Sunday, March 28, 2010

The conservative temperament.

Over at A Thinking Reed, Lee linked this opinion piece by E.J. Dionne (a liberal) who says that conservatism challenges liberalism in three important ways:

  • "Conservatives are suspicious of innovation and therefore subject all grand plans to merciless interrogation."
  • "Conservatives respect old things and old habits."
  • Conservatives have "a suspicion of human nature [i.e., it is fallen] and a belief that humans cannot be remolded like plastic."

    Dionne contrasts this Russell Kirk/Edmund Burke variety of conservatism with the "pseudo-populism" of the Tea Party, which has given itself to the libertarian utopian vision of a diminished, if not eviscerated, government. And no one seriously believes that vision will become reality short of armed revolution. Dionne also points out that traditional conservatism was/is not enthusiastic about an unlimited free market, unlike the much more libertarian Tea Party. "Big business is as dangerous as big government," as the traditionalist conservative Rod Dreher says.

    Dionne is describing what I call (though I'm sure the term isn't original to me) "the conservative temperament". It's the way I described myself for most of the last decade. Not all those with the conservative temperament are mainstream conservatives (see: paleocons) and we certainly know that not all mainstream conservatives have the conservative temperament (see: neocons). Temperamental conservatism is a political attitude, not a political affiliation. It has no platform per se. It does not accept something as true even if a so-called conservative says it. It is suspicious of all utopian schemes.

    But Lee is correct when he says that
    American conservatism has never been limited to this modest version. Since at least the post-World War II era, conservatism has had a positive agenda of dismantling, or at least radically limiting, the welfare and regulatory state; expanding the national security and military apparatus; and defending “traditional” values against all comers. The relation between this movement and conservatism as Dionne describes it has been tenuous at best.
    The conservative temperament doesn't have to be limited to political conservatives. Lee, again:
    Any sane liberalism will take note of the fact that policies can have unintended consequences, that ingrained social habits can’t simply be pulled up by the roots without sacrificing certain values, and that it’s not within the power of government to radically change human nature, as Marxists may have imagined.
    For that reason I doubt many conservatives would be satisfied with having their political beliefs reduced to those three principles. On the other hand, I do wish more conservatives - particularly those affiliated with or in sympathy with the Tea Party - would reacquaint themselves with the the Burke/Kirk tradition. There is a lot of wisdom there, even for those of us who don't consider ourselves conservatives.

    1. Interesting. I do share something of the "conservative temperament" myself in many ways - which shows how far removed Actually Existing Conservatism is from that temperament!

      The point about the utopianism of modern "conservatism" echoes a point Zizek makes about capitalism being essentially utopian (in contrast to the claims of sturdy pragmatism normally made for it). Certainly libertarianism is a utopian position.

    2. Wow. I just made the mistake of opening up the comments thread on Dionne's article. It turns out the result of accusing conservatives of "angry crankiness" is a flood of angry and cranky comments from conservatives. Who knew?

    3. I read the Dionne article as well. My reaction was pretty much the same as Jeremy's: Dionne's conservatism is a valuable thing, but its correlation with the political position called "conservatism" is tenuous at best. (And that does not mean the political position called "conservatism" is necessarily bad either -- it's kind of an apples and oranges thing.)

      But I think we can also say that political conservatism of the Hamiltonian variety (that is, the actual position of American conservatism) has some useful "corrective" things to say about the health care bill (which I guess I would have voted for had I been in Congress, with a heavy heart).

      1) Public debt is actually a good thing in moderate amounts, but it can be taken too far. At some point, it becomes a disaster fairly suddenly, and that point is not predictable in advance, so better not to try to push it too close to the limit.

      2) Social benefits redistribute societal wealth, they don't produce it. Therefore no society can accord its members any right to any social benefit which is greater than the average productivity of the society's members. But popular pressure is always working to try to do this.

      3) At some point egalitarianism cuts into productivity, thus lowering the total amount of social benefits a government can sustainably accord. That point too is not definable in advance.

      The health care bill (reduced to its minimum) said this: in order to prevent the insurance companies from entering the "death spiral" (Krugman's phrase for when insurance companies deal with increasing costs of pay outs by attempting to collect premiums only from people who won't need/get pay outs), and thus keep the concept of insurance operative, one has to a) force everyone to join the insurance system and b) prohibit insurance companies from practices by which they knowingly premiums with the intention not to pay out. Policy-wise, this strikes me as irrefutable (i.e. yes, insurance is in "death spiral" mode, pushed by the increasing cost of available treatment; and yes, that's the only way we can deal with this death spiral). So that's why I would vote for this bill.

      But that said, remember the three rules of Hamiltonianism. The bias of the system will be to either try to use debt to break rule 2 without high taxes (that's the current way it's set up), or to try to use high taxes to equalize conditions, incurring the problems of rule 3.

      If we are going to have this health care system and survive fiscally, it will be important to have people speaking up for rule 1, that is, managerial Hamiltonians. There are not so many of them, and most of them seem to be migrating to the Democratic party.

    4. John:
      It's precisely the increasing libertarianism of the loud and angry right wing that I find myself reacting so strongly against. I can handle conservatives. But the cheerleaders for unlimited capitalism (as if such a thing could ever exist anyway) and those who have no notion whatsoever of the common good are about to drive me crazy.

      That is a very useful list of principles. I'm going to keep that in mind. Would you say that the blue-dog Democrats are roughly "managerial Hamiltonians"? I'm not that familiar with them but that is who I thought of while reading your comment.

    5. Jeremy,
      Well some are. Some are liberal democrats in conservative districts. Some are "fiscally liberal, socially conservative." But I was thinking more along the lines of Fred Hiatt or Robert Samuelson in today WaPo. (I've been away from blogging so long, I've forgotten how to embed a link!) Managing debt and currency is usually a pretty centralized, education-heavy business, which gives the non-elected bureaucracy a big role in it.

    6. You can see a guy like Ezra Klein pivoting from the "ensure access to all for health insurance" to reform and cost control here:

    7. Lee posted on the same day another friend sent me Hayek's essay "Why I am not a conservative." Hayek will make the case for an exactly opposite approach here. And will count Edmund Burke as one of his supporters.

    8. Rick:
      I haven't finished the article yet (very interesting so far though) but I did want to tell you that you are not one of those libertarians that are driving me crazy. In fact, you're the most unannoying libertarian I've ever talked to. Or to put it more positively, you're a very fair guy willing to actually listen to other people's opinions.

    9. Okay, so thinking on CPA's comments have made me rethink my opposition to the current bill - don't know what will come of it.

    10. And yes, I learned how to talk English good at colleges...

    11. Thanks, Jeremy. I didn't assume I was in your sights.


    About Me

    I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.