As a follow-up to Jay Lake’s response to my most recent post in this space, I wanted to specifically address something Jay wrote:
I want certain things for myself and all my fellow citizens, including:
1) equality of opportunity 2) a minimum standard of living and healthcare 3) safe, clean environment 4) reliable and expanding future 5) safer world around the planet so Americans, and everyone else can prosper.
I rather suspect that this list has a strong overlap with what most conservatives desire. Where we diverge is in what these individual items mean to us, how those goals might be achieved, and at least in terms of the current political dynamic, what the proper role of government in all its forms (regulation, taxation, etc.) is in achieving those goals. Some of that divergence is overwhelmingly vast, and some of it is deeply acrimonious. But fundamentally, almost all of us want to do the right thing.
In my early 20s (1994-1998) my “list” would doubtless have looked very similar to Jay’s. And while I think all of these things are worthy and admirable in and of themselves, I think Jay’s got it absolutely right when he says that Liberals and Conservatives diverge greatly on how to go about achieving such things; especially regarding the role of government.
First declarative: over the last 14 years I’ve worked for two different hospital/clinic organizations, one small and one large, as well a the United States Army in a Reserve capacity. This combined experience has made me a firm believer in Pournelle’s Iron Law.
Second declarative: the world has been witness to various types and kinds of democratic socialism, as well as outright communism, for about 100 years now. In all of that time, I know of no state program which has ever erased poverty. Not in Canada, not in France, not in Britain, not in China, not in Russia, not in Cuba, not anywhere. But I can think of many state programs which have been very effective at erasing prosperity. Such programs also seem to have an inexorably deleterious effect on individual life and liberty.
Third declarative: I take it as common understanding of Progressive Liberal policies that any suggestion to mitigate or eradicate a problem, or foster positive results, necessitates government programs, regulations, and money, gleaned from taxes, tariffs, and other “state income” measures.
Now then, I think equality of opportunity is superbly important. We have laws in the U.S. designed to defend against discrimination in the workplace based on gender, ethnicity, and so forth. Our public school system is operated under the belief that every child, regardless of his or her home economic situation, might have access to a basic level of learning necessary to become a functional, productive member of a free society. We spend a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money — both publicly and privately — trying to “level the playing field” so that no person with talent, skill, ability, or ambition, need see his or her horizons foreshortened by artificial or unfair stumbling blocks.
Where I think Conservatives raise the red flag is when equality of opportunity is translated to mean equality of outcome. Ergo, not only should every child be given the chance to go to school and get good grades, every child must be guaranteed good grades. Not only should every child be given the chance to earn a High School or College diploma, every child should be guaranteed a High School or College diploma. Graduates must not only have the opportunity to find meaningful and/or lucrative work, they should be guaranteed jobs with guaranteed good pay and benefits. And so on, and so forth.
Honestly, even when I was younger and more idealistic, I didn’t think such guarantees were possible. Even when I liked or trusted the people trying to make such guarantees. Because I believe as a rule of reality that not everyone is the same, with the same level of talent, energy, discipline, intelligence, creativeness, stubbornness, laziness, lack of focus, what have you. The only real guarantee is that if you take a given block of individuals — say, 50 kids, for example — and you set each of them up with a more or less equal opportunity to succeed (“success” being somewhat relative, but you know what I mean) it’s a sure thing that as time passes not all of them will succeed — however “success” may be defined. Sooner or later, some people fail. Sometimes, spectacularly.
And from my lay historian’s POV this has been true for all of human history. And as much as I’d love for there to be a magical government program which could transform society into a collective of 100% achievers, it cannot be so. And there is no known sum of money — no program in existence — which could make it so. Yet, from my point of view, it seems that equality of outcome is precisely what a great many Liberal policies and ideas are aimed at.
So much so that I believe fixation on equality of outcome becomes a limiter on opportunity. A limiter on choices. A limiter on freedom. Because when not everyone can be guaranteed success, it’s almost inevitable that everyone will be guaranteed mediocrity, if not outright failure.
