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.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Culture of Friendship

If liberalism is the culture of compulsion, then what should conservatism's culture be?

Simple. It should be the culture of friendship, and not just because Aristotle wrote that friendship was the basis of politics, indeed all social bonds.

We could also all it the culture of involvement, of engagement, of voluntary cooperation. All this is just trying to say one thing. The culture of reason, of laws and regulations for everything, of experts declaiming from on high, of politicians dividing us, of bureaucratic busy-ness has failed. It is not kind, it is not generous, it is not thoughtful, it is not human.

Also, it does not understand the huge "diversity" in humans that complements our undeniable sociability. This is not just a question of justice, that people should have a right to be different, but a question of survival. A field of genetically identical wheat will be devastated by a single infestation of wheat rust. But a diverse population will respond to pestilence, or indeed anything, in lots of different ways. Some will perish, others will survive, still others will thrive.

This means that instead of everyone following the single ruling-class-approved trajectory of life, the road of government custody in schools followed by government supervised work and government-dependent old age. In the culture of friendship people would choose different trajectories, providing only that they did not harm the lives of others.

Let us examine how this would work in the realm of social services that form the core of government function in this age of the administrative welfare state.

Instead of the rigid governmental social structures, the government school, the government welfare, the government health care, the government pension, people would obtain these vital social goods in a web of friendship and social service. People would provide social services to others and receive social services from others in appropriate measure.

How might this work in the simple case of the government pension? In the current culture of compulsion each worker is forced to pay a jobs tax that goes to pay the pension of an older person. This plan, we now know, is doomed to failure because people have demanded and politicians have legislated benefits that cannot be paid.

But in the culture of friendship, middle-aged people save from their income. They save so that, in due time, they will accumulate enough capital that younger persons can use it to work and create enough wealth to leave the older person a share of this wealth creation as interest on the capital saved and invested in the younger generation. Thus we have a double exchange of friendship. The older person prudently saves, not wishing to be a burden on the young generation, and gives the accumulation of this saving to the youngsters for them to work and found new families. The young generation gives back a dividend from the wealth created by the combination of capital and work in a spirit of friendliness to the old 'uns.

There is not just one trajectory here, but many. Some will work in large organizations and accumulate capital in the financial markets. Others will establish businesses and sell them, as they get older, to the younger generation. Or they may hand them down to their children. Others will build up businesses that can be operated by younger people while providing them with an income.

There is, of course, a natural flexibility in this arrangement. If the older person saves a lot, he can retire from work early. If there is a banking crisis that reduces the value of investments then the older person must plan to work a little longer. If the younger person turns the investment into an extraordinary success then all benefit.

Thus does the culture of friendship triumph over the culture of compulsion.

We will see in future episodes how the culture of friendship triumphs over the culture of compulsion in the other great social functions: health care, education, and the relief of the poor.

This is not rocket science. It is merely a recognition that we humans are social animals, and that our greatest asset is our sociability, our capacity for friendship, for wishing good things not just for ourselves, but for others.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Culture of Compulsion

What is the center of the conservative critique of liberalism? It is, I believe, that liberalism has replaced the community of social relationship with a rigid mechanism of administrative bureaucracy.

Of course, the old ways of traditional face-to-face community had its problems. It was often unreflectingly conservative and often hardened hierarchy into oppression. The question at the beginning of the modern era was how to replace the often oppressive hierarchy of the old regime with a new web of freedom.

In the adventure of freedom the Anglo-Saxons attempted a balance of powers that tried to compromise between national power and local loyalty, and set the different branches against each other in a separation of government powers. The French attempted to erect an empire of Reason, and it led directly to the guillotine and the Terror. The Germans erected an empire of rational hierarchy from schools to state bureaucracies to the armed forces. They turned a nation of poets and thinkers into an army. It was an army that could conquer the French any time it wanted to, but it led to the ruin of 1945.

You'd think that everyone would get the message but they didn't. In all the great areas of political life we moderns have marginalized instinctive, cooperative voluntarism and built up huge structures of rational administration.

We have built up huge government pension programs wonderful in their mechanical completeness but utterly unconnected to underlying economic reality. That is to say, we have decreed what is to be paid to older people in benefits and what is to be paid by younger workers in taxes and contributions, but we have no way of balancing the two. In all western nations, the government pension program is breaking down.

We have built up huge government health care programs. The British National Health Service is the largest administrative organization in the world after the Indian Railways. Each administrative system reflects the latest ideas from the politicians, from the health producer interests, and political interest groups. But it cannot respond to the day-by-day needs of ordinary people and adjust itself to their priorities. It is subsidized at the point of delivery but ruinously expensive overall.

