Monday, December 12, 2011

Explicating Conservatism: Some Questions for Ilion and other self-described conservatives

Ilion, let's try to unpack your claim here.

I: Meanwhile, Prokop and his fellow leftist partisans *do* believe in, and *do* agitate for, using the violent power of The State to forcibly confiscate the honestly-earned wealth of [someone] so as to give it to [someone else] … and this is open theft. It is grossly unjust and immoral; that “the government” is doing it does not make it just or moral. Any society which tries to operate on this principle of mutual looting must utterly destroy itself.

VR: I think this is a fair statement of a standard conservative perspective. The presupposition seems to be that, before the government gets its greedy mitts on our money, it is distributed by markets, both the commodity markets and the labor markets. When this original distribution occurs, that distribution is relatively meritocratic; those who have more merit more. However this meritocracy is compromised by government's "well-intentioned" (and here I reference the signature statement on your blog), attempt to help the have-nots at the expense of the haves.

Now, I take it you do think the government has the right to ask that we all ante up to provide for our common defense, and probably some of this also needs to go to make sure the country's infrastructure is maintained. So there should be a military budget, there should be a budget for building roads and bridges and maintaining those, etc. As I understand it those should be paid for not at the point of income but at the point of consumption; those who use it should pay to use it.

But here, it seems to me that conservatives draw a distinction between the protective role of government and the non-protective role. The protective roles of government have a constitutional mandate (provide for the common defense, etc.), the non-protective roles are, pretty largely, a matter of government overstepping its authority. So, for example, if health insurance companies have a policy of excluding people with pre-existing conditions, it is unjust government intrusion to come in and prevent them from doing this, so that more people can be insured. So, conservatives at least can be hawks when it comes to what we need to do to defend ourselves, although there was a time in our history when conservatives tended to be isolationists.

At this point I am trying to spell out what I think is the conservative vision as you understand it, and I want to invite others who describe themselves as conservative to look at this and see if their own view is accurately represented. Amend as you see fit, guys. I want to put the descriptive process first before I start talking about why I have trouble believing this whole story.

16 comments:

TheCharles said...

Victor, is the question what kind of taxation is the best, or is it what role does government have beyond "common defense" kinds of functions?

For tax policy, I would say that there are three basic principles.

(1) Where possible, things should be paid for by user fees, e.g., fuel taxes for roads;

(2) Where user fees are not possible, taxes should be collected in a way that does not distort incentives to work;

(3) Barring extraordinary circumstances, you should only acquire debt at the governmental level for investments that have a payback over years, i.e., 30 year bonds for a road that will last 30 years.

For the role of government, I would say that there are two main reasons for the conservative dislike of transfer payments.

(1) Transfer payments distort incentives to work. We saw that in the welfare reform of the 1990s. When people were required to work to receive benefits, a lot decided to find a job.

(2) Conservatives see government as one institution in society, but not the only one. So that when government gets into the welfare business, it is frequently supplanting agencies that have solutions that are small, local, and tailored to a community and replacing them with a blanket national policy that is none of those things.

Matt said...

Hi Victor,

I'm not a conservative but I there are many areas of my thinking that are motivated by conservative ideas. One of which is the question "How responsible are we for others and can that responsibility be mandated by the government?" For example, why are wealthy people held responsible for the suffering of poor people? This is not an issue of meritocracy. It is a simple matter of asking why it is their responsibility (to the point where force is used against them) to provide for the less fortunate. Protection from invaders is generally seen as everyone's problem while lack of health insurance is the problem of the individual who lacks it. Why do we use force to make it an issue for those who have no relation to this person?

This is going to make me look like an F-the poor style Objectivist but I'm trying to get at the idea that force is used to collect these resources. I'm all for helping the poor but against doing it with a gun. I hope this makes sense.

adc said...

Well, for instance: "the government has the right to ask that we all ante up to provide for our common defense" - this is backwards. The government doesn't ask, we form it to do something as an extension of we ourselves can do.

I mean, I could try to explain this - but there is no way I could do it as thoroughly as Bastiat did in 1850:

"What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all."

-The Law, Frederick Bastiat: 1850
(emphasis mine)

I would highly encourage you to read Frederick Bastiat's The Law (shameless plug as it is my favorite book) for a much better explanation of the foundation of this view.

