Sunday, October 20, 2013
Conservative Capitalism: a strange way to remain the same
My heading above is lifted from an article by the Australian Leftist Grant Wyeth. My leading post on Friday was also a comment on one of his lucubrations so I thought I might have a bit more fun with him today. On Friday I solved for him his puzzle over why Left and Right are so starkly different and opposed. Today I want to solve for him the puzzle in the heading above: He cannot fathom that change is in the essence of capitalism so *therefore* conservatives should oppose it, not support it
Like many Leftist writers before him (e.g. Altemeyer), Wyeth's problem is that he wouldn't know conservatism if he fell over it. His concept of conservatism is the caricature of it that circulates in his own little Leftist bubble.
And he even realizes dimly that he doesn't know what it is. With a schoolboy level of sophistication, he even turned to his dictionary to find out what it is! Sad that so many historians have written in vain for Wyeth! Altemyer is the same.
And what Wyeth found in his dictionary is that conservatives are opposed to change. That is exactly what Leftists say about conservatives but it ignores one of the most salient facts about politics worldwide -- that conservative governments are just as energetic in legislating for their agenda as Leftists are. Both sides busily make new laws all the time. And the point of a new law is to change something. The changes that Left and Right desire are different but both sides push for change. On Wyeth's understanding of conservatism, a conservative government that wins an election should do no more than yawn, shut up the legislature and go home until the next election!
So in good Leftist style, Wyeth ignores one of the most basic facts about politics. That sure is a weird little intellectual bubble that he lives in. EVERY conservative that I know has got a whole list of things that he would like to see changed. But Wyeth obviously doesn't know any conservatives.
So Wyeth finds politics puzzling because his most basic premise is faulty.
So what is conservatism? I have taught both sociology and psychology at major Australian universities but when it comes to politics my psychologist's hat is firmly on. One can understand conservatism at various levels but to get consistency, you have to drop back to the psychological level. And at that level it is as plain as a pikestaff. Conservatives are cautious. And that is all you need to know to understand the whole of conservatism.
In science, however, explanations just generate new questions and, as a psychologist, I am interested in dropping down to an even lower level of explanation and asking why conservatives are cautious. And I think that is pretty obvious too. It is in part because they can be.
As all the surveys show, conservatives are the happy and contented people. And with that disposition, conservatives just don't feel the burning urgency for change that Leftists do. Leftists cast caution to the winds because they want change so badly. ANYTHING seems better to them than the existing arrangements. Conservatives don't have that compulsion. Leftists are the perpetually dissatified whiners whereas conservatives can afford to take their time and get things right from the outset.
And why does that difference in happiness exist? As the happiness research often reminds us, your degree of happiness is inborn and, as such, is pretty fixed. Leftists are just born miserable.
So we have now dropped down into a genetic level of explanation. And we can at that level even derive and test a hypothetico-deductive prediction. If conservatives are happy and happiness is genetic, then conservatism should be genetic too. And it is. As behaviour geneticists such as Nick Martin have shown, conservatism has a strong genetic component -- which suggests that some people are just born cautious. It is, of course, no surprise that caution and happiness go together.
So I think I have now gone as low as I can go in explaining conservatism. There are of course even lower levels of explanation possible (tracing the brain areas involved, studying the DNA) but our understanding of those levels of function is at the moment so crude that anyone purporting to offer explanations at that level is merely speculating.
So having gone down the levels of explanation, I now need to go up the levels of explanation too. What does being cautious lead to? It rather obviously leads to distrust: Distrust of the wisdom and goodwill of one's fellow man, both as individuals and in collectivities. In Christian terms, man is seen as "fallen" and ineluctibly imperfect.
But trust and distrust are matters of degree and conservatives are perfectly willing to give trust when it has been earned. So where ideas are concerned, conservatives usually trust only those ideas that have already been shown to work as intended or which extend existing successful ideas. Leftists, by contrast, trust and put into action ideas that "sound" right to them -- without bothering to test first whether their ideas really do generate the consequences that they envisage. They usually don't of course. Leftists are theorists extraordinaire. They have no use for Mr Gradgrind's "facts". That theory is useful only insofar as it is a good guide to facts seems to be beyond their ken.
The enthusiasm for "whole language" methods in teaching kids to read is an example of untested Leftist policy being implemented. It was widely adopted in the schools but worked so badly that most schools have now reverted to phonics -- the old "tried and tested" method.
And conservative caution leads to conservatives valuing stability generally -- because sweeping changes could well not work out well -- and usually don't. Leftists usually seem to think they know it all but conservatives know that they don't. So conservatives want various changes but also want to proceed cautiously with change. They want "safe" change, change off a stable base -- a base that embodies what has worked in the past.
And the traditional conservative advocacy of individual liberty also stems from caution. It is highly likely that a tyrant won't have your particular interests at heart so you want to be free to pursue your own interests yourself. And in the economic sphere that is capitalism.
I think I have by now said enough to solve all of Wyeth's puzzles below but if I have left anything out, you will probably find it in my big historical survey of conservatism -- JR
ON FRIDAY LAST WEEK in The Age, Waleed Aly wrote a thoughtful piece on the tensions that currently exist globally within “the Right” of politics.
Aly hit the nail beautifully on the head when he wrote that modern ‘…conservative politics [has come] to be built on a contradiction: a pact between the opposing forces of free market-liberalism and social conservatism.’
