October 14, 2003


An interesting discussion over at John & Belle Have A Blog about Conservatism.

It's particularly interesting to me since I'm currently reading Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty which has an excellent essay at the end, entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative". Back in 1959, Hayek raised many of the same points as are raised in the online discussion, including struggling with the term "liberal" in its classical vs. modern senses. Recognizing that in modern usage "liberal" had been distorted to mean social-democrat, he settles on "Old Whiggist" after rejecting "libertarian" as "singularly unattractive".

Anyway, Hayek is not a conservative because of conservatism's "propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it." He goes on to reject its "proneness to strident nationalism" and its anti-internationalism which is "frequently associated with imperialism" and "the mission to civilise" others.

But beyond that, it seems to me that the trouble that they're having in the online debate is with trying to group many disparate things together and talk about them under one category: conservatism. This suffers from several problems that all such ontological discussions tend to have.

First, it ignores the diachronic nature of the category, in this case conservatism. Since it is defined in reaction to change, conservatism is greatly dependent on the historical context in which the conservative lives. The "conservative" hard-liner in Russia may actually be a Communist pining for the Soviet era. In Afghanistan, a Taleban. So today in America, a free-market classical liberal can feel conservative when defending free (and dynamic) markets, because of the long-standing American tradition of economic liberty.

Second, it demands consistency when none is required. It's tempting to apply a single label to all of someone's positions. I think this has something to do with the desire to make the appropriate label depend not only the person's positions but also on their metaethical rationale for that position — how they got there, what (single) path they took to reach that position.

But often, people reach different conclusions in different spheres because of (not in spite of) their philosophical belief system. And thinking that rejecting change in one area (say culture) logically requires rejecting change in another (say economics) is starting from an assumption that they are and should be comparable. Something both devout Christians and social democrats might disagree with.

Third, it tries to project a multidimensional space onto a line or a plane. Many people, including the originator of the thread, have recognized that the traditional left-right spectrum is not really very useful (except for polarizing issues). Some have tried to address this by sticking with the liberal-conservative dichotomy, but breaking it out into moral and economic dimensions. Others have tried to come up with new linear systems, like Evil-Stupid. Other favorites are Individualist vs. Communitarian and Pessimist vs. Optimist.

Although these one-dimensional labels inherently undercharacterize political stances, some spectra are more relevant than others to the particular historical time in which they are applied. In fact, I think the one proposed by Virginia Postrel in her book, The Future and Its Enemies is particularly suited to this day and age.

Postrel argues for distinguishing between "stasism" and "dynamism". "Stasists" are characterized by their desire for a static future. Their visions of this future vary widely: from centrally-planned technocracy, to religious and moral traditionalism, to eco-sustainable utopianism. But they share a common assumption that the future can be planned, and moreover should be. And of course, some chosen group, whether the clergy, the bureaucracy, our ancestors, or elite intellectuals, knows best about what form that future should take. Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader on the same side.

"Dynamists" on the other hand believe the opposite. Unintended consequences bedevil any attempt at control. Utopianism is wishful thinking. Central planning fails. And the future is unknowable. Because our knowledge is increasing, we cannot anticipate what we don't know — we can't even predict what we'll desire, value, want in the future either, because our beliefs and our conception of the good change with the new knowledge. We're best off creating a system that safeguards liberty (simple freedom from coercion) and anticipating the likely (though never certain) gains from the ensuing increases in knowledge, culture, art, technology and material wealth.

After thinking about this for a while, it's interesting to listen to people's positions on issues and project them onto this new stasism/dynamism line instead of the tired conservative/liberal one. You probably have no trouble slotting me in one end or the other.

In all, though, an interesting debate. Where else would you get to read various and sundry philosophers weigh in on an issue like this?

Posted by richard at 11:43 PM | Comments (0)

September 15, 2003

Walzer's Spheres

Earlier this summer I read Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice. Since I know many people (outside of political philosophy circles) haven't read it, I thought it would be worth doing a quick summary, and add a few thoughts of my own.

Those who know me know that, politically, I'm pretty far from a Walzerian. I think he's got way too much faith in the State's ability to solve problems (my wife would argue that I've got way too much faith in the market's ability to solve them). Regardless, Walzer's got an important core point and a new way of looking at things, one that's worth repeating.

