The Totalitarian Temptation and all that

by John Holbo on March 27, 2009

Brad DeLong links to Matthew Yglesias linking to Damon Linker linking to my old Dead Right post. How gratifying! I was thinking of writing it all out again, in response to Charles Murray’s rather odd AEI dinner talk. But they’ve saved me the trouble. (I would like to say, however, that I prefer the term ‘Dark Satanic Millian Liberalism’ for what Linker calls ‘Donner Party Conservatism’.)

Let me make a few somewhat fresh points about stuff in the general vicinity of the Murray speech (which was well received by conservatives. Goldberg loved it, and Douthat thought it was pretty good.)

As you’ve probably noticed, conservatives tend to argue against liberalism/progressivism by asserting (plausibly) that Robespierre, or Stalin, or Hitler did bad things; then asserting (considerably less plausibly) that liberalism/progressivism somehow equals, or naturally tends to slide into, bad authoritarianism of a distinctively modern sort. Ever since Burke wrote his book about the French Revolution, some such slippery slope argument is the Ur-argument of conservatism as political philosophy.

Suppose we sketch out that thing that it is feared liberalism/progressivism will slipperily slide into. See if you don’t agree that the one thing every conservative swears up and down that he hates in all its many works and deeds, is anything resembling the following:

Intellectuals cook up some abstract, scientistic, rationalistic System. Blinded by the light of Enlightenment hubris, they conclude that a very great transformation of society can be happily effected in relatively short order. A political revolution shall ascend atop some alleged social science breakthrough which, we are assured, is a sold extension of more fundamental advances in the natural sciences. Mostly, the engine of change is the force of changed minds themselves. First, some activist elite manages to get their heads on straight. Then the people will eventually be dragged (if necessary) into the light. It’s Politics of Meaning as the Rule of Reason. The job of government is to understand what the right values are, and make sure those values permeate the lives of the (potentially false-consciousness afflicted) masses. For their own good.

The elite summon the New Man onto the stage of history, by cramming ‘enlightened’ values down the throat of the Old Man. Which never works. And that’s if he’s lucky. (If he is unlucky, his head has been cut off.)

Now: quite apart from his tendency to prescribe misery, what is notable about Murray is the degree to which he fits the science-turned-social-engineering-hubris bill. He claims that some people know what the true values are in life – the transcendent ones. What this enlightened elite should do is use the government (i.e. by forcibly shrinking it) to induce those who are deluded by false values to accept the true ones. Also, the scientific basis for this sort of thing is established in works like Consilience, by E.O. Wilson. (An ambitiously systematic, totalizing, rationalistic philosophy that asserts, among other things, that the apparent plurality and complexity of social phenomena must ultimately give way to highly reductionistic understanding of such phenomena in terms of simple natural laws. Even rationalistic analytic philosophers are leery of this stuff as way too rationalistic to be workable.) Murray predicts that the New Man (as we may as well call him) will emerge within the next decade or so, sweeping into the dustbin of history all those fools (they said I was mad! MAD!) who resisted this totalizing, systematic, rationalistic, Enlightenment-inspired understanding of things. Mankind is about to take leave of immature childhood – ‘adolescence’ as Murray says – and enter into rational, scientifically-informed adulthood. Plus Darwin is great, too.

Now, to be fair, both Goldberg and Douthat express polite demurrals at the ambitiousness of the 10-year plan. But even so: it’s notable that conservatives apparently find this sort of thing quite attractive.

Conservatives will object that advocacy of limited government can’t be any sort of totalitarian temptation. Small is the opposite of big. But this misses the point. At the philosophical level, the concern is not big or small. Coercion is as coercion does. The philosophical concern is about willingness to force others to accept your values for their own good. Bringing about small government, on the grounds that this will eventually induce others to accept your superior value system, is just as ‘coercive’, in the relevant sense, as bringing about big government to do that. (Forcing people not to have something they think they want is no less coercive than forcing them to have something they don’t think they want.)

I can think of a couple other bad arguments against what I’m saying here. But that’s what the comment box is for.

What’s the significance of all this? Well, apart from the fact that it’s silly that some conservatives can spy the totalitarian temptation under every liberal bed, but can’t recognize it when it gives a speech after dinner – but that’s why they pay Goldberg the big bucks. No, seriously. The significance might be this: the Ur-conservative argument, the slippery slope argument that somehow liberalism/progressivism tends to threaten freedom, hinges on the observation that liberals think they know what is really good for people, and generally think they have some arguments about all this that make a considerable amount of sense. Thus, liberals are naturally going to be tempted to sacrifice classical liberal values of liberty – freedom from coercion – for a ‘politically correct’ imposition of this or that alleged value. But obviously conservatives think they know what’s really good for people, and think they have arguments that make a certain amount of sense. (I think Murray is a nut. But I don’t fault him for having, and expressing, opinions and arguments about what is valuable in life.) This is why it isn’t really all that surprising or damning that Goldberg and Douthat would kinda like Murray’s speech – for its overall attitudinal tendencies. But this just goes to show, by analogy, how weak the conservative slippery slope argument must be.

It’s plausible that modern life has introduced us to distinctively nasty forms of authoritarianism. At the ideological level, a toxic combination of The Politics of Meaning (if you must call it that) and the Rule of Reason. (Of course, at best this gives us the left flank, from Robespierre to Stalin; not the right flank. But let that major point pass.) But it’s absurd to treat all minor manifestations of this combination, in modern life, as canaries in the coalmine of liberty. Because what’s distinctively bad is not the combination, per se, but precisely the extreme cases of it. In a low key way, the combination of the politics of meaning and the rule of reason is just any old case of thinking you know what really ought to be done, politically, combined with a strong suspicion that those who don’t see it that way are confused.

I ask you: if even Charles Murray doesn’t constitute much of a totalitarian temptation, what hope do the mere Clintons and Obamas of the world have of being secret enemies of freedom?

{ 134 comments }

1

LizardBreath 03.27.09 at 3:49 pm

The slippery slope argument that somehow liberalism/progressivism tends to threaten freedom, hinges on the observation that liberals think they know what is really good for people, and generally think they have some arguments about all this that make a considerable amount of sense…. But obviously conservatives think they know what’s really good for people, and think they have arguments that make a certain amount of sense

This is very, very nice — it’s stuff I’ve thought about in an inchoate, disorganized way, but hadn’t gotten clear.

2

Colin Danby 03.27.09 at 3:59 pm

1. An obvious point is that many of these folks were recently comfortable with headlong tumbles down the slippery slopes of torture, unchecked surveillance, and detention without trial.

2. I’ve always been surprised by E.O. Wilson’s reputation as a conservative, or at least conservative fellow-traveler: he seems as close to the French Enlightenment as you can get these days, and with even less irony.

3. Murray constructs an argument that even a successful, efficient social democracy is a dreadful failure: it’s not the argument that you can’t do it or even that you can’t do it well, it’s that doing it efficiently and well would crush initiative and enterprise. This line of thinking has a long history, and it’s useful to separate it from arguments that grant the ethical properties of effective social democracy but dispute its attainability on grounds of information, efficiency, slippery slopes. A large part of the difference is, as you suggest, epistemological confidence.

3

Slocum 03.27.09 at 4:02 pm

What this enlightened elite should do is use the government (i.e. by forcibly shrinking it) to induce those who are deluded by false values to accept the true ones.

Hmmm — I just skimmed the transcript, but I can’t quite find that proposal. Seems more like Murray is claiming that a scientific results (from pych and particularly evolutionary psych) will generate a public consensus, which will undermine the appeal of leftism among the voters, which will lead a different (and smaller) form of government. Where does he suggest that rational elites should force a new form of government on an unwilling populace (who will only later be transformed into ‘new’ men and women)? And how, in a democratic society, would such forcing take place anyway — is that also somewhere in the details that I missed?

Actually, on a second read, it sounds like far from suggesting that a different set of elites should force a counter-revolution on an unwilling populace, he’s suggesting that elites should reconnect with the mass of people in the center:

Why do I focus on the elites in urging a Great Awakening? Because my sense is that the instincts of middle America remain distinctively American. When I visit the small Iowa town where I grew up in the 1950s, I don’t get a sense that community life has changed all that much since then, and I wonder if it has changed all that much in the working class neighborhoods of Brooklyn or Queens. When I examine the polling data about the values that most Americans prize, not a lot has changed. And while I worry about uncontrolled illegal immigration, I’ve got to say that every immigrant I actually encounter seems as American as apple pie.

The center still holds. It’s the bottom and top of American society where we have a problem. And since it’s the top that has such decisive influence on American culture, economy, and governance, I focus on it.

Small is the opposite of big. But this misses the point. At the philosophical level, the concern is not big or small. Coercion is as coercion does.

But a small government is inherently much less able to coerce than a large one. It has, for example, neither the coercive drug laws nor the SWAT teams to go out and kick doors to enforce them.

I have no particular use for Murray or ‘values conservatives’ generally. But I don’t think this attempt at rhetorical jujitsu works.

4

JoB 03.27.09 at 4:06 pm

John H,

(what’s with all those John’s over here?)

as canaries in the coalmine of liberty, wow! – I would have hoped I came to that one

It’s a very good post, an excellent post; it works without knowing Murray, Goldberg because it’s an argument that is being reproduced by Burkians all over the world, to coerce us into believing we should be happy to have it their way because in some sense it is THE natural way.

This being said, I do think that ‘thinking you know what is good for people’ IS in fact a canary in your sense (but you’re right: the canary is not a sign of ‘the left’ as ‘the right’ is guilty of same – & in a more systematic way on top of that). Maybe I will die with that one Popperian idea standing firm: it is intrinsically bad to think you know what is intrinsically good — nothing good can come from it. The reasons I support mostly ideas on the left is because they tend to be in line with real equality of opportunity without committing anyone personally to what he/she should do with it (where ideas on the right mostly seem to be content to explain the inequality of opportunity by recourse to some or other irrational idea à la mode, which is commensurate with those in power being mostly in favour of ‘right’ ideas which allow them to justify their inequality and eat it too).

5

lemuel pitkin 03.27.09 at 4:12 pm

Elegant and insightful, as usual. But a genuine question:

Has Holbo *ever* written something on politics that made a positive case for the left/progressive side of anything, as opposed to pointing out the hypocrisy and bad faith of the conservative side?

6

John Holbo 03.27.09 at 4:16 pm

“But a small government is inherently much less able to coerce than a large one. It has, for example, neither the coercive drug laws nor the SWAT teams to go out and kick doors to enforce them.”

Yes, it is fair to point out that a small government can only get SO bad. It can’t ever build concentration camps and such. (Although it could, potentially force people to live in life-threatening hardship, potentially.) But the slippery slope argument has never depended so much on the claim that actually Barack Obama will build concentration camps (occasional Glenn Beck allegations notwithstanding); rather liberals want to force others to accept a kind of government that will bring with it certain values. My point is simply that FORCING people to accept small government is no less coercive, if the whole point of bringing it about it so induce desirable values. (Small government may be better in other ways, of course. But then you must argue on other grounds.)

As to reconnecting with the masses – this is just Rousseau all over again: really we aren’t building the New Man. We are just getting in contact with the Natural Man who has always been there, under the surface. Born free. Everywhere in chains. Murray is just advocating breaking the chains. I don’t buy that there is much fundamental difference between those who want to make a New Man and those who want to recover Natural Man. In both cases, the idea is that we are discovering our true selves, underneath the false exterior that bad society has built for us.

7

John Holbo 03.27.09 at 4:18 pm

“Has Holbo ever written something on politics that made a positive case for the left/progressive side of anything, as opposed to pointing out the hypocrisy and bad faith of the conservative side?”

Well, I did argue that Gerry Cohen scored some strong points against Rawls, in our recent, ongoing book event. But point taken. I’m a bit repetitive, aren’t I?

8

Uncle Kvetch 03.27.09 at 4:19 pm

The delicious irony, of course, is that all this talk of revolution and social engineering is being prompted by the thoroughly laughable premise that Barack Obama is, in any way shape or form, “progressive” (let alone “radical”). They tried to do the same with Clinton, of course, which was just as ridiculous, until they finally gave up and decided to focus their opposition on his nether regions instead.

All of which just provides further support for my current pet theory [ahem]: 2009, in the United States at least, is simply a reprise of 1993 with a shittier economy. Which means we can look forward to a 2010 dominated by Angry White Males and the return of Newt Gingrich. Can’t wait!

9

Uncle Kvetch 03.27.09 at 4:23 pm

But the slippery slope argument has never depended so much on the claim that actually Barack Obama will build concentration camps (occasional Glenn Beck allegations notwithstanding); rather liberals want to force others to accept a kind of government that will bring with it certain values.

This requires that you accept that very particular notion of “coercion” that’s current on the American right, i.e., the one where allowing same-sex couples to marry is a dreadful imposition on every heterosexual married couple in the country.

10

salacious 03.27.09 at 4:28 pm

“Conservatives will object that advocacy of limited government can’t be any sort of totalitarian temptation. Small is the opposite of big. But this misses the point. At the philosophical level, the concern is not big or small. Coercion is as coercion does. The philosophical concern is about willingness to force others to accept your values for their own good. Bringing about small government, on the grounds that this will eventually induce others to accept your superior value system, is just as ‘coercive’, in the relevant sense, as bringing about big government to do that.”

Although I like your general point, this argument is a bit too cute. Specifically, your use of “At the philosophical level” is letting you elide distinctions that need to be made. You’re right that conservatives have a preferred vision of the world and, given the chance, will implement policies which drive people to adopt this vision. But to call all such policies equally “coercive” empties the word of meaning.