The Law: http://bastiat.org/en/the_law.html

Also - Government (or The State): http://bastiat.org/en/government.html

adc said...

So Victor, when you start talking about other functions of government - you are really talking about other ways that Law or Force should or can be justified. And they MUST - or they are not legitimate, because a just government is an extension of us. It must not violate human rights. Men have a right (liberty, property) to be charitable or not, but NOT to make someone else charitable (which isn't charity anyhow.

So take something like healthcare, often considered a 'positive right'. How is that justified? Unlike Life or choice (liberty), healthcare does not exist simply because a human being exists. Healthcare requires human effort (work - created though life, liberty, property, etc...), the exact same way that gathering or making food requires effort. It requires providers, education, research, delivery, technology, huge amounts of risk etc. How can any human justify a "Right" to all this - just because they exist as a person? How can all of this be made available by force or the extension of individual rights?

Can you see the conflict? It's not because I don't want everyone to have healthcare. But there is a vast difference between a 'want,' and a right.

Just a little conservatism 101 from my point of view.

Respectfully,
-Adc

adc said...

Apologies for not proof-reading my comments enough before posting. :)

David B Marshall said...

"Conservative" can mean a lot of things, I don't think you should expect a single, hard-and-fast answer. After all, different countries begin with different traditions that they either ammend or preserve, and people (liberal or conservative) may concentrate on amending or preserving different things, in different ways.

Probably the first question you should ask a "conservative" is, "Who are your heroes?"

As a conservative myself, I would include:

* C. S. Lewis

* Edmund Burke

* Confucius

* Lao Zi

* Someone who said, "Don't think I've come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I've come to fulfill them."

* Solzhenitsyn

* De Toqueville

* G. K. Chesterton (His denials apply to a caricature.)

* Lin Yutang

* Yuan Zhiming

* Some people who set up an itsy-bitsy little government on the East Coast of North America a few hundred years ago, that hardly told anyone what to buy, sell, eat, drink, smoke, think, pray, teach, plant, harvest, build, or not build. They also forgot to leave their kids a $20 trillion debt. Wild and crazy guys. How did America survive them?

Victor Reppert said...

Well, conservatism in other countries takes on a rather different coloration than it does here in America. The member of your list who is most familiar to me touted the advantages of the British health care system to an American lady who was having problems affording her health care under the capitalistic American health care system. This will drive some of you crazy, but if you strip away my reaction to the present-day political landscape, I probably am a conservative. Of course, that will drive you crazy since for most people conservatism or liberalism is a matter of how you react to present-day political issues. So, for example, I would argue that since absolute power corrupts absolutely, we need the government to protect us from being overpowered by massive multinational corporations and banks that have grown too big to fail.

adc said...

I can understand your view there Victor.
And it's funny, cause I tend to believe that when it comes to brass tacks - actually most people really are some shade of libertarian/conservative. In the end, most people don't want a maternalistic State instructing us how and how not to live our lives.

It doesn't make me happy that powerful entities warp the system to their advantage.

What I don't understand is how this gets turned into an argument for more socialization. There is very little difference between the corruption of power within government, and "massive multinational corporations." In practice, both tend to act the same.

Yes, technically - we have a say about what our government does, but let's be frank - how much say do you feel you really have? Who do you petition when the government monopolizes or abuses power?

I can totally sympathize with the feeling - but I don't understand the approach to rectify the problem. Maybe I am simply too pessimistic, but I don't see the trade from corporations to government as any different then the problem we currently have.

For instance, what or how should the government protect people from corporations? Should they break them up? Should people not be allowed to form voluntary collectives to better achieve goals or provide goods and services? Should these groups of people, just because they are a group, be denied representation (this is the common argument against corporate speech)? What is it that government can do to fix the problem, without creating worse problems?

Perhaps the question isn't, "What should be done?" but rather, "Who decides what should be done?"

I don't claim to have the answer, but I haven't heard any good reasoning about what should be done either, usually only that the government should do something. My Dad for instance, always says we need more regulation. What regulation? What exactly should be regulated and who gets to decide that? Has he considered the mountain of regulation that already exists?

I tend to share Tolkien's view that power cannot be wielded by the few over the many without corruption. It's why I'd like law to return to it's proper function, and to see power diversified as much as possible among the people.

