Friday, December 31, 2010

Raising the Conservative Game

Ring out the old, ring in the new. 2010 was a great year for conservatives, as this center-right nation lurched away from a left-liberal central government. But what about the future? What really is our vision; what do we want to accomplish for America and what do we want America to become?

Here are some basic ideas for raising our game.

  • No more Moral Equivalent of War. Way back, a century ago, philosopher William James proposed to replace war (which, in 1906, seemed on its way out) with the Moral Equivalent of War to inspire the youth of the world with high purpose. It sounds like a wonderful idea until you start to think about it. If you are going to rally the youth of America to some great political project, and you screw them up to a moral-equivalent-of-war fever, then you are bound to set up a moral equation: good vs. evil, us vs. them, inclusion vs. exclusion. At least, in the old days of the nation state, the us vs. them was Americans vs. the rest of the world. But when you do the moral equivalent of war instead of real war, you end up dividing America; you end up with the moral equivalent of civil war. Thus, people that oppose the war on poverty are mean-spirited; the people that oppose civil-right legislation are racists; the people that oppose saving the planet are deniers. Conservatives believe in something higher than the moral equivalent of civil war.
  • Yes, there is a free lunch. When Milton Friedman and other economists railed that "there is no such thing as a free lunch," they were opposing the typical welfare state politics that takes money from Peter to give Paul a free lunch. Paul's lunch ain't free, chaps. Peter paid for it. But, as Deirdre McCloskey writes, again and again, there really is a free lunch, Virginia. It is the free lunch we have gotten from a bourgoisie, innovative and free. Today, food costs less than 10 percent of income, against 80 percent in 1800. We have tons of clothing, rather than one suit of clothes for work, and one for Sunday. Life expectancy at birth is 80 instead of 30. And it takes 10 hours to travel from London to Seattle instead of 10,000 hours. If that isn't a free lunch, I don't know what is.
  • The difference between state and society. Scratch a liberal and when they talk about the needs of society they are talking about government programs. Surely, we can understand that the only thing the government can do is declare war and break things, or take money from Peter to pay Paul. But the whole point of society, of social cooperation, is what goes on between consenting adults outside the cockpit of force. We conservatives long for a society in which force, government force, is constantly being pruned back, instead of luxuriantly growing, year on year.
  • The war on the poor. A century ago, you could say that something had to be done about the poor suffering in squalid slums. In fact, of course, they were doing much better than a century before, at least in the developing West. So now we have showered material goods on the poor so that the poor are fat and the rich are thin. But in doing so, we have demolished the culture of the poor. Their families are reduced to mother and children; their work culture has been ruined by government welfare, and their authentic institutions, the benefit club, the labor union, the ethnic association, have been bombed out of all recognition. Liberals did this, and they need to understand that their cruel, corrupt, unjust, wasteful, and deluded government programs are the bombers that devastated the poor.
  • The Greater Separation of Powers. Our American founders gave us a government of three branches. They created this divided government as a defense in depth against political power. But now we need to go further, to construct a new bastion against power. We need to extend the idea of the separation of church and state into a separation of the political sector and the moral/cultural sector. Liberals have a meme that describes what we must avoid: "legislating morality." Yet they do it all the time, writing criminal laws to criminalize behavior they regard as immoral or unethical. Let conservatives counter with a new meme: "Don't criminalize immorality." We've got to find ways for naming and shaming bad behavior rather than criminalizing it. We also need to separation economy and state. The last 100 years is a story of the exploitation of the economic sector by the political sector, and it stinks. Money is worth 1-2 percent of its value a century ago, and politicians plunder the economic sector at will. This must end. The economic sector needs clear signposts and rules; it cannot thrive in a thicket of activist-inspired regulation.

Conservatives have one great near-term goal, the repeal of ObamaCare. That's great, but then what? In Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) we have a champion of spending restraint, as he cuts waste and shames the bureaucrats that repose on their sinecures. But you can't change America just by pruning and cutting. You've got to have a vision of the future. And we know, after the century of Big Government, that the great social needs of humans just don't get met by the liberal culture of compulsion.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Force: Liberals Playing With Fire

First we thought it was just ordinary government incompetence. Now we understand that the slow snow removal in New York City after the Christmas snowstorm was actually a work slowdown organized by the supervisors in the city Sanitation Department. According to reporters for the New York Post:

Selfish Sanitation Department bosses from the snow-slammed outer boroughs ordered their drivers to snarl the blizzard cleanup to protest budget cuts -- a disastrous move that turned streets into a minefield for emergency-services vehicles, The Post has learned.

The supervisors are upset, apparently, over "a raft of demotions, attrition and budget cuts."

This shows, in a graphic way, the problem with allowing the government to do anything beyond fighting wars. Everything in government comes down to a power play. You would think that, in an emergency, the natural human instinct to come together would rule over petty interests and bureaucratic battles. But it turns out that in the modern centralized administrative state even the most basic functions of government, the recovery from a natural disaster, ends up sacrificed to the god of political power.

Conservatives and political scientists take note. This is the Achilles heel of our liberal friends. They just don't have a clue that government is force, and politics is power. If you let the government perform some service then it will turn it into a fight.

The great question for mankind, the social animal, is to find out how to limit the brutal cost of force and compulsion. In The Faith Instinct Nicholas Wade tells how, in hunter-gatherer societies, religion played a vital role in reducing the need for force. One strategy is the concept of divine punishment. "In small societies, the person who takes on the role of enforcer exposes himself to general resentment, not to mention retaliation from the miscreant or his relatives." It's usually best to get everyones' agreement and have the miscreant killed by one of his relatives. Alternatively, you can persuade everyone that God will punish miscreants, that God knows everything we do, and will punish misdeeds either in this life or the life to come.

A system of supernatural punishment carries enormous advantages for a primitive society. No one has to assume the thankless taks of meting out punishment and risk being killed by the offender or his relatives; the gods perform this chore willingly and vigilantly.

No legislation is needed. No police force is required. The question that must come to every concerned citizen is: Why do we have the expensive apparatus of legislation, police, courts, jails, and parole officers? And why have we dispensed, in a significant degree, with the notion of divine punishment? In my view, it is because we can afford it. We can afford the enormous expense of the force machine, whereas the primitive society cannot.

But, you may say, can we afford it? Can we save the planet when we are wasting precious resources on policemen, hangmen, and jailers? It's a good question.

Historically, of course, the development of penal institutions have paralleled the attack on divine punishment conducted by our liberal friends. Liberals wanted to do a bunch of things that the gods had traditionally disliked. They wanted to free themselves from social control, particularly on the sex front. Liberal men wanted multiple sexual partners. Liberal women wanted liberation from exploitation by the patriarchs. But the problem is that you can't limit the damage. If the gods don't care about sexual license then what do they care about? And when the gods aren't in control, you have to erect the vast apparatus of government compulsion that is so much a feature of our modern age, and which creates so much resentment among the non-liberal citizenry.

My advice to our liberal friends is to get back to some kind of supernatural punishment system. Maybe Gaia cares so much about the planet that she will punish people for environmental crimes without needing an expensive EPA. And if she cares about saving the planet, maybe she will expand her powers to other important areas of social control.

Either way, it is clear that the more government we have, the more we will place ourselves at the mercy of bloody-minded sanitation workers and their ilk, for whom nothing exists except their selfish needs and the satisfactions of wielding political power.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

McCloskey Wrapup: Big Fact vs. Big Mistake

The great theme that runs through Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Cycle thus far--in The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity--is the Great Fact. In the past two centuries the prosperity of the average human has risen from a life at $1-$3 per day to the present $30-$137 per day in constant dollars. For the average human, the difference is at least an order of magnitude. If you isolate on the fortunate United States and you account for improvement in products and services, e.g., airplane travel, the difference is two orders of magnitude, meaning that the average person swings 100 times the products and services that his ancestor enjoyed two centuries ago. This has never happened before in history. Never.

Back to start: Conservatism's Big Problem.

Now you would think that everyone would be sitting back gob-smacked, as the Limeys say, but in fact they are not. In fact just about everyone is pretty peeved about the whole thing, from conservatives that mourn the corruption of manners to Marxians--McCloskey prefers "marxoid"--insisting that the whole thing has been achieved on the backs of the workers. But for me the most telling objection to the Great Fact is the responsible prediction that McCloskey extracts in Bourgeois Dignity from John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy. Call it the Big Mistake.

Mill again: "It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object: in those most advanced, what is economically needed is a better distribution, of which one indispensable means is a stricter restraint on population."(p.384)

Here we see the foundation of the 20th century and its centralized administrative state, supervised by a wise and disinterested educated elite. Here we see a forthright manifesto of force--benevolent, sensible, avuncular force, of course, but force nonetheless. Mill was saying that the only way to extend the benefits of the industrial revolution to the poor was by force, and the only way to prevent a population explosion was by force.