Consider two different policies: The first is changing the tax code so an individual’s tax burden is more obvious and therefore presumably more painful to pay. The second is mandating that every school in america spend an hour each day teaching kids that taxes are unamerican, complete with video’s produced by the RNC.

Both of these policies would create anti-tax sentiment, driving people toward the republicans. But they are not both equally coercive. It matters which method you use to spread your worldview–some methods are more coercive than others.

In other words, your slide from “force” to “induce” in the quoted paragraph is unjustified.

11

engels 03.27.09 at 4:29 pm

In USian English:

‘Conservative’ = apocalyptic activist cadre bent on fomenting permanent revolution on behalf of the rich; social engineer dedicated to constructing the free market utopia
‘Liberal’ = pragmatic, cautious people like Paul Krugman fighting a rearguard action against the final destruction of the post-war welfare consensus, defender of government intervention in the economy

Once you realise that the words are being used in a completely nonsensical way all is clear.

12

salacious 03.27.09 at 4:31 pm

Also, isn’t Murray’s speech a textbook example of Donner Party Conservativism? John, I think we need a Crooked Timber frontpage repost of that classic.

13

Uncle Kvetch 03.27.09 at 4:36 pm

Once you realise that the words are being used in a completely nonsensical way all is clear.

Engels makes my point better than I could. Thanks, dude. 8^)

14

Doug 03.27.09 at 4:39 pm

But John, it’s not fascism when we do it!

More seriously, the extreme cases from the right have given the world the Politics of Meaning combined with the Rule of Unreason. Ghastly results, even when the regime itself was barely competent, as in, say, Salazar’s Portugal.

15

Jim Harrison 03.27.09 at 4:41 pm

Conservatism in power means larger, not smaller government, not only because the extreme inequality it favors must be defended by coercive force but because the economy requires huge amounts of government spending to stay afloat in the face the perpetual demand deficit created by that same inequality. What you end up with is less like a virtuous Republic and more like an Eastern Roman Empire, a militarized state dominated by functionaries, not entrepreneurs.

16

geo 03.27.09 at 4:57 pm

From JH’s version of the conservative caricature of “Enlightenment hubris”: a very great transformation of society can be happily effected in relatively short order

The essential dishonesty of the anti-utopian argument is the pretense that all utopians insist on that “relatively short order.” Since of course no great change is possible in short order, conservatives deny that great change is possible at all — things must remain as they are, or change very slightly and slowly.

Utopians understand perfectly well that change can only happen gradually. But radical change is possible, given sustained energy and commitment. So let’s start.

Shakespeare has shown the way: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the conservatives.” (2 Henry VI, IV.ii).

17

Righteous Bubba 03.27.09 at 5:10 pm

I thought the odd thing about the speech was the description of The Hell That Is Europe:

Drive through rural Sweden, as I did a few years ago. In every town was a beautiful Lutheran church, freshly painted, on meticulously tended grounds, all subsidized by the Swedish government. And the churches are empty. Including on Sundays. Scandinavia and Western Europe pride themselves on their “child-friendly” policies, providing generous child allowances, free day-care centers, and long maternity leaves. Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates. Those same countries are ones in which jobs are most carefully protected by government regulation and mandated benefits are most lavish. And they, with only a few exceptions, are countries where work is most often seen as a necessary evil, least often seen as a vocation, and where the proportions of people who say they love their jobs are the lowest.

What’s happening? Call it the Europe syndrome. Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase “a life well-lived” did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. Let me emphasize “spreading.” I’m not talking about all Europeans, by any means. That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.

18

The Raven 03.27.09 at 5:18 pm

(In the hope that my original remarks were eaten by my flaky local wireless connection)

The reason we hear so much of “small government” (which had never been a conservative cry in the USA before about 1930), is that very large businesses really would prefer to do the governing themselves. That’s what “small government” really means in this time and place–free reign for the corporate aristocracy. ’twas ever thus; in the old days “conservatives” were against restrictions on the expanding power of kings, then of the nobility. Never you mind that these things were new to begin with, and that “conserving” would mean reducing the power of both the rulers and their opponents.

So long as there are large, faceless organizations shaping my life, by Odin I want a vote! Krawk!

19

rvman 03.27.09 at 5:24 pm

>(Forcing people not to have something they think they want is no less coercive than
>forcing them to have something they don’t think they want.)

But that is a LIBERAL analysis and frame, not a conservative one. A conservative views the same event as “Preventing people from taking some thing they think they want from those to whom it rightfully belongs is much less coercive than forcing some change on people who don’t want it or agree to it”. The Libertarian version is, “Forcing a person or entity not to take a thing from the rightful owner isn’t coercive. Taking something from its rightful owner or forcing something on someone who doesn’t want it is, no matter the motive or agent.”

aside – The distinction between the last two is singular versus plural – the base ‘agent’ of society for the libertarian is the individual, the base ‘agent’ for the conservative is some unit of social order, whether it is the ‘community’, the ‘country’, ‘the moral majority’, or what-haveyou. So a court ruling overturning (say) a ban on sodomy is welcomed by the libertarian (who sees it as lifting a restraint on an individual who isn’t otherwise interfering with anyone else’s rights) while opposed by the conservative (who sees it as forcing acceptance of something the community has deemed wrong). I’d bet a libertarian-conservative hybrid like Murray would be have mixed feelings on the issue. Certainly the National Review editorial staff did and does.

20

Kathleen 03.27.09 at 5:36 pm

Wow, that description *IS* chilling. What’s next in Europe’s descent into the inferno? The Comfy Chair?

21

Barry 03.27.09 at 5:45 pm

Slocum: “But a small government is inherently much less able to coerce than a large one. It has, for example, neither the coercive drug laws nor the SWAT teams to go out and kick doors to enforce them.”

Not necessarily; if one could beef up the police, surveillance state and prison systems in this country by a fair amount, and not have greater total government, so long as one also cut the Evul Librul parts of government at least that much. And in a hard-core right-wing state, the repressive mechanisms could be very, very efficient (trial? what’s that?).

And adding onto Jim Harrison’s point, the right doesn’t like small government. They just disagree on what to do, and whom to tax.

22

Righteous Bubba 03.27.09 at 5:47 pm

But a small government is inherently much less able to coerce than a large one.

Bye-bye to them there “property rights”.

23

Barry 03.27.09 at 5:50 pm

Change “Not necessarily; if one could beef …” to “Not necessarily; one could beef …”

24

Barry 03.27.09 at 5:51 pm

Oh, and add that a government could also delegate/permit/help corporate and other nonstate actors (e.g. in the USA – the KKK) to be oppressive.

25

Mitchell Rowe 03.27.09 at 5:55 pm

Uncle Kvetch
“This requires that you accept that very particular notion of “coercion” that’s current on the American right, i.e., the one where allowing same-sex couples to marry is a dreadful imposition on every heterosexual married couple in the country.”

This particular facet of conservatism drives me out of my mind. They claim to be against “Big Government” and for “Individual Freedom” when in reality they are just against government that they don’t like and are only for freedom if it falls within specific limits that they get to dictate. Bunch of hypocrites

26

roy belmont 03.27.09 at 6:13 pm

slocum#3: “But a small government is inherently much less able to coerce than a large one. “
This is coercion as force solely, but what about coercion by seduction? Coercion is making people do what you want them to. Much safer and less energy expending to get them to think it’s what they want and they’re doing it on their own. Resentment when things go subsequently wrong, which can lead to rebellion and revolution, gets interiorized.
Prosthetic integration with media now means a numerically small agency can reach the population intimately, and if they have sophisticated enough tools, and those tools exist, manipulate a sizable majority relatively quickly and easily. You won’t need jackbooted thugs if everybody’s hypnotized.
RB#17: Murray’s “Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates. “ seems to assume that present population level should be maintained, that Sweden’s got social failure because they aren’t breeding to stasis, but that’s not universally accepted, by a long shot.
In Britain there’s now overt discussion of reducing the population to 30 million or less. Given current British population is 61 million, the question of coercion of some kind lurks behind that discussion, if not looms.

27

james 03.27.09 at 6:20 pm

Uncle Kvetch – “This requires that you accept that very particular notion of “coercion” that’s current on the American right, i.e., the one where allowing same-sex couples to marry is a dreadful imposition on every heterosexual married couple in the country.”

I address your comment to point out a difference in understanding not to argue for / or against the specific issue you raise.

To many conservatives the issue is a conflict between freedom of religion versus a personal freedom. The conservatives are being asked to give up some of their religious freedoms (definition of marriage, definition of a specific right/wrong, teach their children the right/wrong of sexual behavior) to grant some other group a right.

28

engels 03.27.09 at 6:26 pm

I think labour camps could definitely be operated in a minimal state under Robert Nozick’s celebrated ‘framework for utopia’ idea.They would have to be privately run and could only contain people who had voluntarily gone into them. (The government’s only responsibility would be to shoot people who tried to escape once they had signed on the dotted line.) And it wouldn’t be very hard to get people to sign up if you made sure they were poor enough and sufficiently lacking in education. Surely there is a research project there for a bright political philosopher who is prepared to think outside of the box?

29

Mitchell Rowe 03.27.09 at 6:28 pm

james:
“To many conservatives the issue is a conflict between freedom of religion versus a personal freedom. The conservatives are being asked to give up some of their religious freedoms (definition of marriage, definition of a specific right/wrong, teach their children the right/wrong of sexual behavior) to grant some other group a right.”

Oh please! What freedom exactly are they being asked to give up? Are homosexuals coming to conservatives homes and forcing them to marry other men? Religious freedom is not the freedom to impose your values on someone else.

30

james 03.27.09 at 6:37 pm

Mitchell Rowe – Again, the purpose of my post was not to argue for / or against the issue at hand. It was to point out that the logic behind the conservative concerns were not hypocritical if viewed as a conflict between two separate sets of rights.

Keeping with the original topic. Government can only be coercive in the area of marriage if it regulates it. Thus, a small government would be less intrusive.

31

Sam C 03.27.09 at 6:42 pm

James at 27 said:

To many conservatives the issue [gay marriage] is a conflict between freedom of religion versus a personal freedom. The conservatives are being asked to give up some of their religious freedoms (definition of marriage, definition of a specific right/wrong, teach their children the right/wrong of sexual behavior) to grant some other group a right.

That’s an odd definition of ‘freedom of religion’, which normally means not being prevented from practicing your religion – i.e. worshipping in whatever way you prefer – in private. The ‘freedoms’ you list – defining relationships and rights, teaching children – sound like social and political powers, not freedoms.

32

Mitchell Rowe 03.27.09 at 6:42 pm

james: I am just still confused over what rights they think they are being forced to give up?
(Note: I understand that this is not a postion to which you ascribe, however you did bring it up and it seems logically inconsistent to me.)

33

engels 03.27.09 at 6:51 pm

And it wouldn’t be very hard to get people to sign up if you made sure they were poor enough and sufficiently lacking in education.

To expand on this: the most promising device would be to put in place an economic system under which widespread unemployment is a structural inevitability. Then having done this, you could preach a morality which you know full well it is impossible, from the nature of the economic system, for large numbers of people to live up to. Like, for example, an ethic of self-reliance whereby everybody is required to be ‘self-supporting’. Then those millions of people who failed to live up to your ‘ethic’, and had failed to be ‘self-supporting’, who may or may not be distinguishable on racial grounds, might then be treated as monstrously as you wished, cut off from the mainstream of society, forced to sign up to ludicrous and demeaning state programmes, herded into camps or prisons, whatever. A labour camp system operated through public-private partnership, you might say.

34

Stuart 03.27.09 at 7:00 pm

(Note: I understand that this is not a postion to which you ascribe, however you did bring it up and it seems logically inconsistent to me.)

The position is logically inconsistent, but it is being ascribed to a certain type of conservative. Therefore there is no logical inconsistancy.

35

Slocum 03.27.09 at 7:04 pm

John Holbo: My point is simply that FORCING people to accept small government is no less coercive, if the whole point of bringing it about it so induce desirable values.

But where does Murray propose FORCING people to accept small government? Which paragraphs? How would that even work?

Barry: And adding onto Jim Harrison’s point, the right doesn’t like small government. They just disagree on what to do, and whom to tax.

Agreed. Which is why I’m not a conservative.

roy belmont: This is coercion as force solely, but what about coercion by seduction? Coercion is making people do what you want them to.

Seduction is not coercion — it’s persuasion. Political coercion is a bad thing. Political persuasion is the way things are supposed to work. One of the big problems with lefties is that they so frequently confuse the two (which seems to be why they’re sometimes suspicious of this whole ‘free speech’ concept — because, you know, the helpless masses can be so easily confused, tricked, and seduced. Really the poor things are so easily manipulated that there’s not much difference between getting them to do what you want with a slick marketing campaign than by pointing guns at them).

36

Cryptic ned 03.27.09 at 7:20 pm

“Conservative” means “right-wing” in the US. The words are one hundred percent synonymous. I guess there are places where this isn’t the place.

“Extreme right-wing” = “Extreme conservative”. However, “extreme left-wing” does not mean “extreme liberal”, it means people who scorn “liberals” as the middle-of-the-roadites that they are.

37

James Wimberley 03.27.09 at 7:54 pm

JH in aqua #6: “Yes, it is fair to point out that a small government can only get SO bad.”
It got pretty bad in Ireland in the 1840s. Remember, the British Governments of the time weren’t some well-intentioned but slovenly Bourbon ancien régime that could barely organise its way out a paper bag but an intelligent and efficient group of ultraliberal ideologues. Look how they handled the 1844 banking crisis.

