Chesterton’s Fence

I try to defend conservatism sometimes. I also like Chesterton. Here’s one reason why:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic

The Virtues of Conservatism

(Caveat Lector: I am not a conservative. However, recent reflections on institutional experimentation have reminded me of some of the virtues of the philosophical movement that goes under that name.)

With the publication of The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin has taken up Phil Agre’s old point that conservatism is the defense of aristocracy and privilege. As he puts it in an interview with Daniel Larison:

Conservatism is an inherently counterrevolutionary philosophy and politics, born in reaction and backlash. […] What form will the reaction against these revolutions take? Here is where it gets really interesting, for as I argue in the book, conservatives and counterrevolutionaries often take their cues from the very revolutions they oppose. They mimic the tactics of the revolution, they ape the rhetoric, and most interesting of all, they often incorporate the very categories and idioms of the revolution, often in ways that they themselves are only dimly aware of. Conservatives can often sound like the most rabid revolutionary because, as they come to realize, you have to fight fire with fire.

This seems to me to be completely wrong. Too often, the sniping among elite representatives of liberalism and conservatism allows partisans to take pleasure in turning factual disputes into principled differences. Even Brian Leiter, who I generally agree with on these matters, criticized the conservative intellectual tradition recently, claiming that most are “are intellectual lightweights and dilettantes” and that only Burke and Hayek are worth reading. Worse:

“I strongly suspect that if he weren’t the canonical opponent of the French Revolution, even Burke would not be much read anymore (in a century that included David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith, why would anyone even notice Burke except for his conservatism?).”

Are we back to claiming that Hume was a closet Whig? Fine. But surely Burke’s conservatism is valuable, too. Here is a list of conservative insights I put together for my students when teaching the Burke/Paine debate last semester:

  1. Society is irreducibly complex and cannot be redesigned from an armchair: for every well-meaning policy, there will be unintended consequences. (If you don’t understand the initial reasons for a policy, don’t eliminate it!)
  2. Populists often deceive the least advantaged with empty promises in order to win political power. (Beware of egalitarians driving fancy cars!)
  3. Most rich people didn’t work hard, but that doesn’t mean we should disparage hard work. (We should disparage unearned wealth and the exploitation that created it!)
  4. Inequality is bad, but it may be unavoidable: symbolic praise for ordinary Americans won’t fix material inequalities, but it is not empty, either. Rich people shouldn’t get uppity; they got lucky and they should recommit themselves to social equality.
  5. Family matters, communities serve an important purpose in our lives, and faith in God is probably here to stay. (Even if it is probably bunk!)
  6. Faith in experts is a lot more like faith in God than experts would have you believe. (Just like faith in Jesus Christ is a lot more like faith in Allah than priests would have you believe.)
  7. Liberals have silly biases, too.

In truth, I think few contemporary Republicans are actually conservatives in this sense. There’s a great deal of tension between different kinds of conservatives, and there’s little indication that the Burkean conservatism I am channeling here is particularly compatible with the kind of commitment to business and free-markets that also goes under the name conservative. There’s a reason “fusionism” is such a difficult circle to square. But Burkean conservatism is alive and well in the environmental movement, with skepticism about our capacity to tinker without a holistic understanding of “ecological functions” replacing Burke’s similar skepticism about tinkering in “social policy.”

If the underlying interest in conservatism is to preserve privilege and ideologize free markets, they have an odd way of going about it. Conservatives have long held the market at arms-length precisely because it is so disruptive and produces creative destruction in excess of what a society can handle. There’s plenty of market regulation coming out of conservative philosophical circles. They’ve regulated prostitution, drugs, immigration, and even speech, when it’s speech in the form of pornography, blasphemy, or religious radicalism. It’s conservatives that have tried to ban short-selling and leveraged speculation. Conservative banned interest on debt!

Here’s Michael Oakshott:

“relationships… lack something appropriate to them when they are confined to a nexus of supply and demand and allow no room for the intrusion of the loyalties and attachments which spring from familiarity.”

In contrast, liberals tend to be capitalist by default. It takes a lot of work to persuade the average liberal that some voluntary market activity is actually oppressive or coercive and needs to be regulated or banned. All most liberals take away from Marx and Engels is a call for safety regulations and a minimum wage.

Reification and totemization of small differences obscures the vast agreements among partisan ideologues, but among philosophers it is unforgiveable: discounting the conservative intellectual tradition just feeds conservative anti-intellectualism. Both parties have their favored subalterns, and representatives of both parties are willing to use populist language to justify their privileges. I find it especially disturbing when smart well-meaning conservatives are caricatured as elitist, or somehow in the pocket of privilege in a way distinct from liberals, while liberals enjoy most of the wage and status benefits of education, the cultural capital of cities, and intellectual capital of technological savvy.

Speaking only from my own experience: there are far too many BMWs in faculty parking lots.