And Mill was wrong. Dead wrong. At the moment he was writing a nobody of the name John D. Rockefeller was just starting to reduce the cost of illuminating oil from 80 cents per gallon to 8 cents, and a nobody of the name of Andrew Carnegie was about to reduce the price of steel by two-thirds. Not to mention that in 1871 a chap called Orville Wright was born in Ohio. Not to mention that in 1870-71 about four people in four different countries reinvented economics with the marginal revolution.

On the population front, of course, we now know that middle-class people possessed of fantastic prosperity don't fill the world with an excess population. If anything, they need to be firmly walloped with a wet noodle and told to get a life and get some kids on the ground.

What we know today is that all that political force of the last century was unnecessary. The modern economy, driven by a bourgeoisie dignified and free, would have covered the poor in riches without all the government programs because, indeed, the staggering rising tide of the modern free lunch, the free lunch of cheap energy, cheap steel, cheap travel, cheap food, cheap everything, created a world in which the poor are fat and the rich are thin. And all the while nobody noticed. Or if they did, they complained because it wasn't good enough.

Let's say it again. Governments in the United States, as faithfully recorded and broadcast by usgovernmentspending.com, spends the following in FY 2011.

Government Pensions$1.0 trillion
Government Health Care$1.2 trillion
Government Education$0.9 trillion
Government Welfare$0.8 trillion

If the poor get rich along with everyone else, what's the point of four trillion dollars of compulsion every year?

Yes, you say, but what about government education? Surely that is worthwhile. Not really. Not according to Deirdre McCloskey. Once a family gets literacy, she argues, it never loses it.

Then male literacy in England rose to perhaps 30 percent in 1580 and to 60 percent by... the 1750s... My father was the first in his family to graduate from university... All of his three children did likewise... [B]oth of my two did, and doubtless my two grandchildren will, too.
McCloskey's Norwegian ancestors "were reading by the late sixteenth century, and never stopped." And all of this without compulsory government education.

But McCloskey is perhaps too optimistic. Perhaps there is a way to extinguish literacy. It is called the welfare state. Here is the testimony of police Inspector Gadget in Britain:

I once saw a bloke in custody, who was in my year at Ruraltown Comp[rehensive]. The Sergeant asked him if he could read and write before offering him the custody record to sign. He said he couldn’t. I interjected. ‘I was at school with you buddy, you can read and write for God’s sake’ he said ‘I used to be able to but I forgot how’. He hadn’t had to read or write anything for 20 years, so he simply forgot how. An ‘agency’ for everything, all on a plate. A filthy mean little plate, but a plate none the less.
The reason that most people acquired literacy over the past millennium is that it was useful to them, very useful. It kept them out of the mine and the stone pit. It qualified them for good jobs indoors. But when the government will give you money for nothing, what's the point?

The point is: when you find you are doing something wrong, something stupid, stop doing it.
Three hundred years ago slavery was ubiquitous; 150 years later it had become a scandal. Two hundred years ago, absolute government and its centralized administrative bureaucracy was a scandal. Today it is ubiquitous.

But big government doesn't have to stay ubiquitous. We can change it. We can make it a scandal again.

If we believe in the "bourgeois virtues" and if we believe in "bourgeois dignity" that people should have the dignity and the freedom to innovate for the benefit of each other, then there is only one thing to say about the vast centralized administrative state inspired by the Great Mistake of good old buffers like John Stuart Mill and what we might call the Great Lie of the not-so-good folks like the post-1848 clerisy of intellectuals and activists.

The saying has a familiar ring to it: "This Shall Not Stand."

And now, five years later, Bourgeois Equality, here.

Friday, December 24, 2010

McCloskey Week: The Messenger

The message of Deirdre McCloskey's mammoth Bourgeois Cycle -- in The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity -- is that good old bourgeois culture and ideas are a mammoth blessing on humankind. Whatever middle-class people say about middle-class prudence, the bourgeoisie is not a One Big Thing class. It practices all the virtues, devoted to the sacred as well as the profane. And it is the triumph of bourgeois dignity, the success of innovation and the good old college try--over aristocratic pride and peasant doggedness--that has elevated humankind from a perilous life consuming $3 per day to the present US consumption rate of $120 per day, a change that has particularly benefited the poor.

Back to start: Conservatism's Big Problem.

But what about the messenger? Deirdre McCloskey is perhaps more interesting than her message, for Deirdre McCloskey started out life in 1942 as Donald. Only in the 1990s did s/he take the plunge and decide to become a woman.

Thus we have the most unapologetic apology for the bourgeois culture and capitalism being written by a transsexual. The conservative heroine of our time is a GLBT chappie or chappette.

And not just that. McCloskey is a multi-disciplinary writer, an economist, expert in economics and economic history who is also well-read in philosophy and literature and culture. On top of that, she affects a girlish style that no woman-writer-wanting-to-be-taken-as-seriously-as-a-man would ever dare to essay.

In my view, we conservatives have needed a Deirdre McCloskey for decades. We have needed a serious political philosopher that knew the foundations of the grand western project but also knew all the ins and outs of recent cultural thought, the modernisms and post-modernisms that leaves most conservatives non-plussed and resentful.

The great question of the coming years is what comes after the century of big government and the centralized administrative state. Its ruling class has been, in McCloskey's words, the post-1848 clerisy, the cultural and intellectual movement that appeared on the radar in the revolutions of 1848 and has dominated culture and politics ever since. Our task is to delegitimize this cruel, corrupt, unjust, wasteful and deluded movement and substitute something else in its place. We cannot do this without thinkers that "know the best that has been said and thought in the world" in the words of Matthew Arnold, and are not afraid to shout it from the mountain-top.

Something tells me that the utterly shameless Deirdre McCloskey is just what the world has been waiting for. God does indeed play dice, and He does indeed like a cosmic joke. So the idea that the conservative future should be midwifed by a flaming transsexual girlishly arguing for a return to the virtues and a celebration of bourgeois culture and dignity is so crazy that it must be right.

And Deirdre McCloskey has only just begun. Volume three of the Bourgeois Cycle is already written, and three more volumes are planned.

McCloskey calls her books "The Bourgeois Era," but I think she is mistaken. Her project is of Wagnerian scope, and her bourgeois project is just as over-the-top as the Ring Cycle. So, for me, her bourgeois project is nothing less than "McCloskey's Bourgeois Cycle."

Next: Big Fact vs. Big Mistake.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

McCloskey Week: It's Not What You Think

What was it that propelled the economic Hockey Stick of the last 200 years, the step change in economic prosperity from $3 per day back than and since forever, versus the $120 per day in economic prosperity we enjoy today?

Back to start: Conservatism's Big Problem.

Never mind that. What about the things it was not, the plausible reasons for modern prosperity that writers from Marx to Weber floated before the world, and that turned out to be wrong, wrong, wrong?

Most of the second volume in Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Cycle, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the World, is given over to exploding the "reasons" that the educated class have come up with for modern prosperity. It was not:

  • Thrift, Greed, Protestant Ethic. Sorry chum. There is no indication that thriftiness was uniquely in fashion in the 18th century. In fact it is likely that the crucible of the industrial revolution, Britland, has always been moderately un-thrifty. Same with greed. You think that people were less greedy in ancient times? How about the plains of Ilium? And recent scholarship says that Catholics have just as much of a Protestant Ethic as Protestants.
  • Capital Accumulation. A lot of people have assumed that the industrial takeoff could not have occurred without a lot of saving, a storing up of capital to finance the takeoff. But it didn't happen. The textile revolution was financed out of personal savings and modest capital improvements.
  • Oppression, Stealing.It wasn't financed by starving the workers, or the profits from the slave trade, or the ill-gotten gains of the enclosure movement. For one thing, a lot of the industrial revolution took place away from the center in out of the way places, organized by nobodies, where economic regulation could not find it.
  • Transportation. It wasn't transportation improvements, although they didn't hurt.
  • Coal. Nor coal. Although it helped.
No, it wasn't all the economic materialist reasons that all the experts want to believe. It wasn't education either, because innovation is typically transfered directly from one person to another.
No, according to Deirdre McCloskey, it all comes down to dignity--just like in Singin' in the Rain. It was dignity and liberty for ordinary people. She quotes Dr. Johnson:
That the attempts of such men [projectors] will often miscarry, we may reasonably expect; yet from such men, and such only, are we to hope for the cultivation of those parts of nature which lie yet waste, and the invention of those arts which are yet wanting to the felicity of life. If they are, therefore, universally discouraged, art and discovery can make no advances.
Any new project, Johnson goes on, exposes "its author to censure and contempt" and if people were discouraged by contempt or stopped by censure nothing would ever get done.