38

Keith 03.27.09 at 7:54 pm

Yes, it is fair to point out that a small government can only get SO bad. It can’t ever build concentration camps and such. (Although it could, potentially force people to live in life-threatening hardship, potentially.)

I would say that not only could small government force people to live in life-threatening hardship, but that creating such conditions is its purpose. Without some Malthusian moralism to keep expectations low, there’s no reason to accept small government and everything it refuses to do to help people. If no one expects FEMA trailers and the National Guard to show up, then there won’t be a need to build the concentration camps.

Unless we assume that it’s merely a coincidence that the proponents of small government (by enlightened despotism) all fancy themselves to be the enlightened despot rather than the faceless mass of useful labor/feckless and indolent peasantry. But somehow I don’t think Douthat and Goldburg fancy themselves as the ones who will be living free and dieing hard in medieval squalor.

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politicalfootball 03.27.09 at 7:55 pm

What’s next in Europe’s descent into the inferno? The Comfy Chair?

Liberal fascism! I think it was John Emerson who, echoing Orwell, invoked the prospect of a cookie being thrust into a child’s face – forever!

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bianca steele 03.27.09 at 7:57 pm

John H.,
Your two paragraphs, beginning “Intellectuals cook” and ending “cut off,” sound to me like a strawman.

Have you read The Anatomy of Antiliberalism? Stephen Holmes contends that liberals need to have their own concept of liberalism, that they should not allow themselves to be backed into using the concept mashed together by liberalism’s enemies. He finds that there are anti-individualist and hyper-individualist forms of antiliberalism, and “hard” and “soft” versions of each.

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roy belmont 03.27.09 at 9:25 pm

Slocum“. Really the poor things are so easily manipulated that there’s not much difference between getting them to do what you want with a slick marketing campaign than by pointing guns at them”

A new Newsweek poll out this weekend exposed “gaps” in America’s knowledge of history and current events. Perhaps most alarmingly, 41% of Americans answered ‘Yes’ to the question “Do you think Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was directly involved in planning, financing, or carrying out the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001?”
http://tiny.cc/oDvCN
Poor things indeed.

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bjk 03.27.09 at 9:59 pm

John’s “I’m glue and you’re glue too” is the sort of argument I would expect from him. The issue is the growth of the state . . . the bigger the state, the more power it has, the less power any individual has. Charles Murray would like to send everyone with a sub 105 IQ to shop class until age 17, lock them out of the library, and then bar them from ever setting foot on a college campus. But he can’t do that because he’s just some guy. But if the every school were a state school, and Charles Murray were the Secretary of Education, he really would be in a position to have his way. That’s why small government is conducive to freedom. This is not hard to understand.

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james 03.27.09 at 10:02 pm

Sam C at 31. “That’s an odd definition of ‘freedom of religion’, which normally means not being prevented from practicing your religion – i.e. worshipping in whatever way you prefer – in private. ”

The definition of ‘Freedom of Religion’ includes public.

Sam C at 31 / Mitchell Rowe at 32:

The Religious Conservative thought process is as follows:

- Conservatives believe that laws, at some point, are the use of State power to enforce a morality. Liberals tend to define this as the use of State power to coerce a behavior. (Legislation of behavior = Legislation of morality ).
– Religious Conservatives believe that marriage is a religious institution that was co-opted by the State. The definition at the time of co-opt was one which matches the Conservatives religious beliefs. (Marriage is a religious tenet that did not include same sex marriage)
– A group other than the for mentioned Religious Conservatives wishes to expand /change the definition of marriage to include same sex partners. (Expand = Change).
– Therefore: Some other group is attempting to use State power to enforce their morality and/or religious beliefs on the Religious Conservatives. (Right to have a sex act recognized by State vs. Right exlcude State from defining/enforcing a religious belief).

In Liberal speak it works like this:

- State power is intended to coerce a proper behavior.
– A fundamental behavior of a civilization is to facilitate the non-violent interaction of different cultures.
– Enough Muslims (ie small minority, few, etc) act with violence when the religious tenet of insulting the prophet Muhammad is broken that this is a threat to the non-violent interaction of different cultures.
– Therefore: Respect of Religions should be made law. (Establishment of a religious tenet vs. Freedom of Speech).

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james 03.27.09 at 10:09 pm

The cross outs are unintentional.

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salient 03.27.09 at 10:22 pm

But if the every school were a state school, and Charles Murray were the Secretary Dictator of Education, he really would be in a position to have his way.

The Secretary of Education does not unilaterally dictate all policy related to education. More specifically, the Secretary of Education would not have the authority to insist on anything approaching what you suggest (and yes, I am recognizing your sarcastic hyperbole and mentally translating it into reasonable concern before I say this).

On the other hand, until fairly recently, most prestigious private universities — without government interference! — very successfully kept all black persons out of their collective student body. This was regardless of I.Q. or other qualifications.

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PGD 03.27.09 at 10:23 pm

Yes, it is fair to point out that a small government can only get SO bad. It can’t ever build concentration camps and such.

no, it’s not fair. The issue is that there is no such thing as a small government. Small government conflicts with human nature at a pretty basic level. All we can ever have is a large government that refrains from taking particular actions. Then the question is what actions exactly, and how to get government to refrain from doing them. Any libertarian who will engage at this level is playing fair.

Another way to put it: if you define government as the source of *legitimate* coercion according to some abstract theory of legitimation, then it can be as small as your made-up sphere of “legitimation” is. But if you define government as the actual power of the collectivities relative to the individual, it cannot be small. It can only be restrained. And it can only be restrained through collective means, through collective governance. There is no such thing as small government.

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Thomas 03.27.09 at 10:25 pm

Yes, John has found Murray out: he’s a liberal. (As we all are, aren’t we?) Why is this surprising?

One problem for John is that what he calls the Ur-argument for conservativism is instead just an instance of the more general conservative use of the slippery slope argument in defense of the status quo. Standing athwart history and shouting stop, and all that, which is quite a bit different from standing against liberal/progressive politics and shouting never again.

For example, Murray has recently proposed replacing Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and other social welfare programs with a cash grant to each individual over the age of 21. The conditions of receipt would include the purchase of health insurance, and retirement savings would be encouraged. The grant value would be reduced above relatively moderate income thresholds. It’s an interesting idea, the purposes of which are largely consistent with the thoughts Murray shared in this speech. But the appropriate conservative response (again, on the terms above) would, it seems to me, be skepticism about the wisdom of such a large re-ordering of our affairs. It may be that, after full consideration, the step is worth taking. And of course a conservative might find small steps in that direction to be particularly appealing. But regardless, the initial response to such a radical proposal would/should be skepticism.

The question in this case isn’t, why didn’t we see that kind of reaction from Golberg and Douthat and others. It’s, why did John expect to see it? And I can’t help but think it’s because John has badly misunderstood and mischaracterized Murray’s speech.

John says that Murray made the following argument: “What this enlightened elite should do is use the government (i.e. by forcibly shrinking it) to induce those who are deluded by false values to accept the true ones.”

Murray doesn’t argue for anything like this at all. Instead he says that the American elite are busy (following John) ‘summoning the New Man onto the stage of American history’, and he wishes and hopes they’ll stop. Not because what they’re doing will lead to or tends to bad authoritarianism (as opposed to the other kind?)–Europe, Murray says, is “not groaning under the yoke of an evil system”–but because it would be better for Americans if they stopped trying to make the US like Europe. Why should Goldberg or Douthat or any other Burkean object to that?

I think John’s wrong on some other things as well. Murray says that science will lead people to change their minds. Getting coercion out of the ability of research to change minds is more than a little stretch of the term. But I’ve gone on too long as it is.

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Sam C 03.27.09 at 11:50 pm

bjk at 42 said: “That’s why small government is conducive to freedom. This is not hard to understand.”

It’s easy to understand, and also complete rubbish, since governments are very obviously not the only institutions which can limit freedom, and are sometimes needed to control far worse threats to freedom.

James at 43 said “The definition of ‘Freedom of Religion’ includes public.”

No, it doesn’t, in the sense that the public/private distinction is usually used. I wasn’t claiming that freedom of religion was only freedom to worship hidden in your basement. I was stating that the right to freedom of religion (in the US and the UK) is not a right to direct public power to enforce your religious beliefs. So, anyone who thinks that state endorsement of gay marriage damages religious freedom doesn’t understand what religious freedom is. Talk of religious freedom here may just be muddled, but I think it’s more likely a smokescreen: what’s at stake is power. Shall religious conservatives have power to impose their moral beliefs, or not? I’d prefer not.

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John Holbo 03.28.09 at 1:57 am

I see now that my post was a tetch too indirect to be clear. I obviously conclude by saying that Murray isn’t really a threat to the Republic. He just thinks he knows what’s really important, and that some other people are confused. And that his superior scientific wisdom should push for itself and, ideally, prevail in the public sphere. He hopes the scales will fall from everyone else’s eyes and they will lead more fulfilled lives. But this just goes to show how empty conservative rhetoric is when slippery slope arguments are employed on the other side. Because Murray is doing exactly the thing that alarms the likes of Goldberg when anyone does it on the left. And is Goldberg alarmed by it here? No. Should he be alarmed by it? No. (I think it’s nuts, but that’s a separate question. I don’t think anyone should be alarmed by Charles Murray on the grounds that he is an aspirant Robespierre.)

“That’s why small government is conducive to freedom. This is not hard to understand.”

As to the point about small government, this seems to be bothering folks, so I’ll just say: no one defends Stalin on the grounds that he actually just wanted small government, i.e. the withering away of the state. It’s hardly logically impossible to be a small-government advocate (officially) who goes badly wrong, quite possibly because you have an exaggerated confidence in your ability to know what’s really good for people, whether they know it or not.

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John Holbo 03.28.09 at 2:07 am

As to the coercion/persuasion/induction/seduction issue: again, I was obviously being too indirect (or just plain not clear enough). If you are looking to be alarmed, Murray appears to have the makings of an argument for coercion-lite. The elite – those with more power – should overbear the democratic mass of people who foolishly want a more pleasant comfortable European-style life. They should do so by persuasion, obviously. He’s not advocating extra-constitutional means. He’s also advocating policy changes that will amount to value change fait accompli. (Once everyone starts living the way he wants them to, they will predictably start thinking more like him.) This just amounts to saying: he fits that bill for the dangerous hubristic intellectual type that conservatives are always warning against. He fits it perfectly. What this shows is that getting alarmed about people just because they fit that bill is a mugs game.

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John Holbo 03.28.09 at 2:20 am

To put it another way: if Murray is advocating coercion, then conservatives are just hypocrites for loving him while pretending to hate government coercion.

If Murray isn’t advocating coercion, then conservatives are wrong ever to accuse any liberal or progressive of being an enemy of freedom. What philosophical or procedural thing could they possibly point to, on the liberal side, that is worse, by conservative lights, than this hubristic, rationalist, overbearing thing which the likes of Goldberg and Douthat quite like? (And don’t say ‘advocating big government’. Because that just begs the question.)

I take the second horn of the dilemma to be the one conservatives are actually stuck on.

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Tom West 03.28.09 at 2:26 am

What you end up with is less like a virtuous Republic and more like an Eastern Roman Empire, a militarized state dominated by functionaries, not entrepreneurs.

Indeed, cutting the size of government is a slippery slope to… wait a moment. It’s the *conservatives* that are convinced that every liberal policy is a slipper slope. You must be a conservative in disguise!

Seriously speaking, has there *ever* been a movement where many, if not most, of the adherents weren’t convinced that (1) most of the opposition was actively malevolent and (2) every policy promulgated by the opposition, no matter how innocuous, was a stepping stone utter destruction?

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Thomas 03.28.09 at 2:36 am

But John, as Murray presents it, it’s the elites who want a European style life, and the masses who reject it. Again, you continue to mischaracterize his argument. Murray says, “Why do I focus on the elites in urging a Great Awakening? Because my sense is that the instincts of middle America remain distinctively American. ” He may well be wrong, but that’s no reason to get his argument wrong.

And I don’t think it’s right to say that Murray hopes the scales will fall from peoples live and they’ll live more fulfilled lives. I think Murray would say that most Americans live precisely that the sort of lives he says they’d prefer, but only the elites who don’t. The elites, he thinks, might be persuaded by evidence. Again, whether the argument is right or wrong, we should get our descriptions right.

It’s because you have gotten his argument so horribly wrong that you think Goldberg and Douthat are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Get the argument right and the dilemma goes away.

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John Holbo 03.28.09 at 2:41 am

“But John, as Murray presents it, it’s the elites who want a European style life, and the masses who reject it.”

But Murray is revelling in the distinct revolutionary joys of being a traitor to his (ruling) class. Like many a good revolutionary, he imagines that the tip of the spear will consist of elite traitors to their class. The workers need guidance to realize what they already know at some level, but it is clearly being obscured by the propaganda of the currently ascendent (liberal) elites.

In short, I think you have failed to understand even so much as the subtitle of the Murray piece, Thomas: “America’s elites must once again fall in love with what makes the United States different.”

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Thomas 03.28.09 at 3:21 am

John, not to be obstinate, but did you read the speech? Did you reach the bit I quoted? Your view of what the great mass of Americans want and Murray’s view are obviously quite different. But you don’t get to attribute your view to him for purposes of describing his argument.

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G. Hazeltine 03.28.09 at 3:44 am

While we dither, the forces that are shaping our lives continue to do their work. What do liberal and conservative have to do with the economic collapse? Power has to do with the economic collapse, and apparently, power will not suffer from it. As for government, it is only a tool. Not ours.