Ilíon said...

I have to be studying (cramming, if one prefers a more accurate term) for an important test I'm scheduled to take on Friday. I fully expect that I will bomb it.

Victor Reppert said...

It seems to me that the situation may call for more government, or less government, depending on who the Leviathan monster of the day is.

parbouj said...

Ilion shows a human side. Holy crap.

Ilíon said...

Ilíon just pretends to be human.

David B Marshall said...

Victor: Well, Lewis did get that same American visitor to back down when she wanted to shoot an intruder on his property with a shotgun. You might call that a liberal position. But you know what he thought of the post-War Labor government.

Victor Reppert said...

Yes, it's British-style conservatism. However, the lines of debate are different from what we find in America.

Ilíon said...

VR, in the OP: "Ilion, let's try to unpack your claim here."

Ilíon: "Meanwhile, Prokop and his fellow leftist partisans *do* believe in, and *do* agitate for, using the violent power of The State to forcibly confiscate the honestly-earned wealth of [someone] so as to give it to [someone else] … and this is open theft. It is grossly unjust and immoral; that “the government” is doing it does not make it just or moral. Any society which tries to operate on this principle of mutual looting must utterly destroy itself."

VR, in the OP: "I think this is a fair statement of a standard conservative perspective. The presupposition seems to be that, before the government gets its greedy mitts on our money, it is distributed by markets, both the commodity markets and the labor markets. When this original distribution occurs, that distribution is relatively meritocratic; those who have more merit more. However this meritocracy is compromised by government's "well-intentioned" (and here I reference the signature statement on your blog), attempt to help the have-nots at the expense of the haves."

*sigh* How quickly they forget. But, sure, let us do some unpacking:

VR, in the OP of that other thread: "If this [how a particular candidate views the use government's monopoly on force] is your concern, then you cannot vote for members of either major party. Democrats believe in redistribution of wealth and income downwards, toward the poor and the middle class. Republicans believe in redistribution of wealth and income upwards, so that more money is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. Neither party practices laissez-faire economics. ..."

Now, and as others had pointed out in that thread before I even saw it, neither assertion you made about the fundamental world-view and/or political philosophy of either major party is actually true; though, they are untrue in dfferent ways. Moreover, the assertion that you made about the Democratic Party's political philosophy -- while factually untrue -- is the assertion they/you make about themselves/yourselves; on the other hand, the the assertion you made about the Republican Party's political philosophy -- while factually untrue -- is the assertion that Democrats (i.e. *you all*) make about the Republicans and/or conservatives.

So, right off the bat, and even without consideration of the truthfulness of either assertion you made, we are not dealing with both parties' self-representation, but rather with one party's partisan representation of both parties.

Now, *both* assertions that you made about the fundamental world-view and/or political philosophy of both major parties can be put into the form: "[The] partisans [of Party 'X'] *do* believe in, and *do* agitate for, using the violent power of The State to forcibly confiscate the honestly-earned wealth of [someone] so as to give it to [someone else]".

So, it isn't that what I said is *merely* "a fair statement of a standard conservative perspective [about socialists and "liberals"]" -- rather, it is, in fact, what you yourself asserted about your own self!


[continued]

Ilíon said...

[continued]

So, given that -- according to what you yourself have asserted, and disregarding for the moment whether your claims were actually true -- the fundamental world-view and/or political philosophy of both major parties can represented as: "[Party 'X'] *do[es]* believe in, and *do[es]* agitate for, using the violent power of The State to forcibly confiscate the honestly-earned wealth of [someone] so as to give it to [someone else]", what, exactly, is your bitch with what I said about "Prokop and his fellow leftist partisans", which is to say, about you yourself?

===
Typical Democratic Politician to typical crowd of Democratic Voters (i.e. 'easy marks'): "Those evil and wicked Republicans are so wicked and evil that they propose to use the violent power of The State to forcibly confiscate the honestly-earned wealth of [our Democratic base] so as to give it to [their Republican partisans]! We caring and virtuous Democrats, in contrast, are so virtuous and caring that we propose to use the violent power of The State to forcibly confiscate the honestly-earned wealth of [their Republican base] so as to give it to [our Democratic partisans]! Vote Democratic! We're the "Good Guys"!"