And that is exactly McCloskey's point. If anything is to change in this world, people have to believe in change, and the rest of us have to resist our instinct to prevent it. We have to take the attitude of Samuel Johnson and look with tolerance, even approval, upon the mad projects of the projectors.

Next: The Messenger.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

McCloskey Week: The Moral Case Against Obamanomics

Writes Peter Wehner in Commentary and The Weekly Standard about the current political situation:

[I]t does strike me that a compelling moral argument on behalf of conservative economics specifically, and capitalism more broadly, has been sorely missing from the public debate.

Well, you could start with the moral case put forward by Deirdre McCloskey in her Bourgeois Cycle -- The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity. She says, more or less, that the difference between our modern middle-class society and the previous oppressive regimes is the revaluation of the things that bourgeois, middle-class persons do.

Back to start: Conservatism's Big Problem.

Under the old regime we had an "elite of Brahmins and warriors [living] by the dignified collection of rents and taxes imposed on the lower classes."

So now in the liberal welfare state we have liberal Brahmins and tenured class warriors living on the dignified proceeds of the progressive tax and regulatory system.

What is needed, in McCloskey's terms, is a reevaluation of the worth of liberal activities: taxing, spending, regulating, dividing, blaming, subsidizing when compared with bourgeois activities like innovating, producing, serving, building, anticipating, trusting, cooperating, competing.

It seems, against all odds, as though this is actually happening. That is why the Democrats are sitting around in a state of shock. Because, against all odds, the Great Recession of 2007-2009 has resulted not in a frightened populace eager to be led to safety but an angry Tea Party pointing the finger at bailouts and handouts to favored Democratic political constituencies.

The heart of McCloskey's argument is that it was not thrift, or a Puritan ethic, or the transport revolution, or the piling up of capital, or coal, or the slave trade, or imperialism that created the freedom of the past two centuries. That's not what created the economic Hockey Stick of the last two hundred years that has built an economy where the average American spends $120 per day instead of $3 per day, and can live a life of greater scope and moral depth than under the old daiy necessity of getting food.

The difference was that, for the first time, the bourgeois code of innovating and inventing and adjusting was valued and appreciated rather than considered low and dishonorable. It is not surprising that the central idea in left-wing rhetoric from Marx to the Fabians to today's "progressives" is to damn the middle class, the higgling of the market, and the people that bury us in goods and services, the evil corporations. The whole point of the class warfare strategy is to marginalize the people that respond to market changes, that anticipate the needs of the consumer and make a lot of money out of it.

The net-neutrality push by liberal foundations is a prime example of this. God forbid that internet providers should start charging a premium to people downloading movies and videos. People have rights!

A central argument of McCloskey is that we are what we think. We got the society of freedom and the economy of innovation because people got out there and said freedom is good, innovation is good. Liberals are going around saying regulation is good, free stuff from the government paid for by the rich is good.

The moral case against Obamanomics centers around the moral case for freedom and the right of people to order their lives without getting permission first from the government.

This shouldn't be that hard. Government screws up everything it does, and the policy of force that is buried in every government program always leads to tears. If we conservatives and libertarians can't convince the American people of the moral and practical worth of our ideas for each individual American, then we deserve a generation of Obamas and their big government delusions.

Next: It's Not What You Think.










Tuesday, December 21, 2010

McCloskey Week: Bourgeois Dignity

What did it? What was the cause of the Hockey Stick? No, we are not talking about Michael Mann's hockey stick, the spurious "hide-the-decline" surge in global temperatures in the last century. We are talking about the real hockey stick, the extraordinary surge in human well-being in the last two hundred years.

Back: Conservatism's Big Problem.

As Deirdre McCloskey reminds us, time and again in her Bourgeois Cycle, right through volume one, The Bourgeois Virtues, and volume two, Bourgeois Dignity, we are talking about a staggering change. In 1800 humans on average subsisted on about $3 per day in today's dollars. Today, in the United States, we each of us get to dispose of $120 per day. That is forty times the spending of two centuries ago.

And even that really underestimates the change. I recently watched the promo movie at the Boeing visitor center at Paine Field, Washington. They had a shot of a Mayflower-style ship. In the days of sail, it took thousands of hours to get from London to Seattle. Now you can do it in ten. And there are a whole bunch of other things we have today which weren't available to the richest and most powerful of humans two hundred years ago.

The key thing that changed, according to McCloskey, was not technological change, but a cultural, rhetorical change. About three hundred years ago, around the North Sea, societies started to respect the commercial bourgeoisie and the things that it did. It allowed, for the first time, the bourgeoisie to do what comes naturally, to innovate and change things.

That's why McCloskey would rather not call our present economic system "capitalism." The real essence of the modern era is not capital, piles of money, or ruthless accumulation. It is the spirit of innovation, of seeing an opportunity and taking it. "I seen my opportunity, and I took it," said the ward-heeler George Washington Plunkitt. We should call our modern system "innovation," she writes. What happened is that, about three hundred years ago, people stopped ragging on the bourgeoisie.
People stopped sneering at market innovativeness and other bourgeois virtues exercised far from the traditional places of honor [in religion, politics, and war].
All of a sudden, the traders and the merchants were according a dignity and a liberty they had never had before.

Even so, people really didn't realize what was happening. In the mid 19th century, the classical economists didn't really grasp that everything had changed. It was Macaulay, the last of the Whig historians, who really understood.
If any person... after the crash in 1720 [had told that] in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams,... that London would be twice as large... and mortality would have diminished to one-half,... that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit... as they gave to Gulliver's Travels.
Of course our lefty friends still don't want to credit what has happened. That is because they can't get beyond the first stage of every capitalist improvement. The first person to benefit from a new idea is the capitalist innovator and his profit. But then the competitors rush in and everyone benefits from the innovation.
[T]he profits from innovation go in the first act mostly to the bourgeois rich. But in the second act... the poor get better off in real terms.
Of course, some people do suffer from innovation, and we have often not done enough to help them. Our liberal friends, the folks that McCloskey calls the clerisy, in the years after the failed revolutions of 1848--and indeed ever since--insisted upon seeing the capitalist economy as cruel and unjust.

But surely you cannot say that the principal cause of a rise in income from $3 per day to $120 per day was the cruelty of the capitalists in grinding the faces of the poor working class. Or indeed that it was the legislation of the welfare state. The increase in wealth was caused by innovation, middle-class entrepreneurs released from the bonds of age-old prejudice against risk-taking innovation, and allowed, finally, to do their stuff without being put in the stocks.

And when the opponents of the bourgeoisie got their way, in Russia, in Germany, in China, in Cuba, misery and poverty ensued.

You can't say all that enough, and Deirdre McCloskey, in her Bourgeois Cycle, says it. Again and again.

Next: The Moral Case Against Obamanomics.

Monday, December 20, 2010

McCloskey Week: Conservatism's Big Problem

There's a problem at the heart of the modern project of conservatism in America, and it's a simple problem. How can you hope to convince liberals of the truth of conservatism when conservatism is based upon three-hundred-year-old ideas?

F.S.C. Northrop identified the problem precisely in his Meeting of East and West.
The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Hueman scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate.
The secular religion and the politics of our liberal friends is based upon this faith. British empiricism and the American founding fathers are all very well, but they cannot speak for the modern era. Hence the need for an educated elite, a "living constitution," and a big federal government. As if to underline this, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot has absolutely no references to Immanuel Kant.

Sorry chums. If the conservative mind has nothing to say about Kant, whose transcendental idealism points in a straight line to Einstein, relativity, and quantum mechanics, then it's not going to appeal to the broad community of thinkers and doers of the modern era.

So what conservatives have needed, like an oasis in the desert, is a thinker to put the conservative case in the context of the entire three-ring circus of modern thought, starting where Hume left off with Kant, continuing through Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and the preenings of the postmodernists, and then ending up saying: well, that's all very well, but these chaps ultimately missed the point, and here's why!

I am pleased to announce that this prophet of conservatism has now emerged. Her name is Deirdre McCloskey, and her work is a grand apology for the middle class, an over-the-top Bourgeois Cycle built upon Wagnerian principles just like the Ring Cycle. That is to say: it is long, it is ambitious, it is insufferable, and it is brilliant. And it may never get finished. McCloskey is now 68ish, and has only finished the first two volumes of her multi-volume epic.

OK, so what is all the fuss about?

In the first volume, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, McCloskey argues for a return to virtue, all seven of them. Although the bourgeoisie insists that it is a practical venture, an effort of pure prudence, bourgeois actions belie this. The commercial middle class practices all the virtues, the four cardinal, masculine, pagan virtues of: Prudence, Temperance, Courage, and Justice; and it also practices the Christian, theological, feminine virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.

The trouble is that the clerisy, particularly the post-1848 clerisy, has turned against a multi-faceted faith in all the virtues, and has plumped instead for the One Big Thing. In Kant, it was Duty.
Kant made a mistake in rejecting as a constituent of ethics the unreasoning particularities of philosophical anthropology or philosophical psychology.
A very guy thing to do, of course. No woman in her right mind would or could come up with a One Big Thing narrative of meaning. Although some have tried.