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Miriam 03.28.09 at 4:12 am

Murray’s speech is smug claptrap designed to make rich people feel good about themselves.

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bad Jim 03.28.09 at 4:16 am

In the last two national elections most Americans don’t seem to have been worried by the thought that the candidates they favored were advancing a socialist agenda. Quite the contrary: polls have shown for years that a majority favors the sort of policies which the right views with extreme alarm, perhaps not a cookie thrust into a child’s face forever, but at least more cookies than we’re getting now.

Of all the slippery slope arguments around, the most absurd involve same-sex marriage, not least because the same arguments attended the controversy of mixed-race marriage. Loving v. Virginia hasn’t yet led to state-sanctioned bestiality, for example.

One problem with any slippery-slope argument is the presumption that we are surrounded by downward slopes, that our present state is a pinnacle from which we can only slide. It often happens that the reverse is the case, as for example with our dependence on fossil fuels. We Americans have greased the slopes around us with every aspect of our lifestyle, from suburbia to agriculture to our neglect of public transit. The first step out of the hole we’ve dug is to make the slopes less slippery.

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John Holbo 03.28.09 at 4:48 am

Thomas, what would Murray’s explanation be (do you think) of why the average American voted for Obama, even though the average American is not at all in favor of what Obama favors (according to Murray). The explanation, I think, is that Murray thinks these elites have a disproportionate role in the culture – they are opinion-makers and opinion-shapers. Here’s my evidence that Murray thinks this: “I use the word “elites” to talk about the small minority of the population that has disproportionate influence over the culture, economy, and governance of the country.” He thinks that the non-elite masses really agree with him, but the current elites have managed to subdue expression of that agreement. “It’s the top that has such decisive influence on American culture, economy, and governance.” So we need a great awakening at the top, so that there can be an awakening in the middle. The silent majority need be silent no longer.

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Nabakov 03.28.09 at 5:01 am

“Shall religious conservatives have power to impose their moral beliefs, or not? I’d prefer not.”

Some people just want a Government small enough to fit into your bedroom.

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Thomas 03.28.09 at 5:27 am

First, let’s be clear about what Murray says: “The center still holds. It’s the bottom and top of American society where we have a problem.” I don’t read that as a call for an awakening in the middle. Rather, Murray calls for an awakening of the elites because he wants them to stop trying to change America (and also because he thinks they’d live better/happier lives). And the point of the bit you just quoted is that they have disproportionate influence on where the country is headed, not on where it is now.

I confess I don’t know what Murray would say about what motivates voters in what he calls the center. Perhaps he’d say that they didn’t like the economic conditions in November, but they didn’t thereby intend to abandon their views about America? He might say that there views about America are more foundational and more fixed than their preference for president on November day, and so, to the extent there’s a conflict between the two, we should resolve (and should expect them to want to resolve) in favor of the foundational.

In any case, I think you mean this as a defense of your misinterpretation. It may be that Murray’s speech should have grappled with or been about “how the center has been lost” or some such. Murray may be wrong about the center, his speech may be a bad argument because he didn’t address an obvious topic. But it simply isn’t the case that he addressed it as you say he did.

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John Holbo 03.28.09 at 5:51 am

Well, there’s something to what you say, Thomas. But I like my reading for the following reason: it seems to me that Murray has a false consciousness reading of the middle, in the following, weak sense: people aren’t saying what they really think. Or: what people really think and say (among themselves) isn’t getting heard. There is something about the top that is damping down the middle. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in this fix, because obviously the middle is bigger than the top. Now he’s being a bit delicate about it, because once you come out and say ‘I think the workers are suffering from false consciousness, imposed by economic and cultural elites’ you sound like a bloody Marxist. Murray obviously doesn’t want to sound like a Marxist. But the fact is: a view like his should sound a bit Marxist, at least to the extent that it’s about lifting false consciousness (in at least a weak sense) and raising the workers up, giving them the sorts of satisfying work and lives that the bad elite would deprive them of.

If that’s not his view then the problem is: he doesn’t have any story to tell about why we have a problem at all. But he obviously does think there’s some sort of problem If most everyone already thinks exactly what thinks, why do we even need an awakening among the elite? It’s a democracy, after all. Why should what they think and say matter? There’s only a few of them. My reading is the only one that fills in the obvious blanks in Murray’s argument in a coherent way. So I think my reading is what he actually thinks, and is strongly hinting at, even if he’s (understandably) a bit coy about laying it all out.

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Fortuna 03.28.09 at 5:54 am

Some people just want a Government small enough to fit into your bedroom.

Well on that note, I’d add, saying you want a small government is as nonsensical as saying you want a small penis. When what you really need at a minimum, is at least something big enough to do the job satisfactory.

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StevenAttewell 03.28.09 at 8:15 am

Re: small government being inherently less oppressive.

To me, this reeks of hogwash for several reasons. First, it ignores the possibility of private-sector oppression. You can have things like lynchings, the Klan, pogroms, etc. that emerge wholly from the actions of private individuals. All you need to approximate state coercion is to have enough people with guns who form vigilante associations in the service of some principle, and there you go.

Second, it ignores the fact that small government can call into operation its own mechanisms of oppression in the face of dissent. This becomes especially evident when you consider the implications of highly unequal distributions of wealth to the stakes of the property rights question – all of the sudden, property rights requires more than just owning a shotgun on your own private property. You can go back to the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, where you have a much smaller government, and you still end up with bombers being used against civilian rioters and hundreds of treason trials. If the 1920s government is too big for you – after all, you have a national state and the Federal Reserve – you can go back further. Take a look at the big strikes of the 19th century – Pullman, Homestead, Haymarket, The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and so on. There’s a reason why the middle class built arsenals in every major U.S city and made up the ranks of the state militias and local defense organizations. Post-Civil War state still too big for you? Go back to the repressions after Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Gabriel’s Rebellion, and the Stono Rebellion.

Hell, if you really want to, your ur-example is the classic repression of peasant revolts. The Jacquerie in France, the Ciompi in Italy, the Flemish uprisings of 1323, the Great Rising of 1381 in England, the Peasant’s War in Germany – all undertaken by premodern states. Smaller governments don’t reduce the power to coerce – they just made the coercion more intimate.

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bad Jim 03.28.09 at 8:54 am

Nearly all people find themselves at the bottom of a slippery slope when it comes to sexuality, finding practically any alternative unplatable. For most of us the rest state is mixed-sex coupling; for a fraction we can no longer ignore it’s same-sex, and it seems that most of either group is disinclined to slide from one state to the other.

When my nephew revealed his godlessness to his father-in-law, he was asked “then what keeps you from [having sexual congress with] your dog?” It isn’t a slippery slope, or at least not a downhill one. There’s the question of consent (how do you know she loves you?) and the necessity of toenail-clipping.

I only wish we were on a slippery slope to socialism. Unfortunately, I think that getting to universal health care is going to be a long, hard, uphill struggle.

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JoB 03.28.09 at 10:24 am

Steven-62, you’re onto something there: the amount of coercion is not proportional to the amount of government. Going back in time the average government was smaller, & the total amount of coercion bigger. The trick is that the ruling class put the rest under a spell of personal morals of ought’s and ought not’s (the Bible!, the slave master, …), & enforced that by semi-private power (Shar’ia!, unemployment, …). Liberal progress is the breaking of those spells and institutionalizing, backed with state monopoly power, the basic rules allowing freedom of individuals. Less coercion to some extent means an increase in government size ;-)

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kid bitzer 03.28.09 at 12:15 pm

1) it should be pointed out that wanting a “european” lifestyle is not something only elites do. it is what the masses do- -in europe. they really like their lives. this is why murray must override the desires of the masses (euro) as well as the elites, for their own good.

2) i don’t think an accounting of conservative hypocrisy can get far without attending to gender. i. e. when you ask, “why do wingers accept coercion x but not coercion y,” the answer is frequently “because x means being forced by daddy, so as unpleasant as it may be, we must do it and then in the long rim we’ll be a man, my son. but y is being forced by mommy! eeeeek! nanny state! she’s going to emasculate us!”

i just think a lot is explained bythe elements of misogyny and gender-panic.

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kid bitzer 03.28.09 at 12:17 pm

“long rim” = “long run”, except god my iphone made a funny.

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kid bitzer 03.28.09 at 12:47 pm

also: as great as the term “dark satanic millian” is, for this particular issue i do think “donner party conservatism” is by far the better handle.

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kid bitzer 03.28.09 at 12:52 pm

in part because it captures a gender issue: the fantasy desire for a boy’s own adventure! with real dangers! in the back garden!
let’s hope mummy doesn’t spoil our camp-out by making us brush our teeth. if she brings us cocoa again, we’ll never be heroes.

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magistra 03.28.09 at 2:51 pm

I think kid bitzer’s right and it’s also revealing just how low an opinion Murray has of men. When we get to Murray’s hypothetical janitor:

A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life…If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away.

Such a man to Murray doesn’t get happiness from his religion or his vocation (and at least in traditional Christian thought, even menial jobs can be vocations). And he doesn’t get happiness from the thought that his partner and children will be protected if he dies or get sick or is made unemployed, which you would think would be an obvious form of love. Murray’s janitor only gets satisfaction if he is the centre of his little world: he would rather have the possibility of his orphaned children starve in the streets if it means that his ego gets fed in the here and now.

I don’t know what Murray’s views say about real janitors: I know they say a lot about Murray.

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Thomas 03.28.09 at 3:13 pm

John, Murray thinks the elites have disproportionate influence, but that doesn’t mean that workers/the center suffers from false consciousness. I thought it was accepted generally on the left and right that American elites had disproportionate interest, and that public policy and culture are largely (but not entirely) determined by them. (And there’s nothing uniquely American about that.) On the conventional liberal/progressive take, the workers/center want more social democracy–they want universal health care and more progressive taxation etc etc, but the elites keep blocking it. There’s no false consciousness in that description, and I don’t see any in Murray’s. That’s just modern democracy as it works, or doesn’t work. Murray disagrees with that conventional liberal/progressive view, about what the workers/center want, but doesn’t disagree that the elites have disproportionate influence.

(It strikes me now that Murray may be in a sense echoing Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites, but that seems very odd, since I usually think of Murray as a libertarian. I’m probably wrong about this–I read Lasch a long time ago, and not closely enough.)

In any case, if there’s more than one reasonable understanding of Murray’s speech (if I may extend ever so slightly what you’ve said) and on one there’s nothing that folks like Goldberg and Douthat would find objectionable, then don’t we have a pretty good explanation about why folks like Goldberg and Douthat didn’t find anything objectionable?

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engels 03.28.09 at 3:21 pm

I thought it was accepted generally on the left and right that American elites had disproportionate interest, and that public policy and culture are largely (but not entirely) determined by them.

USian right-wingers do perhaps accept this in private but in public they don’t seem to: it’s a quick and simple way for them to troll themselves out of any serious or honest public discussion about power in America. Oh you lefties think that The People are stupid and helpless! Elitists! False consciousness Marxisses! For an example of this I refer you to the Slocum’s ‘contributions’ to this thread (final para of #35 for example), indeed, to any number of past threads…

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Diane Gall 03.28.09 at 3:25 pm

StevenAttewell said “Smaller governments don’t reduce the power to coerce – they just made the coercion more intimate.”

I came here to say this and that perhaps because the government is smaller, it might turn its efforts to discover new and particularly effective means of coercion… seeing as they have fewer resources to coerce than they otherwise would have.

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kid bitzer 03.28.09 at 3:49 pm

“I think kid bitzer’s right”
thanks, magistra, that cheers me right up.

there’s a less gender-focused way to say something similar:
donner-party conservatives seem to have accepted the nietzschean claim that man wants struggle, not happiness. (i actually think anything useful in that insight is better captured by the millian view that happiness is in part constituted by struggle, alternating with tranquility).

what’s odd is not the conservative adoption of nietzsche, but the poverty of their understanding of the possibilities for human struggle.

they really seem to be concerned that if we did not have to struggle for food, shelter and health, we would have completely run out of struggles. we would just become idle blobs (this underlying conservative fantasy is part of what vitiates the second half of wall-e–once our needs are attended to, we become idle and feminized–more body-fat, rounded features, etc.)

but from the progressive standpoint, it seems just as likely that the removal of one kind of struggle would simply make it possible for more people to take on more interesting struggles. people who don’t have to search for food can try to prove theorems or write concertos or build pyramids. or just struggle to bring food and health to the rest of the globe, which is going to take a lotta lotta struggle. (it may be no accident that medecins sans frontiers was founded by those filthy welfare-state french people).

will some people, relieved of the anxiety of survival, turn into blobs? sure. some people do that when they are faced with the existential struggle for food, too. in the history of the species, grinding poverty has seldom been ennobling; it has just as often led to selfishness, dishonesty, servility, and petty predation on the weak. “it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright,” as ben franklin said.

so the insight that struggle is valuable to human existence is distorted by an inability to see that those for whom struggle is valuable will always find new struggles, and possibly more interesting struggles, when alleviated of the struggle for food and health.

there’s also some unexamined ideology in the donner-party view about which struggles are “natural” and so good and which are “voluntary” and so less-good. but it won’t hold up to scrutiny.

