The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not that kind of conservative

I probably shouldn't have used the word "conservative" to describe myself as I did in this morning's posting; people will get the wrong idea. I am small-c conservative in that I am risk averse. The larger the system at stake, the less I approve of risks. It's best if a new system can be bootstrapped in parallel with or on top of an old system...

Politically I am a Trudeau Liberal and always have been, since Trudeau showed up. I believe in the redemptive power of the collective in a mixed economy. I am pragmatic but I don't think that means unimaginative. I think any nerd who spent his thirteenth summer at a world's fair would be awfully churlish to deny the possibility that government can be a force for growth, creativity and human dignity. I realize this is hopelessly out of fashion, but I;ve never been a creature of fashion.

In American parlance a "Conservative" can often be someone who doesn't believe that the collective will is a meaningful proposition, and that any attempt to embody a collective will in government is therefore a form of tyranny.

This isn't just not to my taste. It is utterly delusional.

I just picture somebody with an advanced degree in economics from a state university driving down a federal highway sipping coffee made from municipal water obtained from state water projects and beans purchased under terms of international trade agreements agreed to by his senate as he approaches his zoned community using a gasoline supply stabilized by various military endeavors. Such a person can easily be imagined zealously making this argument that there is no collective, and that government is tyranny, perhaps to his attorney or investment advisor, or perhaps even to his children's nanny who has a dubious immigration status and lives in terror of being shipped back to some blighted land where there is no embodiment of the collective will. A person arguing in this stunningly reality-oblivious way is not "conservative" in the sense of risk-averse, nor in the sense of protective of the hard won resources to which we owe thanks to our ancestors and predecessors, nor even in the unsavory sense of protective of inherited privilege.

To call him conservative is an abuse of traditional uses of the word "conservative". No, the word for such a person is "idiot".

I respectfully disagree with those who want to keep the role of government to an absolute minimum on economic reasoning. But the idea that the minimum is ideally zero is just historically ignorant. I always wonder where those people, who somehow think private cars are the ultimate expression of their freedom, think the roads they drive on come from.

20 comments:

Lars said...

On the subject of environmentalism and conservatism...

I wonder how much of the emotional aspect of environmentalism is due to a deep conservatism with regard to the natural world. Not in the political sense, although the feelings that only incremental change can do any good and that the world's best time is past do bear a parallel to the underlying ideas of true political conservatism. I was thinking more of the idea that natural landscapes, ecological relationships and species are worth retaining for their own sakes and shouldn't be devalued out of hand, without examination.

As a former Red Tory, mt, I'll have to agree with you that those who try to palm themselves off as conservatives (or Conservatives, bad luck to them) these days doesn't have much of the conservative about them. What unhappy days we live in, when even the conservatives are cheap, shoddy, new-fangled knock-offs incapable of getting anything right. This really is the Age of Brass.

Sloop said...

Many capitalist libertarian ideologues strike me as ideologically rigid and completely self-delusional as any Stalinist/Soviet communist ever was.

Their fear, ignorance, and material obsessions create the suffering they experience and embody.

Humans are as interlinked socially as ants. How we govern ourselves in addressing the really tough questions of human material, social, and cultural existence is one of the most essential expressions of humanity.

David B. Benson said...

Abundantly clear that Karl Marx was mostly correct about capitalism. It absolutely requires a stabilizing government to keep the monster from its own excesses.

Michael Tobis said...

Lars, Sloop, very well said indeed.

EliRabett said...

If Eli drives like he owns this road it's because he paid for it.

Dan Olner said...

"I always wonder where those people, who somehow think private cars are the ultimate expression of their freedom, think the roads they drive on come from."

Dipping a quick toe into the internets - yes, libertarians do indeed seem to think privately developed roads charging tolls is the way forward.

My favourite quote - when someone pointed out here the problem that transport routes produce natural monopolies, a response was:

In a libertarian world, a monopoly that forces a person to accept an action with no alternate choices would not be allowed to exist. If two parallel roads were owned by separate companies, each company would strive to maximize its profits by providing a service that its customers (drivers) would want to use.

That's market efficiency right there. Presumably, one of the minarchist state's main roles would be breaking up monopolies. In this case, how exactly would they manage to force a second road to be created? (Or do libertarians simply place faith in the market to find the optimal outcome?)

skanky said...

I often use to advocate privatisation of the roads (in the UK) on online fora, just to see what the pro-market people would say to it. It was interesting how few jumped at the idea.

What about the roads that people live on, who would own those? How would they charge tolls?