In Bentham the one big thing is utility. In Marx, the big thing is labor. It is a materialist view of life:
If virtues cannot be connected to self-interest or genetics, to utility or power, they are, in the early twentieth century philosophical term of Vienna and Cambridge, simply "meaningless."
McCloskey calls this the "Prudence Only" approach of the modern era. But Prudence-Only is not how the world works, and particularly not how the bourgeois middle class works. That's important because it is the commercial bourgeoisie and its virtues that has brought the western world from $3 a day of real material consumption in 1800 to $120 a day in the US today. Meanwhile the Prudence Only materialism of socialism and communism has created nothing out of nothing. What is needed is a return to the virtues, as the movement of virtue ethics has been doing since 1958.

You can see, very easily, how this sort of thinking solves the conservatism problem. It is exactly what conservatism has needed. We want a thorough discrediting of the One Big Thing ethos, which for modern American liberals means that liberals get to call all the big shots because they are more educated, more evolved, and more knowledgeable than the average bitter clinger. We want someone who can argue the hind tails off the liberals all day, and then go out and party all night. And now we have got it.

Next: Bourgeois Dignity.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Liberals Please Step Aside

Everything is set for a new century of growth, writes Walter Russell Mead, except for America's political class.

America has everything it needs for success in the twenty-first century with one exception: a critical mass of thinkers, analysts and policy entrepreneurs who can help unleash the creative potential of the American people and build the new government and policy structures that will facilitate a new wave of private-sector led growth.

It's the intellectual class that's the problem. It is backward looking and reactionary. In several ways.

  • Support for statism. "Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. " Yeah. I'll say.
  • Interest and class. "Most intellectuals today still live in a guild economy. The learned professions – lawyers, doctors, university professors, the clergy of most mainline denominations, and (aspirationally anyway) school teachers and journalists – are organized in modern day versions of the medieval guilds. " Actually, I would say that the liberal guilds are caricatures of the old medieval guilds, which were, at bottom, self-governing social organizations perched perilously under the warrior aristocrats that ruled the age. The liberal guilds are little more than political pressure groups. They are not true "mediating structures."
  • Training gap. "We are much less effective at teaching and supporting people who are able to master the essentials of many complex subjects, integrate the insights from this kind of study into a coherent social or political vision, and communicate what they have learned to a broad general lay audience. " Hmm. The trouble with this sort of thinking is that it assumes the continuation of the current bureaucratic administrative elite. Suppose that the new elite to come doesn't operate that way. Suppose it operates more by spontaneous association and the promotion of ideas and leaders from below instead of the top-down processes of today. Suppose that the future is Tea Party, not Anointed Ones?

Actually, all this is beside the point. The big question, in my mind, is whether our current liberal elite--the "clerisy," the Class of 1848, the New Class, the educated elite, whatever you want to call them--will have the decency to leave the stage without pulling the scenery down around them, and the rest of us as well.

The foundational assumptions of American intellectuals as a group are firmly based on the assumptions of the progressive state and the Blue Social Model. Those who run our government agencies, our universities, our foundations, our mainstream media outlets and other key institutions cannot at this point look the future in the face.

Who cares? Don't look the future in the face, liberals, if you don't want to. The trouble is that liberals don't want to let the rest of us, who do want to look the future in the face, take power and get on with America's future. Because the whole point of modern liberalism since its invention in the culture of the revolutions of 1848 is political power. It wasn't ever really about the working class, or women, or minorities, or gays, or whatever. It was always and only about the power of the intellectual class.

What these chaps cannot face is that the ordinary chaps who really made a difference in the industrial age, men like the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Edisons, were not men from the intellectual class, nor did they have pretensions about themselves. Nor were they interested in political power. They just wanted to build their businesses in the intoxicating days of the 19th century. When they had strutted their hour upon the stage they were quite happy to go home and let someone else take over.

Unlike today's intellectual class.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Liberal Syllabus of Errors

Whether or not President Obama has done a number on Republicans (by increasing spending in the tax-cut compromise) or betrayed his Democratic base (by abandoning his promise to raise taxes on the rich) the fact is that the Bush tax rates continue. And the battle for the mind of America continues.

Absolutely critical is what the professionals call "messaging." We conservatives need to hammer away at the fundamental things that liberals have got wrong and persuade the American people, the moderates in the middle, that the liberals have got it wrong. As in:

  • Corporations are evil. Corporations are big institutions that make products and deliver services to people. Since the limited liability corporation emerged in the mid 19th century the prosperity of the ordinary person that works for or buys from big corporations has sky-rocketed at a rate unprecedented in human history. Ordinary people that have been protected from big corporations in socialist countries and in the Third World have not done so well. This is evil?
  • The rich should pay their fair share. The rich already pay more in tax as a percent of reported income than the middle class. How much more do you want? The record is that as you lower tax rates on the rich they mysteriously report more income. So, it seems from a practical point of view that if you want to tax the rich you should find a sweet spot that encourages them to fire the lawyers and tax accountants and just pay up.
  • Inequality is the problem. Hey, it's morally tricky that some people make more money than others. Some people make obscenely more. But all we know is that, in the last two hundred years, the societies that didn't worry too much about inequality experienced the most increase in general prosperity while the societies that worried most about inequality experienced the least increase in prosperity. Anyway, once you let the government start messing with equality it merely starts to shovel money at the government supporters, irrespective of need. Government supporters just come to get defined as deserving and government opponents defined as undeserving. How unequal is that?
  • The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The majority of the poor in the United States cool their houses with air conditioning and own automobiles, and live in houses that, on average, are the same size as the the average house in Europe. And, of course, the poor benefit from the startling increase in life expectancy of the last two centuries. The poor are immeasurably richer than they were two hundred years ago. But then so are the rich.
  • Americans are racists. Let us put it this way. In the last two hundred years there has been a sea change in the way that humans think about people who look different from them. Call it the influence of the Enlightenment or global commerce. In this move liberals were often a couple of inches in front of the rest of us. But often liberals have exploited race for political power, as in Affirmative Action, diversity, and racial quotas. In general, ordinary Americans have shut up and kept their heads down in the race wars while liberals have pontificated and shamed and blamed. Except for one shining moment in the 1960s liberals have plenty to be ashamed about when it comes to race.

Well, that will do for today. But it is an important subject. If we are to curb liberal political power we have to persuade the American people of the utter folly and utter delusion of liberal ideas and liberal talking points. And the next two years, as liberals try to squirm out of the mess they have got into, will be crucial.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Trust in the Slum

Suppose we accept that in the rarified air of high commerce that the economy runs on trust.

But what about life at the bottom? What is it like in the mean streets of the western inner city What about commerce in the slums of the third-world city? There, surely, you will find naked capitalism, where the rich get richer, the strong survive, and the poor go to the wall.

The poor don't write, but researchers do, and we have recent research on life on the mean streets of the underclass city. According to Hernando De Soto, commerce in the informal economy of Lima, Peru, is all about gaining the trust of the consumer. According to Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, life on the South Side of Chicago, where President Obama used to community-organize, people struggle along with a remarkably entrepreneurial will. And in the third-world slums of Hyderabad and Africa, enterprising education entrepreneurs run schools that outperform the government schools. When there are any.

Hernando De Soto described the informal economy of Lima, Peru, in The Other Path twenty years ago. He tells the story of the Andean peasants moving to Lima in the teeth of bumbling opposition from the political system and the formal business sector.

The peasants needed property rights, to build houses, to earn a living, and the political system, oriented towards the exchange of favors, did not understand. The politicians and the bureaucrats made it almost impossible, mainly by suffocating bureaucracy, for migrants to live and work in the city legally. What could the migrants do?

One way that peasants could earn a living was by selling goods as a street vendor.

Street vending is illegal, but the peasants did it anyway. In 1986 when De Soto conducted a census of street vending in Lima, he found over 91,000 vendors. Street vendors start as "itinerant" vendors, with no fixed location. Vendors soon establish a fixed route every day so they can establish a reputation for reliability and earn the trust of their customers and credit from suppliers. But, of course, itinerant vending with a limited supply of goods cannot earn as much as vending from a fixed location on the street, so successful vendor soon finds a place to set up a barrow or a stall illegally on the sidewalk. If it's a good pitch, he is soon joined by other vendors. This competition is beneficial, because it helps create a critical mass: "vendors realize that the safety, cleanliness, quality, and variety of goods available" affect the volume of customers and the power of numbers helps to defend them against the government and competing interests. Eventually the successful street vendors combine to build a "minimarket" and then move off the street into permanent markets that they have combined to build and operate. Denied access to the institutions that are supposed to reward trust and reliability, the newcomers to the city must create their own culture of trust without the assistance of the formal legal system. The process is clear. These rural peasants combine to win formal property rights out of a society that hardly knows they exist, and resists their attempts to earn a living from the burgeoning city.