Wedding Vows

I’m currently in the process of writing wedding vows with my fiancé, Antoinette. I’ve been casting about everywhere for inspiration and influences, to the extent that Antoinette has accused me of treating the vows like an academic paper. She’s right, of course:erotic love is one of the original philosophical themes, and the prospect of making claims about it in front of an assemblage of family, friends, and colleagues is daunting. I can’t stand up there and make vague references to Aristophanes’ absurd myth of gendered division and reunification, despite its familiarity to wedding-goers and Hedwig and the Angry Inch lovers everywhere. So I’ve been doing my research. Continue reading Wedding Vows

Dom and I drop some more “science” on crime

Sentiments of Rationality is at it again. Dom seems to have convinced himself that conservatives are actually right about criminal justice, since they care about victims and safety more than liberals, and trust their authority figures. He goes on to suggest electric shocks in order to speed punishment and reduce incarceration time. Here’s the gist:

If we want to deter crime, then, we can do so effectively by viewing it as an educational problem that requires cultivation of the proper habits, ones which are pro-social and lead to fuller self-development of individual, i.e., more freedom in a positive sense.

I’m glad Dom continues to push this line of argument vis-à-vis  conservatism and criminal justice, because it’s clearly fruitful. I’ve gotten two posts out of it, myself! However, anyone who’s really fascinated by modern crime and punishment should read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Though I often suspect Foucault of just the critically-edged nostalgia that troubles some of Dom’s interlocutors, it’s still the first book to differentiate the modern situation from the same old conversations that philosophers have been having since Socrates demanded a full pardon and a daily coolness stipend. Then, if you want to keep at it, take a look around the internet at prison statistics and the sorts of things that generally trouble “corrections officers” and prison reformers. I recommend the Prison Policy Intiative, this neat blog, or what the man himself says on the subject.

With nearly 80,000 inmates in the NY State system, (which is the only system I’ve encountered professionally) much of the concern surrounds costs and efficiency, as well as the injustices that efficiencies create. As with any discourse, getting your head around general moral principles won’t help you much when you’re faced with a rusty, decrepit system with out-of-control costs. It’s more fun to talk about in the abstract, though….

So: in Arendtian fashion, I take issue with the paternalization of the state. Unlike schools, prisons generally deal with fully-formed adults. Much of what Dom says might apply to juvenile detention, except that we generally assume that more leniency is required for minors. (Maybe that’s the root of the problem: if we could only draw and quarter a few teenage rapists, perhaps the rest would fall into line… but I’m just kidding, really.) Dom actually uses an elementary school example to make his point:

Some children have a nervous tendency to repeatedly tap their pen or pencil on their desk, making it difficult for others to concentrate. The most effective approach to dealing with this behavior would probably be a (literal) slap on the wrist, but even if we avoid corporal punishment entirely, it still seems the most reasonable response would be to punish the children in some other way (maybe even just telling them to stop, which puts a social pressure on them).

However, what some teachers have begun doing is giving the students drinking straws to tap instead. The problem is taken as some inflexible given, a natural disorder which requires educators to accommodate students rather than vice-versa. But this is bad for everyone involved. The child is reinforced in a bad behavior that, outside of the protective school environment, could lead to other bad consequences. Meanwhile, we have to take extra time and effort to see to the children’s “special needs”.

This pencil-tapping analogy threw me for a loop. I guess it’s meant to be an exemplar of our impotent, libertine educators, but I think that it’s a fatally bad example in this conversation. To go from that to “regularly administering electric shocks to prisoners over the duration of their sentence” seems like a major jump. (They are used, and inevitably cruelly and for the inappropriate enjoyment of the corrections officers) It suggests to me that he might be letting the examples do some of his reasoning for him.

Yes, I agree we should spank our children. But should we spank our adults? It seems to be poorly argued to say that the one follows from the other. We spank children in order to make them into responsible subjects; having become responsible subjects (who refuse to respond to authority), adults require different treatment. Just think about your own habits, and how much more difficult they are to change than they once were. Many claim that criminals put themselves in this diminutive position vis-à-vis the state by committing crimes. Yet they cannot argue this, through syllogistic and valid reasoning, so instead they talk around the problem, through the analogies Dom describes. They attempt to enforce a paradigm of criminal juvenality by constantly asserting the primacy of examples drawn from parenting and education. Meanwhile, the state gains tremendous powers to discipline and control the lives of its citizens, and becomes increasingly paternalistic.

I meant what I said in my last post: the truly criminal are lost to us. Lock them up, torture them, kill them, it doesn’t matter, because they won’t ever become good. But let’s not for a second pretend that the state is so trustworthy that it won’t find a way to extend its oversight of criminals to increasingly banal parts of our everyday lives. Drug use, sexual deviance, political dissent, whatever strikes the political fancy: the capacity of the legislature to criminalize activites is unlimited. We’d best be sure that the pseudo-criminals that bad governments produce aren’t tortured along with the bad people we’d like to see punished.