24 June 2011

Why I Am Not A Conservative, continued

I tried recently to discuss some of the material in yesterday's post with a self-identified conservative.  He replied that he didn't think Goldwater's observation about liberals being "in a hurry" had anything to do with Linda Brown and the state's decision that she had to walk one mile, through a railroad switchyard, rather than attend the neighborhood school with white classmates.

My interlocutor said, further, that this should have been obvious even from the passage I quoted.  He re-pasted that quote, emphasizing the phrase "the satisfaction of economic wants".  Then he asked (this took my breath away):  "Linda going to school with her white neighbors has much of anything to do with 'economic wants,' how?"

The idea behind this question, if I understand it at all, is that Goldwater was defining liberalism as a view exclusively concerned with economic want.  Linda's wants were something other than economic, thus they didn't pertain to the liberal-versus-conservative riff he was engaged in, in that passage.

I gave the obvious answer:   people growing up together make connections with each other. They become friends, or at least get accustomed to each other, and become part of a common network. That network, in later years, has a lot to do with who gets what job. There's an old saying. "it's not what you know, it's whom you know."

Segregating people from their earliest years helps ensure that the personal networks will be separate. It ensures that white people in the position to make employment decisions will think first of those whom they know best -- those they went to school with.

Coercively enforced separation enforces inequality, as to economic wants. That is one reason why the expression "separate but equal" was always a lie.  That lie is what Goldwater was supporting when he called for a constitutional amendment that would undo the Brown decision.

But there is a broader point here.  What the heck is an "economic want"?  A specific kind of want?  What would be a non-economic want, then?  A spiritual want? 
Economics is "the study of how society allocates scarce resources and goods."

Resources are always scarce, however sacred or spiritual may be the use I want to make of them.  Land is a scarce resource, whether I want to build a factory on it, a school, or a church.  None of those three types of building is "non-economic."  Any of the three of them may be understood economically, or understood spiritually, but none of them is non-economic!  Likewise, no wants are non-economic.

Suppose the greatest want of my life is that I could pray more often.  Why can't I pray now?  Is it because my life is too hectic, and I haven't been able to set aside some time in which to focus on my gratitude to God?  If that's the problem, it is an economic problem -- I want to rearrange the use of my time, a limited resource.  How much am I willing to pay to get that extra time?  From which of my other activities am I prepared to take it.  That is the economists way of looking at such questions and, I submit, it is an essential way of looking at them.

To look down on economics, as somehow an unfitting or unspiritual study, as both Goldwater and my interlocutor seemed to do, is unserious at best and pragmatically disastrous for the society that engages in it at worse.  This may get to the heart of why I am not a conservative.


Henry said...

The reason that "separate but equal" was wrong was not primarily that it reduced black people's employment opportunities. It is that it insulted, demeaned, and degraded them. That was certainly its purpose, and I doubt that you can stretch that into an economic matter. The effect on employment opportunities was secondary and probably unintended.

The reason that black children were not allowed to attend white schools is that those in authority considered them not worthy to do so, and the reason that white children were not allowed to attend black schools (if they were not) is that those in authority believed that it would demean the white children to do so.

By contrast, few people view same-sex schools as offensive, and this is because the purpose of same-sex schools is not to demean children of either sex. Rather, evidence shows that children (especially girls) benefit by being taught in same-sex schools. Some may disagree as to the presence of these benefits, but no one disapproves of same-sex schools on the grounds that they are degrading to members of either sex.

Christopher said...


I have to disagree with you about the causes of Jim Crow. I suspect that the effect on employment opportunities WAS key. ("Them people gots no bidness takin' our jobs.")

This isn't obvious in the case of Brown v. Board because that decision involved such young schoolchildren. It was more obvious in cases like SWEAT v. PAINTER (1950), which was one of the critical precedents leading up to BROWN. Heman Marion Sweat was refused admission to the University of Texas Law School, on the ground that it was an all-white school, and the state offered an alternative 'negro' law school.

But of course, as the black lawyers of that generation knew only too well, you don't plug into the kind of professional network at a 'negro law school' that you do in your years at a 'white law school.' There is nothing equal about separateness.

Once the point had been established in law schools, it would have been quite awkward for the court to set a downward limit -- "networking doesn't happen at ages lower than X." What the heck is X?

This IS also an issue in segregation of educational oportunities by sex, although in that case there might by counter-vailing benefits for te girls.

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.