Informal trading is not the only off-the-books activity in Lima. New housing is typically built by "invasions" of state-owned land on the periphery of the city. Mass transit is furnished by informal bus companies that operate in a curious no-mans-land between legality and illegality. And there is a vast economy of small-scale manufacturing that operates outside the law in order to hide from expensive labor laws and business regulations.

The story in The Other Path is clear. The immigrants to the city want to establish property rights for themselves. But they find that they must deal with a political system for which power and the exchange of favors is the only true reality. So they must fight for the right to acquire property rights in their housing and their employment.

That's a sober thought for Tea Party Americans as we struggle with the favor factory of the modern administrative state. How do we convert this corrupt culture of compulsion and its divisive political warfare into a culture of social cooperation, a world where people can abandon the trenches of political attrition and work together to serve each other and benefit society with their wealth-creating skills? How do you reform a political system so that there is less politics?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Life after Liberalism

Women yearn for love; men yearn for victory. Our liberal friends yearn for the perfect ten-point program. Alas, our dreams are fantasies. Yearning for love, women live with the grief of loss; yearning for victory, men live with the humiliations of defeat. And liberal government programs end in perfect failure.

The beginning of wisdom is to dissolve our fantasies, to surrender to loss while ever keeping the light of love shining, to accept defeat while continuing to fight the good fight. But what of the perfect government program?

For two hundred years our liberal friends have pursued a chimera. They have longed to create a perfect world of peace and justice through a system of centralized administrative government. Their method has been to remove certain socially necessary activities from the economic sector and subject them to the administrative control of the government, the political sector. This, of course, has the effect of stripping these activities of their social character and reducing them to a transaction of force, for government is force, and politics is power.

Each act of force is the victory of the strong over the weak; it is the triumph of power over love. And so, wherever liberal programs hold sway, there is no peace and no justice. At best, liberal government produces a society of envy policed by surly officiousness. At worst it descends into the hell of political terror. At its best it operates with the Keystone Kops incompetence of the US Transportation Security Administration; at worst it slashes through history with the murderous rage of the Soviet KGB.

Every life ends in death; every government ends in default. It is our task to imagine and to build a life after the default of liberal government.

It is possible to set forth on this quest because we now know that the trajectory of liberalism has passed its apogee. It must now end in default, because it cannot deliver on its promises. It must either default on its promises, or default on its debt.

As liberal government defaults on its promises, it will lose its power. It creates a space for a new power, a new foundation and a new order. We already know what this foundation must be. It must be a new dedication to the principles of limited government set forth in the US Constitution. Our society is not a single government monolith nor can it flourish and grow when all social transactions are collapsed into the political sector.

Our modern commercial society is founded upon a differentiation of the public square into three sectors. There is the political sector, the realm of force where people jostle for power. There is the economic sector, the realm of trust where people cooperate to serve each other's needs. Finally, there is the moral-cultural sector, the realm of faith where people search for the meaning of it all. The differentiation of society into these three institutional sectors means that society cannot be yoked to a single purpose or moral vision. It is a plural society, with many competing moral visions, many economic actors competing to serve, and many political actors lusting for power.

Our liberal friends, in their century-long liberal dynasty, have used their power to blur, and sometimes collapse the separations between the three sectors. With their secular religions, socialism, fascism, and communism, they sought to fold the moral-cultural sector into the political. Whenever they succeeded, the result was tyranny. With their war on business they sought to fold the economic sector into the political. Whenever they succeeded, the result was poverty.

Our task is simple. We must renew the promise of the differentiated society. There must be a renewal of the separation of church and state, to keep the political power from co-opting and corrupting the moral-cultural power. And there must be a renewal of the separation between economy and state, to keep the political power from dominating and corrupting the economic power.

Of course, this practical and honorable project will not bring in the millennium. But it will heal the corruption of the centralized liberal administrative state. It will let women dream of a love free of liberal rapine, and it will let men dream of victory in a life free of the liberal kowtow.

And people will rejoice in Life after Liberalism.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Liberal Government as Secular Theocracy

If you give conservatives a chance, says the Angry Left, they will create "theocracy" and "legislate morality."

That was the way in the 2000s that our liberal friends experienced the Bush administration, led by a self-confessed Christian. And that is how our liberal friends experienced the Bush administration decision on embryonic stem-cell research.

Theocracy, as defined in Wikipedia, means the rule of the priests, or a society in which the church and the state are more or less unified into a single organization. Using Michael Novak's three-sector analysis of modern society, we could say that a theocracy occurs when the moral/cultural and political sectors are pretty well unified. Obviously, any such organization would quickly get itself into the business of legislating morality--the moral system of the church implemented in the legislative output of the legislature full of priests and ministers.

That's exactly the model of the administrative welfare state run by our liberal friends. There is only one difference. When liberals complain about "legislating morality" they are talking about laws that attempt to regulate personal sexual morality. But the whole point of liberalism is to translate their views on social morality into law.

Liberals experience unregulated capitalism as fundamentally immoral. They see poverty, they see economic exploitation, and they call it immoral. They demand that society do something about it. And what do they demand? They demand that everyone be forced to support their moral vision of government programs to ameliorate the social evils of capitalism.

What can you call this but legislating morality? Liberals emphatically reject the idea of laws to regulate individual morality. But they emphatically support the idea of laws to regulate social morality. They call it "social justice" or "economic justice." What is that other than legislating economic morality?

In liberalism, the functions of moral commentary and political action are combined, collapsed into a single operation. The liberal intellectual experiences himself as both moral arbiter and political strategist. The classic liberal intellectual product is the political manifesto, identifying a moral outrage in society, analyzing it, and proposing a political, legislative, big-government solution.

It's really pretty simple. Liberal government is a "secular theocracy."

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Educated Youth Movement

How do we understand President Obama and his curious life journey from semi-abandoned son of a Sixties girl to graduate of leftist Midwest Academy and Radical-in-chief? I believe that the best way is to understand the movement of the left as a kind of religious movement, a secular religious movement of moral renewal that ended up, as so many religious movements do, wanting to capture the political system, become an established church, and legislate its morality upon the populace--in their own best interests, of course.

But isn't this idea of a secular religious movement rather a stretch? Not really, not if you read Discovering God by Rodney Stark.

In Discovering God Stark puts his sociological theories about religion to the test. Mainly, he asserts that there is always a latent demand for religion in society. But usually the supply of religion is throttled by the ruling elite, because religious movements tend to upset the status quo, including the political status quo. The ruling elite prefers to capture religious sentiment into an elite-dominated state religion.

Following Marx, we educated moderns like to think of religion as the "opiate of the masses." But Stark asserts that religious movements are very often started by well-to-do youngsters. Rather than plunge into the hurly-burly of ordinary life they choose a life of asceticism and meditation. Take Buddhism:

Combined with the doctrine that life is inevitably a succession of sufferings and sorrows and that in addition one must strive to frustrate all desires, to become a true follower of Buddha or Mahavira [the founder of Jainism] is to embrace unrelieved pessimism. Such pessimism seems to have attracted some alienated members of the elite to become monks or nuns, but it surely "could not attract the minds of the laity."

Buddhism quickly died out in India, but thrived in China where it grafted on Gods and an afterlife.

The movement started by educated youth in the years after the Napoleonic Wars also embraced unrelieved pessimism, the notion that the lot of the workers would inevitably get worse and worse. It was also godless. And it was particularly attractive to sons of the prosperous middle class. Think Marx, Engels, the Fabians, the Progressives and of course our modern liberals.

This Educated Youth movement began with a moral critique of modern middle class society and then went on to propose a radical reform, to purify it of getting and spending, and to restore an ancient vision of the pure community. It was, of course, a community that had never been. But after the first efforts to found such communities failed, the Educated Youth movement realized that mere voluntary religious communities weren't going to work. They decided that their secular religious movement had to become a state religion. It had to take over the apparatus of the state and impose its moral vision on a society corrupted by "false consciousness" using the force of the law and government bureaucrats.

Of course, the awful rigidities of this moral system, when imposed in practice, results in untold horrors and religious wars. The proselytizing Educated Youth movement naturally faced opposition and it naturally decided that force was necessary where persuasion couldn't persuade.

President Obama is a complete product of this movement. You can call him a socialist, or a radical, or a Marxist. But these names really are the names of individual sects in the overall Educated Youth movement, the secular religious movement to purify corrupt democratic capitalism with a state religion of caring, sharing and, now, saving the planet.

With President Obama the Educated Youth movement is reaching its moment of truth. For its millenniarian promises are turning to dust. Its government-centric model of social cooperation is foundering on a mountain of debt, corruption, and injustice and the ordinary people are rebelling.

