Tuesday, June 26, 2012

After Obama, A New Birth of Freedom

President Obama famously declared that he wanted to "fundamentally transform" America.  That is, of course, the eternal revolutionary's creed.  But a famous football coach said that when you go to pass the ball, one of three things could happen, and two of them are bad.

In other words, when you go for the long ball, as when you choose a decisive battle, you are opting for a decisive win or a decisive loss.  I am starting to think that President Obama is heading for a decisive loss in November, one that will fundamentally transform US politics and complete the Reagan revolution.

For I believe that the fundamental fact of US politics since 1989 is that liberals have refused to concede the Reagan victory.  They have refused to concede its economic aspect, that low tax rates and sound money and limited regulation are the foundation of a healthy economy.  And they have refused to admit the social aspect, that the social safety net should not be an iron rice bowl of universal big government programs, but a flexible web of associations and charities anchored on the assurance of government help in an emergency.

In my view our liberal friends are about to receive a terrible blow, right in the solar plexus: a Republican president with decent majorities in both houses of Congress.  The last time this happened was in 1928, for the great Reagan era featured a Republican Senate for the first six years and a Democratic House throughout.

The challenge for the future is to establish a new national myth, a convincing "story so far" about what happened in the big-government era, why it was wrong, and what we must to do to restore America to its greatness.

The first thing to establish is what went wrong.  The answer is fairly simple.  We abandoned the idea of the strong society and replaced it with idea of the strong state.  Society is the net effect of humans cooperating as social animals in their millions of social relations and combinations.  When that is replaced by rigid, mechanical government bureaucracy, something dies.  That something is the social instinct to share and reciprocate.  Big government reduces everything to rigid rule and compulsion.

The second thing to establish is what has worked.  We have just come off two centuries in which daily income went from $1-3 per person per day to $120 per person per day.  And violent death in the West since about 1300 CE has gone from about 50 deaths per year per 100,000 population to about 5 deaths per year.  Think of that: prosperity has increased by two orders of magnitude and violence has decreased by one order of magnitude.  How great is that?

There are two great competing narratives about why this happened.  One narrative is the Invisible Hand  argument of Adam Smith, that people naturally serve others in order to serve themselves.  The more that people stop fighting for plunder and start working to serve other people, the more prosperity you will get and the less suffering.  The other is the Exploitation argument of the international Left, that social relations are blighted by exploitation and oppression unless corrected by idealistic activists.  Things get better only if good people take a committed stand against injustice and violence.

As a conservative, I'm partial to the Panglossian Invisible Hand world view.  But I also accept the need for the Exploitation world view.  We are talking about the fight against slavery, against racism, and ruthless industrial discipline.

It is important, I think, to recognize that the real and authentic experience of different people will prompt them to take different views of the two great arguments.  If you are a competent middle-class person, you will likely think that the world is a friendly place and that hard work will lead to a life of reasonable prosperity and happiness.  But if you are a recent immigrant to the city you will likely experience the world as a dangerous and oppressive place.  You will feel that you are barely hanging on against brutal economic forces and see the need to be ready to fight against the powerful at any time; you will probably find yourself a powerful patron to fight at your side.

If you believe that the Invisible Hand argument is central, then you will think that the government does not need to be very big or very powerful.  If you believe that the Exploitation argument is central, then you will think that you need a powerful government to fight on your side and end the history of exploitation and oppression.

This brings us to the need to get it right.  The astonishing increase in prosperity in the lands that have practiced the Invisible Hand doctrine is surely an argument that the Invisible Hand works.  The end of slavery, of racism, and of grueling manual labor surely means that the application of the Exploitation doctrine has worked and that the remaining oppressions--such as gay marriage--are much less urgent than the old evils of slavery and satanic mills.  Yes: for some people this is still a cruel and heartless world.  But overall, things have got remarkably better.  The takeaway?  We need much less social compulsion in our society.  Since government is the principal agent of compulsion, that means that we need much less government.

Let's come right out and say it.  It's time to say: "no more victims!"  The notion of humans as social animals means that we are all social beings and we should all be active in societal interaction and cooperation--even the poor who are so often cast in the role of helpless victims in our modern political dramas.  There is a lot of modern commentary--from writers like James Tooley and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh--that shows the urban underclass poor to be energetic and resourceful.  They scrape up the money to send their kids to private school in cities like Hyderabad and they figure out how to run off-the-books businesses.  They even figure out how to manage and save money in the chaotic world of the urban slum.  Let's stop treating them like helpless victims!