Personal anecdote: My wife and I have an enormously precocious daughter. Not only because of her innate abilities, but because my wife was a relentless preparer when my daughter was pre-school aged. We made a significant financial sacrifice when we jointly decided my wife would leave the workplace and become a stay-at-home Mom. But my daughter has been the beneficiary. She entered kindergarten already well advanced beyond her peers, was bumped that first year into the first grade, and there was serious discussion about bumping her to the second grade.
But the school wouldn’t allow it. The school felt it was “unfair” for my daughter to accelerate so rapidly past her age group. The “older” grades — both students and teachers — weren’t prepared to handle my daughter in this regard.
So as much as it was an additional hit to our middle-class budget — we of the five figures and a substantial fixer-upper mortgage — my wife and I pulled our daughter out of school and enrolled her in a rather unique home-school private tutoring program taught by a woman who used to teach at public school, then in a charter school, and now runs a home business for children with extraordinary or special learning needs.
My daughter turns 9 in a few months, and is reading, doing math, doing science, etc, at a 14 year old level, and there’s no talk about “fair,” because what seemed grossly unfair to me was that my daughter would have been constrained from excelling simply because the school — and this was a charter school, not even a public school — wanted to lump her in with her age group. Mainly for the convenience of the school itself, not because it’s what would have been best for my daughter’s education.
Now, that’s just one example, and it’s a very specific one, and I can already hear the complaints: not everyone can afford a tutor, not everyone has two parents in the home, not everyone can afford for one of the parents to stay home and be the caretaker, what about low-income mothers, what about this, what about that…!
Which takes me to Jay’s “goal” of minimum standards of lifestyle and healthcare.
In a perfect world, all children would be born into stable households with two loving, nurturing, protective parents with the ability to make enough money to gift every child with a comfortable upbringing free of danger or worry, and replete with good food, good medicine, good fun, lots of chances to get out and see the world, learn, grow, mature into the next generation of loving, nurturing, protective parents, et cetera.
Alas, ours is a remarkably imperfect world, peopled with imperfect souls, and not every child gets to have a comfortable, financially equitable upbringing with a stable parental situation, the best hospitals and clinics, etc. And as much as I think it’s fine to want for this to change, I have grown doubtful of government’s ability to make it change. Even if we took every cent currently devoted to defense (roughly 24% of Federal, as of FY 2012) and turned it over entirely to Welfare, Education, and Healthcare (roughly 38% of Federal, as of FY 2012) would simply throwing money at the problem have a lasting impact? Would siphoning funding from one important state function to pack the piggy banks of other state functions make a prolonged, permanent difference?
Again, I know of no program which has ever erased poverty or want. But there are plenty of historical examples of programs which have caused poverty and want. (The plight of Ukraine from 1932-1933 being a particularly horrific example.)
How much money is it worth to try to erase disparities in lifestyle? Healthcare? Moreover, how effectively can our state bureaucracies administer and manage the programs? How much of the funding actually goes to improve the lives of citizens, versus simply paying the “overhead” of salaries, pensions, material and logistical costs, etc, associated with government social spending? To include the inevitable graft that is unavoidable in any large bureaucracy with a lot of money? Where do we draw the line?
I have heard it said by some committed Progressive Liberals that there is no line. The state should spend as much money as needed, and if the money runs out, then it’s the state’s job to either find more money (taxes) or make more money (inflation) so that the social needs of the citizens are met to satisfaction. My problem with this scenario is that if we tax too much, it becomes a punitive disincentive on the individual and the private sector, consumer confidence and jobs hiring plunges, and the economy goes into a crash. Too much inflation, and the currency becomes devalued to the point that it’s not worth anything, and again the economy goes into a crash. And while we might — at last, in desperation — nationalize all services and all industries, as the Soviet Union did, the outcome of Pournelle’s Iron Law is implicit: bureaucratize enough of everything, and pretty soon you wind up getting nothing.