For ordinary people the godless religion of pessimism and asceticism doesn't really work. What ordinary people need is an optimistic religion to tell them that their work, their struggles and sacrifices, their families and their loved ones will all come out right in the end, and that virtue will triumph.

In the United States, most of the time, the Educated Youth movement has operated behind a veil, pretending to be moderates instead of extremists. President Obama has been an expert in this, hiding his radical past and his radical friends with the help of a complicit media.

But sooner or later we ordinary folks are going to have to challenge the Educated Youth movement. This challenge must begin, it seems to me, with a separation of the Educated Youth church and state. Let our liberal friends remain free to proselytize all they want. But let's stop them short of building a state church to their liberalism and using government power and taxes to force their belief system upon the rest of us.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof: It's in the Constitution, chaps.

Let's curb the Educated Youth movement and close the doors of its established Church of Liberalism.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Government is Force, Politics is Power

The world is full of people that talk about the sweet and gentle things that government does. It helps the poor; it gives grandma her health care; it cares about kids.

Er, not exactly. When the government does something it does it with your money. It is you that helps the poor, gives to grandma, and cares about kids. Government is not about caring; government is force. Let's expand this notion a little further.

Government is Force. What is a government, reduced to its essentials? It is an armed force that occupies an area of land with the power to extract tribute from the people living there. It might be a band of twenty guerrillas, hiding out in the mountains. But unless it gets money from a foreign power, it will survive by extracting tribute from the people it controls--by force. If it doesn't extract tribute by force, it isn't a government, it's a business.

Politics is Power. People that go into politics are people who like to fight. They want power. They run for election and the make promises to the voters about a glorious future they have in mind for the voters. But the promises are by-play. The name of the game is to get the support of the voters and get your hands on the levers of power.

Government Spending is Handing Out Plunder. Government spending is the loot that a government distributes to its supporters. Reduced to the minimum, the guerrilla group in the mountains, government spending is spending to keep the guerrilla group armed and fed and keep the taxes coming in. But as a guerrilla group becomes a formal government it acquires the power to support not just its armed fighters but its civilian supporters. So just as a victorious armed raid on a neighboring land ends with a division of the plunder, so also does a victorious political party distribute the loot among its supporters. But wait, you say! What about all the wonderful things that government does with health care and education?

The fact is that everything government does, it does badly. Social Security? If we have to force people to save for retirement we would do better forcing everyone to have an account at Fidelity or Vanguard. The money would actually go into creating jobs for young people when we want to stop working. Health care? The current system gives a ton of people free health care by forcing other people to pay for it. People use free stuff freely. If people actually paid for their health care (and saved for the big expense of health care in the last six months of life) it would cost a lot less. Education? Half of the kids entering college need remedial courses. What about the kids that don't go to college? Let's not even think of going there. Welfare? Government welfare has destroyed the low-income family.

To repeat: government buys votes by distributing plunder to its supporters. In the old days of the absolute monarchs government used to buy support with sinecures and pensions. Today it buys support with tenured jobs and social spending. So nothing has changed.

Taxes are Tribute. Taxes are the tribute that the laborer pays government for the right to earn a living. The first thing that our guerrilla group in the mountains does is start collecting tribute to keep its armed group fed and armed. It collects taxes by going around from house to house requisitioning food and money at the point of a gun. In a settled society, government exacts tribute from everyone that works or buys and sells. Thus every time that a worker gets a paycheck, the government takes its share. Every time a merchant sells a product, the government gets a share. Every homeowner pays a tax on his property. It is tribute, the tribute that the servant pays to the master.

Debt Ends in Default. Whenever government issues debt it is spending now and taxing later. Chances are that it won't do the hard thing, and fund the debt with taxes. Instead it will default on the debt. Sooner or later all governments default on their debt. Usually they don't flat out refuse to pay interest and principal. Instead they inflate the currency. Or they "reschedule" the debt by unilaterally lowering the interest rate and moving the maturity to a later date. Or they throw the evil bankers in jail. Or they just take money out of peoples' bank accounts. Remember, government is force.

The great question about any proposal for a new government spending program is simple. Is this really something that has to be done by force? After all, if it were worth doing, someone would already be doing it. Without force.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Three Liberal Conceits

It feels like 9/11, watching the twin towers burning, thinking about "one hour buildings" and wondering what comes next.

I'm talking, of course, about the mid-term elections on November 2. We are looking at the Democratic Party as it trails a black cloud of smoke and we are wondering: could the whole thing come down in a great crash? And if it did come down would it be in that dreadful slow motion descent of the twin towers, or the sub-second dump of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis? One moment it was there, the next moment it was in the river.

Everything is collapsing on the liberals all at once. Their multidecadal war on the private sector, where they want to boss banks and corporations around to help workers get good jobs or to help minorities buy a home, is in ruins, as their confident Keynesian stimulus has failed. Their war on want is a mess as the administrative manipulations of a thousand social programs make dependents out of proud workers. Their war on tradition is a mess as the sexual revolution turns into a re-commodification of sex.

There are, I think, Three Conceits at the heart of this liberal meltdown. Let's take them one by one.

First, there is the Economic Conceit, the idea that government can run the economy. There certainly is a need for the government to commandeer the economy in case of all-out war. But the record of the last century is that, absent war, government should keep its cotton-picking hands off. Government shouldn't muck around with monetary policy and the credit system. All it does is institutionalize inflation and play favorites with the credit system. Government shouldn't muck about with corporations vs. labor vs. the consumer. The wreck of the auto companies ought to tell us that. As George McGovern found out when he opened a resort hotel and then went bankrupt, business is incredibly difficult. Politicians shouldn't make it harder.

Secondly, there is the Social Conceit, the idea that government can spread the wealth and alleviate poverty, that government can run the education system and supervise the health care system. No it can't. The education system is dead in the water, and has been for a generation. The reason? It's been captured by the producers who don't give a damn about the consumers, children and parents. The Obamis are in the middle of bollixing up the health care system by leaning on it to serve an additional 30 million people who are reluctant to pay for their own health care. Government just can't do this efficiently and effectively.

Thirdly, there is the Moral Conceit, the idea that government can muck around legislating morality. Oh yes, liberals believe in legislating morality all right. That's what all the fuss about abortion and gay marriage is about. Liberals decided to change, by judicial fiat, the moral rules on babies and marriage. Now everyone wants to use the government to force their moral views on the rest of the nation.

What is going on here? What do liberals not understand?

I think that we need to look at society in a new way. Think of a circle, divided into three sectors. One is the political sector, with the institutions of government at all levels. This is the sector of force. Then there is the economic sector, of businesses and consumers, producing and consuming products and services. This is the sector of stuff. Then there is the moral/cultural sector, with various non-economic institutions, churches, schools, charities, foundations, and voluntary associations. The point about these insitutions is that they are not immediately economic. They have moral or social goals, not economic goals. This is the sector of faith.

The big mistake that liberals have made, as reflected in the Three Conceits, is that the political sector can supervise and co-opt the other two sectors. It can't. The political sector is the sector of force, and force is the only thing it knows. When you do force in the economic sector you get serfdom. When you do force in the moral/cultural sector you get a clash of faith, a religious war, and even a religious civil war. The three sectors need to be separate and equal in a Greater Separation of Powers. None should dominate another sector, and no two should gang up on the third.

This is all very well, but there is something missing. It is people. It one thing to understand the relationships of the institutions in society, it is another thing to figure out the people.

The people, I believe, are a circle in the middle. Call it the personal sector. The personal sector is the face-to-face sector, where people deal with each other verbally. It is the sector of trust.

The whole universe of society is a question of trust, but trust is only possible between face-to-face people. Without people in the middle you have nothing but force, the mechanical interactions between inanimate objects rather than the relationships of trust between people.

So when we say that the three sectors should be separate and coequal, and kept so by a Greater Separation of Powers, we understand also that this social compact is made possible by the folks in the middle, in the personal sector. These people in the middle act in face to face relationship with other people and it is the trust that they develop over time that creates the delicate balance between the sectors.

It is people representing institutions in the economic sector that link with people representing institutions in the moral/cultural sector that put material content into moral concern. It is people representing institutions in the moral/cultural sector linking with people representing institutions in the political sector that define the boundary where moral disapproval turns into legal restraint. It is people representing institutions in the economic sector linking with people representing institutions in the political and moral/cultural sectors that define the boundaries where a bad deal turns into a fraudulent deal.

Our liberal friends are good people. But they were tempted by vanity, and vanity turned into conceit. And now conceit is turning into humiliation.

After November 2, let's cut the political sector down to size and reanimate the spirit of trust that turns adversaries into friends.

Then we can build an America as it was meant to be.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our Subversive Individualism

I'm reading Francis Fukuyama's Trust, and there's a fabulous chapter where he compares the individualism of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism with the east Asian Confucian tradition.

