Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

On conservatism

Continuing my self-revelation, as it were, I will discuss my personal feelings about "conservatism." That means different things to different people, and exactly what conservatives believe or espouse necessarily varies somewhat by time and place. Here's how Wikipedia defines it (which is quite consistent with dictionary definitions.)

Conservatism is a political and social philosophy promoting traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. The central tenets of conservatism include tradition, hierarchy, and authority, as established in respective cultures, as well as property rights.


If you've been reading the Bible along with me you can see right away that this definitely applies to our friend Mo. However, although it will be a long time before we get to the Gospels, you may already feel that it doesn't very well describe Jesus, which does make it surprising to many people that so many Christians in the U.S. are strongly conservative. Among those many people are other Christians, including the kind I grew up among, although I stopped being a Christian at about age 14.


So let's unpack this a bit. There are various kinds of tradition. Annual celebrations are one kind. They are often important to people because they bring together family and community, and just because regular, anticipated events are naturally soothing in an otherwise unpredictable world. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't have to participate if you don't want to. 

But traditions may have elements that are objectionable or harmful to some people. For example, racial segregation in the south was a tradition, not to mention slavery before that. It was at one time a tradition that only men could be physicians, or business executives, or voters or elected officials. So I evaluate traditions on their merits, I don't defend them merely because they exist.

Same goes for hierarchy and authority. Some forms of hierarchy and authority are necessary in order for people to carry out complicated tasks. The school needs a principal and the school system needs a superintendent. It's just to inefficient and ineffective to put every decision to a referendum. However, as with tradition, I don't see any reason to defend existing hierarchy and authority just because that's the way it is. Who has authority, how we decide who has authority, how far authority should extend in a given case, and how it should be accountable, are all questions that again, I evaluate on the merits.


In the United States, hierarchy and authority are in substantial part inherited. The children of affluent, high status parents are very likely to end up as high status, affluent people themselves. Furthermore these privileges are highly unequally distributed because of historical oppression and discrimination. As another example, while the police must be granted some authority as a requirement of their job description, it is highly appropriate, indeed imperative to ask a) how far that authority should extend and b) how it should be held accountable. 


Finally, let's consider the question of property. We take the nature of "property" in our society for granted, but it's actually a  social construction of fairly recent vintage. The nature of property rights, and indeed of what can even be considered property, is historically dependent. The indigenous people of North America had no concept that land could be owned. There were territories that were mutually agreed to be the hunting, farming and fishing grounds of specific groups, but they weren't "owners" in the sense we understand. Of course, in many societies human beings could be property, but now we think that's an atrocity -- or at least most of us do. 


Property rights are always restricted. Think about it. Just because you own a baseball bat doesn't mean you can hit me with it, you can't drive your car above the speed limit, and you can't use your house as a brothel. How you may dispose of your wealth upon your death is also a matter of law and convention in every society and the argument that it is your right to leave it all to your descendants conflicts with the moral principle that they didn't do anything to earn it, except maybe be sure to always kiss your ass.  So as with tradition, hierarchy and authority I always evaluate property rights on their merits. And by the way a good proportion, if not the large majority, of great wealth is ill gotten in one way or another.

So the ideology that whatever tradition, hierarchy, authority and property rights happen to exist right now need to be defended "just because" makes no sense to me. And unfortunately, conservatives in the U.S. right now include a large number for whom tradition includes white supremacy, and who think their personal religious traditions should be imposed on everyone else. They also think that property rights should include the right to foul the air and water, rip off consumers, and exploit and imperil workers, among other purported rights to which I object. 


How do I feel about conservative people, as people?  As I said in a recent post, everybody is entitled to a modicum of respect, and there is a spectrum of conservative belief. Many people identify themselves as conservatives out of a kind of tribalism, but when you ask them about specific public policies it turns out they're in favor of nationalizing the oil companies and universal health care. Other people don't much like taxes but they're in favor of racial and gender equality, and call themselves conservatives. Those people aren't most of your Republican voters, however. And I find it impossible to respect anyone who would vote for our current psychopathic Resident. That's not negotiable so don't bother complaining about it.






Don Quixote said...

So I guess it's just too simplistic to say that US conservatives are self-absorbed pricks, congressional Republicans are assholes, and Trump is an evil fucking asshole. I guess I'm "thinking emotionally." The problem is, it feels like I'm thinking clearly.

Cervantes said...