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Anderson 03.28.09 at 5:28 pm

Cf. the introduction to the Liberty Fund edition of Burke’s Reflections, by Francis Canarvan:

… the right that was fundamentally at issue between Burke and his opponents. They held that every man in the state of nature had a sovereign right to govern himself and for that reason had a right to an equal share in the government of civil society. Burke held that what was important in the civil state was not that every man’s will should be registered in the process of government, but that his real interests (advantages, goods) should be achieved. * * * But this implies that purpose, rather than original rights and individual consent, is the organizing and legitimizing principle of a constitution. * * *

Who, then, shall make the practical judgments of politics? The question cannot be answered by appealing to the rights of men. “Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit.” But as to what is for their benefit, Burke said: “The will of the many, and their interest, must very often differ.” The first duty of statesmen, indeed, is to “provide for the multitude; because it is the multitude; and is therefore, as such, the first object . . . in all institutions.” But the object is the good of the people, not the performance of their will. The duties of statesmen, in consequence, do not belong by right to those whom the many have chosen, but ought to be performed by those qualified by “virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive,” for the task of government.

Note that this describes, not Robespierre, but Burke.

Conservatives believe that there is *a* good for “the mulitude” which can be discerned by the wise. Ultimately, this is a teleological position, which is why Canarvan’s exposition of the focus on *purpose* is so relevant. Whereas liberals don’t take it as a given that there is a single good for all, or that if there were, anyone would be better able to discern it for the multitude than they themselves.

In other words, conservatives seek a first-order state, in which the government is directed towards achieving the good; liberals seek a second-order state, which facilitates the multitude’s search for its own plural conception of the good.

(Canarvan’s credentials include an essay in Strauss & Cropsey’s History of Political Philosophy, where, amusingly, he’s assigned to give an account of Thomas Paine. Burke, by contrast, is written up by Harvey Mansfield, whose boy-crush on Burke makes it impossible for him to provide anything like considered analysis.)

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sleepy 03.28.09 at 6:49 pm

Burkeans are anti-materialist and anti-bourgeois and as such anti-capitalist.
But Burkeans are also anti-liberal, in the sense that liberals are bourgeois -vulgar- materialists.
They have a an argument against both AEI and CT (and the “reality based” communitariat.)

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chris 03.28.09 at 7:23 pm

Anderson: You have just neatly summarized the multi-part ‘individualist-liberalism’ and ‘collectivist-conservatism’ lecture I provide for students every year. Thanks. :-)

If I may quote from my own blog entry (http://justthinking-s.blogspot.com/2009/03/grass-is-greener-and-more-authentic.html) on the Murray spiel:

Of course, romanticizing the lives of simple folk is a tradition of sorts. But Murray is not pretending that lives of sorrow, hunger, illness, and toil are other than they are. Rather, he celebrates precisely those painful possibilities as necessary conditions for meaningful happiness. This is not romanticism; this is hypocrisy. For, do we picture Murray giving up his own rather privileged position to leap into the waters of strife? Is he suggesting that the pitiable rich should be stripped of their wealth and privileges and made to work as janitors (for whom he seems to have some special respect) or dish washers so that they, too, can have a chance at happiness? No. He is encouraging the privileged to use their power to force this idiosyncratic vision of the Good Life on those not in a position to either choose it or decline it.

I truly do not see how this can be other than hypocrisy. Yes, Murray’s conception of the path to happiness can be understood in light of a particular conservative vision of The Good. But, unless he embraces the same kind of perilous living conditions for himself and his family, he cannot be credited with good faith adherence to that vision.

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Arion 03.28.09 at 8:16 pm

I rather liked Murray’s paragraphs on meaning. it calls to mind the whig historian lrical flights anent Anglo-Saxon Yeomanry. The glorious dance around the maypole gemenischaft of it all, only ruined by those rationalistic system-minded capitalists and their nasty enclosure act geselschaftism. A very good case can be made that a locaL joint stock company spells the end of freedom and community volunteerism
I’ve seen several effective local charities destroyed by government services that relieved local citizens of the task by providing the same service. And costs ballooned 3-500% in the bargain, due mostly to paperwork So today when I’m on the board of a charity, I fight to have them avoid government grants or even outside private philanthropy. Beware of grant writers bearing gifts.
Nonetheless, Murray’s case is not compelling. There is no inherent reason why sensible government safety nets must necessarily crowd out local initiatives. Whether or not we continue the kind of voluntary associationism so admired by Toqueville probably depends more on TV and relentless consumerism than on the Feds providing food stamps.

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Tom West 03.28.09 at 8:22 pm

In other words, conservatives seek a first-order state, in which the government is directed towards achieving the good; liberals seek a second-order state, which facilitates the multitude’s search for its own plural conception of the good.

What? I’m on the left side of the spectrum, but I’m more than willing to see redistributionist taxes because I believe that the government’s vision of good (at least if my guys have been elected) is more important than individual’s pursuit of what they feel is their own good (like keeping all their money).

The social conservatives might feel they possess the one-true-good, but I’d say the economic conservatives believe in individuals having even more freedom to pursue their individual good. (I happen to believe they’re wrong, but I don’t believe that gives me the right to misattribute characteristics to them.)

Finally, the idea that only the right believes that people don’t really know what they want is insane.

After the Americans re-elected George Bush four years ago and after Californians just vote to make Gay marriage illegal, I heard a lot of “people didn’t know what they were voting for, etc. etc.” from the left. We all like to believe that the deep in their hearts the people think like us, but the truth is, sometimes the people are just wrong. It’s fun to claim the people’s support now, but lets not pretend that we’re all simply giving the people what they want.

I’ll say it:

Sometimes the people are wrong and I know better than them.

Does that give me the right to impose my beliefs on them? Only if I can win the democratic election.

For goodness sake, let’s have a little self-awareness. If we’re going to attribute something to the opposition, can we *please* look first to see if it also applies to us four years before? Look at those divided conservatives! Those conservatives are arrogant enough to believe they know better than the people! Those conservatives solicit donations from big donors rather than going to the people. Those conservative politicians are evil for limiting people’s right to marry – but polygamous marriages are bad!

Support the policies you believe in. Persuade people to what you believe is right. But don’t pretend that only you should have the right to try and bring the people to your side.

Or is it as I have been told: If you want to see people work to enact your desired policies, love of what is right won’t motivate them to do anything, you must motivate them with hatred of the opposition.

Sorry for the rant. It’s just I get tired hearing hearing more about what Liberals want than Conservative want on Conservative blogs and more about what Conservatives want than Liberals want on Liberal blogs. (Okay, that and I have higher expectations from posters on blogs that hold the “correct” views (i.e. close to mine :-))

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kid bitzer 03.28.09 at 8:33 pm

sometimes murray et al. romanticize misery for the sake of happiness in such a way that you wonder, “and what’s the point of all this? what are they after, really?”

and then sometimes his ilk are more explicit about part of what they are after: empire, and keeping it.

this was an explicit part of the neo-con platform. the last paragraph of herodotus has cyrus telling us that ‘soft regions breed soft men,’ so that physical struggle is the price of keeping empire. if we get too comfortable, the worry goes, then some hungrier people, probably brown (it’s usually racial not too far below the surface) will take our empire from us.
(and straussians are just as bad at reading herodotus as they are at reading plato, so they take the word of cyrus to be the wisdom of herodotus.)

it’s a typical late-empire anxiety about losing hold of empire, even as you enjoy the fruits of empire. you can see it in roman literature, you can see it in victorian england (my quotation of kipling above was not random).

people like murray are slightly too polite to put it this way. that’s why they really don’t seem to have *any* good argument for why we should force our populace to be miserable. they mumble unconvincing things about ‘character’ and ‘meaning’. but look at the people who lap this up, the goldbergs and the nro crowd. they’re playing boys own adventure, alright, but they’re also playing empire, and who will keep it for us.

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roy belmont 03.28.09 at 8:33 pm

Chris #78:
Though aligned as I am against the forces Murray slyly arrays against virtue and the forces of light, I must take weighty exception to your dismissal of “the simple folk”, delivered as it is from the soft chair of well-fed pomposity and virtualized second-hand experience.
Romanticizing them may be a tradition of sorts, but pretending that “lives of sorrow, hunger, illness, and toil” are all the “simple folk” ever had is the more dominant tradition. Now. Today. For the moment.
It’s dependable, a knee-jerk response to any admiration or affection paid to those “simple” ways. It is a tissue of lies as well.
Neanderthals were brutish subhumans, as are the Australian Aborigines, as are the San bushmen of the Kalahari, as were all and any of the numberless victims of that slaughter necessary to establish the fortresses and clearances of your particular tradition of compensatory arrogance and military superiority.
I’m sorry to be rude but that attitude disgusts me, aesthetically, and it has as well brought great harm to people and things that I respect and love.
The cheesy trope of “sorrow, hunger, illness, and toil” is received whole cloth from people with great quantities of blood on their hands, and it’s the blood of the very ones they taught you were unimportant because they were “primitive”, who led awful short ignorant lives and who “we’re” obviously, provably better than. Teaching that you evidently see fit to continue.
The authors of that lesson plan had to see it that way, or face the chilling fact of their own worse savagery. Which would have driven them mad and made the domestic gentility at the heart of their efforts impossible. You have to see it that way or face the self-deception and untruth you were suckled on. For the same reason.
Because seeing that savage truth for what it is undermines the flimsy artifice of the morality which in turn was, and is, the only solid base for claims of superiority. Then the whole thing comes down crashing without that superiority and its consequent entitlement.
Might I point out how increasingly rarely children play freely outside in your superior world?
Might I point out that what is placed opposite those “simple lives” with their “sorrow, hunger, illness, and toil” is a manner of living in the world and an attitude toward the world and living in it, that has brought us to the verge of extinction as a species, if not as well the entire mammalian branch of the animal kingdom, or even worse, while at the same time causing the extinction of an increasing multitude of other lives, many completely unknown to us, so that no judgment as to their inferiority can even be made? And all this while at the same time congratulating itself for the abundance of its own narrowly selfish immediate gratification?
Perilous? You want perilous?
And I don’t what hear that crap about how the choice is full-throttle open-mouthed technophilia or grubby dirt-eating misery.
It isn’t about the machines, or even the power, it’s about the men who run those machines and their attitudes toward existence and the world.

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salient 03.28.09 at 8:58 pm

It isn’t about the machines, or even the power, it’s about the men who run those machines and their attitudes toward existence and the world.

This was great, but I think the statements were misdirected at Chris. I didn’t see any such dismissal in his comment.

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kth 03.28.09 at 9:22 pm

“But a small government is inherently much less able to coerce than a large one. It has, for example, neither the coercive drug laws nor the SWAT teams to go out and kick doors to enforce them.”

Yes, it is fair to point out that a small government can only get SO bad.

You’ve conceded way too much. In fact, there is nothing that you can do with a monopoly on force, that you can’t do with a monopoly on commerce; i.e., nothing you can do with the barrel of a gun that you can’t do with a blacklist. Remember that many of the freedoms we enjoy are actually restrictions of the rights of huge businesses to freely associate, contract, share information (antitrust laws, laws against private sector discrimination, regulations that credit bureaus must obey). And so, while small government may, considered in isolation from the society in which it exists, be less coercive than large government, there’s no reason to suppose that a polity with less powerful organs of government would be freer in the ordinary sense (i.e., I get to decide how I want to live my life) than a polity with more powerful governing bodies.

Threatening someone with starvation by telling everyone else that they must neither buy from nor sell to that person, lest they find themselves on the blacklist as well, has heretofore been less efficient than pointing a gun at him. Decreasing information costs (i.e., of keeping and disseminating databases, or blacklists) and persistent interdependence make that difference less prohibitive. But the point isn’t even that Blacklist Nation would be more or less repressive than recent regimes based on force; rather more fundamentally that any traditional arrangement of political economy could without undue difficulty be re-engineered under ostensibly libertarian, minimalist specifications (“You don’t want to contribute to the Social Security Foundation? Fine, you’re on the list!”)

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roy belmont 03.28.09 at 9:28 pm

salient:
When Chris said:”Of course, romanticizing the lives of simple folk is a tradition of sorts. But Murray is not pretending that lives of sorrow, hunger, illness, and toil are other than they are. Rather, he celebrates precisely those painful possibilities as necessary conditions for meaningful happiness. This is not romanticism; this is hypocrisy.”my reading was Chris, while opposing Murray for hypocrisy, also opposed him for seeming to champion, hypocritically, “simple lives”. Thus finding myself surrounded, if not indeed betrayed and alone on the field, I struck, like blind Ajax, at the enemy closest to my flank. If Chris was not in that circumstance actually flying the dark banner I apologize to him and any other reader for the unnecessary bloodshed and gore.
But I think he did, is, and comes from a tradition that instead of romanticizing that “simple lives” cliche, depreciates it, and the world it inhabits and creates. And thus sees Murray as dangerous for his advocacy of a return to simple if not primitive values, which he, Chris, seems to find dangerous, so he points out Murray’s hypocrisy in that regard.
Whereas I’m seeing Murray as dangerous because he’s seriously inaccurate in his estimations and perceptions, and because he sounds like a leading whisperer in the renascent campaign for a eugenic restructuring of the human population.

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salient 03.28.09 at 10:13 pm

my reading was Chris, while opposing Murray for hypocrisy, also opposed him for seeming to champion, hypocritically, “simple lives”.

Okay. I didn’t see that implication (and still don’t): I think what’s at issue is a precise definition of “simple lives.” A simple life [A] in which material goods are a means for survival/security/comfort rather than an accumulation-metric of worth to be maximized, is different than [B] a fantasy pastoral simple life (in which crops require minimal and unskilled labor, and the goats don’t shit) or [C] a fantasy urban laborer life (in which the admired everyman “works with your hands” and takes pride in the toils of craftsmanship and is vaguely a blacksmith, because the fantasies all run together).

