23 June 2011

Why I Am Not A Conservative

That title served for some famous reflections by Fredrich Hayek.  It will serve for me as well.

Should I be a conservative?  After all, many in our own day who use that label for themselves happily define their creed as the distrust of government, central planning, etc.   That is valid enough for me, since I'm an anarcho-capitalist.  (Going further in the libertarian economic direction, then, than did Hayek.)

So: am I a conservative?

Fortunately, conservatism conserves enough of a memory of its own past that some of its proponents today quote classic texts, and these texts can give me a fix on what I am or am not.  For example, in the mid-20th century US one of the most prominent conservatives was Barry Goldwater, long-time Senator from Arizona, 1964 presidential candidate, author of a book entitled The Conscience of a Conservative (1960).

Let us see if he had anything to say that helps me fix ideas about what I am, or should be, or perhaps should not be.

"Conservatism," Goldwater says rather early on in that book, "therefore looks upon the enhancement of man's spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy.  Liberals, on the other hand, -- in the name of a concern for "human beings" -- regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission of society.  They are, moreover, in a hurry.  So that their characteristic approach is to harness society's political and economic forces into a collective effort to compel 'progress.'  In this approach, I believe they fight against Nature."

There is a good deal of confusion in those sentences, and I believe the respects in which they are confused will help me get to me goal: clarifying why I am not a conservative in any sense in which the late Senator Goldwater was.

The pause to blame liberals for being "in a hurry" is one loose thread on which we might want to tug.  After all, if somebody wants something that is wrong, then it hardly matters whether he wants it quickly or slowly. It is wrong to move quickly to do a bad thing and it is wrong to move slowly to do a bad thing.  

Someone is trying to rob a bank.  Oh, a bad thing.  And what is more, they're in a hurry! they have a getaway car all revved up out front and they're motioning to the teller to be quick about putting the loot in the bag.  Is that an aggravating factor?

Consider another set of bank robbers.  More methodical, they take days to create a tunnel beneath the bank into the vault.  They aren't in a hurry, then,  They are showing some patience in working toward their goal.  Are they the "good" bank robbers?  Are conservatives more firmly against the one set of bank robbers than the other?

I think not.  Indeed, the only relevance of this "in a hurry" qualification would arise if there were things that would be good only if accomplished slowly.

My inference is that Goldwater was doing two things in this passage.  First, he was trying to link his conservatism with the views of Edmund Burke, as expounded in the 1950's by political theorist Russell Kirk.   The rest of his (Goldwater's) book has relatively little to do with the Burke/Kirk constellation of ideas, but Goldwater wanted to bow in that direction.

Second, though, Goldwater wanted to anticipate what he would say about the civil rights struggles of black Americans later in his book.  He would say "It so happens that I am in agreement with the objectives of the Supreme Court as stated in the Brown decision.  I believe that it is both wise and just for Negro children to attend the same schools as whites, and that to deny them this opportunity carries with it strong implications of inferiority."

But, of course, he didn't want to desegregate in a hurry.  That would be fighting against nature.  He wanted the Justices to leave the decisions to the state legislatures, and he hoped that moral suasion would in time bring the state legislators around.

I have to wonder about the pragmatic significance of this sort of "agreement with the objectives."  After all, the 14th amendment was enacted in 1866.  It was 90 years later that the Supreme Court ordered desegregation, and even then it included the key phrase "all deliberate speed."  The word "deliberate"  (i.e. you in the states and towns can think about this and make sure you do it right) was an invitation to further foot dragging -- an invitation that was immediately accepted.

So 90 years plus is "in a hurry"?  

But let us return to the passage in the introduction, the passage I italicized above. Goldwater is unhappy that liberals "regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission in society."  What does that mean?

Can "wants" be divided into economic and non-economic "wants"?  Or are all wants economic wants?  I hope to take things up from this point tomorrow.


ciceronianus said...

I wonder if Goldwater understood, and today's conservatives understand, the extent to which they condone the potential exercise of governmental power when they maintain that "the enhancement of man's spiritual nature" is the goal of political philosophy. Once the state believes it should be involved in "enhancing" the spiritual nature of its citizens, all kinds of restrictions on conduct may be justified. One would think such a government would be feared by those concerned with individual liberties.

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