25 June 2011

Why I Am Not A Conservative, Conclusion

In the end, the reasons I am not a conservative (the reasons that label doesn't apply to the views I do hold, and the reasons I don't agree with views to which the label more readily does apply) are roughly the same as those Hayek set out.

Hayek's essay of this title was published in the very same year as the Goldwater book I've been examining: 1960.  Hayek said that in our day (in this respect, he speaks even more to ours than to his own) "movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty."  A conservative and a real liberal, a defender of individual, may well be thrown together in mutual opposition to those progressive movements which may call themselves liberal.

But Hayek also said that the problem with conservatism is that it offers no alternative.  "Let-us-keep- the-good-things-we-have" is not an alternative to change, because the world will necessarily change, and the real struggle has to be over the direction of change.  Toward more liberty, or toward less?

Hayek wrote, "the tug of war between conservatives amd progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments."

That sentence echoes remarkably Goldwaters sentence, written at roughly the same time, about how the trouble with liberals is that they are in a hurry.  That is just what Hayek warned us conservatives would falsely say the trouble with "liberals" -- the folks he called progressives -- is.  The real trouble, on the other hand, is that the progressives are pulling us in the wrong direction.

I am reminded of a buddy of mine in college who was arrested for drunk driving.  That was the 1970s, and -- so long as no one was hurt -- drunk driving was not yet regarded as the horrendous offense it is nowadays taken to be.  It was under the general category stupid-college-kid offense.

Anyway, my buddy was driving along a sidewalk when he was arrested -- which made the breathalyzer test almost entirely unnecessary.  The next day, after I bailed him out, he complained to me that among the 6 or 7 charges for which the police officer had written him up, there was "speeding."  This was too much.  How could he have been speeding when he was driving on a place he shouldn't have been driving on at any rate!

I'm not, BTW, making fun of DWI offenses.  I was simply amused by my friend's indignation, and it comes back to me now because Hayek was offering in all seriousness -- and I think rightly -- the same complaint against the Goldwaters of the world.  They should not pretend that any part of the offense is speeding.  The problem is that progressives have us on a sidewalk!

This problem won't be resolved by complaints that suggest that a slower rate of speed on the sidewalk would be okay.

So: what are we to say about Goldwater's opposition to Brown v. Board?  Does it tell us anything beyond that one historic incident?   It tells us, I submit, that at a time when the progressive agenda demanded the end to Jim Crow, the conservative attitude reflexively defended Jim Crow.  Of course, many people defended Jim Crow out of self-interest.  It helped a lot of white people avoid competition in the job market,  for example.  The privileged generally abstain from challenging the grounds of their privilege.  But even those who lived in states without Jim Crow often reflexively defended the system, or opposed its opponents, out of the knee-jerk reflex Hayek understood.

It tells us, also, that when the progressives won that one, when Jim Crow was dead, conservatives in time came along, and posed as the true defenders of equality of opportunity for the Linda Browns of the world-- not because their principles had changed, but because the real objection posed by those principles had been one of velocity, and that is irrelevant given an accomplished fact.

A true liberal -- a believer in liberty, and in such forms of progress as serve liberty, consistent with the preserving of such liberty as has been attained -- would have found the root of the problem in the whole notion of mandatory public education.  Naturally, if there are government-run mandatory schools, if taxes are used to pay for them, if people under an arbitrary age are ordered to attend them absent specific state-sponsored exemptions -- then virtually everything that is done in the administration of that system will seem tyrannical to someone.  Evolution is taught or it isn't -- coercion either way.  The pledge of allegiance is made part of a regular ritual, or it isn't -- coercion either way.  The races are separated or they aren't -- coercion either way IF one understands that the system itself is coercive.

The real direction of progress (not of progressivism) would involve getting people to see market alternatives, and understand that the forces of spontaneous order will address all such dilemma to the extent they are allowed to do so. 

In some moments Goldwater seems to want to follow that rule.  Alas, though, he was all too often a conservative instead.


Henry said...

Christopher, can you offer any examples of "movements that are thought to be progressive [that] advocate further encroachments on individual liberty"?

Let's not count public education, because conservatives and liberals both accept it. And let's not count the individual mandate in the new health insurance law because that is the equivalent of a tax, and, if the Supreme Court should hold it unconstitutional, it could be re-enacted in the form of a tax.

Christopher said...

"Let's not count public education, because conservatives and liberals both accept it."

Actually, the fact that liberals and conservatives both accept it is rather my point, and confirms Hayek's.

And isn't any fine "the equivalent of a tax"? Both take money away -- and to the extent that taxes are based on behaviors deemed unsuitable, they look like fines for doing the unsuitable thing. If I refuse to pay the tax/fine long enough and pertinaciously enough, isn't it likely that somebody will come along and put me in prison?

Which will look a bit like an encroachment on liberty.

Henry said...

I did not adequately explain what I meant by saying that the individual mandate is the equivalent of a tax; I did not mean that the fine that is imposed for those who don't purchase health insurance is the equivalent of a tax, and I agree that it is intended to coercive (not that that bothers me).

I had in mind a scenario in which Congress raises the income tax and uses the additional revenue to purchase health insurance for anyone who does not have it. For those who do have it, it grants a tax credit in the amount of the premiums they pay. The only encroachment on liberty that would result would be the necessity of supplying the emergency room with your insurance policy number when you go there for medical care. This scenario would raise no constitutional issue.

Christopher said...


I'm glad to see your meaning was not as loopy as I had at first inferred.

Let's focus on a related issue for a sec, though. Suppose if you like that single-payer care is extended to everybody. Are doctors all working for the government, too, or are we presuming they often work for private employers as at present, or work for themselves, perhaps within professional partnerships?

If they are still private sector employees or entrepreneurs, then one important feature of the health-care system will continue to be the relationship between doctors and pharma concerns like Pfizer, Sanofi, etc.

I've just been looking into an issue, for an upcoming column, that bears on the way progressive reform takes liberties away. Have you been following the case of SORRELL v. IMS Health? The Supreme Court decided it just last week, and whoever has your old job at the CRS must surely have written an explanation of it by now.

Vermont sought to tell "data miners" that they could not gather information on the prescription patterns of particular doctors. This wasn't a privacy concern, it was an effort to make it difficult for the pharm companies' sales people to draft individualized pitches to those doctors.

If a data miner learns that Dr. Jane Smith frequently prescribes a generic pain killer for arthritic patients, Pfizer might regard her as a likely target for a visit from their travelling salesmen (the usual term is "detailers," but let's go with the whole Willy Loman thing.)

The legislature of Vermont evidently thought that if they made it onerous for the data miners to collect that information, the sales people wouldn't get it, and they might never get around to persuading Dr Smith she should use Pfizer's wonder drug instead of generic aspirin. That would lower the costs of health care, some of which of course the state of Vermont bears.

Of course, if Pfizer is right and the brand name drug works better, it would also lower the quality of health care.

The Supreme Court upheld the appeals court in striking down Vermont's law on free speech grounds. Vermont had taken the side of the marketers of generic drugs over the side of the marketers of the more expensive brand name drugs. It was trying to burden the speech of the side it disfavors. As Justice Kennedy wrote: you are not allowed to restrain speech simply because it might be persuasive.

I suspect that the legislators who voted for this restraint on the speech of the pharm companies, their employees, and the data miners who serve them thought of themselves as serving a quite progressive cause. Indeed, they might have figured that the cost control they were trying to achieve was important to pave the way for universal health care.

But that rather answers your initial question. They were then part of a movement thought to be progressive which imposed a (brief-lived) encroachment on individual liberty.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.