Friday, April 9, 2010

The Small Government Utopia

 Jon Chait ponders why conservatives seem consistently unreflective.  They are much less likely to trust facts that don't come from conservative sources.  He points to Julian Sanchez who calls it:
"epistemic closure" -- an intellectual world in which the only trustworthy sources of information are those within your movement.
Chait argues that they are considerably less critical than progressives.
Liberalism is not really an ideology in anything like the sense that conservatism is. Conservatism is an ideology organized around the belief that big government inherently destroys freedom. Contemporary liberalism is the ideology of people who don't share that conviction, though it lacks any strong a priori beliefs to hold it together.....Liberals are not ideologically pro-government in anything like the sense that conservatives are ideologically anti-government -- conservatives view shrinking government as an end in and of itself, while liberals would view expanding government a success only to the extent that doing so furthers some other real-world benefit. I think it's the fundamental distinction between the two parties, and it explains all kinds of asymmetrical behavior -- a loose coalition versus a coherent ideological movement.
But how did we get here?  The way I see it, the right is basically where the left was when Communism was still taken seriously.  That is, the entire movement has swung deeply into the radical end of the spectrum.   But now that Communism was actually implemented in numerous countries around the globe, with disastrous results, the left has been forced to be much more discriminating.  It is no longer possible to dogmatically claim that all business is evil.

Yet this is what the right now does almost to a person.  They consistently claim that "all government* is evil.  They talk about "tyranny" and the "end of liberty", as if any minute now we'll be in Stalinist Russia.  But this is a blatant misreading of history.  In the early 20th century, this fear would have been more plausible, as many countries indeed were "on the road to serfdom", as Hayek put it. 

But in the ensuing decades, socialism was implemented with very different outcomes.  In countries with a weaker democratic base and large scale inequality, Marxism was used as a blunt tool to overthrow the existing paradigm, installing Communism as a hopeful guarantor of social justice.  Meanwhile in countries where power was much more diffuse, and democratic institutions were strong, Marxism simply meant a gradual buffering of enterprise.

When progressives in the early 20th century were promoting communism, they were doing so in the face of a much more abusive and tyrannical capitalism.  It was therefore much easier to fall into dogmatic hyperbole, and at that point communism seemed a benign alternative to a capitalism that seemed irrevocably corrupt.  But today's progressive sees capitalism and communism much differently.  It has witnessed both the undeniable brutality and practical inviability of communism, and the ability of a strong social democracy to soften the edges of capitalism's social and environmental failings.

Modern conservatives have drawn different historical lessons.  They certainly have always understood the dangers of communism.  But they obviously never adequately processed the lessons of untrammeled capitalism.  This sort of historical amnesia is difficult to counter, as so many generations have no passed since we've had the sort of weak federal government they argue for.  And internationally, all modern, successful and wealthy nations are the sort of social democracies they despise.  If one were find a country with an economic system similar to what they claim to want, it would likely be a war-torn failure.  Granted, these countries would not have had the sort of founding stability that might give economic libertarianism a fighting chance.  But the fact that such a system is not taken seriously by any otherwise functioning democracies seems evidence that reasonable people simply prefer a minimum level of social democracy.

And so American conservatism continues to live on in a sort of Utopian vacuum, in which premises are based on a dogmatic vision of a history that is always just around the corner.  Failures of capitalism, such as the recent economic collapse, are instead viewed as the result of government intrusion.  And because no clear evidence of what a modern state would really look like under their version of capitalism exists, straw men can be created to fit seemingly any scenario.

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