We have built up huge government education systems. These systems require that children be sent upon compulsion for most of their childhood and youth to government custodial facilities to learn--not very much. The education system is designed around the needs and notions of the educated professional class. Thus it assumes that every child should prepare for a college education, ignoring the fact that most people learn by doing. The system responds, as any government program, to political winds and desperate attempts by politicians to respond to the latest disaster. But it cannot respond to the individual needs of parents and children. It pits parents against each other as its centralized administrative structure forces it towards one-size-fits-all.

We have built up huge government welfare systems. These systems treat the poor as passive objects of compassion that either qualify or do not qualify for benefits. But humans are not passive objects. They are resourceful creatures, descendants of a species that has hacked a habitat out of a nature that only rains down its blessings upon the adaptable. Thus the poor and the not-so-poor develop a cunning knowledge of the system and learn how to adjust their lives to qualify for benefits. They become world experts in qualifying for government pensions when youthful twenty-somethings; they expose the lie of an intelligent elite assisting helpless victims proving themselves intelligent exploiters of a mechanical monster.

These vast administrative structures marginalize ordinary people. They make them into cogs in a vast machinery. The administrative state turns people from free citizens responsibly serving their fellows in voluntary cooperation into dependent drones anxiously searching for the right shaped benefit outlet in which to plug in for a battery charge.

There must be a better way. There must be a way of building a society in which the ordinary person has a social and responsible role, something with more dignity than an insecure dependence on a government program.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Beyond Corruption and Injustice

It goes without saying that the modern liberal administrative state is unjust. It's corrupt, cruel, and wasteful as well. And its deluded practitioners continue to sing its praises in the face of all its failures.

Liberalism is, after all, not just a political philosophy, but a secular religion.

The larger failure, I believe, is liberalism's culture of compulsion. Modern society under liberalism is a society of a million laws, and ten thousand regulations.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Supposedly, the bright light of reason and justice would chase away the inequality, the indignities, the superstitions of the old regime. Then everyone would live in freedom and community.

In fact, the liberal regime requires tight regulation and widespread compulsion throughout society. Instead of the glorious future of cooperation, it turns out that in the liberal state vast structures of supervision and mandate are required. Rather than a liberal society, we now have a liberal administrative state in which everyone is forced to do the right thing.

What went wrong, and what can we do about it?

That is the core of this American Manifesto. What went wrong with the liberal dream? What turned it into a nightmare, where limited government turned into big government? What turned the poor into the underclass? What turned respectable citizens into adult adolescents? And what do we do now?

"You must suggest an alternative," said Margaret Thatcher.

It is time to toss liberalism onto the dust heap of history, and start to imagine an alternative. I call it "life after liberalism." What will it be like?

First of all, it cannot be a society where all decisions are made by a political elite. Government is force. Politics is power. Politicians only know about playing power games and dividing people so that they can win elections. The more we empower politicians, the more they will divide us. The reason we call it "society" is because it is more than a top-down administration. All must participate according to their abilities, and all must take responsibility.

It cannot be a society where all decisions are made by reason and by rule. Rules and reason are wonderful things, but they are mechanical and clumsy. "The heart has its reasons that reason knows not." Humans are social animals and the social virtues are not mechanical and rational, but instinctive and emotional. Human society must be a blend of instinct, emotion, and reason.

It cannot be a society of "one size fits all." The difference between humans and machines is that you can write manuals to maintain machines and leave a mechanic in charge. The maintenance of humans in good running order we call a "relationship." No one rule or caned procedure will suffice. Yet, of course, our ruling class attempts to rule us exactly according to the orthodox principle of "one size fits all." We have one compulsory government pension scheme, one compulsory health care program, one compulsory education system. They cannot imagine a society where people take care of their own needs in voluntary cooperation, without the supervision of the politicians and experts.

You'll find, as An American Manifesto takes shape, that there is another way. In the life after liberalism, we will demote politics to a coequal between the economic and the moral/cultural. We will re-strand the withered chords of face-to-face society and responsibility. We will discover how we already have the means for each of us to escape the compulsory "one size fits all" prison of the liberal administrative state.

As Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain puts it: "There is such a thing as society. It's just not the same thing as the state."

In other words, to call a thing "social" or "public" does not mean that the government must do it. It only means that people do it, and that they do it in the community that we create beyond the old boundaries of family and kindred. It might be government, but it is more likely to be a church, a fraternal group, a business, a charity, a sports association.

Yes, Virginia. There is life after liberalism.