Confucianism puts a big weight on conforming to society, particularly to the elders in the family.

But US Protestantism is radically individualistic. It began by cutting out the mediating position of the Catholic Church; now believers could have a direct relationship with God with no human gatekeepers in between.

In the long run, the individual's ability to have a direct relationship with God had extremely subversive consequences for all social relationships, becaue it gave individuals a moral ground to rebel against even the most broadly established traditions and social conventions.

Yet, Americans, freed from conformity, actively seek out voluntary relations in our famous aptitude for voluntary associations. So, in a way, by freeing us from the age-old obligations of being born into an existing social world, our individualism frees us to be freely social.

Here's an example of this working out in practice, with the American Thinker's recovering liberal, Robin of Berkeley. She notes how she has always been a perfectionist, ever since her mother threatened to withhold her love.

This is my first childhood memory, a hazy image seared into my brain: I am in my bedroom at around age 5 with my mother, having just done something naughty. My mother explodes, "If you keep doing things like that, I won't love you anymore."

Night after night, I cried myself to sleep, overwhelmed with despair at this potential tragedy. It didn't seem humanly possible to survive without her love.

Robin solved the fear of being cast out into loveless isolation by becoming a perfectionist. "I became an anxious adult, a pleaser, someone who bent over backwards not to offend." It meant, of course, that to make a mistake was always an appalling trauma.

Until now, until the scales fell off her eyes when Obama became president.

Recently, Robin made a mistake in one of her articles. But it wasn't a matter of life and death any more. Now she could ask God for forgiveness.

I realized this: it doesn't matter ultimately what any person thinks of me. I am living my life before an audience of One. And in the end, it is only His judgment that matters.

It is a profound mystery that, in her life as a liberal, Robin of Berkeley was imprisoned in a cruel world where there was no redemption except through liberalism. But the liberal priests never quite offer their congregants absolution and redemption. Certainly not Obama.

The extraordinary power of Protestant individualism is that, by loosening the age-old bonds of social conformity, it liberates us from our personal demons and empowers us, most of all in these United States, to open our hearts and enter into voluntary friendly social association with the whole world.

What a country.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Separation between Economy and State

Everyone seems to agree that the separation between church and state is a good thing. You don't want ministers legislating morality, and you don't want a "theocracy." When the political and the religious collapses into one, especially in the modern era of secular religions, you get tyranny and terror.

But what about separating economy and state? For some reason there is a lot less enthusiasm for that.

But why? The record on government meddling in the economy is dismal. Since time immemorial governments have abused their power to regulate currency, visiting untold miseries on their people. And governments have often thought that they had a much better idea of how to run a business than the business owners themselves. Has there ever been a case when a government has actually picked a winner?

At the US founding, people were divided about whether to encourage an agricultural economy or a manufacturing economy, the famous divide between Jefferson the landowner, and Hamilton the businessman, lawyer, administrator, and central banker. In the event their posturing was meaningless. The economy flowed and swelled into thousands of channels, more or less ignoring the government when it could. The federal government did have a lot of influence, of course, mainly by screwing up the credit system again and again.

Of course, nobody is suggesting that the economy should be completely separate from government. Business needs settled and predictable law about thousands of things, and it needs government force, on occasion, to enforce contracts that have gone bad, and wind up the affairs of bankrupts.

We stand at a moment that is particulary propitious for a change in the relationship between the economy and the state. We have had a particularly nasty banking and credit crisis mostly caused by government meddling in the market for housing credit. Government has encouraged, over the last century, reckless lending and borrowing for home mortgages. That is to say, the government has encouraged homeowners to get mortgages loans very close to the value of their homes. As we have seen, that sort of thing creates a systemic risk. When millions of homeowners can't pay their mortgages and/or have mortgages underwater, it raises questions about the solvency of major financial institutions, from banks to government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie and Freddie.

There are, obviously, bound to be occasions when the financial system will fail. I am thinking of nuclear war devastation and an asteroid collision. But it is unacceptable to have a financial system that fails in peacetime. When that happens there is only one answer. The system was set up to fail.

We know why the system failed. It was corrupted and weakened by a thousand different government interventions where the government warped the economic system to achieve political ends, and reserved the power to intervene in routine economic relationships for political gain.

Of course, businesses play their part in this racket. They importune for subsidies and privileges on the grounds of national defense or energy security, or local economic benefit. Usually, they are merely trying to raise the bar against new entrants into their business.

Obviously we can't change everything overnight. The government has got into the micro-management of business over decades, and a reckless change would be foolish. But here are some principles that could guide us in separating the economy from the state.

  1. Privatize the credit system. The government has utterly failed to manage the monetary and credit system safely. In fact it has used it, again and again, for political gain.
  2. More equity, less debt. Two hundred years ago we needed banks because there wasn't a big market in debt and equity securities. Today equity is easy, and it could be cheap.
  3. No government businesses. They are inefficient and they compete unfairly.
  4. No administrative regulation. In the recent meltdown the SEC failed, the Fed failed, the regulators of Fannie and Freddie failed. So what's the point?
  5. No more subsidies. Subsidies just encourage corruption, and waste resources.

Well, that's a start. The fact is that government is terrible at supervising business, and business ought to keep its hands out of bribing politicians. If they can do that, then we will all benefit, for it is the wealth created by business that provides revenue for government and it is the regime of peace provided by government and the performance of promises supported by law that allows business to thrive.

Surely that's something we can all agree on.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Government's Poisoned Chalice

The record of the last century is stark. Everything the government has gotten into it has screwed up. Royally.

Want to talk about education? Things are so bad that we are now starting to wonder whether college is really worth it.

Homeownership? Government has been encouraging home ownership for nearly 100 years. The result is that fewer Americans own their own homes than Canadians.

If you look at all the areas of public life that are screwed up, government is in the middle of it. And it all started, in every case, with the best intentions.

Government decided to get involved in education, to educate our children. Yet government has loved education to death. Maybe 150 years ago education was a little rude and crude. But now we incarcerate all our children in government educational facilities complete with metal detectors. It is incredibly expensive yet about 15 percent of adults are "below-basic" in literacy and numeracy. Fifty percent of kids entering college require remedial courses. Government has loved education to death.

A century ago government got interested in homeownership. It pushed lenders to offer riskier loans and then people lost their over-leveraged homes in the Great Depression. It solved that problem by making it even easier to borrow money on a house. The result is a huge overbuilding and overpricing of homes that all came crashing down in the last two years. It has loved home-owners to death.

There are the workers. It was 150 years ago that "educated youth and middle-class intellectuals" got all worked up about the workers. The workers were having a hard time in the middle of the greatest migration ever, from the country to the city. They started suffering and dying in public, while the peasants had been starving for thousands of years in private. So government decided to help the workers. They gave their labor unions special exemption from laws against monopoly, and looked the other way when they descended to thuggery. They stopped child labor. They regulated hours of work. Then they gave the workers "benefits" like health insurance and pensions and unemployment pay. Only the workers didn't own these benefits. They got them from loving politicians. Now the great industrial corporations are dying, throttled by their labor unions and work rules, and government workers are paid 50 or 100 percent more than private sector workers. Government has loved labor to death.

Then there are African Americans. First we enslaved them, then we liberated them, then we Jim Crowed them, then we segregated them, then we integrated them, then we affirmative actioned them. So now about 70 percent of African American children are born to a single parent, and more African American men are in jail than in college. We have loved African Americans to death.

In fact, there's a good argument that when government comes calling with a a communion cup of government spending and political patronage there is only one thing to do. Dash the poisoned chalice to the ground before a drop passes your lips.

There are only two things that government can do. It can do force and it can do compulsion. It amounts to the same thing. If it's a question of forcing a foreign power to respect American power, government can do it, albeit at enormous expense.

If it's a question of beating up rowdy young lower-class males, government can do that too.

But when it comes to making a society, government is helpless. Because society is not a question of force, it is a question of cooperation, of nudging, of influence, of somehow getting people to do the right thing short of forcing them.

In the face-to-face society, we get people to do the right thing with a frown and a shake of the head. Let's check with Rodney Stark in Discovering God.

Social life is only possible to the extent that groups exert social control--collective efforts to ensure conformity to the moral standards of the group... So, from infancy humans are raised to believe that the norms of their group are the "right" way to behave and are trained to conform.

But as society becomes larger we need formal methods of control.

Formal social control is expensive--contrast the cost of dirty looks from neighbors with that of maintaining a police officer.

When humans start living in towns and cities, the detection of violations of moral standards becomes a problem. People can be anonymous in the city, and soon find that nobody will know of their evil misdeeds.