I think you’re defending A, whereas Chris is indirectly dismissive of C.

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Keith M Ellis 03.29.09 at 12:11 am

The essential dishonesty of the anti-utopian argument is the pretense that all utopians insist on that “relatively short order.” Since of course no great change is possible in short order, conservatives deny that great change is possible at all—things must remain as they are, or change very slightly and slowly.

Utopians understand perfectly well that change can only happen gradually. But radical change is possible, given sustained energy and commitment. So let’s start.

One doesn’t much find unbridled enthusiasm for utopianism much these days. Indeed, it seems more familiar to me from a particular variety of social conservatism than it does from the left.

Anyway, I’ve come to believe that these broad political affiliations are more the product of, even limited to, personal temperment than to the intellectual abstractions by which they are usually engaged.

It seems clear to me that the dominant impulse behind conservatism is a form of traditionalism, a yearning for an idealized version of the past. Likewise, the dominant impulse behind liberalism[1] is a form of progressivism, a yearning for an idealized version of the future. Both are utopian.

Conservatism may yearn for radical change, but it’s nominally change to a known state, a past state. It mistrusts anything that is truly unfamiliar or new. Liberalism also yearns for radical change, but it mistrusts old solutions to problems and privileges the new and untried.

This framework entirely avoids the issues by which this matter is usually examined: individualism, liberty, egalitarianism, economics, etc. I avoid them because I don’t think that any, or at least most, of these things are truly inherent to determining the broad liberal/conservative continuum. Indeed, in each case of these particular political philosophies, one can find strains of both liberalism and conservatism that support or oppose it. There is individualistic and anti-individualistic conservatism. Just so with liberalism. How liberalism and conservatism tend to fall on these issues is specific to time and place and history. Thus, in the US, discussions of conservatism and liberalism are obsessed with size of government and individual liberties. And those engaged in these discussions wrongly believe that their particular matrix of concerns defines conservatism and liberalism for everyone, everywhere, and everywhen.

For my part, I have great difficulty being enthusiastic about either an idealized past or an idealized future. I have no particular affinity for either tried or untried solutions. Furthermore, I have little interest in utopianism, instinctively feeling that it’s predicated upon a simplistic conception of human nature. I simply believe in a politics that will make more peoples’ lives better than they presently are. And it seems to me that these two temperments—the yearning for an idealized past and an idealized future—are both manifestations of a kind of social alienation; a manifestations of at least a moderate contempt for both what is, and for those who accept what is.

1. I use the term “liberalism” with reservations in this context. It’s less than ideal because, obviously, it has a very strong connection to a particular political philosophy that I am at pains to disconnect from the broad affiliations I’m trying to describe. Likewise, “leftism” isn’t a good fit, either. “Progressivism” is most literally appropriate; but connotatively inappropriate. So I just chose “liberalism” and included this footnote.

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Keith M Ellis 03.29.09 at 12:13 am

Note: That first paragraph apparently by me (Utopians understand perfectly…) should have been part of the quote.

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roy belmont 03.29.09 at 1:01 am

Salient:
We’d need to get (A) expanded considerably before I’d wave it around.
There’s an integration with those simple things, a lived fullness of integration with them that’s vital. There are of course people who haved lived nasty brutish short lives of squalid wretchedness. Still are in some environments today.
But the noble savage isn’t simply a fantasy cliche, anymore than music and laughter were invented by farmers with surplus crops and consequent leisure time. If nobility can be said to exist at all in human beings it’s been with us for a long time, longer than settlements and permanent housing for sure.
It was Chris’ immediate linkage of “sorrow, hunger, illness, and toil” with “simple lives” that got me. It’s a truism I reject adamantly, and the rest of my response follows – the disdain for wild lives and places, the almost sexual urge toward dominance of the wilderness, the soiling of the whole terran sky, etc. Any regard for how so-called primitives conducted themselves needs to reflect the cost of the things we have so much better now. Mostly it doesn’t.

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james 03.29.09 at 1:24 am

Sam C at 48

” No, it doesn’t, in the sense that the public/private distinction is usually used. I wasn’t claiming that freedom of religion was only freedom to worship hidden in your basement. I was stating that the right to freedom of religion (in the US and the UK) is not a right to direct public power to enforce your religious beliefs. So, anyone who thinks that state endorsement of gay marriage damages religious freedom doesn’t understand what religious freedom is. Talk of religious freedom here may just be muddled, but I think it’s more likely a smokescreen: what’s at stake is power. Shall religious conservatives have power to impose their moral beliefs, or not? I’d prefer not.”

Your statement is very overreaching. Any philosophy or belief system can be the bases for the establishment of a law. In the US, for this to be unconstitutional, the law has to represent government establishment of that religion. For example, several states have laws that make it illegal to sell alchohol on Sunday. Even though this is a law that exist solely based on keeping the sabith holy, it does not currently run afoul of the constitution restriction. Of coarse, it is possible that these laws have simpley not been chalenged. So yes, any citizen has the power to establish moral beliefs as laws, whether that belief is that hate speech should be illegal or that marijwana should be illegal.

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John Holbo 03.29.09 at 2:12 am

I’ll just take up with Thomas again:

“John, Murray thinks the elites have disproportionate influence, but that doesn’t mean that workers/the center suffers from false consciousness.”

But actually: doesn’t it? A bit? How can their influence be disproportionate – and this matter – unless it amounts to imposing views on others that are really not their own/otherwise weakening such views? This just goes to show that everyone sort of buys a false consciousness thesis. Which entails that letting people enjoy negative liberty – unless you first free them from the pernicious influence of the elite – will actually be counter to the people’s REAL freedom.

“That’s just modern democracy as it works, or doesn’t work. Murray disagrees with that conventional liberal/progressive view, about what the workers/center want, but doesn’t disagree that the elites have disproportionate influence.”

But this just goes to show that it’s pointless for the likes of Goldberg – and other conservatives – to argue that the problem with liberalism is that it has this authoritarian seed in it. Because, it turns out, it’s only the seed of how ‘modern democracy works’. Conservatism has the same seed. So it’s comparatively trivial, rather than being some sort of canary in the coalmine of liberty. That’s my point.

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sara 03.29.09 at 2:15 am

As has been pointed out above, gender and sexual liberalism and their horrors (in the conservative mind) lurk beneath Murray’s argument. The Swedes and other Europeans are not, in his view, contributing to their national projects because they are immersed in their supposedly apathetic private lives. (Has Murray talked to young 20-something people in big cities in the United States? I sense a fundamental attribution error.)

The portrait of an indifferent, effete and enfeebled Europe is (besides being highly insulting to Europeans) a highly gendered one.

It also puts conservatives in a twist that some racial, religious, and ethnic minorities are in fact the most socially conservative — think of the Taliban, or of Latino immigrant families in the U.S., where gender roles are rather rigid and young men, for lack of participation in our national project, drift into gang violence. Pope Benedict’s Catholic Church and many Protestant evangelical sects are strongest in the Third World. Murray is concerned with white decadence, specifically Northern European white decadence, but he can’t come out and say this without looking like a fascist nutcase.

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sleepy 03.29.09 at 4:03 am

“This is not romanticism; this is hypocrisy”
Are none of you are aware of the difference between capitalism and monarchism? That the original conservatives were monarchists and not petit bourgeois shopkeepers or their children ?? cf. Maggie Thatcher and Charles Murray. Burkeans to be Burkeans have no place at AEI. That bourgeois conservatives pretend otherwise is simple hypocrisy. It drives me nuts when modern “conservatives” argue that Tocqueville is one of them. The man would be horrified by the vulgarity of his “defenders. ” Murray’s amalgam of Burke and the moral virtues of creative destruction is perverse. But no more perverse than the pretense of left wing Weberianism.
The fight between you and AEI is for the disambiguation of experience and the bureaucratization of life at the hands of either big business or big government. Either way it’s the rule of intellectual generalizations and bright red tomatoes with the interior texture of congealed wheat paste. Either way all good wine the world over will have the Robert Parker stamp of approved taste parameters. But being proud technocrats you don’t even see the joke; any more than the dimwits at AEI can see it.
You dream of freedom but the facts cry out: determinism.
The whole thing is nothing but tragedy.

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Thomas 03.29.09 at 5:47 am

John, I just don’t think that’s right. When Murray sets out the role of the elite, it’s descriptive and empirical, not normative. It isn’t that he’s saying the proper role of the elite is to take us into some new future, just that as a matter of fact they have significant influence over politics and culture. Which, as I said, we (almost) all agree they (and you) do. And I don’t think it entails a ‘false consciousness’ view at all. As I read Murray’s speech, he doesn’t suggest that an America-become-Europe would be a place of false consciousness, or a place of liberalism-as-tyranny, but rather that it would be dysfunctional, incapable of providing the goods of human life. Re-read the descriptions of the young people he spoke to in Zurich, and of Europeans more generally, and of America’s europeanized elite. Does he suggest they’re suffering from false consciousness? I don’t see that at all. And since what’s good for them is, he says, precisely what’s good for everyone else, why then would he think that everyone else would need to suffer false consciousness to follow the elite? (There may be Marxian echoes in Murray’s speech and in his thinking more generally, but I don’t hear them on this point.)

It now appears to me that your post and subsequent comments are mostly about Goldberg’s book, not Murray’s speech–I don’t know why I didn’t see this before. I have read only the speech, not the book, but that won’t prevent me from responding at least in part. (This is a comment box after all.) First, my initial comment above begins in exactly the right way: Murray is a liberal. What’s so surprising about that? And second, though I haven’t read the book, my understanding is that Goldberg concedes, as he must, that modern American conservativism too can suffer the totalitarian temptation. Conceding that, one can ask, does Murray constitute the temptation, and for the reasons I’ve given above, I just don’t see it. I can agree with much of the final 3 paragraphs (and all of the penultimate paragraph) in your original post, which I now see/think are really about Goldberg’s book, without thinking you’ve got Murray’s speech right.

Maybe that means that in the end we’re just disagreeing about whether Murray’s speech is a particular instance of a phenomenon that I will concede does exist and which, when instantiated, would allow you to make the larger points you make, and if that’s the case, there’s not much point in continuing to go back and forth.

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jholbo 03.29.09 at 12:04 pm

Thomas: what, if not false consciousness, could explain widespread desire for a system that is “dysfunctional, incapable of providing the goods of human life”? The answer isn’t that the system must actually fail to provide these folks with what they THINK they want, namely, some European-style thing. Murray makes a point of admitting that the European thing might work ok to get people exactlu what they think they want. It’s just wrong to WANT that. Please explain what, besides some theory of false consciousness, makes sense of this picture.

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Thomas 03.29.09 at 1:59 pm

John, doesn’t that version of ‘false consciousness’ convert “any old case of thinking you know what really ought to be done, politically, combined with a strong suspicion that those who don’t see it that way are confused” into a charge that those disagreeing are suffering false consciousness? I don’t see the point of converting every normal disagreement to false consciousness. Extending the concept like that essentially renders it meaningless. People disagree about politics, and religion, and about what the goods of human life are. The fact of pluralism (within a particular political culture, or among them) isn’t false consciousness.

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abb1 03.29.09 at 2:09 pm

What’s so complicated here? They are something like drug addicts, the European commoners. Social democrats here add this harmful soc1alist substance into the water and it makes the commoners happy, lazy, and apathetic. Eventually Morlocks will eat them all.

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John Holbo 03.29.09 at 3:20 pm

“I don’t see the point of converting every normal disagreement to false consciousness. Extending the concept like that essentially renders it meaningless.”

My point exactly. More or less. (See my post.) No, seriously. My point is that the problem with the slippery slope argument is that it is a device for converting normal disagreement into allegations of false consciousness and, by extension, allegations that the opponent must be some sort of enemy of liberty. (Because we all know that only enemies of liberty – Marxists and socialist and such – make charges of false consciousness.)

“The fact of pluralism (within a particular political culture, or among them) isn’t false consciousness.”

Yes, but I’m obviously not required to deny this. Cases of disagreements in which I think I’m right and you are wrong are, by hypothesis, not cases of (acknowledged) pluralism. (Of course, there is no barrier to being a pluralist and still getting involved in disagreements of this sort.) So my extension of the use of ‘false consciousness’ is actually not as trivial as you assume. It is pretty broad. That’s what you are reacting to. But the breadth is not a mistake on my part. It’s an important thing to notice, which I am pointing out: namely, there is really no sharp difference between an allegation of false consciousness and a mere, everyday conviction that someone is seriously confused about something.

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kid bitzer 03.29.09 at 3:41 pm

someone has false consciousnesses on the internets!

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sleepy 03.29.09 at 5:20 pm

Chris Bertram in another context, but the relation should be clear

Seem[s] to me that something like the following is going on … (glib and oversimplistic summary follows)
SoH regret that the things they value about England are being squeezed out by a crass commercialism (partly of US origin, partly not). They also regret that English people are ignorant of their own folk traditions. This is also true though a good deal (though not all) of the loss happened with 19th C industrialization and a good deal (though not all) of the “folk tradition” is a manufactured response to the same. Lots of stuff that strikes a chord there – loss of authenticity, commodification etc etc.
Lots of people who also feel, with them, the loss of that sense of place and belonging also (unlike them) blame their own anomie, alienation, etc on immigrants, the EU and so on.
A rallying cry to defend English culture attracts a lot of the same people, unfortunately.
This kind of dialectic has been played out since the dawn of industrialization and, of course, it leads the market-utopians to want to tar all the particularists (for want of a better word) with the same brush. That’s a charge that should be rejected because William Morris ain’t the BNP (or even UKIP). But we’ll carry on squirming and feeling uncomfortable because the left and the right both share a discontent with modernity.

