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Re: Utterly Compelling Edition (Robert Wright & Jonah Goldberg)
First, I agree that Millman's taxonomy doesn't tell us everything we want to know. This is part feature and part bug. But mostly, I like it a whole lot because it cuts across our tired political lines that often lump and split in ways that are unhelpful to understanding what's going on, and Millman articulates deeper principles at play than we normally hear, all while providing examples by locating known thinkers across the spectrum. And personally, I think the liberal/conservative and left/right axes get a lot right.
OK, so, on the conservative/liberal axis:
I guess I see *that* conservatives often see the government as inimical to tradition, but I suppose I don't see it as inevitable. Meaning, conservatives may think government exists to support communities, races, religions, etc. Or they may believe that government is harmful to these groups. Whether the conservative is sanguine toward or suspicious of government seems contingent on, well, a whole lot of things. But anyway, I guess I mentioned before that I'm a liberal.
On the left/right axis:
My esteem for the individual causes me to be sympathetic to both left and right. Ultimately, I think a society that becomes too concerned with ameliorating failure, or more worrying, preventing failure all together, fails. On the success side, the only way for a society to succeed is to make success rewarding. This does not guarantee a thriving society, but it provides a necessary precondition. So I suppose if I were forced to choose, I would say I'm right-wing, but I'm squirming in my seat over it.
On the progressive/reactionary axis:
I kinda don't like this one, because I believe if we think too much about time as as a factor, we're likely to become intellectually lazy and miss the actual concepts at play. Time is nothing for me (I'm not making a metaphysical statement, but a practical one). I mean, I think we're doing very well relative to the history of humanity, but that could change. It all seems to depend where in history one is, whether things are getting better or worse. I think now is a great time to live, but I understand that many people are much worse off than they were recently in places all over the world. Still if forced to choose, I'm a progressive, and I have to admit that this axis is helpful in classifying some important thinkers.
Fleshing out more:
I happily call myself a liberal, but get a bit uncomfortable having to choose between left and right, and even feel a bit silly in choosing between progressive and reactionary.
I would get rid of the progressive/reaction axis, and then ask people to choose between certain historical views on important matters. And here's how I would choose:
On the nature of humanity:
Marx versus Maslow. Marx had a view about people and what they needed, and it doesn't strike me as liberal. Liberalism is often accused of being empty with regard to the nature of people, which I can understand. But I think Maslow's hierarchy of needs does the trick fine. It will leave a lot unanswered, but as a liberal I like that, while I appreciate that folks need to rise above certain levels before certain values are even relevant. Also I like how I could appropriate the left's insights about deprivation while eschewing some oversimplified talk of inequality. Bill Gates is so much richer than me I'm not sure I can comprehend it. But I have central heat and air, the internet, decent clothes, access to music and movies, and an old Toyota Corolla that gets me around just fine. So, I don't resent Bill Gates. I do think inequality can be a problem at certain levels, but I also think when the word inequality is being tossed around, something more must be at play, since I don't care about inequality, per se. And without qualifying which kind of inequality we're talking about, I can't get too excited, because some types are worse than others.
On the state of nature:
Hobbes versus Rousseau. I'm cool with individual people, though some make me feel bad because they're so much more moral than me, while others make me disgusted because they're so crude, brutal, unprincipled, or what have you. But I think most people are pretty decent, even if they're more sentimental (as opposed to rational) than they realize. BUT, I think the state of nature is something like one huge collective action problem. See I want to be pro-social, but I don't want to be the only one, because everyone would run roughshod over me. I need someone to come along and monopolize force (which admittedly is concerning, hence the need to think about legitimacy) and make everyone pay taxes, obey traffic laws, respect my property, etc. I side with Hobbes on this one.
On human possibility:
Nietzsche versus Burke. To be truthful, I'm way out on the riffing limb here with Nietzsche, not that that usually stops me (i.e. I don't know enough to say much about his view on this topic). But his bombastic polemics against certain forms of tradition, and his rhetoric about breaking free, make him an easy choice for contrasting with my preferred thinker, Edmund Burke. Things are the way they are for a reason, and a prima facie assumption that change should be done carefully is advised. I'm a liberal, so I don't think tradition is right, necessarily, but my Burkianism tempers my liberalism a tad, because I think tradition, just by virtue of being tradition, means that people have come to rely on it to the degree of ordering their lives around it. Our imposed ideals can often screw things up mightily in the short run, even if our ideals are right.
Fleshing out a bit more:
After considering these things, I think what emerges is an idealistic/particularist axis. It's hard to use the right words here without rhetorically biasing one or the other. I've tossed around long term/short term, squish/absolutist, idealist/pragmatist, and so on. But the basic idea is how you view your ideals and how varying do you believe actual conditions to be. I view conditions to be extremely diverse, and this can make me pause quite a bit.
While I'm a little uncomfortable calling myself a right-winger, I think it is an important part, so I'll say in the long run, I'm a right-wing liberal. I especially don't mind saying this when I can temper it by saying that I'm willing to be left-wing or conservative in the short run if conditions demand it. My dreams are liberal, and the brand is one that rewards and values excellence and success (Millman does point out that there are all kinds of excellence). Even here, my liberal dreams will want to make sure some are raised up on Maslow's scale enough to give these individuals the chance to experience excellence and success themselves, which is what a lover of individuals wants for them, and for us, since maximizing excellence makes all our lives better. I guess that makes me a right-wing liberal tempered by particularism.
I'm not sure how Bob Wright would describe himself on these axes, but I hope I've motivated how someone could coherently believe that the London riots have as a part of their cause some form of deprivation that is a result of government policy and/or economic conditions. This doesn't mean there's not a lot of accountability to go around, but I suppose I should summarize it by saying that I can't see how the right tells us everything we want to know about the riots, or even conservatism alone.
To try to take the conversation out of the clouds, while I think raising the costs of rioting is necessary, it's also helpful to give people choices so that rioting doesn't seem like a good idea in the first place. And hunting people down, kicking them out of housing, and stripping them of their benefits seems to create more future rioters, in my view. On the law and order scale all that's needed, next time around, is for the public to see more rioters getting their asses kicked (plastic bullets, water cannons) rather than the rioters doing the ass-kicking (which is what happened this time). The public's indignation is righteous, and it needs an outlet. And riotous behavior should carry more risk than it currently does.
Pablo Escobar used to say something like "the bribe or the bullet." This is very powerful reasoning. While I obviously don't believe the government should be killing rioters, the basic logic is that we raise the cost of rioting while making more pro-social behavior more attractive (obviously Escobar wasn't concerned about pro-social behavior, but I think you get the point about the power of the reasoning; it can't be all carrots or sticks, it has to be both). How exactly to do all that is tricky, but I think leftism and conservatism both have something to offer, (and even to an extent, the right-wing) while this is a testing time for liberalism (which, incidentally, I remain committed to).
And, I think the rioters are deprived in some way or another, but I think they're morally accountable, because all kinds of people are deprived in one way or another. It should take extreme insanity or deprivation to the point of starvation (or something like it - nakedness, homelessness, etc) to excuse extremely anti-social behavior. While the rioters are neither clinically insane nor starving, I think it's a little quick to say they're merely thugs created ex nihilo; even conservative's critique of the welfare state says the behavior has social causes, they just disagree or put a finer point on what exactly those causes are, compared to the left.
Last edited by Jay J; 08-16-2011 at 09:16 PM..
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