Well you're right about the last two, but as I say, there's a lot of variety among people who call themselves conservatives. For a lot of people, that's just a label that pertains to their social group, they don't even really think about what it means. Other people are exposed only to Faux News and the vulgar pigboy, so they're brainwashed. For a lot of people, it's basically hereditary. So anyway, I don't think that just dismissing people with a pejorative label is helpful. I'd like to be able to have an intelligent conversation with people, although as I've noted many times that doesn't seem to happen. If conservatism is compatible with critical thinking, it has yet to be demonstrated to me. But I'm still open to it.

mojrim said...

A pretty good precis but it contains a couple glaring oversights.

While some things (e.g. slavery) are immoral on their face, you'll have to make a case for not forcing participation in national rituals. We already force, by soft or hard means, participation in all sorts of things, from school attendance to funding the war machine. The state is literally coercion; it's not much of a leap to the 4th of July.

Second is traditions and hierarchy, which you dismiss without examining their anthropological roots. The simple fact is that almost all humans, even groups who suffer under the status quo, prefer the known to the unknown. It's notable that the overwhelming majority of post-colonial "communist" movements turned out to be either nationalistic or simple land reform. Turning serfs into yeoman is the fastest route to rural conservatism known to man because it guarantees them a stable place in the known order.

That being said, you are quite accurate in describing american "conservatism" as an ideologically incoherent, reactionary mess. These people have no theory and, having been left to fend for themselves the past 45 years, have come to associate capitalism with conservative notions of community and hierarchy, both of which it despises and seeks to destroy.

Don Quixote said...


Can you please "unpack" your comments (as they say) a bit? I think they're incredibly incisive, and concise, and I want to understand them better.

I take it you're an anarchist, I mean in the highest sense of the phrase--that is, against people being either "over" or "under" each other in terms of status? I think I am one ... but please let me know,

In your final paragraph, who are they people that have been "fending for themselves" (i.e., to whom are you referring)?

At the end of the second paragraph, are you saying that making "rural comrades" out of farmers is a great way to incorporate them into conservative social structures?

Anyway, please elaborate. I greatly appreciate your comments.

Dr Porkenheimer said...

I appreciate your thoughtful analysis, mojrim, and found it intelligent and interesting.

Much of the arguments against conservatism utilizes the logical fallacy Reductio ad paint conservatism in a simple, cartoon-like manner. It's usually practiced by those who know little about conservatism and have little experience with those who do.

Everyone is for improving the culture. However, one of the great values of conservatism is to change slowly and not allow a small political faction to make radical unproven changes that may prove harmful.

Following traditions and cultural norms insures consistency until the needed change is overwhelmingly perceived by most all and most all are on board.

Cervantes said...

Hi Mo. I'm not sure that mandatory school attendance and paying taxes to fund the military is really in the category of what people usually mean by "tradition." Some families may be said to have a tradition of military service, but when they tried to make it mandatory in the Vietnam war there was massive resistance. I don't know how old you are but I was there and it tore apart society.

By traditions I mean observances such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, but no-one is compelled to participate. However, some conservatives do want to compel participation. Also things like gender roles, and it is liberals who do not want to enforce these by law, while conservatives do.

It is true that the state is, by definition, coercive. In fact it has a monopoly on legitimate violence. Of course political philosophers have discussed this since Plato. The modern liberal position on this is that the state can be held accountable by democratic institutions, so ceding authority to the state gives more freedom than leaving it to unaccountable and ruthless bullies, which is what we had under feudalism and would have again without the modern state. (Viz. Somalia.)

Mandatory school attendance is a limitation on parental rights in the interest of children, of which there are many other examples. These are often controversial to some degree, but have overwhelming public support.

Cervantes said...

Porky -- If you just want to define conservatism as generally favoring putting the breaks on social change, that's one discussion, but that's not the one we're having here.

That's obviously not an adequate description of the actually existing conservative movement in the U.S. right now, which is among other things reactionary -- wanting to go backwards in many respects, and in particular is dominated by religious extremists. Also racist, denies scientific facts because fossil fuel tycoons want to keep getting richer, and relatedly denies other scientific facts for the sake of other kinds of plutocrats, and has become a cult worshipping an insane idiot whose entire production of communicative action consists of lies.

You might be someone who wants to go slow on social change, but that alone doesn't make you a conservative as the term actually applies in current reality.

Don Quixote said...

There is a tremendous amount of confusion generated by words and, in particular, labels.

What does it mean to be a "Christian"? We can find one definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the most authoritative sources:

"one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ"

This obviously does not describe most "conservative" "Christians" in the United States Senate and House of Representatives. Otherwise, they'd do things like--y,know--treat others as they wish to be treated (can you say "stimulus checks" and "social safety net"?); clothe and feed the poor; support universal, single-payer, comprehensive healthcare; encourage true education, educating the country's population about the genocide of Native Americans, importation and enslavement of Africans ...

