Friday, March 21, 2008

On not getting conservatism

This post by Dennis Sanders has been given the thumbs up by Michael Reynolds as "a conservative who's not an idiot discussing the Obama speech." I've said everything I have to say about the Obama speech itself, but there's one bigger-picture thing that struck me as off:
Okay, I totally agree that Obama is a liberal, which is why I am not taken with him. But then let me ask Goldberg and others like him this: what is the conservative answer to racial issues? Do you all have an urban agenda that will help poor young blacks, who don’t see a way out of their destructive lives, huh?
This is from someone who claims to be center-right. Yet it misses the obvious response from any thoughtful conservative: just because we don't have an "urban agenda that will help poor young blacks" doesn't mean you do. Just because you think you do doesn't mean your agenda will do what you claim. Maybe nobody knows how to fix things, and for that reason the government has to keep its hands off.

When it comes to individual initiative trying to fix the world, people can be overconfident, but I don't think that's so very bad, as they can only waste their own time and money, and if enough people try, a few people will occasionally get a few things right. But when we're talking about the government spending other people's money and using police power, it's another matter. The government, being big, can make much bigger screw-ups. And for that reason, caution is warranted. Sometimes you have to admit that we don't have a nice easy way out of our problems.


Vinny said...

Yet it misses the obvious response from any thoughtful conservative: just because we don't have an "urban agenda that will help poor young blacks" doesn't mean you do. Just because you think you do doesn't mean your agenda will do what you claim. Maybe nobody knows how to fix things, and for that reason the government has to keep its hands off.

So we tell the disenfranchised "Guess what. We're afraid that we might make things worse if we try to address your problems. You are just going to have to accept the fact that some people get the short end of the stick."

If that is the attitude, then why do we expect the disenfranchised to obey society's laws and norms? Is it only the coercion of prison and punishment? I find that prospect pretty depressing.

Hallq said...

Fear of punishment has always been the #1 motivation for following the law, always will be. The fact that it's depressing doesn't mean it isn't true.

Vinny said...

If that were true, then laws would be obeyed much less than they are today. If people believe that the law embody justice and fairness with the purpose of maintaining order in society such that everyone, including themselves, has the opportunity to seek fulfillment in their lives, then they will see obeying the laws as a good in itself.

However, when they see law as nothing more than the coercive power of the state, then the decision to obey the law always becomes a risk-reward calculation based on the probability of getting caught. The question of whether a man should obey the law becomes meaningless.

For a society to thrive, its members must be invested in the law and see it as good for themselves.

Hallq said...

Question: if there were no penalties whatsoever for disobeying the law, how many people would obey it? Having a sense of what's right is a nice bonus, but it's not what's doing the bulk of the work.

Vinny said...

Question: If people did not believe that a society based on laws was a good thing in itself and that people have a moral obligation as citizens to obey the law, how many fewer would obey it than now do?

I realize that there are some people who will never respond to anything but penalties. However, if people are not generally capable of using reason to recognize that a society ordered by laws is in everyone's self-interest, then maybe a fear based theocracy is a rational alternative.

Hallq said...

>If people did not believe that a society based on laws was a good thing in itself and that people have a moral obligation as citizens to obey the law, how many fewer would obey it than now do?

How many people believe this? And not just in the sense of being willing to assent when asked, but actively thinking about it, taking it into account in their everyday life? And of those, how many have a sophisticated conception of what this means?

I would argue that it's not clear what this means, that it's not clear what the word "law" means independent of enforcement. What would law with no punishments attached be? I of course understand what it is for a law not to be enforced, but such laws are, de facto, not really laws.

I perceive the value of having a society of enforced laws. I don't understand the value of a society of non-binding resolutions. I perceive the value having police who will hunt down and punish anyone who robs or murders me, and enforcing tax laws to support that. But I wouldn't take taxes seriously if they weren't enforced: I'd ignore the arcane formulas, and ask myself if my money would do more good sent to an overseas charity before sending in even an approximation of what was requested.

Vinny said...

