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“Whether you like it or not”

I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to get over that phrase—of course, neither will Gavin Newsom.  But isn’t it fitting?  As the inevitable logical extension of liberal thought, isn’t it somehow appropriate that Gavin Newsom would spew such drivel?

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The whole point of pluralism is accepting that there are competing views of the good (religions, ways of life, etc.) and that they’re ultimately irreconcilable, which is a good thing.  But by saying pluralism is so totally right (implicit in the know-it-all jackassery of his statement) Newsom is devaluing the sentiment of tolerance underlying pluralism.

This tone is the water’s edge of liberal thought: our conception of justice is so complete, our knowledge of what is right so total, that we would be remiss not to impose it upon society—regardless or rather in spite of popular opinion.  Isn’t that type of thinking what made the Warren Court controversial?  No one could argue against Brown v. Board in terms of morality, but the decision did overturn popular will—for good I should add.

You see that same confidence in the well-known caricature of the limousine liberal.   They are the watchful guardians of society, and who are we to deny them a well-deserved bit of largesse?

For a particular example, look no farther than the stimulus: a million little tweaks that aggregated say, in one solemn voice, “I know better than society.”  Each of the component policies generally makes some sense.  And that’s what scares me.  Sure we could use some more money for vaccination programs.  Preventative medicine makes sense.  Sure we could use repaved roads.  That increases fuel economy.  Makes sense.  Of course what’slost in the particular is gained in the aggregate.  The thing is so complex and convoluted that no one knows where all the money is.  And of course, who wouldn’t expect a 780 billion dollar bill shoved quickly through Congress to be good policy?[i] The point is not about whether the thing is a net macroeconomic good or ill (though whatever bs job “numbers”[ii] they end up attaching to the project should not be taken as proof); it’s that society is freaking complex, and this type of micromanagement is the height of folly and arrogance.

This isn’t an aberration.  The liberal state exists to tinker our way to perfection: a dash of environmental regulation here, a welfare to work program there.  Of course, then isn’t the only truly political task really technocratic?  We just need to use logic, reason, and rationality to refine our way to just the right amount of tweakage.

Conservatism, on the other hand, runs a different risk: that in its rejection of liberalism’s failed universality it will embrace narrow and particular views of the good.  Doesn’t conservative these days merely connote an affinity for prejudice—whether justified or not?  How else do Ron Paul, Jerry Falwell, and Richard Nixon all have a legitimate claim to the title?

So perhaps to get a cogent idea of the ideology we need to go back to the beginning, to the movement’s founder:

“The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.” –William F. Buckley, National Review Online

Holy shit: “disciples of Truth,” with a capitol “T.”  I don’t know if that’s one step from or one step past holy warrior.  And the tone of the whole thing reminds me of that half-joke that says, “Well there’s a reason it’s called the right.”  But the statement is more revealing in this sense than I think it realizes.  Not only does it capture the fundamental problem of liberalism—albeit in loaded terms—but it points to the fundamental kernel of truth underlying conservatism: it understands the limitations of the liberal state.

When conservatism talks about the importance private charity and faith-based organizations, it is exactly this sort of importance of actualizing the good that it is invoking.  The same is true when it talks about personal responsibility or family values.  Of course, it’s not any family’s values; mostly those that would satisfy what the obsessively politically correct would call heteronormativity.  Hence the movement’s opposition to gay marriage.  Yet aside from the clear problems with this (generally in the vein of conservatives claiming that gays have equal rights because they can marry a women just like the rest of us), at least conservatives are willing to take a stand for ecclesiasticism.

The truth of the matter is that “liberalism”[iii] and “conservatism”—essentially slightly different emotional outlooks within an acceptance of the Liberal State—are irrevocably street ideology, destined to be filled with nonsensical argument—whether you like it or not.  The only serious[iv] alternative in this barren wasteland of nonideas is of course that holy grail of American Politics: Bipartisanship or the Great Moderate Middle.

