Friday, November 19, 2010

Why I'm not a conservative, again

Every so often I come across something that reminds me why, and here's the latest, a post on the ironically(?) titled Postmodern Conservative blog by Johnathan Jones, called "The Quest for Community". It's a review of a book with the same title by Robert Nisbet first published in 1953 -- a date that, in itself, tells you something about it -- and now re-issued. Back when I was myself a lefty, this was just the sort of thing I abhorred, confirming my fervent anti-conservative, left-wing beliefs:
Humans are, intractably, social creatures built for communion. So prevalent is the belief that an equal satisfaction of preferences is a high social good, and that the purpose of politics and morality is the working toward that supposed good, that Nisbet can be a bit of a shock. As this blog argues, liberalism is very insufficient to maintain social order. Freedom and equality as high principles can harm other realities necessary for social harmony.
And it still bothers me. What, prey tell, is "equal satisfaction of preferences" supposed to mean? If human creatures are "built for communion", then wouldn't communion/community also be a preference? Is "social harmony" really supposed to trump everything else -- freedom, equality (of status), and even justice?  In other words, this seems like vague, abstract, confused, and even somewhat menacing mush.

But, being wiser at least than I was, I can now pick out some threads that do make some sense, even if incomplete and poorly grounded. Here, for example, he brings up a theme I've called "hubristic Reason", originating in the Continental (as distinct from the British/Scottish) Enlightenment, and that is a serious flaw in contemporary collectivist/liberal statist schemes:
... the aspirations that inspired the founders of modern thought – the conquest of nature through science, perhaps even the conquest of human nature, and the emancipation of power from moral restraint – could be “achieved” at a great and unpredictable cost. [my emphasis]
And the emphasis on family and association generally is a good theme, however simple, and a welcome contrast to the sort of politicized "solidarity" that characterizes the left. This I think, as another example, makes a good point about the need to bring together things that contemporary liberal orthodoxies tend always to oppose:
Far too many lifestyle choices and social, political structures shatter what the authentically familial would hold together – consumption and production, sensuality and fertility, freedom and virtue.
So fine, but where does that leave us? If Jones' answer is that it leaves us stuck in a 50's style time warp, then he's no help, and this perverse mock rallying cry -- "Down with the statist-individualist symbiosis!" -- just underlines his confusion and haplessness. It also points to his crucial mistake -- to accept, uncritically, the left-wing denigration of the individual, leaving him with the only apparent alternatives of leftist collectivism or an antique conservatism. But the modern individual is a much more complex, and still evolving, phenomenon, that is at the heart of new and potentially richer sorts of community. Like any emergence, this process is not without its tribulations, but the true progressives are those who support the individual and the freedom that defines him -- and resist the reactionaries on both the left and the right that would try to re-submerge her in collectives either traditional or statist (or both).


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The freedom of the Individual, over the collectivist rabble: the Divine Miss Ayn would be proud.

    AS usual you hint at a somewhat interesting issue--related to meritocracy for lack of a better word--but muddle things up with your moral/political assumptions. Few humans, even Rousseauian leftists, would claim that, say, laborers or custodians deserve to be compensated as well as teachers, engineers, doctors, so forth--yet they might question a society and economic system which pays teachers 40 grand a year, and ...Tommy Hanks 40 million a year. A skilled, educated professional-- say an RN-- earns 50 grand per annum--while college dropouts such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ellison make a million a week or more just on investments, as do rich heiresses (or royals in England and other EU countries).

    Or consider celebrity excess and stupidity--Cher lives in a massive mansion in 'Bu, and has others across the world--I doubt she could pass an algebra test (or for that matter, play a Chopin etude). A dozen miles or so up the canyon from the stars of the 'Bu, teachers live in apts, and fear their lay off notices. That situation seems injust to many--a type of casino-ish economics, luck-egalitarianism (which even Rawls opposed--see his comments on natural fortune, etc). Ergo, demanding income parity for people with fairly similar skills and abilities seems fairly reasonable, even conservative in a sense.

  3. Off-topic, but --

    No one doubts that luck plays a role in people's lives, including yours and mine -- so what? The kind of people who begrudge the good fortune of others tend to be sour, embittered, envy-ridden obsessives. Which, come to think of it, does describe a substantial portion of the contemporary left. Rawls has provided them with a paper-thin, problem-riddled intellectual cover, but the simple fact is that no one -- not even you, J -- is in a position to say how much luck someone else should be allowed, or who merits what.

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  5. Rawls has provided them with a paper-thin, problem-riddled intellectual cover

    Had you read even the Rawls Wiki you might note that Rawls' opposition to familial dynasties and aristocrats (heirs being some of the luckiest in Fortuneville) sounds rather similar to the Founding Fathers' arguments against the English monarchy and aristocratic privilege.


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