Posts Tagged conservatism
The subject of contracts is not particularly sexy, which is part of the reason I’d like to talk about contracts—and how we might reach beyond them.
In one sense, we have come to ignore, downplay, or disregard the value of contracts. Across the world, we continuously see grand planners like Jeffrey Sachs trying to impose markets and social stability with the flick of their wands, paying little attention to cultural factors like trust and property rights or the institutions required to make contracts mean something. Similarly, here in America, our government seems increasingly bent on diluting or subverting our most fundamental agreements, whether between husband and wife or Foreclosed Billy and his bank.
Yet in other areas, we are overly contract-minded, particularly when it enables us to slack off or lead predictable, controllable lives. Our default setting as humans is to pursue the minimum amount of work for the maximum reward—to put in our 40 hours, shrug our shoulders, and say, “that’s that.” Take the recent union battles in Wisconsin, where protestors proudly insist that their gripes aren’t about the money, but rather, securing a specialized right to privilege and protection. If such an alarming display of entitlement and self-obsessed insulation-seeking isn’t adequate evidence of our new-found comfort level with legalistic, minimum-effort thinking and living, I don’t know what is.
Contracts certainly play an important role in ordering our affairs—as indicated in my preliminary jab at Mr. Sachs—but we mustn’t forget that they can only take us so far. We may indeed need to establish some minimums in our commitment-making (and enforce them accordingly), but that needn’t mean that the minimum is all we aim to achieve.
This is an issue that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians consistently get tied up with, with our discussions consistently centering on words like “coercion,” “obligation,” “voluntaryism,” and all the rest. Yet in trying to understand the dynamics of these features, we must recognize the limits of such categories, lest our aforementioned human tendencies to carve out rationalistic legalistic frameworks impede or limit our thinking about responsibility and commitment to only involve rationalistic legalistic frameworks.
Here’s where that tricky little thing called “love” comes into play, for it so comprehensively breaks such propensities, and, in doing so, shatters the type of line-item, pseudo-rationalistic entitlement and selfishness that ultimately holds individuals back and consequently drags entire families and societies down into the muck.
If there’s one person who understands this, its economist Jennifer Roback Morse, whose book, Love & Economics, argues that love, particularly as encountered in marriage and parenting, helps to show our convenient political-theory buckets for what they are and teach us crucial lessons about how we are to view people and progress. “Familial relationships are not coercive in the usual sense, nor are they voluntary in the usual sense,” argues Morse.
Marriage may be “contractual” in certain ways, but Morse prefers to see it as a “partnership”—one filled with what she calls “radical uncertainty.” “Will we both remain healthy?” she asks. “Will we both continue to be employed at our current level of income and status? Will our needs change in ways we cannot fully predict?”
As Morse notes, a partnership reaches beyond our preferred and overly nit-picky me-vs.-them comparisons (see also: “love keeps no record of wrongs”), focusing more heavily on the we aspect and thus transforming our efforts to be in service of someone and something higher than ourselves:
Partnerships feature ongoing, joint decision making during the life of the relationship. In purely contractual relationships by contrast, the parties negotiate most, if not all, of the significant decisions prior to entering into the contract. In a partnership, the partners share responsibilities, decision-making, and risks…
…In a partnership, both partners have enough at stake in the relationship that they have an incentive to do all the unstated but necessary things that can be known on the spot and in the moment. The contract is neither the end of the relationship nor the method for how the parties relate to one another.
Orienting our perspectives around we-centered uncertainty requires us to reject the type of liberal, me-centered Read the rest of this entry »
Over at Public Discourse, Nathan Schlueter explains why he’s not a libertarian, providing concise conservative responses to 10 popular libertarian claims.
This week at Values & Capitalism, I look at two of those claims, related specifically to coercion and market intervention. Finding myself arguing alongside libertarians on most economics-related issues, I thought Schlueter’s points were helpful in illuminating a key distinguisher between conservatism and libertarianism, even if the policy outcome ends up looking similar.
Here’s Schlueter’s sixth point/response:
6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality. Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character … The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.
This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism. (emphasis added)
The question for conservatives, I argue, seems to be that we think coercion may sometimes be justified and/or helpful. We certainly don’t think it should be in play to the extent progressives do—who seem to pursue centralized control as an ideal—but conservatives recognize that certain features of human nature demand it.
In the end, I argue—piggy-backing on Schlueter—that much of this comes down to realism:
This hits at the deeper level of why conservatives think coercion in economics is sometimes necessary to preserve order. It is here, I believe, that conservatives find themselves fighting between two forms of utopianism: one which actively pursues coercion with little regard for real-life liberty, and one which actively pursues so-called liberty with little regard for real-life humans (or the real extent of certain real-life consequences).
Schlueter points out this distinguisher in his #9 response, which I believe draws the clearest line between both orientations. Conservatism’s “true realism,” as Schlueter notes, is summed up aptly by James Madison, in a line from Federalist No. 57 containing plenty for both libertarians and progressives to detest:
‘The aim of every political constitution is first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.’
Read the full post here.
I don’t think the answer is necessarily “yes,” but I have some serious reservations with many prominent attempts to synthesize the two.
