Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Philosophical Question: Conservative Balance

Let's get philosophical. I'm going to give you two quotes which I think together define conservatism at its fundamental core. You tell me if I'm right or wrong and add your thoughts.

The first quote comes from a man who was a communist, but started reading things like the Federalist Papers and slowly morphed into being one of the founding generation of modern American conservatives, along with the likes of William Buckley. He's known for trying to fuse libertarianism and traditionalism into one cohesive belief. To his mind, libertarians made the mistake of undermining moral values whereas the traditionalists failed to grasp the importance of the individual and individual freedom.

Here's the quote:
"Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny."
As I read this, I translate this thought thusly: Any government that strips its people of their freedoms, no matter how noble the purpose, is tyrannical. Hence, freedom is paramount and government limits on individual freedoms are evil. However, pure freedom without regard for moral value also leads to tyranny. Therefore, the ideal government is one which seeks to preserve as much freedom as possible without reaching the point where unfettered freedom begins to oppress others, and the guideposts that tell us where that point lies comes from the principles of traditional morality.

The second quote is one I would add to temper this thought slightly. This quote comes from the Roman comedy Andria (166 BC), and it says:
"Moderation in all things."
The irony in that quote is kind of fantastic, but its meaning is actually amazing advice in all facets of life. And the reason I would say that it is relevant here is to point out that absolute freedom is not good nor is hyper-morality... moderation is key. Freedom, for example, is great when it leads to people's lives being healthier and happier and when it makes society stronger, happier and more secure. But freedom becomes bad when it leads to strife or forces people to behave in wasteful manners. In fact, I would say that freedom becomes bad when it forces people to respond in any way.

The real point to adding this moderation quote, however, is to limit the morality aspect, which is meant as the brake on freedom. The problem with morality, as we see with people like Santorum, is that (1) people confuse this with religion, which it is not, and (2) they define it much more broadly and rigidly than is appropriate.

To address the first point, morality existed long before the major religions and it has largely been defined apart from them. Moral values are the traditional behaviors the Greeks called virtues and the ideas philosophers debated under titles such as ethics and morals. Morality is not "faith" and it does not require any particular belief in Jesus, God, Allah or anything else. Nor does it cover ideas that are unique to those beliefs, such as religious duties imposed by God.

On the second point, moderation is key because the moral code we use to define the acceptable boundaries the government may draw around individual freedoms cannot be a sort of strict construction of lip-service morality from the past, nor can it be inflexible. Indeed, it is vital to understand that while many things have traditionally been considered immoral, society has always been more subtle/moderate in the application of those rules. For example, lying is considered immoral, yet society has always excused white lies. Even more to the point, society actually excuses almost all lies. It does this by letting reputational harm be the punishment for lies rather than legal punishment (unless those lies are done in such a way to undermine the legal system, such as lies told to the police or under oath). Much of the morality that certain groups freak out about today and want to see the law enforce has never been enforced by law or has only been done so on rare occasions. Further, morality is a flexible concept which rests upon the agreement of society. That means that society can change what it considered to be moral (at that point, I would say that freedom must act as a boundary on morality). Adultery is one such concept which has gone from stoning to a mere reputational matter over the years. Gay marriage is another instance where society changed its mind.

Ergo, I take these quotes to define conservatism thusly: while the goal of government should be to maximize individual freedoms, those freedoms cannot interfere with the order of society, which is maintained by the moral code of its people.



tryanmax said...

This puts me in mind of Ecclesiastes, because basically all good advice has a parallel in Ecclesiastes. With apologies to Solomon, chapter 7 basically says this:

I have seen it all in this stupid life: The good die young, and the wicked keep living. So don't be a sanctimonious know-it-all; you'll only disappoint yourself. And don't get mixed up in any degenerate, stupid shit; you'll get yourself killed. Hang on to both of these warnings, don't let go, and you'll steer clear of any extremes.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Nice breakdown. I think that's great advice and it's advice so many don't want to hear. They compare themselves to others and decide to ruin their own lives just because others are doing it, or they go sanctimonious and decide to dedicate their lives to controlling others. If people worried about themselves more than what others are doing they may not like, this would be a better world. Of course, there would be no political left, but it's not like that's a bad thing.

Tennessee Jed said...

To me, both quotes and points have much merit. At the risk of over-simplification, I consider economics at the heart of the discussion. Capitalism, free markets if you will, is perhaps the economic system capable of creating wealth in a society to a far greater degree than any other system. But, we all know that is tends to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Welfarism, socialism, whatever one chooses to consider, tends to spread that wealth much more evenly. However, in doing so, the aggregate wealth created is typically much less because people are not rewarded for their skill, willingness to take risks, luck, whatever. So there has to be a compromise. The argument of freedom (or lack thereof) is the same argument, but on a broader scale. In order to enjoy freedom, we need certain restrictions in line with the ethical and social mores of the society or we have no civilization. Clearly you cannot beat your completion in business by murdering them. Freedom of speech cannot extend to yelling fire in a crowded teater. Several years ago, I read a book which looked at the debates between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine as laying out a foundation for our modern political debate. The rights of the individual vs. an obligation to the society in which he lives even when it may be not in his personal self-interest. The book was, I recall, "The Great Debate"by Levin. Although a bit ponderous, some good food for thought on the subject

Kit said...

The quote comes from the book What is Conservatism, which Frank S. Meyer edited, which I am currently making my way through. To be precise it is from the introduction written by Meyer. The book contains essays written by William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and F.A. Hayek (his is "Why I am not a Conservative").

The book was recently re-released with a forward by Jonah Goldberg.
You can buy at Amazon on the Kindle here: LINK

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm going to disagree a bit, though I agree with you overall. I'm not sure that capitalism does result in the concentration of wealth, nor am I sure that socialism results in the spreading out of wealth.

From what I've seen, wealth tends to get concentrated when someone finds a way to use government power to gather it. The rail roaders of the past, who became the robber barons used government grants to grab the land that made them rich. Big business in the 1940's and 1950's used government purchases. Finance and lawyers in the 1990's to the present used government regulation to enrich themselves.

The one exception has been inventors, particularly tech firm inventors. But even those guys often end up playing the regulation game once they're big enough so they can crush their competition. Apple is a notorious litigator. Google is a massive lobbier who gets things like the Net Neutrality rules passed. And those who don't use the government, often get super rich in one generation and then fail in the next... like IBM and Wang.

I suspect that in a more "pure" capitalist state (one where the government does not hand out favors), capitalism will allow wealth concentration, but it will rarely last over time.

Socialism, on the other hand, creates a very rich ruling class who never let go. Russia is a great example of this, how the party elite had all the perks under communism and then went straight into becoming oligarchs once communism gave way to crony socialism.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the link, Kit.

AndrewPrice said...

Colorado is having quite a blizzard here. They've closed a great many of our roads and they've even called out the National Guard to help rescue people! Yikes!

BevfromNYC said...

I was going to ask! Aren't early Spring blizzards the best?? Well, okay, maybe not.

More on topic: I agree that what you wrote is what "conservativism" should be - moderation in all things. BUT sadly, the leftover "Tea Party" has blown up what that means and it is now whatever one says it is. I blame myself. I engaged in the zeitgeist of the TP and it reenforced very quickly why I am not a "joiner". The extremists always get extreme and ruin everything.

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