That leads us to the idea that everyone can and should contribute.  It has been well said by Mark Steyn that the problem with the welfare state is that it makes everyone into teenagers.  We get to decide what cellphone to use and what car to drive, but every other decision is made for us.  That's the difference between teenagers and adults: adults have responsibilities.  The modern welfare state attenuates the responsibilities of citizens and collapses citizen responsibilities into government programs and bureaucracies; it turns adults into teenagers.  But Arthur C. Brooks in The Road to Freedom argues that people need two things to be happy.  They need to work at something they love and achieve earned success.  And they need to give.  The more they give, the happier they will be and the less envious they will be.

You can see what this means.  It means that if individuals are to be happy they must stop being teenagers and become adults, with responsible work and active engagement in their community where they give time and money to others.

It is obvious that the only way this can happen is if big bureaucracy, corporate and governmental, takes a big dive.  It's hard to feel your work is meaningful when you work in a big bureaucracy.  And it's hard to give to the community if the government has scarfed up all the social tasks of helping others and relieving the poor.

But golly.  Lookee here.  We've just finished up two centuries in which the low-compulsion Invisible Hand society has performed wonders in lifting everyone up from poverty.  And we've already cleared away the great evils of slavery and racial discrimination.

So the stage is set for a new era of freedom and cooperation, a culture of involvement, from the foundation president to the neighborhood mama, with a lot less governmental coercion.

But there is someone standing in the courthouse door, bellowing: Progressivism today, Progressivism tomorrow, Progressivism forever! It is your neighborhood liberal. America cannot move forward until liberals step back, stop insisting that the US is an evil, oppressive nation, and relax their death-grip on the levers of political and cultural power.

That is why the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a good thing, and the defeat of President Obama in 2012 will be just as beneficial.  The election of Obama in 2008 proved that the US had got beyond slavery and racism.  The rejection of Obama in 2012 will prove that the US utterly rejects the canard that the US remains an oppressive nation that needs gigantic government to force it into the ways of virtue.

The election and the rejection of Obama will clear the public square of all the dirt and dross of a century of big government; it will demoralize the liberal ruling class that has spent the last generation refusing to learn the lesson of Reagan.  It will create the space for a new birth of freedom and cooperation.

Is this a great country or what?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Conservatism Using 20th Century Ideas

For years I've been wondering how we get past the banalities of the liberal welfare state and develop a new basis for a free society.

But I've felt for years that the solution is not just imposing a conservative ideology, especially an ideology based on the pre-Kantians like Locke and Hume.  No, we must justify a new birth of freedom on the philosophizing and the thinking of the last century, not the 17th century.

That's a problem for a conservative because almost all the advanced thinking of the last century has been lefty thinking.  Yet, I felt, the only way to persuade our liberal friends that their unjust welfare state was an abomination would be to show how their own thinkers point to a world beyond the top-down bureaucratic state run by and for the educated elite.

It wouldn't hurt if it were German thinkers that would get us out of the mess. After all, it was they--Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx--that got us into it.

Central to the whole problem, for me, was the problem of understanding what on earth philosophy in the 20th century was all about.  Fortunately for my sanity, in the last year I have finally realized what was going on.  It was J├╝rgen Habermas that gave me the clue.  Here he is at the beginning of Volume Two of The Theory of Communicative Action.
Early in the twentieth century, the subject-object model of the philosophy of consciousness was attacked on two fronts--by the analytic philosophy of language and by the psychological theory of behavior.[my emphasis]
Instead of "self-knowledge, reflection, or instrospection" thinkers worked from "linguistic expressions or observed behavior" and did not appeal to intuition.

OK?  So what does all that Teutonic mush add up to?  Just to this.  When Descartes wrote "I Think therefore I am" and invented the modern idea of the "ego," he was talking baloney, because to articulate the ideas "I think" and "I am" you must first have language.  In other words, we develop our self-consciousness from the language in which we communicate to other people.  There is no "I" without a "You".  There is no "ego" without an "alter".  That is what Wittgenstein meant when he wrote that there is no "private language."  Language is something you do with someone else.

This is a momentous discovery, because it demolishes, e.g., the opposition between individualism and community.  Why?  Well, on the philosophy of language, the idea of the individual, me, is impossible without another individual, you.  Therefore I and You form a community.  There is no such thing as a mountain man utterly separate from human community.  The proof is Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.  He might have hid himself away in a hut, but he longed to communicate with the world, and he did, with his manifesto.  His thinking would have been a lot better if he had communicated with the outside world and aligned his fantastic world with the real, social world.

