Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Importance of Borrowing from Outside your Specialty

This post is to clarify yesterday's post [continuing the discussion from Douthat's post], I think I let the various pieces of it get away from me and interfere with the whole. The central idea I was getting at is that the epistemic closure faced by conservatives comes not from any weakness in their starting principles or in a lack of creative thought within the intellectual circles in their discipline but instead from a lack of engagement with the developments of other disciplines. There have been advances in several fields that hold implications for political thought and too many conservative writers seem to be either simply ignoring this or rejecting it as products of a biased liberal academia and not actively engaging with and giving a conservative interpretation to these new ideas. Last post I mentioned solely those ideas of greatest interest to me, and not particularly clearly. There are a few others, such as behavioral economics, which I also believe liberals have engaged with more fully than conservatives (at least at the level I'm aware of through the news) although there is nothing inherently liberal or conservative about these ideas. The other advances are ones I mentioned last post (though I must apologize for being less clear than I could have been), such as the collapse of what is known in comparative politics as the modernization paradigm, which draws from history and economics as well as political thought, and the introduction of culture to thinking about economic and political development. These ideas have made the development of the government, society, and markets more complex than it was in earlier theories of political thought, which has implications for political thought on domestic politics, like it or not. I will not pretend to claim that these ideas have provided new solutions to many intractable political problems, after all it is much easier to find flaws than it is to provide solutions, but I do see more evidence that liberal political thinkers have at least started to try to engage with these ideas than I do that many conservatives have.

This may be due to the ideas talked about in McArdle's post, academia has been uninviting to conservatives preventing their ideas from gaining traction. However, whether or not the development of new ideas in other fields reflects a liberal bias in academia, these ideas cannot simply be dismissed because they proceed from a more liberal starting point. They still have to be dealt with and are more properly seen as a critique of the entire range of political thought rather than simply an extension of existing liberal thought. I would concede it is plausible these ideas are in areas that liberals will find easier to adapt to, that is the consequence of not having enough conservatives active in other academic fields. If liberal bias is an accurate critique however, this most likely means that there are areas still to be explored that would make liberals more uncomfortable than conservatives that remain under-researched. Until these ideas are researched and enter mainstream academic discourse however, conservatives will be forced to deal with the implications of new ideas even if they are at a disadvantage. To do otherwise is to risk obsolescence, however unfair the playing field has been made by structural issues in academia.

Proceeding from this idea, and to give a more concrete example, I am often struck by how often critiques of liberal thought by conservatives seem to be stuck on ideas about liberalism that seem out of date. Conservatives do not seem to have accepted how much ideas from other fields have influenced contemporary liberal thought. The most obvious form of this, though I will admit this is infrequently heard from more intellectual conservatives, is the constant critique of liberal ideas as being socialist. There are at least a couple of problems with this, one is that socialism is a critique of liberalism and that while there is some overlap and some ideas traded between groups there are very different philosophies behind each even when an isolated policy is defensible through both philosophies, and a second that specifically applies to this discussion. This is the increasingly common rejection of notions of deterministic historical development. This may be slightly problematic for some conservatives who believe in retaining a high degree of fidelity to current interpretations of historical documents or that our historical political and economic institutions offer a best available balance; the notion that our development was simply contingent and under continual evolution requires a more active defense of our historic institutions, though it does not refute their value.

However, the rejection of determinism is pretty much fatal to the socialist interpretation of history. No longer can the view that we are proceeding towards a new socialist society be sustained, there is no clear movement towards this goal and institutional changes do not show this form of direction. While hardly the only flaw, the rejection of a deterministic reading of history completely undermines the socialist notion that there is a progression from traditional production, to progressively more advanced forms of capitalism, and eventually to socialism. Without this framework much of socialist thought is unsustainable (though there are certainly variants that seek to address this criticism, I just don't think they are particularly relevant to modern liberal thought). While this idea is not usually articulated in discussions of domestic policy, I think virtually all liberals (at least the ones that have given some thought to these topics) would agree that history does not show a clear historical progression, that the current form of society does not represent some kind of "end of history," and that current political developments do not represent progress towards a convergence of development, such as socialism. This is something of a digression but I think it is necessary to show how the logic of modern liberal thought has become completely antagonistic to classical socialist thought, which conservatives do not seem to have yet acknowledged.

