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Deconstructing Conservatism: Part I

Thursday, November 11, 2004
My DD has suggested we all read Philip Agre's essay "What Is Conservatism And What is Wrong With It?" This is a very long piece, which is broken up into several parts: an analysis of its theoretical foundations, its tactics, its history, and finally a strategy on how to defeat it. I'm going to tackle one section every day. Normally I wouldn't spend so much time on one essay, but I think this is a very important work in a vital discussion. I was planning on doing something similar, and later I'll use Agre's essay as a springboard.

So today let's discuss the theoretical foundations of conservativism, according to Agre. I'll summarize his arguments first.

Agre equates conservatism with aristocracy: it is the ideology that justifies the rule of the elite. This is, after all, Marx's original definition of an ideology. I think that in modern America the umbrella ideology for the right wing could best be called conservatism, so I'll accept that characterization for now. I will ultimately conclude it is a mistake, but let's leave that for the moment.

There are three main arguments justifying conservative ideology: institutionalism, hierarchy, and freedom. First, conservatives argue that institutions are fragile but essential to human well-being, and that the elite is a necessary custodian to those institutions. Any social change is dangerous and to be avoided. This is classical Burkean Conservatism. Agre thinks that institutions are much more durable and adaptable than Burke suggests, so change is just fine.

Conservatives also argue that hierarchy is a good thing- the people are just not qualified to rule. This is the Platonic Guardianship justification. Agre finds this argument are prima faciae unacceptable and recognizes that the modern right is very hesitant to openly state it, although it rests behind much of their logic.

Finally, there is the freedom arguments for conservatism. Agre really doesn't get into the details of how this work, but I think what he means is the libertarian case for the right- the Nozickian or Randian cases for conservativism. Agre thinks that this is just a fig leaf due to the deep-seated popularity of liberty in American political discourse. In reality, conservatives are quite comfortable with authoritarianism. Conservatism requires a internalization of aristocratic norms in the lower classes which requires at least propaganda and at most active indoctrination. Agre also argues that conservativism has only an uneasy alliance with business, because of the market's tendency to undermine the social order. Finally, Agre rightly points out that there is no necessary relationship between the size of government and political ideology- the right uses activist government to promote its ends all the time. It has no principled opposition to "big government."

Any good strategist would tell you that you need to "know your enemy." Is Agre's analysis of conservatism correct? At the philosophical level, we need to take seriously the arguments of our opponents in order to see if there is any real intellectual merit. Whether they really believe these arguments or are acting in bad faith is another issue. This is part of what bothers me about Agre's piece. He occasionally commits the fallacy of "poisoning the well." Rather than directly confront the force of conservativism's arguments, he instead just writes them off as mere hand-waving, a transparent justification for personal aggrandizement. Now this might be true. But even so it is not helpful. We are still left with no deeper understanding of what conservatism really means, or how we might learn from it. This doesn't mean we can't challenge our opponents are hypocrites. It just means I want to know what to say if I meet a conservative who isn't a liar.

The institutional argument for conservatism is actually its most respectable: we can't change anything because it might undo the delicate web of social relationships. This is the old neoconservative "Law of Unintended Consequences." It is conservativism at its best- cautious, restrained, with a keen eye for human fallibility.

I would respectfully disagree with Agre's assertion that social institutions are durable. I concur with Burke- they are fragile. This does not make me a conservative. It makes me a Burkean liberal. Institutions have a tendency to degenerate into something else. Usually this means they are captured by the elite (which is why I think Burke worried too much - his side has a natural advantage in this regard). This is no reason to reject institutions outright. Egalitarian institutions are absolutely crucial for the democratic project. Democracy, after all, is a system of social cooperation, and works through egalitarian institutions. I think one of the principal mistakes of the left in the 20th century has been its failure to create and nurture liberal institutions. In an orgy of individualism and neglect we allowed them to be captured by the right.

So the real problem with Institutional Conservatism is not that it is too rigid, but that it confuses the instrument with the end. Social institutions are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It is how they are used that matters. You don't hate or like a hammer. You hate what someone does with it (build a house = good bash me in the skull = bad.). The other problem with Burkeanism is that it simply presumes that the elite in society are the best to maintain the social order. There is no real argument here- you could dump the hierarchy (as I have) with no appreciable change in the theory.

Which brings me to the hierarchy argument. It is here I think the Agre is being unfair. Very few on the right openly suggest that the elite should rule. Platonic Guardianship is a political non-starter. The only place they suggest that the elite should have power is in the economy, a matter about which reasonable people disagree. Hamilton wanted to give wealth to entrepreneurs not because he liked them (he didn't) but because they are wealth creators. Anyway, you can always redistribute the social surplus after they have created it. So while you can argue that the consequences of conservative policy are unjust because they lead to hierarchical outcomes, this does not make conservatives closet Platonists. It is just an argument against their policies.

This is not to say that I don't think that conservatives are in favor of hierarchy. I'm just saying that when examining intellectual arguments, we shouldn't presume this is the case.

The most politically powerful but ultimately silliest argument for conservatism is the freedom argument. Conservatives paint a rosy picture of anarchical liberty that a lot of young and/or greedy fools find very attractive. I’ll do a more thorough critique of libertarianism later, but let me give you the broad strokes. Libertarianism is an unstable theory because its outcomes are the precise reverse of its ideals. It posits perfect human freedom and projects idealized market functions onto all of society. The problem is that the free market is not really free at all: it trends towards monopoly. It takes the active intervention of government to restore competition to the market. It is competition we want, not the market. The mixed market is just the best way to get to fair competition.

This is why I think Agre is incorrect when he claims the conservatism is inconsistent with business. I repeat - markets do not trend towards social instability. In fact markets tend to ossify rather quickly into oligopolies. Small government conservatism is just what the doctored ordered, as far as IBM is concerned.

What is true of the market is doubly true of social relations. Governments are created in order to protect the weak and humble the strong. Remove government, and the strong will ride roughshod over the rest of us. How free do you feel now that you have no food, shelter, and have a gun in your face?

Libertarianism is the polar opposite of Burkeanism. The former assumes perfect human liberty and equality and then lets the machine run. Any outcome is fine. The Burkeans claim that constant intervention is required to guarantee just outcomes. And it is not libertarians who are guilty of authoritarianism- it is the Burkeans who have that tendency. If you haven't noticed, libertarian conservatives have been very unhappy with the Patriot Act.

So what is the problem with Agre's analysis? I think that he takes three different forms of conservatism (Burkeans, Platonists, and Randians) and treats them as if they were part of the same, coherent, intellectual movement. They aren't. They are all pro-hierarchy. That is true. But only the Platonists are pro-hierarchy in principle. Burkeans are against change and have a tendency towards hierarchy. Randians are rhetorically anti-hierarchy but their policies have hierarchical consequences. I think Agre does present a good case for what is wrong with conservatism. I just think he need to clarify which conservatism he is talking about.

So being a good philosopher, what can we learn from these conservatisms? The Burkean form instructs us as to the importance of social institutions and the necessity for caution. The Platonic form, while in most respects repugnant, does challenge our presumptions about the capacity of the people to rule. A Democratic Platonist might suggest we do a better job at educating our people to be citizens. Finally, the Libertarians, as annoying as they can be, do have a refreshing commitment to individual liberty. We might also take into account their recognition that too much government intervention can be a bad thing, whatever its intention. These conservative suggestions might not persuade us to become conservatives, but they will help us build a better liberalism.

Tomorrow: Conservatism in History
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:42 AM
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