Joe Carter contemplates the question at the Acton Institute in response to this post by friend-of-the-blog and co-blogger at Values & Capitalism, Jacqueline Otto (though hers is actually a different response to yet another Carter post). The back-and-forth is well worth reading in full.
I certainly don’t consider myself a “libertarian,” but in my early deep-dive into politics I was actually quite close to crossing over. I still find myself swimming in many libertarian ponds, and I actually enjoy doing so (most of the time). What else is an economics-loving conservative to do?
Indeed, given my many inclinations toward libertarianism in the economics realm, and even some in the social (e.g. drug laws), some of my many (many, many) Christian libertarian readers might have even assumed that this blog was itself an attempt to reconcile the two. Fooled ya!
Anywho, Carter breaks his discussion down into five distinct types of Christian libertarians:
- Type #1: Those who have developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible.
- Type #2: Those who mash the two words together.
- Type #3: Those for whom the “Christian” in Christian libertarian is a weak modifier
- Type #4: Christians who are really conservatives, but don’t like the label conservative
- Type #5: Those who are Not-all-that-Christian and/or Not-all-that-Libertarian
I responded to his post with some initial “informal” reactions (not around any particular theme), so I thought I’d repost them here (albeit with some minor edits for this environment). Again, these are responses to the back-and-forth, so I encourage you to start by reading Carter’s post. Given that many of my favorite readers are self-described Christian libertarians, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and critiques about Carter’s post, my reactions, or all of the above.
1. The libertarian movement is diverse.
And this is the case with the movement Type #1s. One of the challenges in such a discussion is that there are many different types of libertarians. This is, I think, largely due to that whole Internet popularization thing Carter speaks to. You’ve got the folks who like Milton Friedman, and then you’ve got those who think he is the devil because he semi-collaborated with Reagan and the Republicans and was, um, kinda sorta practical and effective. Likewise, you’ve got the folks who love Hayek (who detest Friedman), and then you’ve got those who think Hayek was Read the rest of this entry »
Jordan Ballor wrote a marvelous piece for Comment Magazine highlighting some of the key areas of tension between pro-globalization “market conservatism” and the more localism-driven “communitarian conservatism.”
Conservatism at its best recognizes the fundamental relationship between appreciation for markets and economic freedom on the one side, and morality and social responsibilities on the other. Far from a temporary alliance, this deep and real connection guarantees that the essence of the fusionist program, despite calls to the contrary, will continue to animate the future of conservative social thought.
Yet, as is evident throughout the piece, the connection is not so clear to some, and although divisions exist on both sides, Ballor spends much of his time focusing on the concerns of the communitarian side, pointing to the ways in which markets can and should be oriented toward the common good.
To illuminate some of the core problems of the localist framework, Ballor sets his sights on conservative journalist Rod Dreher, whose radical shift to a small-town lifestyle was recently showcased by David Brooks, and whose popular book, Crunchy Cons, “includes a ten-point ‘Crunchy Con Manifesto,’ with propositions like, ‘Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract,’ and, ‘Beauty is more important than efficiency.’” After focusing on some ironies in Dreher’s situation, most particularly his frustration with his small town’s slow internet speeds (read the full piece for more on this), Ballor observes that “even the most dedicated advocates of communitarian conservative values at some level realize that the flourishing they experience is, to a great extent, made possible by global markets.”
Here, we can see the value that each “pole” provides the other:
Business activity that provides goods and services truly is, in this way, an enterprise that does good and serves others. This is why John Wesley famously said that the “first and great rule of Christian wisdom, with respect to money,” was the dictum, “Gain all you can.” But he immediately noted that this rule was qualified: “Gain all you can by honest industry” (emphasis mine). If market conservatives help us to remember that we are to gain all we can, communitarian conservatives help us remember that we are to do so honestly, and that morality is not reducible to mere legality.
Yet for the Christian—and here is where I’m going to veer off a bit—it seems that both positions (as stated here) still lack an overarching spiritual component—namely, “gains” according to whom, and “honesty” and “morality” for what/who’s purpose? For the Christian, the market conservative’s message that “we are to gain all we can,” need not be limited to mere earthly value, and likewise, the communitarian conservative message that “we are to do so honestly” is not where our moral/theological discussions of “gains” and “values” should end.
We are fundamentally and above all else called to be oriented around obedience to God, whatever he might Read the rest of this entry »
I recently spent some time chatting with my good friend RJ Moeller on his increasingly popular podcast, The RJ Moeller Show (now hosted by AEI’s Values & Capitalism and broadcasted in the Chicago area).
RJ first interviews Claire Berlinski, editor at City Journal and Ricochet.com and author of the book There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.
After that, I talk with RJ about my recent (and past) experiences with job loss and job gain, as well as some of the lessons my generation can draw from it.
My main point: our jobs are an opportunity for us to produce value more than they are an excuse to get things. If we start thinking this way, we will take more ownership of our work and will avoid a servility mentality. The result: Not only will we be happier at work, but we will be more secure and more mobile.
Oh yeah, and more conservative. (Whoops!)
You can listen to the interview here, or by clicking the play button below (my interview starts around the 40-minute mark):