I guess I might argue that every time someone stops for a stop sign even though there is no one in sight, he is acknowledging that the law is something more than rules backed by force. Every time someone pays for an item in a store without calculating the odds that it might be successfully shoplifted, he is choosing law for its own sake. Unfortunately, this gets into questions of sociology, psychology and jurisprudence that I have not given much attention to for many years. At least I am beginning to understand why Obama doesn’t do anything for you.

Now I am going to have to dig out my jurisprudence texts from law school that I have not looked at for twenty years and think about things that I already thought I understood. I hate when that happens.

I guess I cannot help but wonder what it is that conservatism is conserving and why whatever it is is worth conserving.

Hallq said...

If you don't understand what I'm getting at with all this, re-read the original post. You never actually refuted the possibility I raised, just complained that it was (1) depressing and (2) it would make it more difficult to ask people to follow our laws. Perhaps there is some connection to the fact that I didn't find this response compelling and the fact that I don't find Obama compelling--namely, that I worry more about how reality works rather than that something is depressing.

As for what's worth conserving, there's the simple fact that society works better than it could work. It's so easy to focus on the negative and ignore what actually works, but that will tend to support poor decision making.

Vinny said...

If the possibility you are referring to is “maybe nobody knows how to fix things” when it comes to racial problems, I don’t pretend that I could refute it. I freely admit that this is a real possibility. Where I part company is the idea that this possibility by itself constitutes a reason that “the government has to keep its hands off.” Because just as it’s possible that nobody knows how to fix things, it is also possible that there are reasonable measures that could improve things. It is a question of which bet we are more afraid of losing, sort of like Pascal’s wager.

Let’s take another serious problem as an example. Maybe nobody knows how to fix global warming. Does this in any way imply that the government should do nothing? The potential consequences of doing nothing are pretty scary. On the other hand, the costs of trying to fix it could be staggering. We try to make the best informed choice we can but I don't see how the fact that there are no guarantees by itself counsels either action or inaction.

I am well aware of how reality works. Ronald Reagan sold the American people on the idea that the government makes anything it touches worse and the Bush administration has worked like the very dickens almost every day to make that idea a living reality. That society could work better seems every bit as simple a fact as that it could work worse. I think it is moving in the direction of working less well for more people and I think trying to change that direction is worth the risk.

Hallq said...

Fair enough. But the unthinking "we must do something, no costs and uncertainties need be weighed" attitude of what I was originally responding to didn't make sense. The question was whether there was a plan that "will" deliver, not one that has the best chances of a good result, all things considered.

Vinny said...

As long as I’m on a roll here, let me throw out a few more ideas for consideration.

Our notion of self-government includes the concept that the legitimate authority of the government is derived from the consent of the governed.

Now we know that everyone does not personally consent to be governed. A bunch of white separatists out in Idaho may claim that their little compound constitutes an independent nation, but we don’t buy it. We might say that their consent doesn’t matter because the majority of people have consented, but I think there is more to it than that. In some sense, we figure that we can treat these people as if they consented because the government is constructed in such a way and acts in such a way that it merited their consent even if they refused to give it.

I think this is what I was trying to get at with my notion of laws being something more than the coercive power of the state. If the government derives its legitimate authority from the consent of the governed, then it has the right to demand that people obey properly enacted laws because, in some sense, they have consented to do so.

On the other hand, I think there may be situations in which it would be unreasonable to deem a person to have consented. The most obvious example would be the case of chattel slavery. It is hard for me to see how a government could claim to derive its authority from the consent of the governed when a significant portion of the governed is held in a state of involuntary servitude.

I hope you will be gentle with me here because I really am just pulling this stuff out of my ass as I go along. If I had a month to work on this, I might be able to put together a thoroughly footnoted essay, but for the moment, I am just operating on vaguely recollected lessons from high school civics added to law school jurisprudence fortified with a little Jim Beam on the rocks.

Here’s my question: Might there be situations in which the failure to seek a solution to a problem undermines the legitimacy of the government’s claim to the consent of the governed? If such situations exist, could it be that the government must act regardless of the cost-benefit analysis (or at least put considerably less weight on such analysis) simply because failure to act sacrifices or undermines its claim to legitimate authority?