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Thomas 03.29.09 at 5:24 pm

Now I’m becoming confused. What does the slippery slope argument have to do with false consciousness? Nothing at all. The argument may well be a weak one, for the reasons you’ve given, but it needn’t involve any claim of, or even discussion of or reference to, false consciousness.

In my view, a claim of false consciousness is a particular kind of explanatory claim typically made by–yes, it’s true–Marxists and socialists and such. The extension of the term that you propose not only isn’t necessary to the slippery slope argument, it isn’t necessary to your argument against the slippery slope argument. If the term is as meaningless as you suggest–it there is no way to separate allegations of false consciousness and everyday political and moral disagreement, I say take that up with the Marxists and socialists and such. Extending a meaningless term seems to just compound the problem. (And, yes, the extension is as trivial as I said. I’m talking about the fact of pluralism, not offering any particular view on political or moral pluralism. Every disagreement in the world would be the sort of thing that gives rise to the charge, and in a world of pervasive disagreements, that makes the charge trivial. It would have no explanatory power at all. Why is China communist? False consciousness. Why are corporate tax rates lower in Ireland than in the US? False consciousness. Why does the US not have universal health care? False consciousness. Why is he a progressive? False consciousness. Why is he a Buddhist? False consciousness. And so on, and on.)

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Thomas 03.29.09 at 9:08 pm

John, you’re welcome to the last word, and if you’d just asked for it I wouldn’t have taken the time to leave the comment which has now been hung up in moderation for hours.

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John Holbo 03.29.09 at 11:11 pm

“Every disagreement in the world would be the sort of thing that gives rise to the charge, and in a world of pervasive disagreements, that makes the charge trivial.”

Well, then the problem is that you’ve misunderstood what I’m saying. (This isn’t necessarily false consciousness on your part, of course. But it would need to be overcome before the argument could be joined.)

No, seriously. If I make ‘false consciousness’ equal to cases in which people are seriously confused about what’s really important, and prescribing policy errors on that basis, why would I need to explain corporate tax rates on that basis? It might be that the situation is different in both countries. Or it could be that one or the other side is just being more cynical. There’s more than false consciousness to life, after all. There’s also bad faith! There are obviously many possible explanations besides ‘false consciousness’, in my expanded sense. How not?

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John Holbo 03.29.09 at 11:19 pm

And another thing. ‘Why does the sun shine?’ Physics. ‘Why don’t we fall off the earth?’ Physics. ‘What is the basis for biological life?’ Physics. That sounds pretty non-explanatory, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, just because ‘physics’ is a general term for a large class of explanations, it doesn’t follow that the members of that class are trivial or circular or empty.

Now I’m not proposing ‘false consciousness’ to be as broad a category, for explaining political belief, or even political disagreement, as ‘physics’ is for explaining stuff in the universe. But the fact that I’m using it fairly broadly should not automatically suggest that I’m using it trivially or in a non-explanatory way.

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Thomas 03.29.09 at 11:36 pm

You asked, “what, if not false consciousness, could explain widespread desire for a system that is ‘dysfunctional, incapable of providing the goods of human life’?”

And now you provide an answer: “There’s more than false consciousness to life, after all. There’s also bad faith! There are obviously many possible explanations besides ‘false consciousness’, in my expanded sense.”

Without saying more about your defense of an extended definition of ‘false consciousness’, it shouldn’t be at all controversial to suggest it’s unlikely that Murray was attributing false consciousness to his opponents in the novel sense you describe.

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chris 03.29.09 at 11:54 pm

Holy Whatever! Roy & Salient:
I’m sorry to have set off such a firestorm. My point was 1) Murray thinks that struggling for the basics and living ‘on the edge’ is good for the soul but 2) apparently not for his own. That’s what I see as hypocritical. I think he does not romanticize struggle or want, precisely because these are what he thinks are necessary for true happiness (meaningfulness). He thinks it would be good for [other] people to have tougher lives because that would make them tougher, make their lives more meaningful, etc.
I intended nothing about ‘primitive’ peoples or their ways of living. Indeed, I am very much opposed to “disdain for wild lives and places, the almost sexual urge toward dominance of the wilderness, the soiling of the whole terran sky.” Deeply opposed, in fact.
I don’ t know if this is relevant, but I am female, not male. At any rate, the very idea of a ‘sexual urge’ to ‘dominate wilderness’ gives me the shudders.
I appreciate Salient’s weighing in; my response to first reading Roy’s comment was shcoked dismay. But, as we all know, text is atonal and subject to mutliple interpretations.

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David 03.30.09 at 12:07 am

Re #76 and others: this is going to be quite a rant, so bear with me. I’m finding that I’m gradually tuning out to ideological discussions in the US context, since I struggle to accept the terms that are being used. I count myself as a North European liberal. By that I mean that I want to see a relatively small government, strong protection for individual liberties, but nonetheless certain welfare services, such as a generously and publicly funded school system. This last point is why I don’t count myself as a libertarian. Nor would I ever dream of calling myself a conservative. One line of argument in favour of a relatively small state is that it helps people realise certain values that are objectively good, whether they desire them or not (such as hard work, experiencing both the ups and downs of life etc, instead of sitting in one’s comfy liberal Malung armchair from Ikea). I reject this approach as conservative. Another line of argument is that a relatively small state is the state most compatible with value neutrality and allowing people to realise their (subjectively held) life projects. This is the line I take, and this is what I take to be the most plausible liberal line.

So when Tom West says that he knows better than other people what to do and that he is going to impose his version of the good on people after his guys have won a democratic election, my spontaneous answer is to say: well, that’s a social democratic approach to the good, not a liberal one. If there’s one point I’d like to make, it’s that from a European perspective, keeping liberals and social democrats apart is as easy as (or sometimes much easier than) keeping liberals and conservatives apart.

And this is what I do take to be the totalitarian tendency of social democracy, to the extent that there is one. European social democrats (especially in, say, the Nordic countries) have traditionally found it hard or impossible to accept that people should have rights that they can uphold in a court of law, even in the face of democratically made majority decisions. One might defend this on perfectionist grounds. Thus, in Sweden some social democrats argued in the 1980s that satellite television should be forbidden, partly because it contained ads directed to children (which are forbidden in Sweden) and partly, as I understand it, because English skills would be unevenly distributed in the country because children in rich families would be able to watch English-language channels more than those in poor families (!). But if we have wide-stretched and constitutionally protected freedom of information, one might not be able to enact such laws. And this is bad, these social democrats would say.

Liberals, on the other hand, would want to say that there are certain rights which shouldn’t be vulnerable to governmental intrusion. This not only helps more people realise their life projects, but also helps defend against a creeping totalitarian development of society. The realisation that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, is, I believe, fundamentally a liberal one.

My gut reaction is to say that there is a totalitarian tendency in any attempt to say: “We know what is best for you, and we are going to use the forces of government to impose this on you, and we don’t care what you think.” I believe that this tendency is significantly stronger within social democracy than within liberalism. The discussion of the last 20 years among political philosophers about legitimacy, public justification and sensitivity to diversity and pluralism has ultimately been a liberal one, motivated by liberal concerns. In practical politics, social democracy remains a modernist movement, rooted in the belief that there exists a right way forward and that it should be the task of the state to bring it about. There are such tendencies within liberalism and general “socialism” as well, but they have to compete with accounts that are more sensitive to pervasive diversity. (And I know that liberal academic political philosophy might not be compared 1:1 with social democratic ideas as they express themselves in the real world. But I still think the general point holds.)

(This argument obviously needs some qualification, but I’m not sure how much. If we have a somewhat positive account of liberty, we can actually follow the Millian criterion of drawing the border of some people’s liberty only when they damage that of other people. In other words, we never have to leave a liberty-centred discourse to follow Tom in saying that we’re going to ignore some people’s liberty without any benefit for others’. Also, I’m perfectly well aware that there are a lot of perfectionist liberals out there. I don’t agree with them.)

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lisa 03.30.09 at 1:15 am

The mistake they really seem to be making is thinking that some set of ideas alone leads to some political structure.

Does Stalin really arise out of Marx’s thinking at some point that he knew what was *really* good for people?

I realize getting into that argument doesn’t get you to the point where you show the conservative slippery slope argument can be turned around on the conservative. It just seems like the slippery slope argument depends on bad history–and that’s what is most wrong with it.

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john holbo 03.30.09 at 3:12 am

Thomas, you are right that I could attribute bad faith to Murray, instead of attributing to him a reading according to which he attributes false consciousness. But I thought you were suggesting that the problem was that my reading wasn’t charitable enough. Surely attributing bad faith is no more charitable than attributing attributions of false consciousness. Can you think of some other reading of Murray that makes sense of what he says, and is actually charitable? (That was what I was really asking for.)

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Thomas 03.30.09 at 5:24 am

I didn’t suggest you could attribute bad faith to Murray. Rather, I suggested–by quoting you!–that Murray could say that his opponents are acting in bad faith, rather than with false consciousness. Or they could be mistaken for any of the dozens of other reasons that likely explain the fact of pluralism. If you’d like, see Rawls’s Political Liberalism, Lecture II, for a discussion of why there may be disagreement as a matter of fact. Or consider some of the”many possible explanations” you referred to above. Instead of going in that direction, you have insisted Murray attributed false consciousness to those who disagree with him, with false consciousness meaning something new and likely entirely unfamiliar to him. Frankly, it’s a bizarre sort of claim–nearly saying Murray is using your private language. Bad faith would be a charitable description.

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John Holbo 03.30.09 at 5:46 am

“Instead of going in that direction, you have insisted Murray attributed false consciousness to those who disagree with him, with false consciousness meaning something new and likely entirely unfamiliar to him.”

But this is just confused. If I use a term – ‘false consciousness’ – to characterize Murray’s view, it is hardly an objection to that usage that Murray himself doesn’t use the term that way. The only question is whether my description of his view, using my term, is accurate. (Compare: I can characterize a German speaker’s beliefs in English, even if the German doesn’t speak English. My characterization may be tolerably accurate, even though the German understands none of the words I am using. Your claim that my claim is bizarre seems simply to trip over this simple point.)

Maybe you can just tell me what you think Murray’s view is, that I am missing.

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John Holbo 03.30.09 at 5:59 am

I’m more or less familiar with Rawls’ lecture, so you can probably be brief in summarizing whatever answer you think you can give on Murray’s behalf. I’ll understand it, if it’s a Rawlsian thing.

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Tracy W 03.30.09 at 9:44 am

(Forcing people not to have something they think they want is no less coercive than forcing them to have something they don’t think they want.)

Why? Let’s say that Joe Bloggs wants to have sex with Paris Hilton, could easily overpower her by force, and has no moral qualms about rape if he can’t get what he wants voluntarily. Paris Hilton doesn’t want to have sex with Joe Bloggs. Do you really want to argue that it is equally as bad to send the police in to forcibly prevent Joe Bloggs from raping Paris Hilton as it is for Joe Bloggs to rape Paris Hilton?

How about a less-nasty case? I really really like the Hope Diamond, which I saw at the Smithsonian Museum. Is it really coercive that I can’t have it?

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Sam C 03.30.09 at 10:07 am

James at 90: You don’t seem to have understood what I said. I haven’t claimed that moral/religious views in general shouldn’t be the basis for law. (I have said, in passing, that I would prefer that religious conservative views about sexual morality did not become law: my reason for that preference is that those particular views are loathsome, and the known results of their legal enforcement are disastrous).

What I have argued, in direct response to your characterization of religious conservative claims, is that the right of religious freedom, specifically, is not a right to use public power to enforce moral/religious views. Religious freedom is a right not to be interfered with in the private practice of your chosen form of worship. So, anyone who asserts – as you said religious conservatives assert – that state-endorsed gay marriage contravenes their religious freedom is either confused or dishonest. That’s not ‘very overreaching’, it’s an uncontroversial statement about what ‘religious freedom’ means, and has meant since the seventeenth century. Here’s John Locke, for instance:

As the magistrate has no power to impose by his laws the use of any rites and ceremonies in any Church, so neither has he any power to forbid the use of such rites and ceremonies as are already received, approved, and practised by any Church; because, if he did so, he would destroy the Church itself: the end of whose institution is only to worship God with freedom after its own manner.

Your characterisation of religious conservative argument therefore – valuably – reveals that religious conservatives are either confused about what religious freedom is, or dishonest in their arguments about how public power should be used. If the latter, the tactic may be that appeals to ‘freedom’, like appeals to ‘rights’, tend to be treated more sympathetically than assertions of the form ‘people should be forced to do what I want them to do’. But that is what religious conservatives who want gay marriage to be illegal are actually saying. They want to use public power to enforce their own – loathsome – views about sexual morality. That has nothing to do with religious freedom.

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Sam C 03.30.09 at 10:11 am

Tracy W at 113: ‘I really really like the Hope Diamond, which I saw at the Smithsonian Museum. Is it really coercive that I can’t have it?’

Yes, obviously. Property is a system of relations of coercion: ‘it’s not yours’ means ‘people will prevent you from taking and using it, by force if necessary’. That, in itself, doesn’t tell us anything about which relations of coercion it’s right to engage in, though. And this case is not analogous to the rape case, because what’s at stake there is harm, not just coercion.

