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.

Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening is a small-scale intensive agricultural method popularized in a book and PBS show starring Mel Bartholomew. It uses raised beds, crop rotation, and a special mix of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite to make urban gardening easier. In retirement, Mel has passed the square foot gardening torch to Patti Moreno, and Youtube has the two of them giving gardening guidance for each month: March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January, and February.

My own square foot garden is prepared but I’m balking at planting because of the threat of snow this weekend. In my first bed, I plan to grow tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, spinach, basil, marigolds, and daisies.

Does Basic Income + VAT “Solve” Immigration?

File:US Customs and Border Protection officers.jpg
US Customs and Border Protection officers enforce our labor market protections with paramilitary techniques.

One of my favorite liberal policies is the basic income proposal. The idea is that all citizens have a basic guaranteed income, below which no one may fall. As the argument goes, this supplies more flexibility than basic provision of essential services, and renders recipients much more autonomous than they currently are, since the government tends to spend redistributed money on the things it values the most, rather than the things that the poor value the most. There’s also a fairly easy way to run such a program: instead of making the basic income available only to the poor, you can make it a citizenship grant available to everyone who files tax returns, like social security. This radically simplifies the administration and eliminates the wasteful need to inquire into the deservingness of the recipients. If you’re a citizen, you get a check. Alaska has a system like this for all residents.

As I wrote recently, the dark side of the basic income proposal is that it privileges citizens over non-citizens. Perhaps this dark side is mitigated a bit if every nation-state in the world enacts a basic income, but there’d still be horrible inequalities between nations. However, in this post I want to argue that this kind of inequality is better than the status quo: “second-best” ideal theorizing… with a dash of public choice caution for good measure. Continue reading Does Basic Income + VAT “Solve” Immigration?

Unofficial Gag Rules on Immigration Reform

In the wake of Arizona’s attempt to localize immigration enforcement, I think it’s time for Congress and the Obama administration to return to immigration reform.

If anything can justify American exceptionalism, it’s the waves of immigration that have repeatedly demonstrated that we can offer a better life to foreigners without losing our own identity. As we close and militarize the borders, we are at risk of losing the very thing that made it worth coming here. The US is by far the most cosmopolitan and pluralistic nation in the world, and we owe it to ourselves to preserve this communal identity in the face of those who would have us stand-pat on some 1950s-era self-conception. Moreover, more open borders would allow us to regain the levels of economic growth that characterized the American Dream.

Here’s what I’d like to see:

  • A path to citizenship: all current undocumented inhabitants of the US deserve a share of their adopted country’s governance and welfare-state. Many have been contributing to Social Security under a fake SSN# for years without any promise of remuneration. Let’s give them a realistic path to citizenship.
  • Decriminalization: shift enforcement to employers and treat undocumented workers as victims who can collect damages for substandard wages or violations of workplace safety regulations.
  • A major public relations push in favor of immigration: these are hardworking folks who will help us in our time of need, and we ought not demonize them for being willing to work.
  • End the administrative detention of undocumented workers which strips them of many due process rights.
  • Refocus border controls on products, not people. Catch cocaine, not construction workers.
  • Recognize that the US has a rich Latin@ history and culture. Recognize Spanish as an official language and make the next generation of Americans a bilingual one.

Now, I doubt we’ll see most of this, but I really don’t think there’s any publicly-justifiable reasons to reject these measures. Each and every one of these prescriptions seems rooted in the claims of justice, and the rejections seem to extend from xenophobia, racism, and a false sense of the moral entitlements due to Americans by an accident of birth.

So the question is: what’s keeping us from having this debate on the principles? Why do we only hear a few dog-whistle sound bites? It seems like immigration is precisely the kind of discussion that deliberation could help to solve, since it’s significantly less technical than health care reform and there are easily-recognized human rights being abused on a daily basis. So why the silence?