificially manipulates the price of cattle to maximize their own profits and market share.

I would then recall the warnings of Eisenhower against the military industrical complex and wonder how dangerous our current military situation is made more dangerous by the tremendous profits of war. I would look at the role that Haliburton plays in public policy and suspect that old Republican General was on target.

Ok, enough for tonight.


ubub said...

I find the "if I were a" and "I used to be a" kinds of comments to be really interesting. At their best, they can show an honest struggle to understand and come to terms with a differing (not necessarily opposing) viewpoint. In this sense, they are illustrative of how one understands that viewpoint and can provide a basis for further discussion and identification of points of agreement and disagreement.

At their worst, they can serve as disingenous parody in which "if I were a" and "I used to be a" seemingly provide legitimacy to caricature. In these cases, the tactic exaggerates differences and glosses over potential points of agreement. It is not true dialogue, which is oriented toward understanding, but a rhetorical cudgel used to beat the opposition (because this tactic necessarily frames the other party as opponent) into admitting the error of their ways. David Horowitz, a "former liberal," is an excellent example of this.

As I read the exchanges between Streak (who I know) and Gordon (who I know only through his writing), I truly appreciate the implicit and explicit attempts to grasp the others point of view. Both writers have stayed engaged and on point, and each has acknowledged common ground.

To the extent that either can be read as parodying or misrepresenting the other's view, it is reasonable to consider that as a representation of their understanding of the movement/philosophy with which they associate the other. It is refreshing to see how each has refined their thinking, either by acknowledging common ground or by articulating their position more clearly.

This is the kind of thoughtful engagement, dialogue, and reasoned debate that will help to transform our electoral map from Red v. Blue to purple. Perhaps a more appropriate way to think of this is a transformation back to Red, White, and Blue where all involved can recognize others' desires for the best for our nation. Thanks, gentlemen.

Gordon N. Trenchard said...

Well let me say that I too have enjoyed this conversation, and I thank you for you civil tone, and your willingness to engage with what I've written. And, I'm also pleased that ubab has found these arguments rewarding. I actually believe there is some truth to Ubab's suggestion that "conservative or liberal movements [are] merely constructions that bear little resemblance to the philosophies of most individual conservatives or liberals who might be associated with those movements in the minds of others" Case in point: Pat Robertson's conservatism is pretty diffrent from that of David Brook's. But if conservatism and liberalism are just constructions (and what "ism" isn't when you get down to it), they are useful constructions, as we know what a conservative and a liberal is, although defining exactly what a conservative and liberal is can be quite challenging. This is one of the reasons in another post I said I can't define conservatism, but I know it when I see it.

As for your post I actually agreed with alot of what you wrote. I just don't see conservative coherence falling apart at the end because of Enron and ADM. Under a liberal system, even though you may have more oversight, won't companies still find ways to cook the books and manipulate markets in their favor? As for civil liberties, I don't really think there have been any real abuses (I suspect my saying this is going to make your hair stand up on its edge). I would make a better defense here, but to defend the various policies I would have to go through each one and explain why it's not a problem and it would just take up too much time (kinda of a cop out, but I just dont feel like doing it...maybe if you pick one civil liberties abuse I will respond, but this really isn't my favorite subject as it reminds me of why I'm glad I'm not a lawyer). My general opinion is that people tend to have an overly simplistic view of many of these alleged abuses, and that they can usually be answered quickly.

Streak said...

Gordon, sorry for the delay. As you might notice, I have written on a few other issues of late.

I understand that defining conservatism and liberalism is a challenge, but it sure appears to me that the modern conservative movement--as much as I can tell--seems fundamentally opposed to notions of liberalism, rather than simply wanting "less" as you suggest. I am reminded of Grover Norquist (close advisor to the Prez) saying he didn't want to kill government, but make it small enough to drown in a bathtub. I am not sure where that kind of government could act positively on civil rights, the environment or worker safety--even in a smaller sense that you seem to support.

As for your second paragraph, I would suggest that Bush's suggestion that he can name an American citizen as an enemy combatant and incarcerate him indefinately--qualifies as a pretty stark attack on basic civil liberties.

As with regard to companies and regulation, I am not sure saying that they will find ways around regulation is a very good reason not to regulate them. That describes every regulation and criminal act on the books--we could just as easily say that there is no reason to criminalize tax fraud, because the rich will always find ways to cheat on their taxes anyway.

I firmly believe that government can (and should) operate more as an ombudsman between the citizen and various interests. But what is more troubling, is the merging of corporate and political interests as if they are the same thing. Who, then will speak for the average citizen?

I would suggest to you that Bush has given us a government for the corporate interests. In fact, I cannot think of any Bush decision that has alienated the corporate bosses. It isn't good public policy, and I am not even sure it is consistent with conservative values any more than it is with liberal.