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Martin Bento 03.30.09 at 10:15 am

Thomas,

Murray said this:

” Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase “a life well-lived” did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. “

In other words, confronted directly by Europeans who tell him they enjoy their lives and do not agree with or even understand his critique of it, he takes this, not as evidence against his view, but as evidence for it. If they cannot even see how empty their lives are, it proves they are truly brainwashed. I don’t see another reasonable reading of that passage but as an attribution of false consciousness in a perfectly conventional sense.

This is not to say there is anything wrong with Murray thinking that the European values are inferior to those he espouses. But he argues that his values give greater personal satisfaction. If the people with the contrary values profess to be quite satisfied and don’t see the superiority of what he proposes, he has to argue either that they are lying or that they don’t know their own best interest. I think he is clearly saying the latter.

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Alex 03.30.09 at 10:40 am

The entire argument about a small state as a hedge against tyranny is invalidated by its own premises. It is pretty much constitutive of right-wing libertarianism that you want to cut back the state to its irreducible core functions of national defence and public order – that is to say, shut down everything that isn’t painted either khaki or dark blue and white, or as we feminised eurosexuals would call it, the repressive state apparatus.

After all, the whole philosophical foundation for this view is that the state begins with its monopoly of violence and grows from there, and in a sense whatever else it may do – requiring lockout-tagout standards on dangerous machine tools, counting endangered fish, preventing your neighbour from building a toxic waste dump in the back garden without your prior informed consent – is contaminated with coercion. It’s the opposite of the legal doctrine of the fruit of the poisoned tree.

But the only state activity they don’t find unacceptably violent and coercive is state violence itself. Cut the state back to the army, the cops, the courts, and jail, and you’ve still got a toolkit for tyranny, in the absence of effective democratic control of the executive branch. In fact, that’s the only thing you *can* do with the libertarian state – repress. All the other options are greyed out.

Further, what are these higher aims that we are meant to aspire to? Anything in the way of public service is ruled out by definition. The obvious one is to go into business, but isn’t that just the shameless worship of wealth? Could it possibly be war? I rather think it is.

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John Holbo 03.30.09 at 12:37 pm

“Let’s say that Joe Bloggs wants to have sex with Paris Hilton, could easily overpower her by force, and has no moral qualms about rape if he can’t get what he wants voluntarily. Paris Hilton doesn’t want to have sex with Joe Bloggs. Do you really want to argue that it is equally as bad to send the police in to forcibly prevent Joe Bloggs from raping Paris Hilton as it is for Joe Bloggs to rape Paris Hilton?”

Tracy, you are conflating badness with coercion. They aren’t the same thing at all. Joe Bloggs is most definitely being coerced into not raping Paris Hilton. It doesn’t follow that this is a bad thing. I consider that a good thing. (Other things being equal, coercion is a bad thing. But when what people want to do with their freedom is harm others, other things are not equal.)

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Tracy W 03.30.09 at 4:23 pm

Sam C. Yes, obviously. Property is a system of relations of coercion: ‘it’s not yours’ means ‘people will prevent you from taking and using it, by force if necessary.”

Well no, not obviously. The difference is that not having the Hope Diamond still leaves me free to do a vast variety of other things with my life, while if I was forced to own diamonds without the simple option of selling or “losing” them I would have to take on all the hassles of owning diamonds.

And this case is not analogous to the rape case, because what’s at stake there is harm, not just coercion.

This is my point. Forcing people to do something is, all other things being equal, more harmful than forcing people not to do something. Of course in most comparisons not all other things are equal, a strangler could be described as forcing someone not to breath and that is worse than say forcing someone to pay taxes as not breathing for a few minutes cuts off all the other options of what you can do with your life, while paying taxes still leaves a lot of opportunities available (leaving aside cases where nasty governments have used taxes to try to starve off political opposition). But when we come to the same acts (having sex against your will, not having sex against your will), it strikes me that the coercion comparison is inequal.

John Holbo – yes, both are coercion. But the distinction between forcing people not to do something, and forcing them to do something is important. Paris Hilton is more harmed by being forced to have sex than Joe Bloggs is harmed by being forced not to have sex. On thinking about it, I think I quoted the wrong bit of the original post, I should have quoted:
Coercion is as coercion does. Bringing about small government, on the grounds that this will eventually induce others to accept your superior value system, is just as ‘coercive’, in the relevant sense, as bringing about big government to do that.
I’m arguing that the relevant sense does in fact include a distinction at least according to our inclinations.

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MarkUp 03.30.09 at 5:13 pm

”Paris Hilton is more harmed by being forced to have sex than Joe Bloggs is harmed by being forced not to have sex.”

JB is not being forced to not have “sex” unless of course by “force” you mean not cooking her dinner on the otherwise mutually arrived at time, all things being eqaul that is.

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StevenAttewell 03.30.09 at 5:38 pm

Tracy:

I’m not sure about your forcing to do versus forcing not to do – or rather positive and negative unfreedoms. I think this distinction you’re making can be very easily blown up as purely semantic, in that every action of forcing to not do can be construed as forcing to do.

To use your Paris Hilton/Joe Bloggs scenario. The positive anti-freedom here is rape, but I think the negative anti-freedom could well be castration or forcible installation of a chastity belt. Since the violations of the body are now equalized, the distinction collapses.

Furthermore, I think a historical perspective really puts the lie to this one. Historical examples of negative anti-freedoms almost always manifest as positive anti-freedoms. Take the example of the disenfrachisement of African-Americans between 1877-1965. This was a negative-anti-freedom, in that African-Americans were being forced not to vote. However, this became a positive anti-freedom in two ways. First, the consequences: not having the right to vote meant being forced to attend unequal schools and being forced to live in substandard housing and take substandard pay (not having the legislative power to alter your circumstances), being forced to pay taxes and obey laws without your consent, and so on. Second, the mechanism of enforcement – in order to bar African-Americans from voting, it was necessary to use both legal and extra-legal violence (force directed against the body), economic intimidation (indirect force directed against the body), and similar mechanisms.

I think the point of enforcement mechanisms is the most important, because in reality, you can’t really force people not to do something without forcing them to do something else, and that’s usually backed by force and the threat of force.

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john holbo 03.31.09 at 1:14 am

Tracy: “Forcing people to do something is, all other things being equal, more harmful than forcing people not to do something.”

I don’t really think you can generalize. Whether it is more harmful to ‘force to’ or ‘force not to’ is not a function of the ‘not’ but a function of whether the thing forced on you, or kept from you, is highly desired, necessary, central to your conception of the good life. So forth. One way of seeing this is to think about how the same case can easily be described either way.

If you are in prison, is it a case of being forced to stay in a little box for a long time, or it is merely a case of you being forced not to do anything outside the little box for a long time? Is the latter a less harmful arrangement, as you suggest. Since it’s just the same thing being described two different ways, I don’t think it can be.

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Sam C 03.31.09 at 10:19 am

Tracy W: none of what you say in response to my 115 speaks to the point. You asked whether your not being allowed to have the Hope diamond was coercive. The answer to that question is yes. There are then further questions about whether it’s bad as well as coercive, and if so, how bad by comparison with other sorts of coercion, or other bad things, you might be subject to. But the answers to those questions don’t affect the fact that the institution of property is a system of relations of coercion.

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Tracy W 03.31.09 at 1:47 pm

Steven Attewell The positive anti-freedom here is rape, but I think the negative anti-freedom could well be castration or forcible installation of a chastity belt. Since the violations of the body are now equalized, the distinction collapses.

The violations of the body are not equalised in the case of castration. A raped woman can recover emotionally, a castrated man can’t (as far as I know given the current state of medical knowledge). So castration lasts for a life time. This is closer to the denial of air situation I discussed earlier.
Forced wearing of a chastity belt – this depends on context. After all, arguably, isn’t that what we try to do to prisoners now, well at least strictly-hetrosexual prisoners? Or to someone no matter how innocent who no one nearby happens to want to sleep with? But many people who support imprisonment for serious crimes don’t advocate the explicit rape of those prisoners.

Take the example of the disenfrachisement of African-Americans between 1877-1965. This was a negative-anti-freedom, in that African-Americans were being forced not to vote.

However unpleasant, it was noticeably better than slavery which involving forcing people to be slaves. Based on Frederick Douglas’s autobiography, he at least far preferred being free but unable to vote to being a slave. As a slave, he had virtually no control over his life, except of course that he had enough practical control to escape. This argues that there is an asymmetry between coercing someone to do something and coercing someone to not do something.

John Holbo:
I don’t really think you can generalize. Whether it is more harmful to ‘force to’ or ‘force not to’ is not a function of the ‘not’ but a function of whether the thing forced on you, or kept from you, is highly desired, necessary, central to your conception of the good life.

So we specify that Joe Bloggs finds the idea of sleeping with Paris Hilton is highly desirably, necessary, and central to his conception of the good life.

Or let’s take another example. My grandmother was during her lifetime highly Christian, and it bothered her deeply that both her children were atheists and thus by her lights destined to go to hell – she loved her children as deeply as any other mother I know. But still, my Dad being an atheist doesn’t strike me as being as much of a wrong as Joe Bloggs raping Paris Hilton.

I should say explicitly that I am arguing that whether it is more harmful to force to, as opposed to force not to, is a function of *both* the “not” and other features. Sometimes the other features can outweigh the “not”, as in the example of forcing someone not to breathe for a few minutes.

Sam C – agreed. I quoted the wrong bit from the original post given the problem I was worrying away at. My apologies for my earlier mistake.

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Tracy W 03.31.09 at 3:46 pm

I should state my belief about the possibility of recovering from rape is based on stories like Sabine Dardenne’s, who survived 3 months of rape and imprisonment, and my feminist-driven nauseation at the idea that a woman’s purity is more important than what she herself does with her own life – those Ancient Roman stories where a woman killed herself because she was raped disgust me. I’ve never been raped myself and I don’t know how I would cope with it if I was. But then I’ve never been castrated either, and I think I am at drastically lower risk of that (can you castrate a woman?)

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salient 03.31.09 at 4:09 pm

So we specify that Joe Bloggs finds the idea of sleeping with Paris Hilton is highly desirably, necessary, and central to his conception of the good life.

No no no no no. You’ve confused “you” with “he” — your system of justice should answer these questions in the general case. Joe Bloggs does not get an exception or exemption (unless you’re a reactionary utilitarian who accommodates everyone’s desire according to its intensity, but that’s not on-topic right now). Each individual person does not get to create their own legal institution and live in it; that would be anarchy. Anarchy is not a strong enough word. That would be Calvinball with hand grenades.

Now, Joe Bloggs could argue that in general some persons ought to be allowed to kidnap and sexually assault others, and I hope you would join me in feeling Joe’s “theory of justice” worthy of our contempt and disdain.

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james 03.31.09 at 9:39 pm

Sam C at 114

While I sympathize with your position, however it runs into two pre-existing barriers.

Since the time of Locke, Western Governments have readily established several laws in which they override an individual freedom for a perceived moral good. An example of this which you may approve of is the establishment of Hate speech laws. The bright line restriction on the establishment of a morality based law versus an individual right has already been moved. How do you tell a Religious Conservative that “…the right of religious freedom, specifically, is not a right to use public power to enforce moral/religious views” when it has been established that random philosophical positions have used State power to enforce moral views.

The second problem is the State willingness to contravene the private practice of religion in order establish some other desired good. Again, a US example is, in New Mexico a photographer was sued and fined $7000 for refusing to take pictures of a same sex wedding. It is unreasonable to expect Religious Conservatives to view “freedom of religion” as a private act if the power of the State is being used to interfere with the actual practice. (think PETA and requiring them to wear fur coats, etc.)

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james 03.31.09 at 11:42 pm

Sam C at 114

It has always been my impression that Equality under the law is critical to a functioning Democracy. It is equally important that a citizen have all the same rights regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or religion. Thus I tend to view the right of a citizen to apply religion to the political process as just as important as the right of a citizen to have state recognized benefits regardless of who they chose to sleep with. The Individual rights of all are lost when it becomes possible to strip one group of a natural right to the benefit of another.

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larry c wilson 04.01.09 at 12:43 am

I think if I cared I would read Murray for myself.

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Martin Bento 04.01.09 at 2:21 am

abb1, hilarious! Welcome back.

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john holbo 04.01.09 at 3:12 am

Tracy: “So we specify that Joe Bloggs finds the idea of sleeping with Paris Hilton is highly desirably, necessary, and central to his conception of the good life.”

Well, no such specification was made. Certainly I don’t need to make such a specification to make my argument against your claim. But we could, if you like, make it: let Joe Bloggs be absolutely obsessed with sleeping with Paris Hilton. He will, then, feel very acutely his legally-coerced inability to have sex with her. And he may feel that he is being deprived of the ability to lead a good life. The sensible thing to say is: he’s exactly right about the coercion part. But he’s got a messed up idea of the good life.

One incidental point here is that we don’t normally call it coercion unless we positively anticipate a strong desire to do the thing in question. We don’t normally think that the average person on the street is being coerced not to murder and rape, because we assume that most people wouldn’t want to do that stuff even if they could get away with it. Nevertheless, it is strictly true that laws against murder and rape and theft are coercion. That’s just what it is to be a law prohibiting something. It’s a form of coercion not to do that thing.

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roy belmont 04.01.09 at 4:20 am

Chris, heard and received with what humility I can muster.
We’re shuddering in unison.
It makes me too quick on the draw, clearly.
Sincere apologies for any dismay my misreading caused.

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roy belmont 04.01.09 at 4:41 am

And Salient, thanks again. Should have followed your lead on that.

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JoB 04.01.09 at 6:17 am

Joe Bloggs??? Please leave my obsessions alone!!! Do I go round blogging with my full name, or what?

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