Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Good...Bad...Conservative...Liberal...I'm the guy with the gun....

Ace is in a bit of a--well, I don't know. It's not exactly a tizzy or a dither. He's agitated though. Highly agitated in a positive way because David Mamet has come out as a not-liberal. Now, like Mamet, I'm actually not particularly interested in politics; I do consider them a gross waste of time and resources. But between Ace and Mamet, and a few Althouse commenters, I see things that are familiar to me and encourage me to reflect a bit.

The Mamet piece is interesting. It refers to "brain-dead liberalism," which I read as "I am leftist because I am leftist and what I believe is beyond scrutiny." Indeed, it seems to be Mamet's willingness to challenge previously held beliefs on the subject of the government, corporations, the military, and the nature of Man.

Notice I switched out "liberal" for "leftist" there. The word "liberal" comes from the Latin "free" and it is the philosophy that makes the USA great. Let me borrow this from
A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority.
This is important because both Mamet--and to a far greater degree, Ace--are sort of rejecting the "natural goodness of humans" part. But you'll notice that this definition has nothing to do with today's self-identified "liberals", who are statists (courtesy of an incredible PR campaign by the USSR that actually outlived the nation itself). They may believe in the "natural goodness of humans" but they sure don't care for them being autonomous, when autonomy includes things like making money, buying stuff, or turning sacred cows into double-bacon secular cheeseburgers (with a super-sized side of shibboleth fries or something). I cannot, in good conscience, associate those people with, say, John Locke (and the probably wouldn't want to be associated with him either).

On the contrary, the left today operates pretty clearly with the notion that there is evil in the world. And the world is happy to provide them with examples of such at the ranks of various top corporations. But they're not interested in the evil at the UN, for example, and apparently actively disinterested in the evil America opposes (fanatical jihadists). What's more, since disagreement is not allowed, leftists are pretty much convinced that a solid one-third of the US population is evil, or at least so stupid as to be indistinguishable from evil. Those people are called "Republicans"--on a nice day, anyway.

Politics is like soccer for the lazy, though, in that identification with a side is what makes the game possible. From far enough away, the two sides are indistinguishable, at which the game loses its meaning. (Althouse used to refer to an aversion to politics in her tag line and I have that in spades. I think she discovered it was a useful to generate vortex art.) This is how Reps and Dems can oppose something they supported only a few years, months, weeks, days, hours or even minutes before, and argue with a straight face that "No, this is different". It's also how penalties become greater or lesser based on the color of the player's jersey. (The play scales well, too: Political bloggers replicate the "gotcha" moments of their big league idols by catching each other in typos, misstatements, blunders, etc.)

Anyway, liberalism--the idea that people are basically good, and therefore the most capable of governing themselves--is the basis on which this country is founded and that which makes the country great. The conservatives of the 1800s at the time would be suspicious of such a notion, surely believing that certain men are more worthy than others to govern. Hell, the liberals of the 1800s surely believed the same thing. Landowning free-men were all created equal--and we'll see about the poor, the non-white, hell, the non-English, and don't get us started on women.

So, how do we reconcile this notion on the one hand this idea of inherent goodness with the badness in the world. Well, the left obviously does it by accusing the state of creating inequity, particularly by favoring the business world. And the state obliges happily by doing just that. But again, they ignore the fact that the state can only favor certain classes when it has been given the power to do exactly that--and having that power will inevitably be corrupted toward an unhappy result.

James Madison is famously quoted as saying in Federalist 51 that "if men were angels, there'd be no need for government". So, here is one of the most liberal men of the time admitted that government is only necessary because men are flawed. What gives?

I think it's obvious that the point of liberalism is not that men are perfect, but that they are better suited to controlling their lives than any government, and that everyone wins (on balance) when they're not interfered with beyond some basic rules of civility (such as not murdering and stealing from each other). It's actually a negative statement: Men are unscrupulous, unworthy, opportunistic, short-sighted, narrow-minded, self-serving and predictable, but that's peanuts compared to government.

Notice that the opposite of this is not "conservatism". Conservatism is muddled in its own quagmire of historical baggage and modern revisionism. Modern conservatism is much closer to classical liberalism than modern liberalism is. In this Althouse entry on McCain, commenter Paul describes conservatism this way:
Conservatives believe that there is a vast repository of knowledge in tradition and culture accumulated through millenia of trial and error, and that most of that knowledge is unconscious and transmitted from generation to generation through customs and behavior so ingrained and automatic as to be second nature.

They believe that no man or council of men can even begin to approach that vast body of wisdom through conscious thought or design and are thus very cautious in implementing radical social experiments, as the laws of unintended consequences will surely dictate disastrous results.
Note that this has little to do per se with government except insofar as it expresses resistance to change. America is, itself, a radical social experiment. You can love it and still entertain the notion that there might be better experiments to make out there. This was one of the principles of Federalism, right?

Federalism unfortunately sacrificed itself on the altar of slavery, first in the 1860s, then again in the 1960s, because there was no way (in this country in the 18th century) we were going to be able to start from first principles: All men are created equal.

A persistent human flaw bedeviling philosophers devising governments is an inability to separate a good idea from a bad execution. Like war, nation-building is done with the populous you have, not the population you wish you had.

But a lot of modern conservatism is actually pretty radical. "Conservatives" preach the notion of restructuring the tax system, for example. Ending the broad social programs we have. Using the power of the government to limit very private activities. Some of these--hell, maybe all of them--are good ideas (though I doubt it). But conservative they ain't.

Well, this has gone on a lot longer than I expected and it lacks the sort of focus I was hoping to bring to the topic, and I didn't even talk about where I was (philosophically) versus where I am now.

Basically, I'm for freedom. Free markets. Free people. Which sounds a lot like libertarianism. But everyone knows, those guys are freaks.


Fun Kevin Bacon footnote: Mamet's piece mentions Mary Ann Madden who was my first "chat buddy" and one of my favorite people in the whole world.

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