People act as if moderates are punters, unable to hold any convictions of their own.  But for me, being a political moderate always been a profound recognition of the ultimate absurdity of all political ideology—the belief that no one person or ideology can ever have a monopoly on the truth and a willingness to shift between them as necessary.  That may strike some as unprincipled.  But it is fact merely in the great American tradition of pragmatism, of treating the theoretical as only useful insofar as it improves the actual.  As we watch one side engage in a perverse spectacle of self-flagellation and the other impotently watch its ideals crash on the rocks of political reality, perhaps we could do worse than ask ourselves a simple question: Is this really all there is?


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[i] But don’t worry; they attached extremely onerous accountability, transparency, and reporting standards to the funds.  So you know the money is well spent.  Don’t bother thinking that giving federal dollars to state departments, local governments, and companies that never receive them might create problems—especially when you demand the funds be spent as quick as possible and according to unprecedented standards.  D.C. thought of everything.  These standards, by the way, are scaring rural entities away from Broadband funds.  So much for a newly connected rural America.

[ii] Right now everything you’re hearing is backtracked from a Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) Report.  They’re taking the percentage of dollars spent in a location or time period (in relation to the total amount) and multiplying that by the total estimated jobs created.  And that CEA report got its job numbers by using econometric models to forecast increased growth with the stimulus—a dangerous proposition given the historical uniqueness of the situation—and then multiplying that figure by the normal amount of jobs created per percent of economic growth.  I wish I could’ve pulled that shit in Macro.

[iii] And its cousin “progressivism.”

[iv] Communists feel free to express your token outrage.

36 COMMENTS

  1. Way to step up man, I dig this article. Question: What does it mean to improve the actual? It would seem that this is what liberals and conservatives both claim to be doing; how has the moderate provided a way out other than to swing back and forth between party lines without any determined agenda? I feel that that is where the conservative thought process of “there is Truth” comes back into play like a wrecking ball.

  2. Way to step up man, I dig this article. Question: What does it mean to improve the actual? It would seem that this is what liberals and conservatives both claim to be doing; how has the moderate provided a way out other than to swing back and forth between party lines without any determined agenda? I feel that that is where the conservative thought process of “there is Truth” comes back into play like a wrecking ball.

  3. Patrick’s rambles search in vain for an argument, much as moderates search for principles upon which to ground their politics.

    Incoherent, as per usual, but “moderates” are seldom anything but.

    Show me an honest moderate who doesn’t wind up condoning the excesses of the welfare state, or I’ve got some swamp land down south that I’ve been meaning to sell you.

    • I probably should let this go, but I’m feeling playful.

      “Patrick’s rambles search in vain for an argument, much as moderates search for principles upon which to ground their politics.”

      Thank you. I take pride in promulgating nihilistic freedom.

      “Show me an honest moderate who doesn’t wind up condoning the excesses of the welfare state, or I’ve got some swamp land down south that I’ve been meaning to sell you.”

      So would you say we’re either with you or against you?

      • On the contrary, Patrick, I would say that supposed moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, try to claim it as you know doubt will.

        I would say that the problem of “moderation” is that it is directionless. It does not take a stand on either the American or French Revolution. It has no conception of politics as either enabling liberty or equality because it recognizes neither as “goods” or “bads.” It refuses hard choices and so thinks itself superior to supposed ideology without realizing that that ideology (right or left) is the product of careful thought.

        “Pragmatism” (or whatever buzz word you want to throw down) is just progressivism in drag. I prefer the real thing: the honest progressive. How rarely I meet such a beast. Could that be that progressives aren’t comfortable enough to defend themselves? A pity.

      • Without getting into a debate about the minutia of drinking regulation, I would say that you have therefore made your peace with an administrative state that professes to know better than a market solution to water droughts would.

        I wonder, Patrick, if you could tell us any substantive critiques you have of big government’s influence in California. Or is it all just sniping over tiny details?

      • “Without getting into a debate about the minutia of drinking regulation, I would say that you have therefore made your peace with an administrative state that professes to know better than a market solution to water droughts would.”

        Ever heard of externalities?

      • @Sorry Charles,

        Yes, and I do not believe that they exist under every bed and behind every closed door. Externalities have totally been oversold economically to justify way too much of the administrative state. It’s almost like a religion — as if you can somehow waive a wand and declare, “ah there be externalities and so we must regulate it.”