The word that Habermas uses for the shared world of I and You is "lifeworld."  He means the shared assumptions about the "always already" stock of shared knowledge and assumptions between any two  people or any group of people in the world.  He got to that idea from the problem raised by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment.  These Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany came to the view that reason is about domination.  We use reason to dominate nature and other humans. "What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men." This applies to capitalism, they reasoned, and also government.

So how do we get away from pure domination and into a less exploitative relation with our fellow humans?  We get away from the philosophy of consciousness and its focus on I, I, I, and start thinking in terms of a philosophy of language, of we, we, we.

To do this, Habermas differentiates the experience of the world into three: the objective world, the social world, and the subjective world.  His idea of communicative action "relies upon a cooperative process of interpretation in which participants relate simultaneously to something in the objective, the social and the subjective worlds".   Reality is not just me and my thoughts, as rectified by experience and experiment.  Reality is mediated also by social interaction--conversation with other humans.

There is nothing in conservatism that does not align with this idea of reality.  Our whole world view is founded upon the ideas of Edmund Burke and the "little platoon," the person to person negotiation of the lifeworld.  Capitalism too is understood by this view, for it is the moment to moment negotiation of making and serving and selling and buying from person to person, using the objective world, relying on subjective ideas, and testing them in the social world of the market.

But the liberal welfare state and its bureaucracies are built upon the restriction and the marginalization of the social world.  The liberal welfare state is 2,000 page bills setting forth the inflexible objective rules for behavior and interaction.  There is no room for a "cooperative process," no room for "we," nothing left of humans as social animals.

I ask you: What will our liberal friends do when we come at them with a conservatism built upon the latest ideas from the 20th century and the philosophy of language?

The answer is: They will not know what to do, because their whole world will seem to be collapsing around them in ruins.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Flip-side of Orientalism

The sharpest arrow in the anti-colonialist quiver, or maybe the biggest bazooka, is "orientalism," the idea developed by Edward W. Said in Orientalism that the west justified its colonial empires on the inherent inferiority of the Orient. Wikipedia:
He argued that a long tradition of romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for European and American colonial and imperial ambitions.
In other words, the western colonialists developed all kinds of notions about the "Oriental mind." All these things, writes Said, the notion of Oriental barbarity, how the climate and geography dictated the characters of the Orient, in telling the truth, using logic, even walking on sidewalks.

I'd heard of Said, of course, but only encountered him this week as a read his introduction to a Penguin edition of Rudyard Kipling's Kim.  It is the ideal vehicle for Said's theory, since Kipling had completely internalized the notions of Oriental infantilism necessary to justify the British Raj in India in his story about a poor white kid, Kim O'Hara, growing up in Lahore, in the Punjab.

Of course, Edward Said brings some ahistorical notions of his own into his critique of Kipling.  He introduced the notion of an "independent" India before the British Raj.  You mean the Mughal invaders from the West?  The Delhi Sultans?  Even back to the Aryans, who seem to have come through Afghanistan to conquer India?  The fact is that before, say, 1700, there was no notion of anything except predatory warfare and might makes right.

And then he mentions "adventurers and pioneers like Warren Hastings and Robert Clive, men whose innovations and unrestricted rule required legislation in England to subdue the unrestricted authority of the Raj."  Really?  I'd say that the innovation around Clive and Hastings was the innovation that there could or should be any limit on the behavior of a victorious and plundering pro-consul.  That was why the Impeachment of Warren Hastings managed by Edmund Burke was so noteworthy.  In the old days, whoever cared what happened to minor nobility like the Begums of Oude?  But Burke made oppressive and predatory government into a scandal, not just in the British heartland but in its Empire.

And then it struck me.  Isn't the whole liberal political philosophy a kind of domestic version of Said's Orientalism?  Let me render a paragraph of Said's from Orientalism with "Orient" translated as appropriate.
My contention is that Orientalism[liberalism] is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient[US] because the Orient[ordinary bitter-clinger American] was weaker than the West[liberal elite], which elided the Orient’s[ordinary American's] difference with its weakness....As a cultural apparatus Orientalism[liberalism] is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge
What do you think?  Is not liberalism in fact a form of domestic colonialism, that justifies liberal power because the ordinary uneducated American is not up to the challenge of government?  And anyway, his bigotry and greed marginalizes workers, minorities, women, and gays, and therefore liberals are ethically required to intervene and rule the bitter-clinger barbarians.