Thursday, December 29, 2011

Conservatism Three by Three

What do we mean by conservatism?  We do not mean, as the critics charge, an unreflecting culture of tradition.  Conservatism, ever since Edmund Burke has been a self-conscious effort to balance the past, present and future.

Let us take three strands of conservatism and illuminate each one.  First of all there is cultural conservatism, which finds its founding statement in Burke's declaration that we, the generation of the living, have a contract both with our dead ancestors and with generations yet unborn.  Then there is economic conservatism that begins with Adam Smith's declaration of the Invisible Hand, that there is a natural cooperation between people that directs them into socially beneficial actions even when they are seeking their own self interest.  Then there is political conservatism that begins with Montesquieu's doctrine of the three branches of government and the separation of powers.

The cultural strain that begins with Burke and his jeremiad against the mechanical culture of the Age of Reason, its reduction of everything to Newtonian mechanics and "sophisters, economists, and calculators" continues with people like George Eliot, who argued for the dignity of ordinary people, from Adam Bede to Maggie Tulliver to Mary Garth and to Mirah Lapidoth.  In our time we have Berger and Neuhaus arguing for the dignity of authentic self-governing mediating structures between the individual and the mega-structures of big government and big corporations.  And we have people like Lawrence Cahoone and his Civil Society working out the details of people living in dignity, equality and freedom. And there is Charles Taylor, a liberal Canadian philosopher, who makes a conservative case for a society that digests the modern ideas of freedom, equality, dignity, and expressive creativity into a blend that conservatives can live.

The economic strain that begins with Adam Smith and his Invisible Hand, was expanded with Ricardo's law of comparative advantage.  Then in 1870 came the marginal revolution that unified the idea of exchange value and intrinsic value.  Finally, Mises demonstrated the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism, and Hayek showed the impossibility of bureaucratic centralism: the man in Washington cannot hope to out-think the millions of consumers and producers.  The idea that only a wise ruler can negotiate the conflicts of a people is shown to be impossible.  People do better negotiating with each other than through the middle man from the government.

The political strain that begins with Montesquieu's idea of the three branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial was implemented with astonishing success by James Madison.  It remains unequaled in its approach to the political problem: how do you give government enough power to fight enemies, foreign and domestic, yet not too much power that it can oppress its legitimate opponents?  Now Michael Novak has extended the separation of powers doctrine to society as a whole.  Differentiating society into three sectors, economic, political, and moral/cultural, he proposes what I call a Greater Separation of Powers.  In this view the separation of church and state, adumbrated in the First Amendment prohibition of an establishment of religion, is extended to the notion of a separation of power between the three sectors: separation of political and moral/cultural power and separation of economic and political power.

We have in this triple conservative vision a people independent and free and institutions that will protect freedom while encouraging social cooperation.  Now all we need is the implementation.

And that starts, after the horror of Obama, with persuading the American people to abandon the welfare state Battle of the Benefits, the reduction of social life to a scramble for loot, and return America to a land that is first of all a society of Makers from its current shame as a robber band of Takers.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Liberals and the Decline of Violence

In Steven Pinker's new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Big Idea is that states are essential to the decline of human violence over the millennia.

If you live in a non-state society, like a hunter-gatherer band, you will likely experience a violent death rate of at least 500 per 100,000 per year.  That's two orders of magnitude bigger than the current murder rate of less than 5 per 100,000 per year in developed societies.  And that includes so-called pacific tribes, like the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert and the "gentle" Tasaday in the Philippines.

The reason for this remarkable decline in violence is that modern states take over the defense of the borders and the defense of the streets from the people.  Ordinary people are not involved in war, and they do not settle their disputes with force.  They leave all that to the state.

In this view, of course, the "frontier justice" of the old West and the gun culture of the Jacksonians in the South are a threat to social peace.  Also, Pinker points out, the modern state tends not to police the inner-city ghetto, leaving it "stateless."  Police "seem to vacillate between indifference and hostility... reluctant to become involved,,, but heavy handed when they do so."  They are inclined to let the "neighborhood knuckleheads" and their families fight out their differences, because otherwise the combatants will all end up in jail "for BS behavior" and would never show up in court to press charges over violence anyway.  So why bother?

That's the liberal line.  The conservative line is that in America, "more guns means less crime," in that when the citizens are disarmed the only people with guns are criminals.  And conservatives rail against liberals that make it almost impossible to police the inner cities because any police action that liberals dislike is anathematized as police "racial profiling" or police brutality.

And then there is the lament of Victor Davis Hanson, that the rural areas of California have been abandoned by the law enforcers to vandals and looters--who are, of course, young Hispanic gang members.

It's clear that state policing, along with the rise of commerce, is the major cause of the decline in violence.  But something has gone wrong if the police don't bother to police the cities and don't bother to police the countryside.