  4. Patrick’s rambles search in vain for an argument, much as moderates search for principles upon which to ground their politics.

    Incoherent, as per usual, but “moderates” are seldom anything but.

    Show me an honest moderate who doesn’t wind up condoning the excesses of the welfare state, or I’ve got some swamp land down south that I’ve been meaning to sell you.

    • I probably should let this go, but I’m feeling playful.

      “Patrick’s rambles search in vain for an argument, much as moderates search for principles upon which to ground their politics.”

      Thank you. I take pride in promulgating nihilistic freedom.

      “Show me an honest moderate who doesn’t wind up condoning the excesses of the welfare state, or I’ve got some swamp land down south that I’ve been meaning to sell you.”

      So would you say we’re either with you or against you?

      • On the contrary, Patrick, I would say that supposed moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, try to claim it as you know doubt will.

        I would say that the problem of “moderation” is that it is directionless. It does not take a stand on either the American or French Revolution. It has no conception of politics as either enabling liberty or equality because it recognizes neither as “goods” or “bads.” It refuses hard choices and so thinks itself superior to supposed ideology without realizing that that ideology (right or left) is the product of careful thought.

        “Pragmatism” (or whatever buzz word you want to throw down) is just progressivism in drag. I prefer the real thing: the honest progressive. How rarely I meet such a beast. Could that be that progressives aren’t comfortable enough to defend themselves? A pity.

      • And I would say extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. I just have gentlemanly doubts about my and others convictions about what exactly liberty or justice entails.

        So, for example, while I think there is too much regulation in California, I still think some regulations are good–like AB 1366, which regulates residential water softeners (needed in this current drought).

      • Without getting into a debate about the minutia of drinking regulation, I would say that you have therefore made your peace with an administrative state that professes to know better than a market solution to water droughts would.

        I wonder, Patrick, if you could tell us any substantive critiques you have of big government’s influence in California. Or is it all just sniping over tiny details?

      • “Without getting into a debate about the minutia of drinking regulation, I would say that you have therefore made your peace with an administrative state that professes to know better than a market solution to water droughts would.”

        Ever heard of externalities?

      • @Sorry Charles,

        Yes, and I do not believe that they exist under every bed and behind every closed door. Externalities have totally been oversold economically to justify way too much of the administrative state. It’s almost like a religion — as if you can somehow waive a wand and declare, “ah there be externalities and so we must regulate it.”

  5. I think you disprove your own point by bringing up Brown. That case is a perfect example of a policy (segregation) that was just morally wrong. Not everyone agreed at the time that it was wrong. It might not have been “pragmatic” or “moderate” to call it wrong. But none of that matters– ending segregation was the morally right decision.

    And I would say Gavin Newsom is in a similar position. His comments certainly weren’t politically prudent or polite, but standing up for equality hardly makes him a “jackass.”

    I’m also confused by your general critique of liberalism. What’s wrong with “tinkering our way to perfection?” Obviously, we’re never going to create some kind of utopian society. But suppose Policy A improves efficiency or creates wealth or makes us safer– or maybe it’s just the right thing to do. We should not adopt this policy why….? What’s wrong with “tinkering” with government to make it better?

    • See Hayek’s discussion of the “fatal conceit.” How do we know what’s best or in the best interests of society? What is perfection? How do we know that society is “progressing”? In my experience, most progressives tend to be the least in favor of economic growth — which tends, of course, to progress the living standards of their fellows.

  6. I think you disprove your own point by bringing up Brown. That case is a perfect example of a policy (segregation) that was just morally wrong. Not everyone agreed at the time that it was wrong. It might not have been “pragmatic” or “moderate” to call it wrong. But none of that matters– ending segregation was the morally right decision.

    And I would say Gavin Newsom is in a similar position. His comments certainly weren’t politically prudent or polite, but standing up for equality hardly makes him a “jackass.”

    I’m also confused by your general critique of liberalism. What’s wrong with “tinkering our way to perfection?” Obviously, we’re never going to create some kind of utopian society. But suppose Policy A improves efficiency or creates wealth or makes us safer– or maybe it’s just the right thing to do. We should not adopt this policy why….? What’s wrong with “tinkering” with government to make it better?

