The Conservative Agenda

Today, I got a teeny glimpse of what it’s like to be a blog star. I responded to an MSN editorial that supported the Republican agenda on the grounds that lower property taxes and denial of global warming would encourage us to have more babies, which would prevent our economy from being overtaken by higher-growth cultures. I surveyed the realities of living in high-growth nations, and offered that maybe if the ultra-rich had kept the manufacturing jobs on-shore, the middle class would still be able to buy houses. Furthermore, California’s experience with property tax cuts has been that it’s made it really difficult to educate the kids we have now to the competitive standards in the 21st century. I had three-digits in likes by lunch-time.

The Republican Party likes to position itself as a bastion of “conservative” values and practices. You know, prudent fiscal management, results-driven policies, and stable families. But, looking at the record, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that it is actually driven entirely by the financial industry, which loves budget and trade deficits because federal bond issues and currency trading brings them a tidy guaranteed income. That, at least, appears to be the principal difference, since the Reagan era, between Republican and Democratic administrations. Republicans: tax cuts, deficits and off-shoring. Democrats: budgets brought into balance, and a focus on workforce and ecological sustainability.

Now some will complain that I’m just declaring my biases, and I am a registered Democrat. But I’d really like to see conservatism reclaimed as a political philosophy. I did encounter a coherent definition in Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.

For much of human history, institutions were not only hard to create, they were almost impossible to sustain. That’s because running them requires time away from basic survival, and when that is threatened, people think first of themselves. That results in disbanding of the institution, and often looting of its assets.

In this context, conservatism is aptly named: it creates value by preserving institutions. Those most suited to that defense often take a prejudicial view of the public they are meant to serve. They assume that the public should be denied power until it can explain how it will organize institutions to provide sustainable solutions to social ills.

Unfortunately, as suggested in my survey of Republican policies, that is a rationale that all too often simply caters to greed. To the ‘80s mantra “greed is good”, I always riposted with a gibe at the neo-conservatives’ “Tinkle-down Theory” of economic growth.

The antidote to conservatism is liberalism. A liberal recognizes that power can get trapped in institutions that prevent its spread to those that need it to solve problems. They advocate methods, such as taxation or regulation, to reallocate power to those that are motivated to create a better society. The disease of liberalism is the slippery slide from reform into destructive revolution.

The psychosis in modern American politics was born in the New Deal government set up by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. All of a sudden, the liberal Democrats had control of extremely powerful institutions that were designed to preserve the welfare of the common man.

Across the aisle, the Republican party of business was committed to dismantling those institutions. This created a kind of schizophrenia for them. They were to defend the institutions that existed prior to the New Deal, and try to destroy those that came with it. The mantra that finally produced policy leverage in the ‘80s was the ideal of corporate innovation. Unfortunately, corporations aren’t designed to innovate: for the most part, they suffer from the same organizational lethargy as government. Rather, corporations disseminate solutions created by others.

With these glaring breaks between theory and reality, conservative philosophy was open to corruption by those with a simple will to power: people with a strong motivation to get what they want, no matter the cost to others.

And so we have the kind of analysis that I responded to this morning: raw manipulation of the public’s hopes and fears, with nonsensical segues into policy prescriptions.

I work in control systems, and this kind of output is known as “open-loop.” It occurs when the feedback provided by the affected elements of the system (in this case, the public) has no meaning to the controller (the ultra-rich that are buying our political system). The moneyed class no longer has any vested interest in the public well-being. In fact, public misery produces larger and larger deficits that correlate directly with their financial success. It’s like a heater running with the thermostat temperature sensor wired backwards: the hotter it gets, the lower the temperature reported by the thermostat, and the more fuel pushed into the heater. Things are just going to get worse, until the heater explodes.

What’s the solution? Well, I think that it’s to put all of this conservative/liberal division aside. George Santayana wrote a wonderful little book called Three Philosophical Poets, analyzing the work of Lucretius, Dante and Goethe. Santayana say them as representing life lived according to reason, faith and will (respectively). His closing hope was that someday a poet would come along to merge the three. I don’t know if that is possible, but I would hope that our political leaders would try to find some balance between them.

Aggression

What do you do about a disease that affects the entire human race? Testosterone is linked to aggression in both men and women.

When I was growing up, aggression was the measure by which girls were considered to be “defective boys”.  Although the tide has shifted in educational circles, I wish that I could report that things have changed, but the focus seems to have shifted from physical aggression to psychological aggression. My son got F’s on his first few science labs in eighth grade because his female lab partners simply froze him out of the discussion.

But to say that aggression is wrong because it hurts people does not do justice to the damage it wreaks. Aggression manifests the attitude that the energy invested in creating something does not confer ownership. Value is determined only by the aggressor’s need: “How can I benefit by consuming this thing?” That the creative community is impoverished or even destroyed by the reallocation is immaterial.

This is the problem of the commons described in Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism. The socialist prescriptions of his later writings are not heralded by the neo-conservatives that subscribe to the magic of “The Invisible Hand”. Smith’s prescriptions includes intervention by government in labor relations to ensure that families are not ruined when, after spending his life tailoring his skills to the specific practices of a corporation, the employee is made redundant by advancing technology or a decline in demand.

Unfortunately, government as a counterbalance simply defers the crisis: There is no institution in existence that can claim to be immune to the defects of aggression in its leadership. By their very nature, institutions concentrate power, making them obvious plums for those that seek power. Worse, institutional infrastructure provides terribly effective tools for propagating rapacity.

Modern libertarianism and nihilism is a manifestation of the inevitability of institutional corruption. The attitude is that large institutions should be avoided, and where they cannot be avoided, they should be made to go away through political practices. Of course, this is delusional: Institutions will come into existence, because they serve a useful purpose in allowing people to coordinate productive activity. By failing to subscribe to the challenges of managing institutional power, the nihilist simply abandons the field to the aggressors.

It is time, then, to consider the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. They held that the only protection against tyranny was in a balance of powers, and they recognized that the only way to maintain stability in the distribution of power (as in engineering) was to establish a triangle.

So what should we hold up, as the third leg of the stool? I would propose that religion is ideally suited to the task.