The "problem" is that every new immigrant group that comes to the US from the countryside still has a culture that deals with violence by feud, and it takes a generation or two to change the culture from "frontier justice" to state policing and legal procedure.

But liberals don't help when they encourage racial and cultural separatism, and delay the integration of immigrant groups into the great American mainstream.  It's true that assimilated Americans aren't as patient as they might be with new immigrants, and the new immigrants don't trust the police.  But liberals seem to concentrate their efforts on disarming white gun-nuts rather than immigrant gang-bangers.  They make the police out as monsters, and thus discourage them from doing their job, which is to make life difficult for single young immigrant men with a taste for violence.

When you listen to your liberal friends you get the feeling that they have no clue what is going on in America.  It's frustrating, but that is what you expect from the ruling class in an ageing dynasty.  And liberal power depends on the faithful votes of the latest immigrants to the city.  In the 19th century it was the Irish.  In the 20th century the white working class.  Now it is the blacks (immigrants from the rural South) and Hispanics.

One day, of course, the black and the Hispanic gang-bangers will all be rock-ribbed Republicans; they will be the despair of liberals much as the bitter clingers of the white working class are today.

But it sure would be nice if liberals would actually help immigrants assimilate to the city and its commerce instead of encouraging pre-industrial behavior.  Why don't they read and learn from the books their liberal pals churn out: chaps like Steven Pinker?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

End of the Age of Exploitation

I'm reading a history of India right now.  It's a Marxist history so it views everything through a lens of colonialism and exploitation.  The Brits, you see, cleverly disturbed the traditional land-ownership and tax payment in India.  They replaced "corrupt" officials with their own chaps who racked up the rent and the taxes on the poor suffering Indian peasants.  Of course the peasants rebelled, time after time.  On this view, in India's Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra, the Rebellion of "mutiny" of 1857 "was the culmination of a century long tradition of fierce popular resistance to British domination."

The interesting thing is that, up until about 1850, the Brits summarily dealt with rebellions.  They put them down, "with prejudice," as the phrase goes, and then went on their merry way, making more money out of India.  They were quite happy to exploit the Indians to the limit.  Their indigo planters were representative.  These chaps farmed out the cultivation of indigo plants to the natives, and then paid them next to nothing.  Not surprisingly, in 1859, there occurred an "indigo revolt."

But this time the Brit overlords took a look at the situation and decided that the revolters had a point.  Then in the 1880s the Indian intelligentsia formed the Indian National Congress and developed the idea of India as a nation and began to organize Indians of all faiths and castes in an all-India movement against the British.  Then, you might say, it was all a matter of time.

The important thing to realize is the novelty of all this.  Go back to 1800 and you have Arthur Wellesley happily marching troops all over central India in a war against the Maratha Confederacy.  There was no scandal about that.  But by 1857 the Indian Mutiny was a scandal, and the question of exploitation was an issue, and the British were ashamed.

Let's say that, between 1750 and 1850, the world changed.  Let's say that it reflected the rise of middle-class intellectuals and the bourgeoisie and the "public square".  These chaps had a different world-view than the landed warrior class that ruled up to the moment of the French Revolution.  There was a religious side to the change that was manifest in the anti-slavery movement.  And there was a secular side of it, that erupted in the French Revolution and the baby-boomers of the 1840s.

After 1850, therefore, exploitation--of slaves, of workers, of colonial peoples, of "others" became a scandal.  The century from 1850 to 1950 was the Age of Exploitation.  Everyone railed against exploitation, and the most notorious railers, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, created the most exploitative societies in human history.

And now, I would argue, the Age of Exploitation is about to disappear onto the ash-heap of history.  Why?  Because exploitation isn't just a scandal these days.  It doesn't even make sense.  It only made sense in the old agricultural age, when agricultural workers could be conveniently exploited and starved on the quiet out in the countryside.  Today, we are all networked and each person is a resource that makes the most money for the ruling class if they are groomed into becoming a valuable "intangible asset" for the global economy.

But here we have Osawatomie Bam Obama still sounding the old cry: "inequality" and "exploitation."  It's the last hurrah of the class warrior.  It's the last hurrah because greedy employers today realize that they can make more money with skilled employees that can deliver more product than unskilled employees that you squeeze for the last ounce of blood.

Here's the dirty secret of the class warrior.  Obama and the class warriors have to bang the drum for exploitation.  I only realized why a few months ago.  If you want a revolution, or you want to increase government power with taxes and spending and regulation, you have to argue for exploitation.  Without exploitation there is no argument for increased government power.  Without exploitation we all sit around and say, wow, what could we do better?  How could we use our capital better?  How could we improve the training of our employees. How could we improve our market position?

But the Obamas of the world are not interested in a society where there are mild or moderate problems. Because that doesn't call for force.  They want big-time exploitation that calls for men on white horses, charismatic leadership, fake Greek columns, and vast government power.  Otherwise what's the point?