[This is admittedly somewhat simplified, so a caveat follows. I think virtually everyone on the left would reject the notion of convergence on socialism but I am less certain they would reject the notion there is some degree of convergence in limited areas. They would also disagree a great deal on the specific institutions heading towards convergence and would likely agree that not all political institutions are heading towards convergence.]

While it took a little while forming the argument, this is why I think many liberals feel so baffled at the constant conservative attacks on policies as being socialist. Socialism has been moved past and is increasingly regarded as a dead end philosophy, though where there were particular good ideas in the broader philosophy these have been stolen by other philosophies and in some cases been developed into theories that are offshoots of socialism, even if the theory at its roots is dying. As a completely distinct political philosophy however, the socialist narrative has failed and its logic exposed as fundamentally flawed (there are still socialists that would disagree with this but I don't think this is inaccurate in the broad sense of where most researchers are heading). While there are some remnant parties most have increasingly evolved away from their socialist roots and adopted other philosophies not entirely compatible with actual purely socialist thought. Different ideas are being used and attacks on liberal policies as socialist completely misses the philosophy behind them and ignores how ideas have evolved.

This is but a single example of how liberal thought has taken into account the developments in other disciplines which have changed the nature of its core ideas. As well as how other developments have caused the collapse of one of the branches of classical 19th century thought. By not recognizing how deeply their political opponents philosophy has changed and by trying to frame policies in a logic that has been rejected conservatives are preventing their own evolution. To people that have grown up with different philosophical approaches and been educated in them many of the conservative critiques seem antiquated. They are trying to fight the battles of decades ago against political opponents that have been evolving rapidly by borrowing from other disciplines rather than staying with the political principles of their intellectual roots. If conservative thought is not to become obsolete it must do the same and engage with other disciplines in a more constructive fashion rather than trying to stay true to their classical intellectual roots.

Tomorrow I'll be continuing this as a series. I'll be focusing on how the big political ideas that require greater reflection and development have happened in the international and not domestic sphere. Still jumping off the ideas in the discussion referred to by Douthat, I think that conservatives have retained too much of an intellectual barrier between developments abroad and their thinking of domestic policies. Since the big political developments have been international this has made their ideas seem more static since they have not fully engaged with the biggest political developments of the past 20 years. The barrier between domestic and international politics is thinner than it has been at probably any point in history requiring an honest assessment of the relation between the two levels of analysis.


  1. Doug,

    As a favor, give me a nudge when you think I am drifting between topics too much. It's a bad habit that I'd like to break out of ASAP. I think I was better with this post but a second opinion will help me correct course more quickly.

  2. Tz, I agree. This is much better and it met the key test that what I thought you were saying in the first paragraph was clearer by the last paragraph. My nudge might be this: informally try to do a few posts in a row in, maybe 250 words or less.

    In blog world, concise is key, I think. If you are hoping to attract new readers, it's hard to get people to read long essays on blogs. To the extent you blog to develop your own thoughts, I think economy is key to clarifying your own view.

    Now, to the post itself, I really appreciate the way you are thinking about things. There's an extent to which the right feels not wrong and not even vapid to me but unmoored. It seems clear that government is bad, but not why. It seems clear that old-fashioned is better than new fangled but not why.

    A little off topic, but regarding statism, Reagan and Bush 41 era conservatives understood that big bureaucracies aren't good at a lot things and the small-government argument was principally a practical not a moral one. Today it feels like the people pushing back against the scope of government seem morally opposed to government with no practical rationale.

    More to your point, the nostalgic emphasis of the contemporary right also feels pulled away from its own rationale. It's my understanding that a lot of the 20th century British conservative intellectuals made the argument that institutions should not be lead culture but follow it. That feels right. But the idea that institutions should act to preserve culture is the worst alternative of the three.

  3. Hmm, Doug thanks for the nudge. While I think a topic now and then does require an essay to address and is worth the time and space of writing it, looking over my posts so far I think I have been writing too many essays and not enough short posts. I will try to change gears. Since I am a bit verbose 500 words may be a more doable short term goal, but we'll see.

    Unmoored sounds like a good way to describe the right at this particular moment. I really like you're comments on statism, the difference between a practical argument against a large state is much better than what I hear currently. It seems people are too focused on state as % of GDP and not enough on concrete instances of efficiencies and well thought out alternatives.

    My favorite comment though was your last line. I think that deserves its own post to be developed further. I think the biggest problem with government is when it tries to preserve the way things were as an end in and of itself. While not the only source of wasteful spending, I think it may be the most destructive.