One starts to think about that scene, in Blazing Saddles, with the toll booth.

Andrew Adams said...

skanky,

TBH, with modern technology privatisation of roads in the UK would probably be feasible. Obviously in residential areas you couldn't privatise each road individually but if the London congestion charge can work I don't see why an outer London borough or a county council couldn't in theory sell of its roads to a private company who would then charge a toll for any motorist entering the area on a given day.

Which is not to say it's a good idea.

Lazar said...

this...

A) "someone who doesn't believe that the collective will is a meaningful proposition [...]"

doesn't contradict...

B) "a state university driving down a federal highway [...]"

'collective will' is often defined as a statistic of individual wills... ultimately there are only individuals... the government is composed of individuals... individuals with their own will... it is arguing *from* a 'collective will' which conservatives oppose... instead of arguments based on real world effects on real world individuals... it is of course a question of balance... we do not want the logic of the ant hill where individuals are crushed... nor do we want chaos where culture and civilization cannot exist (and individuals are crushed)... classical conservative balance is a sphere of autonomy within which the individual can tell the 'collective will' to get stuffed... statistically you may even say that sphere serves the 'common good'... conservatism is pragmatic... though as sloop points out there are fundies everywhere

Ric said...

I did not stumble at all over your use of "conservative". The misuse of "liberal" and "conservative" has been a pet peeve of mine for many years.

For those red-faced hollerers who sputter that any amount of government is too much, I would gladly contribute to a one-way ticket to Somalia, where they could see an excellent example of minimal government close up.

Andy S said...

Perhaps we liberals too often fail to give sufficient credit to the genuine idealism of both libertarians and social conservatives. The bitterness of the political battle between liberals and conservatives makes it hard for either side to see any positive motives in their enemies.

But what's puzzling to this non-American is why the two groups on the political right get along so well when their fundamental stances on personal liberty are so much at odds. Maybe their shared hatred of DFHs and bureaucrats is sufficient to unite them. Or is it because of American religiosity? American libertarians on the whole seem happy to acknowledge God's authority above Adam Smith's (or even Ayn Rand's) and accept the social conservative line on, say, reproductive rights, drug laws and evolution. That's not usually the case in Europe.

Climate change has been taken hostage in this political war and that's a tragedy.

Michael Tobis said...

The argument for private toll roads misses the point. Without eminent domain, i.e., some mechanism for asserting the collective good over the individual good, private roads are as impossible as public ones.

Michael Tobis said...

Lazar, of course there must be spheres where the individual can tell the collective to get stuffed. I am only arguing here that it cuts both ways.

You and I can disagree about the extent to which the collective should be empowered in the middle ground. We seem to agree that there is a minimum and a maximum. This makes us the sort of liberal and the sort of conservative who can compromise and get things done.

There aren't a lot of real communists left. At the moment the greater threat seems to come from delusional libertarians who don't understand that almost everything they value about free society has a collective component, including cars, sports, barbecue, and money itself.

Let us argue about where to put the balance of the private and the collective, the local and the global. Let's get down to brass tacks. Let's talk about issues and tradeoffs. But please, let's leave absolutist ideals to the realm of childhood fantasy where they belong and out of the legislatures.

Lazar said...

Indeed MT.

Lazar said...

Y'know a while back, can't remember where, there was a proposal for fining parents who smoke in a vehicle whilst their children are inside. And I was reading some conservatives suggest that to lock 'their' children in a sealed cage and fill it with their filthy fumes was a *right*. From a distance, it looks insane. It's like they're stuck in the 80's and missing the point. It doesn't make me angry... just kinda sad. I hope that my conservatives can lose the fundamentalist grip... heck, it ain't even traditional.

Lazar said...

"There aren't a lot of real communists left"

part of the problem stems from a failure to adjust to the end of that war and the emergence of new problems... this is more of an issue for conservatives in the U.S. (and Canada and Australia) than in Europe...

Lazar said...

giggle... an interesting interview...

"[RICHARD] ALLEY: I think by making this clear — I go to church, and I am registered as a Republican, that’s true — this at least says, "Now wait a minute. You can’t accuse me of playing politics here" [...] it’s important to say that the interaction between radiation and gases in the air is not red or blue. It’s not Republican or Democrat, or libertarian or anything else. It’s physics."

Lazar said...

h/t for the above to Keith, who on another subject writes...

"See what happens when a conservative has friends who are environmentalists [...] when you have friends who inhabit a different political and cultural universe than yourself?"

Martin Vermeer said...

Long time ago...

:-)

Michael Tobis said...

+1 Martin