Monday, May 28, 2012

E.J. Dionne's Mistake about Conservatives

Liberals say the darnedest things.  Like humans everywhere they regard their own approach to human social relations as the correct one, and the approach of others, particularly American conservatives, as mad or bad.

Thus E.J. Dionne's lament that "Conservatives used to care about community.  What happened?" is a classic case of "us" and "them."  He assumes that because conservatives don't agree with the liberal agenda of the moment, including the mammoth ObamaCare and the bureaucratic corporate regulation of Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, that conservatives are mad individualists that care nothing about human community.

Of course this is rubbish.  Conservatives do too believe in community.  It's just that conservatives believe in different forms and different arrangements of community than liberals.  Most obviously, conservatives believe that the big-government approach to community beloved by liberals is profoundly anti-community.  That's because government is force.  The whole point of human social relations, conservatives believe, is to avoid use of force except in extreme cases.  Yet the liberal solution to almost any social problem is to create a government program, i.e. use force.

It is perhaps helpful to analyze this in the context of "relational models theory," a framework for categorizing human "sociality" first published by sociologist Alan Page Fiske in the early 1990s.  The theory is simple(pdf).  People relate to each other in just four ways.  There is the Community Sharing model,  where people interact as though their group was an undifferentiated unit.  There is Authority Ranking, the assumption that people interact based on an understanding of an authority hierarchy.  There is Equality Matching, in which people try to achieve a balance of giving and taking.  Then there is Market Pricing, where people interact on the basis not of straight giving and taking, but a more precise reckoning of ratios, i.e., market prices. Market Pricing is no more or no less social than the other models.  Success and achievement in the market economy are no more or less social than altruistic caring in a Community Sharing or Equality Matching context.

You can see that the differences between liberals and conservatives arise out of different world-views that value the four models differently and implement their values in different ways.  For instance conservatives believe in the authority of fathers, mothers, and mediating structures like churches and associations.  Liberals believe in the authority of activists and "idealists."  Conservatives believe in the Invisible Hand to govern the working out of Market Pricing.  Liberals believe that Market Pricing is inherently exploitative unless minutely controlled by by a strong Authority Ranking government regulatory apparatus.  E.J. Dionne thinks that access to affordable health care is well-nigh impossible for many unless the government dictates universal rules of access.  Conservatives think that most people can afford to buy their own health insurance and charitable organizations can fill in most of the gaps.

We can thus interpret the great battle between socialism and capitalism over the last two centuries as an argument about the extent to which Market Pricing is a beneficial and useful model for basing social relationships among humans, the social animals.  Today's conservatives believe that Adam Smith's Invisible Hand doctrine is true, that in normal social interactions of an economic nature people satisfy their individual needs by serving the needs of others.  Today's liberals believe Marx's dictum that capitalist interactions are inherently exploitative because the capitalist always and everywhere denies the laborer the full value of his labor.

There are other disagreements.  Liberals seem to think that Community Sharing and Equality Matching relationships should usually be implemented in Authority Ranking government programs.  Conservatives believe that, where possible, we should do Community Sharing and Equality Matching in ways that avoid the hard power of government and use the soft power of civil society associations.

These arguments and conflicts about human society are, and should be, eternal.  But let us close with a word from Alan Page Fiske on "the inherent sociability of homo sapiens."
The most striking characteristic of Homo sapiens is our sociality. Social relations pervade every aspect of human life and these relationships are far more extensive, complex, and diverse (within and across societies) than those of any other species. And for survival and reproduction we are far more dependent on our social relationships and our cultures than any other animal.
In the coming weeks I am going to try and analyze this basic human social trait against the metric of government, to evaluate human social relationships directed by the social emotions against human social relations directed by governmental force.  Because I think that it is essential to understand that government is a limit case of human sociality.  For most things, government should be the red handle locked in a glass cabinet: "In Emergency, break glass."

E.J. Dionne and his liberal friends won't like it.  But that's too bad.

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