Enter "sin," invented during the Axial Age in the millennium before Christ. It solved the problem of misdeeds in the anonymous city. Your neighbors may not know of your misdeeds, but God will know! God will punish misdeeds, and even if you manage to avoid paying for your misdeeds in this life, God will punish you in the next one. Pretty clever, as long as people believe in God, of course.

Our age is an age that has tried to abolish sin. Of course, it has not worked. In some cases sin has been smuggled in the back door, where "sexual harassment" has replaced the disapproval of the cad. But mostly sin has been replaced with a gigantic government bureaucracy empowered to look into every crevice of your life to detect evildoing.

Bureaucracy is not society. Heavy-handed law enforcement is not a replacement for self-responsible freedom. In life after liberalism we must find a new code so that most of the time social control stops short of force, what we so charmingly call "law enforcement."

Now, I wonder what that might be? I wonder if anyone has invented it already. I wonder if it is working, already, around us every day, only we just don't appreciate it.

What do you think?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Our Friendship vs. Their Resentment

After the success of the Glenn Beck Restoring Honor rally, some of our liberal friends are determined not to be outdone. Labor and religious leaders and the NAACP are organizing a rally on the National Mall for October 2.

"The AFL-CIO is determined that the Tea Party and its corporate backers are not going to get the final word,” said AFL-CIO executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker. "We will expect tens of thousands of union families to come."

"We are fueled by hope and not hate," Holt Baker said.

I have a suggestion for the labor and religious leaders and the NAACP. Don't.

If you chaps mount a rally it will show up a profound difference between the goal and the vision of the Beck folks and the goals and vision of you lefty chaps.

The difference that will come out for all to see is the difference between friendship, not to mention faith, hope and charity, and the resentment that powers the left.

The mainstream of western thought owes much to the commonplace assertion of Aristotle, that we are social animals. The notion of human sociability suggests the idea that we should resolve our differences in a spirit of friendly negotiation rather than by force.

That was the point of the Restoring Honor rally. It was a friendly gathering. In fact the folks that attended spent a lot of the time friending each other on Facebook. A young black woman at the rally told the media not to call her an African American, but an American. "These are my family," she asserted, echoing the words of an older black man who testified to the media back in the spring.

The speakers at the Beck rally also emphasized the Christian values of faith, hope, and charity, not to mention the notion of the providential God that is shared by both Christians and Jews.

They did not mention specific goodies they wanted in recompense for past injustice.

Living under a providential God, or blessed to live in the culture of American exceptionalism, we Americans discover a responsibility to deserve the providential love of God. So the rally speakers emphasized that the future begins with us, with our dedication to responsibility, friendship, kindness.

But the left believes in a culture of resentment, a resentment nurtured in the minds of helpless victims cheated of their rightful place in the world by oppressors and exploiters.

There is, of course, plenty of injustice in the world, and resentment is a natural sentiment that all of us experience. We resent the friend that got into Harvard when we didn't, the co-worker that gets a promotion that we didn't, the guy that got the girl that we didn't. Resentment shows up in the seven deadly sins as envy, only resentment is envy on steroids.

You want to watch that envy, because, according to Roger Scruton in A Political Philosophy resentment is the emotion that leads to totalitarianism.

I see [resentment] as an emotion that arises in all societies, being a natural offshoot of the competition for advantage. Totalitarian ideologies are adopted because they rationalize resentment, and also unite the resentful around a common cause. Totalitarian systems arise when the resentful, having seized power, proceed to abolish the institutions that have conferred power on others, institutions like law, property and religion which create hierarchies, authorities and privileges, and which enable individuals to assert sovereignty over their own lives.

Once the resentful acquire power they reduce everything to pure power, and "dispense with mediating institutions"; individual rights are replaced by central control. We have seen how this works. Central control everywhere seems to mean bureaucracy.

Converted into a "centralized power structure" society becomes transformed into an army. An army is, after all, a centralized power structure for projecting power on neighboring territories.

But in the totalitarian power structure the power is directed inside the territory, at groups targeted for punishment. These targeted groups become the replacement for the ancient scapegoat in which tribal societies purged themselves of the wrath of the gods.

The Jacobins targeted the aristocrats and then "emigrés." The Soviets targeted the bourgeoisie and then "kulaks." The Nazis targeted the Jews. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) targeted Communists.

Our liberal friends, unfortunately, have too often toyed with this inflammatory material. They used to target the malefactors of great wealth. Then it was the big corporations. Then it was the racist South. It used to be the religious right, but now it is the Tea Party activists, who are stigmatized and marginalized as racists, bigots, sexists, and homophobes.

It is, of course, laughable to turn the Tea Party into the liberal scapegoat-du-jour. These chaps haven't done anything yet except go to rallies and pitch out a couple of Republican senators.

But there is a bigger issue in the resentment/scapegoat dynamic. In its original form, the scapegoat was the king. It had to be. It must be the king who must be sacrificed to propitiate the gods. That should be obvious. The king is the representative of the tribe or nation. If something has gone wrong, then he should take the blame. To sacrifice a lesser person is an insult to the gods, and would provoke the gods to greater wrath.

The scapegoat concept is understood in the corporate and military shibboleth that, when things go well you say that your team were the ones that made it possible. When things go wrong, then you, the leader, take the blame.

President Bush understood this. He understood that he had to be the national scapegoat for the unpopular war against terror. He bowed his head and took it like a man--like a mensch, you might say.

But liberals don't understand this. That is why they are going ahead with their October 2 rally, which will doubtless be a display of liberal resentment. Of course, Jim Wallis, liberal evangelical, insists that it will all be sweetness and light. "[W]e must move this country forward beyond divisiveness and hate, to rebuild and reclaim our destiny," he says.

But then why does organizer Holt Baker talk about the "Tea Party and its corporate backers?" Corporate backers? He means, one assumes, the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers and the Scaife family that fund groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks.

My advice to liberals is to put money into keeping as many of your senators and representatives in the game as possible. make sure that your troops are properly led and execute on a good strategic retreat.

But don't try to pretend that you can turn out a grass-roots movement this fall that can rival the Tea Party.

Because if you showcase your political philosophy of resentment up against the Beck philosophy of Restoring Honor you guys are going to look like the sore losers.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What Conservatives are For

The last two weeks have been brutal for our liberal friends, and they just don't understand what went wrong.

Obviously, they said, this whole 9/11 Mosque controversy is about rights, the right of freedom of religion. Moslems have a right to worship and government has no right to circumscribe that right. Anyone who disagrees is a bigot. Period.

Our liberal friends, I reckon, were put on this earth for one great thing. They were put on this earth to midwife the civil-rights revolution. In their finest hour in the early 1960s they insisted on realizing the promise of the American revolution that all men are created equal. They insisted that the original sin of the American founding should be redeemed. They risked a lot in pushing through the civil-rights acts, and lost the South for a generation, just as Lyndon Johnson feared. Conservatives like Barry Goldwater and Bill Buckley didn't get it; they got all caught up in legalisms.

The trouble is that liberals, put onto this earth for that one thing, want to fit every issue into the civil rights mold. They are like the hammer: everything looks like a nail. They've made women's rights into a civil-rights issue, gay rights into a civil-rights issue. And now they want Muslims to be an historically marginalized group and apply the civil-rights solution to them too.

The conservative retort to liberals on the 9/11 mosque issue is simple, and it illustrates what conservatives were put on this earth to do.

Conservatives say to liberals: Yes, of course Muslims have a right to put up a mosque anywhere they want. The question is: should they exercise that right. Or should they think about the insult that such a mosque, so close to a site where 3,000 people, mostly Americans, were killed by Muslim terrorists, represents to New Yorkers and most Americans. Should Muslims, in a spirit of friendship and kindness, forbear to exercise their undoubted rights.

We conservatives are saying is that politics in particular and social relations in general are not just about rights and the rule of law. Life is not merely a mechanical thing about following the rules. Nor is it just an adversarial proceeding as in a court of law. Nor it is a blind application of bureaucratic rules. Life is give-and-take. Life is friendship. Life is restraint, holding back when you know you are about to hurt an acquaintance.

Indeed, if you try to reduce everything to a pound of flesh you will find that you inevitably end up committing one cruel injustice after another. The quality of mercy is not strained / It falleth as the gentle rain from Heaven.

This need to blend rules with the sentiment of mercy and friendship has been at the heart of modern conservatism since Edmund Burke railed against "sophisters, economists, and calculators" 220 years ago. Here is the full quote from his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The age of chivalry has gone and that of economists and calculators has set in, and the glory of Europe has departed.

Perhaps Burke was a little overwrought that day.

In the next few years we will see conservatism applied to the moral and material mess created by the bureaucratic leviathan we call the welfare state. Conservatives will be doing what they were made to do: pointing out that you cannot reduce the social relation--the caring things like care of the aged, care of the sick, the education of children--to rules and bureaucracy.

That's what conservatives are on this earth to do. To show liberals where they went wrong.