Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Slippery slopes

A critical point made in Even Prominent Conservatives Have Socialism Hiding Inside Their Heads by Robert Tracinski. Strip away the emotivism of the terms conservative and socialist.

Is power in our system vested in collectivist entities or in the individual? As stated several times in the Constitution, it is always about the individual. Unlike most other constitutions in the world which locate the nexus of focus on the family, clan, tribe, religion, class, ethnicity, race, etc.

Our is not the perfect approach. But it is better than all known alternatives.

But our country is rife with people who want to govern through family, clan, tribe, religion, class, ethnicity, race, etc. (though they might not quite put it that way.)

So many bad political ideas, so many novel and ingenious expansions of government power, seem to originate with people who are on the political right and supposed to favor small government.


What started out as a moderate call for common ground on this issue turns into a complete capitulation to the principles and outlook of the Left. The assumption here is that “society,” not the individual, is the ultimate standard of moral value. The interests of society are supreme and everything the individual has—including the products of a lifetime of effort, and all the hopes you have for your children—can be sacrificed to it.


The unexamined issue here is collectivism, the idea that humans as a collective takes precedence over humans as individuals. Note how deeply that assumption is woven into McArdle’s analysis. Your property rights evaporate on your death because you “no longer have a voting interest in what goes on in society,” as if your contribution to society as a voter is the only thing that gives value to your opinions and validity to your rights.


Socialism has a specific meaning as an economic system, hinging on public ownership or control of wealth and capital. But it also has a wider moral and metaphysical basis: it stands for the supremacy of “society,” of human beings as an undifferentiated collective, over the rights and life of the individual. That’s the socialist premise that has taken residence in a lot of people’s heads, even people who would be considered staunchly on the Right. To the extent they agree to think about “society” instead of individuals, to the extent they cede moral authority to the “interests of society,” not as a mere aggregate of the interests and rights of individuals, but as something that supersedes those rights, they have allowed a little dominion of socialism over their thinking.
I think Tracinski is right. No matter how solid your conservative credentials, there is always a slippery slope. Socialists do not have this problem. They start from the societal premise that all actions serve society first, individuals secondarily. It is only a matter of deciding how much society will grant the individual. There is no slippery slope for socialists. Everything is vested in the center.

For Classical Liberals (conservatives), there is always the slippery slope. Their focus is on the human rights of the individual but there is also always a place for government, it is just a matter of finding the right balance between the two. If the individual grants nothing to the center, it is Hobbsian. If everything is granted, then there is no individual. The conservative is always trying to strike the right balance between the two extremes (problem left to be solved by individuals versus problem to be solved centrally) even while exogenous circumstances are in continual flux and evolution.

I think the conservative dilemma is also exacerbated by our engineering mindset. We identify some common problem (sufficient food, sufficient health, sufficient income, etc.) In agreeing that there is a legitimate problem, it is too easy to then deterministically set about solving the problem, almost always via the power and mechanics of government instead of investigating whether the complex system of individual choices might solve the problem on its own, albeit, non-deterministically.

I think the best filter is always to ask "What business is it of yours?" The answer may not always be comfortable but it puts a moderator on the default that all problems must be solved by central authority for the collectivist good.

There was a microscopic example yesterday of this pressure to always cede to the collectivist center. Someone (Miss America?) was asked in some interview whether healthcare was a right or a privilege. She quite properly answered that it is a privilege. Everyone is responsible for their own health and there is no right granted in the Constitution to possess healthcare.

Despite the factual accuracy of her answer, she was immediately set upon by the collectivists and I see today that she has back-pedaled and acknowledged that healthcare is a right. That is, of course, incorrect, but it is the answer that the totalitarians want to be the answer. The nuanced response that there is no such right but that we are a system of laws that allow us to cede some increments of power to the center (on a revokable basis) in order to arrive at a system from which everyone benefits to a greater degree than they might as individuals is simply not the answer that totalitarians want to hear. It fails the glib "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need" nostrum.

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