The subtitle makes clear what he's up to: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Walzer is trying to combine an argument for (a new kind of) equality with the recognition that different social goods have different social meanings and should rightly be distributed according to different rules. These social goods (wealth, education, welfare, punishment, status, work, kinship, leisure, pleasure, etc.) are divided into different "spheres," each of which has it's own kind of distributive justice requirements.

Walzer argues that "simple equality," which he defines as strict egalitarianism within and across these sphere, is not only undesirable, but is also practically impossible. The coercion necessary to maintain the equality would constitute a system that would be unbearable to live in.

To replace simple equality, he argues for "complex equality," a state in which people are unequal within each sphere (but only according to the appropriate distributive laws for that sphere) but everything is still just overall as long as there is no "dominance" of one sphere over the other.

Walzer's dominance is an extension of Pascal's tyrrany: demanding love because you are powerful, power because you are wealthy, or wealth because you are of noble blood. Each improperly uses advantage in one sphere to appropriate goods in another. If we can just figure out ways to banish these border-crossings, we'll have a more just society. (This is, of course, easier said than done, although Walzer lists some social norms that can or have been called to bear in this fight: norms against nepotism, simony, buying love, etc.)

After laying out his thesis, Walzer explores several of the spheres, using historical episodes to illustrate the plurality of ways in which the goods within the sphere have been distributed. He then argues for a specific distributive rule for each sphere: need for health and welfare, deserts for punishment, interest and capacity for specialized education, etc. Given his diachronic, pluralistic account of the social goods and their distribution, one can only assume that his recommendations are themselves historical and therefore appropriate for the 20th century Western world (and hopefully not just 1983...) only — though he's less than clear that this is the case.

So that's his point, and I think it's mostly a good one. Even if you don't buy it on grounds of social justice, it still seems to make sense pragmatically, and it fits nicely with what I call an anti-concentrationist stance, i.e. one that wants to limit the concentration of power in too few hands (which is a big, but so far, under-developed part of my thinking). Limiting dominance between the sphere's is a worthy goal, for the same reason that Constitutional checks and balances and anti-trust laws are.

So a few points of criticism, in no particular order:

  • While arguing for need as a distributive rule for health and welfare, he fails to take into account the dynamic nature of need. He does mention, in his discussion of education in medieval Jewish communities, that need is socially constructed. But he neglects the fact that need might (will) change within a single culture, based on what (and how many) goods you condition on need -- a variation of moral hazard arguments. If you get what you need, why wouldn't you (and society) just decide that you need a lot (of specialists , for instance). Or put another way, if I have only so much time and energy, but I know that I'll get certain things if I need them, but others only if I work for them, won't I (rationally) through life choices I make, need the things that society distributes based on need? Trying to counter this with statements about what you really need, would seem to cross over into an objectivist world that he's trying to avoid. As an aside, I think there's a similar argument on the "ability" side of the Marxist mantra, too (more on this later).
  • He privileges equality and justice over rights, without a thorough explanation of why. Many of his boundary-protecting injunctions and distributive rules constrain individual rights severely — from the obvious property rights, to limits on expression and association that would required to enforce other boundaries. The conflict between campaign finance reform and freedom of speech is just one modern example. If these individual rights are falling by the wayside, then exactly what are we buying, because it better be pretty attractive.... Which leads us to the fact that,
  • He doesn't show that people would be better off under his regime. While I waiver as to the extent to which utilitarianism should, by itself, define a just society, it seems that it is at least a relevant "test". His argument would seem to say that his system is better, even if everyone is worse off under it than under today's mixed system. Given his prescriptions for the ownership of the means of production contra the historical success of market-based economies, it's a situation that is not simply academic. Perhaps, since it's a theory, he only has to say why it's theoretically better and not practically better, although this would limit his (practical) critique of simple equality significantly. In contrast, Rawls would appear to allow more broad inequality (within and across spheres) as long as the least well-off member is better off than he or she would be in other systems. Walzer doesn't seem to make room for this possibility.
Anyway, that's enough for now. Definitely a thought-provoking book. I need to find time to read his other major book: Just and Unjust Wars. When I do, I'll try to post something about it....
Posted by richard at 09:04 PM | Comments (2)