So words are a big part of the problem. They only approximate.

Most modern US conservatives are--IMHO--described as "fucking assholes." That means they don't give a shit about anyone except themselves and their progeny.

mojrim said...

Page 1.

Caveat: I tend to throw around words like "all" and "never" for conveniance. We all understand that behaviors and preferences fall on a distribution curve so those can be taken to mean, roughly, within 2SD.

For argument, I'll call myself a socialist cultural conservative, about as far from political anarchy as possible without feudalism or theocracy. I see the aliviation of "one man standing above another" in labor ownership of production but beyond that I have yet to see a practical solution. This is for both moral and practical reasons. The latter is quite simple: if you don't establish a state someone else will come along and give you one, like it or not. It's an offer I make to libertarians when they start blathering about the latest version of Gault's Gulch.

The former is more complex and deeply rooted in our physical and cultural evolution. Humans are both cooperative and competitive, the anthropological and historical record showing that voluntary action breaks down in groups of more than 50-100 members. The state and the church, beginning with the sumerian temple complex, are the twin answers to this problem. Morality, from prohibitions on killing to prescribing modes of dress, both allow us to live together in large groups and, critically, to identify group members so as to permit trust in dealings. If I know you're from my nation I can sit with you and relax, not constantly fingering my knife and sniffing for poison in the wine. Athiests who say "I don't believe in god and I haven't killed anyone" blithly ignore growing up in a culture informed by a religious prohibition on killing.

That trust is rational for a community but kinda irrational for the indivudual, which conflict underpins all human societies. To enforce this irrationality it was nescessary to invent both a code of justification (religion) and an omnicient enforcer (god, maybe santa claus). The public rituals of the temple-state, passed down in diluted form, serve to display community membership and confirm the rules of such. It's the same reason (successful) militaries have formations. The Marine Corps gets a lot of flack from outsiders for being a cult but all that martial pomp and circumstance really works when groups are under pressure. We may not want civil society to look like that but it's entirely a matter of degree. Go too far in the other direction with all that "induvidwel freedum" and you get an atomized society that cannot solve collective problems because everyone believes everyone else is on the take.

Sure, there is a material difference between paying taxes, sending your kid to school, and standing for the 4th of July parade. Thing is, the willingness to do the first two without a literal gun to your head is predicated on a lifetime of having done the last. Social indoctrination is the same animal no matter how we dress it up and it always has a ritual element. A properly ordered society doesn't need state coercion to make you participate, your parents and teachers and peers put the little policeman in your head and nudge you back into line when needed. As you do for them. This works because we are a social animal and need the group both for physical survival and mental health.


mojrim said...

Page 2.

If we look at these things from an ideological and historical perspective, liberalism and conservatism are directions on a number line defined by the relative power of the individual versus the community. In that the end point of liberalism is libertarianism while the other is, perhaps, Pharaonic Egypt. The modern world is built entirely upon the liberal premise of individual empowerment and enjoyment, with the anglophone countries on the cutting edge. Our "liberals" and "conservatives" are both the heirs of Ayn Rand, they only argue over which parts of life to apply her principals.

This is why it's increasingly difficult to solve collective problems (such as global warming) or even maintain a tax base: the lower nine deciles can't agree to tax the top decile because half of them see collective financial action as an assault on their freedum. Meanwhile the other half is taking arguments for polygamy seriously because they've convinced themselves that marriage is a private concern rather than a public contract between the individual and the community. Once you define something as a right (a la Loving v Virginia) it's only a matter of time before everyone starts trying to define it to suit their individual desires. I wouldn't want to be a an egyptian peasant farmer either, but we cannot discount a social structure that held up for nearly 3000 years.

And that collective action problem informs the how and who has been set adrift for the past 45 years: basically everyone below the top decile. More specifically, the wage earning class of industrial labor, white and otherwise. It's not an accident that the GOP assault on social programs coincides with the Dems abandonment of unions. The GOP now appeals to the white fraction with religious and social propaganda: the Dems are stealing your money and giving it to those people. The Dems actually reinforce this narrative by ignoring our class and addressing us only by identity group, such as race and sexual orientation.

This program of alienation and atomization has been so successful that working class conservatives actually despise unions and hold as their sole ambition enough money to buy a steroidal truck and Own The Road. Going deep on bling while their marriages implode, schools fail, and roads disintegrate is opting out of the community in toto. Going to church and ranting about "family values" without actually belonging is getting all the form and ignoring the function. Capitalism "gave them" the F-250 Super Duty and the iPhone X, which is all they can really ever have. Since no one has been around to offer them better or discuss how we got here, capitalism is good and all these problems come from "cultural marxism" like the guy on Faux News said. That those things, like their stagnant wages and emiscerated SSA account, are the operation of capital has been lost in the noise because no one who matters has been out making the case for unions and entitlements.

