Monday, January 9, 2012

Conservatism's Other Pole

I've been procrastinating quite a bit lately, but would like to briefly cover some old news.

David Brooks had a column back on December 30th which touched on an important issue.  That is the style of Conservatism that is rooted in family and community rather than the market.

This is the form of Conservatism that is written about by Russel Kirk, who wrote a book I commented on in the early days of this blog.  I can't say I agree on many points with this philosophy but I have a great deal of respect for it.  It poses a number of difficult questions and makes explicit a number of costs of the development of the modern market and society.  Even where I disagree with it, I have to admit that something is being lost with my preferred choice.

I'd contrast this form of Conservatism with the more Friedman/Hayekian viewpoint.  I don't have much respect for this tradition.  That is for the simple reason that I think this view uses an overly simplified notion of humanity, it lacks humility about its conclusions and frequently fails to see how its assumptions rest upon simply ignoring a large number of well established observations.

I see the Friedman/Hayekian road that Conservatism has gone down as being so popular because it took the hard choices and sacrifices that I respected so much in Kirk's view and simply said none of these things are really problems.  Where Kirk thought human nature was such that human choices in the market and in rationalized political systems could never lead to optimal outcomes and that instead we had to respect history, tradition, and community in order to not destroy what we have, the newer viewpoint seems to simply hand wave these problems away and say that rational, optimizing human nature will supply these things through individual competition.  Unlike Kirk, it never seems to stop and reflect if we actually observe this.  It's a vision that has appeal for the same reason as philosophies like Marxism do, they promise that there is some kind of natural law that leads inexorably towards an optimal outcome, provided those laws are allowed to work.  It's simple, there are no real sacrifices, only an ending of privileges that hurt the people that receive those privileges.

As you can tell, I think this is bullshit.  I respect Kirk's philosophy, I may not agree with him on what tradeoffs to make, but I agree the tradeoffs are there.  I disagree with the other Conservative pole that seems to hold there are no tradeoffs, they may mention a tradeoff between security and growth, but obviously, growth provides security so there's really no tradeoff.  Only the optimal viewpoint, mine, and the stupid and shortsighted viewpoint, yours.  Bullshit.  I don't buy this strand of Conservatism's philosophy or outlook, real life is about hard choices between things where there is no clear long run optimum.  Obviously correct long run optimums are the product of dropping considerable parts of the human experience out of the analysis, if you ignore the realities of power, the draw of community, and the actual performance of spontaneous civic associations, such as guilds (or simply redefine ones that perform poorly as government, which I've seen done rather often when the institution is clearly not part of the formal state but its non-state status is inconvenient), only then can you have a clearly optimal solution. 

Sorry, I started ranting.  The main thing I wanted to point out is that I'm glad to see Kirk being brought up again, him, and thinkers like him, don't receive enough attention today.  I think this is one of the big things missing from American politics, we need more discussion grounded in this stuff and the tradeoffs inherent in using the market and rationalized political systems to govern our societies.  There are big advantages to this, but we need someone to focus on what is potentially being lost so that we don't get so caught up in what we may gain that we end up looking back and discovering our world has gotten worse, not better.  Neither party seems to be doing this in America today, instead we have a party of radical change through the market and a party of gradual change through the market and rationalized politics.  We have no one that is mounting a real defense of what we stand to lose if we're not careful.  Conservatism would be better and more effective if people started reading more Kirk and less Hayek and Friedman.

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