However, Aly didn’t quite go far enough in explaining just how strange and counter-productive to conservative ideals this alliance has become. Modern political thought tends to view this as a perfectly consistent philosophy, but I would contend that nothing could be further from the truth.
The way I see things, World War II and the Cold War induced conservatives in the West to go looking for the most anti-socialist (both national and garden variety) philosopher and economist they could find. It led them to F. A. Hayek, a man who diagnosed the brutally restrictive machines of state-centric Fascism and Communism earlier than most. However, this was an ironic choice for conservatives, seeing he had also written an essay entitled Why I’m Not A Conservative.
However, as insightful (and misunderstood) as Hayek was (and still is), I think we need to look towards another economist for a more succinct reason as to why this is such an odd match.
Joseph Schumpeter noted: ‘Capitalism is by nature a form or method of change and not only never is, but never can be, stationary.’
Which is why I find it strange that we conventionally call capitalism “economic conservatism”, when the dictionary tells me that conservatives are uncomfortable, opposed, or suspicious, of change.
Schumpeter, however, also observed that capitalism is: ‘…a process whose every element takes considerable time in revealing its true features and ultimate effects.’
This could be considered “conservative”, in that the more rational conservatives believe change needs time to digest, not full-scale resistance. But since the post-World War II period, market-fuelled economic and social change has moved at such a rapid and multiplying pace that surely conservatives would advocate more state intervention against the market, not less?
The train, the car, the aeroplane and the internet – all major inventions fuelled and enhanced by competition and the free exchange of ideas – have been instrumental in breaking down ethnic and cultural barriers as they moved the masses out of the monoculture of the village and into the wonderful world of difference. Firsthand knowledge is the biggest enemy of the ignorant, and capitalism has given us these wonderful tools to gain it.
Furthermore, when it comes to cultural and ethnic relations, the conservative adherence to the market is again odd. If, as Hayek would promote, the state is a physical impediment to exchange amongst humans, then surely the nation is a mental one? The nation is one particularly dangerous form of collectivism that conservatives seem to have overlooked.
Swedish academic Hans Rosling has noted that a capitalist invention such as the simple washing machine was a significant tool in the women’s liberation movement. The massive amount of time it saved allowed women to educate and organise themselves. The result being that within a very short period, women now out-attend and out-perform men in education, and will soon translate this to out-earn.
The state just doesn’t have the knowledge, the mechanisms, nor the self-interest to create change on this scale. And when it has tried, it has ended up with a lot of dead bodies.
The state is a reactionary institution in the purest sense. Its role is to react to what occurs around it, and when you concentrate considerable power and prestige in it, the state is less likely to be comfortable with change that may threaten this power.
This is why I refer to both the state itself, and the ideas of “the Left”, as “structurally conservative”. Presently, “the Right” have the desire to resist change, but “the Left” have all the instruments to do so.
This is something Bob Katter understands with his conservative “Old Labor” instincts. He may be backwards, but at least he is philosophically consistent. There are no homosexuals in the seat of Kennedy, just as there are none in Tehran and Pyongyang. By a head in the sand or a gun in the hand.
However, in a modern liberal society, the issue is lost for poor Bob. The prevalence of gay characters on television now, and the popularity of a prime time show like Modern Family, indicates just how far the state in Australia is behind.
In reference to his own support for gay marriage, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden noted: “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”
Shows such as these are not just educational tools though. Their prominence is actually a reflection of society’s values. They’re shown in prime time for a reason. The state only hears the loudest voices, the market has a much more finely tuned ear.
Aly notes that: ‘Bob Katter’s constituency have long been globalisation’s losers.’
A similar thing can be said about America’s Tea Party movement. I (smugly) call them “Reagan’s Losers”. Yet what The Tea Party miss, that Katter understands, is that they only sow the seeds of their own further discomfort by advocating for increased liberalisation from the state. The increased “freedom” they call for, is actually the freedom that will continue to create significant global, economic and social change.
Theirs is an essentially nationalist movement, they attach themselves to market-liberalism due to America’s national mythology, not due to its cosmopolitan outcomes.
This existential crisis within the Republican Party, along with the rise of UKIP that Aly mentions, the minor parties formed out of the Coalition and the irrational and unhinged rhetoric that spews from elements on the Right these days, are all symptoms of conservatives struggling to reconcile this pact with market-liberalism that doesn’t provide them with the outcomes they desire.
The changes occurring globally and locally in the 21st Century are too strong for this contradictory alliance of ideas to hold. Conservatives are going to either have to learn to embrace the era in which they live, or find a different philosophical and economic model to align themselves in order to resist it.
Even HuffPo is pissing on Obamacare
More than two weeks into the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov, the website created by President Barack Obama's health care reform law still isn't working right.
"The website that was supposed to do this all in a seamless way has had way more glitches than I think are acceptable," Obama said during a Tuesday interview with KCCI television in Des Moines, Iowa. But the administration won't disclose exactly what's wrong with the health insurance exchange website, or when consumers can expect to see the promise of convenient, one-stop shopping for health benefits and financial assistance fulfilled.
Time remains for these problems to be resolved, but not much. "If things aren't resolved in three weeks, we've got some serious, serious problems," said Timothy Jost, a law professor and health care reform expert at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., and an Obamacare supporter. "I don't think we're anywhere close to there yet, but if the whole thing collapses, it'll be another generation before we get this problem fixed."
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Posted by JR at 1:42 AM