And nature abhors a vacuum.

Dr Porkenheimer said...

"...wanting to go backwards in many respects."

Backwards from what? relatively recent changes in culture that many were no and still are not on board with?

A great example might be same-sex marriage. For thousands of years and in most known cultures, the union of man and woman was considered marriage. Gay marriage, when put before the people, lost in the arena of democracy, even when it was a referendum.

Another example would be abortion on demand. Again, no democratic process and a relatively recent change.

Returning to the norms that our culture has had for millennia would hardly be "going backwards" unless you wanted to use those terms to further the political aspect. The broader view would be a cultural course correction.

And that could happen. If these issues had been settled through a democratic process, more people would have accepted these changes.

Cervantes said...

That seems an unfortunate example. Once same sex marriage became the law of the land, and nothing bad happened, people accepted it. Now it enjoys substantial majority support. BTW the right to abortion also has majority support in most states. It's just a very avid minority that makes it a fraught political issue.

mojrim said...

My Dearest Cervantes,

While I'm not willing to side with Dr. Porkchop in general, I have to dispute your response to him in this. Taking Mr Agre at face value (a dubious proposition) governance via SCOTUS would seem the most conservative possible way of governing, i.e. we know what you need so relax and enjoy it. The american left has grown accustomed to using SCOTUS as a way to outflank democracy and, from a truly democratic perspective it's irrelevant that people grew acclimated to the position forced upon them by nine philosopher-kings. Having spent the last six decades extolling the virtues of such platonic rule it will be interesting to watch how the left deals with an immovably right-wing court for the next thirty. We're all going to suffer a harsh lesson in the folly of believing that history has "sides."

As always, Mr. Kipling has the final word...

Cervantes said...

I'm not sure what that has to do with Agre, or why you think I disagree with you. (Remember that he was writing in 2004, when the SC was relatively supportive of democratic institutions, but that was an anomaly.) I am well aware of Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson and the many horrors of the SC. Some sort of arbiter is needed, but the specific rules for appointing members of the court, and life tenure, among other factors, render the present system a major flaw in the constitution (along with many others).

And yes, I have always had mixed feelings about Roe v. Wade. I do think the political trend was toward liberalization of abortion laws and we probably would have been better off in the long run allowing that to take its course. The reasoning in Roe v. Wade is somewhat strained, better to establish it by legislation. But jurisprudence is not really my field.

mojrim said...

Agre's essay takes the starting proposition that conservatism means aristocracy and liberalism is synonymous with democracy. By his formulation, then, SCOTUS is a conservative institution regardless of whatever rulings it gives out because it is unelected and unaccountable.

Cervantes said...

Not entirely sure that follows. If SCOTUS happens to make a ruling that is consistent with equity and justice, then it is not favoring aristocracy. The problem of independent judiciary is obviously complicated. The intention is to establish some form of ultimate guarantor so that a majority cannot dispossess a minority of their rights. Obviously that hasn't worked so well in the case of slavery and Jim Crow, and it also depends on rights being specified in the Constitution so the court has something to work with. There is a danger in electing judges in that they might persecute unpopular people and protect those who are favored. But obviously the system we have now for appointing federal judges hasn't necessarily resulted in democratic or liberal outcomes. I really don't have a pat answer to this.

Dr Porkenheimer said...

Which party do you think people would gravitate toward if they're not 'conservative' by your definition, but think rapid radical changes are a bad idea?

So, can you really paint all Republicans with the same broad brush?

Cervantes said...

In that case, I would gravitate to the Democratic party, and Joe Biden in particular.

I think that anybody who identifies with the actually existing Republican party is buying in to a hallucinatory reality, although there are a few politicians who use the label who are exceptional, e.g. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. But the party as a whole -- bugfucking crazy.

mojrim said...

You, my good Cervantes, are confusing the instrument with its immediate result.

It follows because the institution itself, and the way it governs, is inherently conservative by Agre's (tortured) definition. The nine philosopher-kings, unaccountable to the polity, give or take whatever "rights" they see as needed to maintain the social order. The value of representative democracy is that we can punish their misbehavior. The court gives us no such recourse. What none untouchable solons give so nine untouchable solons can take away.

Within Agre's construction that is the acme of conservative, anti-democratic governance. The american left's obsession with SCOTUS has simultaneously deprived it of the means to object when it rules for the right and robbed it of the skills to convince it's fellow citizens.