    • So Brendan should we be intolerant of intolerance then?

      The point about progress is mostly rhetorical. People generally accept the idea that humanity is progressing without much thought. But are we really? If we aren’t, doesn’t that bring into question the whole liberal project?

      I think the most substantive critique of liberalism is that it can never endorse particular views of the good. It only says that we must allow the conditions for people to pursue their view of the good, neglecting the importance of ensuring that people actually meaningfully achieve their view of the good.

      • “So Brendan should we be intolerant of intolerance then?”

        No– and I don’t see how anything I said commits me to that. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t make intolerance official state policy.

        People are free to hold rallies in support of segregation or against same-sex marriage. People are free to form their own opinions on the issues, but that doesn’t mean their opinions are right. We can respect the right of people to have racist views and still recognize that segregation is wrong.

      • Liberalism definitely endorses particular views of the good– tolerance, diversity, and equality, each for its own sake and each according to some liberal government’s respective whacked-out definition. Not to mention heedless of the costs to the taxpayers and to actual progress.

        It also doesn’t “allow the conditions for people to pursue their view of the good,” it starts with its own view of the good (witness identity politics, i.e. “since all black people are the same, let’s give them what we decide they want, since after all we know better!”) and mandates those conditions at the expense of the American taxpayer.

        The doctrine that allows everyone to pursue their view of the good is libertarianism.

    • See Hayek’s discussion of the “fatal conceit.” How do we know what’s best or in the best interests of society? What is perfection? How do we know that society is “progressing”? In my experience, most progressives tend to be the least in favor of economic growth — which tends, of course, to progress the living standards of their fellows.

  7. I feel as if you fail to acknowledge that modern conservatism really came about as a reaction to the fact that there was no real opposition to liberalism. Republicans such as Eisenhower and Nixon were by no means conservative, in fact Nixon said the “Buckleyites were the worst threat to the Party’s difficult rebuilding efforts.”

    Modern day “moderates,” such as the Blue Dog Democrats, speak about fiscal responsibility, but this is a fairly modern development. However when the conservative movement began both moderates and liberals were bashing on the upstarts. Buckley described it perfectly when he said, “conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.”

    It was a lack of opposition to Liberal views that spurred the rise of conservatives, and not the rejection of liberal and conservative views that you are claiming somehow makes “moderates” noble. Remember a conservative was someone “standing athwart history yelling stop!” While the moderates were being apathetic.

  8. I feel as if you fail to acknowledge that modern conservatism really came about as a reaction to the fact that there was no real opposition to liberalism. Republicans such as Eisenhower and Nixon were by no means conservative, in fact Nixon said the “Buckleyites were the worst threat to the Party’s difficult rebuilding efforts.”

    Modern day “moderates,” such as the Blue Dog Democrats, speak about fiscal responsibility, but this is a fairly modern development. However when the conservative movement began both moderates and liberals were bashing on the upstarts. Buckley described it perfectly when he said, “conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.”

    It was a lack of opposition to Liberal views that spurred the rise of conservatives, and not the rejection of liberal and conservative views that you are claiming somehow makes “moderates” noble. Remember a conservative was someone “standing athwart history yelling stop!” While the moderates were being apathetic.

  9. “So Brendan should we be intolerant of intolerance then?”

    No– and I don’t see how anything I said commits me to that. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t make intolerance official state policy.

    People are free to hold rallies in support of segregation or against same-sex marriage. People are free to form their own opinions on the issues, but that doesn’t mean their opinions are right. We can respect the right of people to have racist views and still recognize that segregation is wrong.

  10. Liberalism definitely endorses particular views of the good– tolerance, diversity, and equality, each for its own sake and each according to some liberal government’s respective whacked-out definition. Not to mention heedless of the costs to the taxpayers and to actual progress.

    It also doesn’t “allow the conditions for people to pursue their view of the good,” it starts with its own view of the good (witness identity politics, i.e. “since all black people are the same, let’s give them what we decide they want, since after all we know better!”) and mandates those conditions at the expense of the American taxpayer.

    The doctrine that allows everyone to pursue their view of the good is libertarianism.

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