Now, I’m not saying Jay Lake thinks the United States should become the Soviet Union. I don’t want to be putting words in his mouth. And I know lots of Liberals who are fans of free enterprise, fans of individual liberty and the ability to make choices and have a lifestyle commensurate with a person’s creativity, discipline, work productivity, ingenuity, etc. They simply want to help the situation however they can. They look at the world — imperfect and cruel — and they need to help. I get it. I think most Conservatives feel the same way. My wife and I gave out several thousand dollars last year in cash, food, furniture, etc, to people in our area who needed it. We know what it is to want to help.
The difference, perhaps, is that while my wife (the Liberal of the house) might have equal faith in private charity and government programs alike, I do not have such faith in government programs. I’ve seen how the military handles families. I’ve seen and experienced how difficult it is trying to extract funds, services, etc, from a heavily bureaucratized state organ when that organ makes a mistake. As inevitably they all do.
Again, the tendency is towards mediocrity or poorness for all, not excellence. And as much as I’d like to believe this outcome could somehow be avoided either through transformative federal and state “clean outs” or education efforts or by simply encouraging (pleading with?) our state and federal employees to try harder, I see it as inevitable that putting the state in charge of lifestyle and welfare — healthcare being a part of both — won’t necessarily get us what we think it will get us.
Oh, it might boost the lowest 20% of our population on the bottom of the economic ladder up to a somewhat higher standard, but the net drag on the other 80% is something I fear would prove corrosive over time; a project in diminishing returns. The failure of the Soviet Union, the poverty of Cuba, the current-day economic and political turmoil of the European Union — all places where heavy statist assurances of lifestyle and healthcare have been common for decades — these things all scream cautionary tale to my mind.
But perhaps the allure of “fixing” disparities is too great? Somehow, someway, we in the United States will get it right, where so many others have stumbled into getting it wrong?
My position is to take the lesson of history. To remand charity to private institutions and non-governmental organizations as much as possible. To not fall for the honey trap of “ism.”
I understand that for many — most? — liberals, seeking private solutions simply isn’t acceptable. Especially when so much capital is tied up in corporate hands and the so-called One Percent of Americans who possess the majority of the money don’t seem in any hurry to part with that money. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates notwithstanding.
I wish I had the kind of faith in government bureaucracy that I’d need to have to get onboard with those who want to make it the state’s job to give me guarantees of the sort I’d want, in order for it to all seem worth it to me. Unfortunately I don’t have that faith. I might have had it when I was younger. I don’t anymore. And if this speaks to an inordinate amount of cynicism on my part, perhaps I should apologize. I try to be hopeful about individual people and assume that folks have the best of intentions and are never ill-willed in anything they do.
I just think that even the best of intentions aren’t enough to shield programs and apparatuses designed to benefit the public, from gradually grinding down over time so that they eventually become dedicated to benefitting the inhabitants and architects of the programs themselves.
And I would bet money that this is the core source of Conservative distrust of virtually all Liberal suggestions that we need government intervention to guarantee certain minimums. Especially when hundreds of billions of dollars are already spent annually on such things, and we seem no closer to closing the gaps and wiping out the disparities than we’ve been in any other year when we’ve spent similar sums on the many programs.
Jay’s third “goal” of a safe and clean environment is again something I think many Conservatives can support. But where many Progressive Liberals might label themselves Environmentalists — mankind as an unnatural encroachment upon the landscape and the biosphere — Conservatives would mostly adopt the label of Conservationists: mankind as rightful caretakers and users of the land and its natural and geological resources. There’s a huge amount of wrangling that takes place between-the-lines on what the real difference is between “caretaking” and “abusing,” suffice to say that Conservatives seem to love the outdoors and nature just as much as any Liberal, and I don’t know any Conservatives who want to use nature as a sewer for industrial toxins any more than Liberals do. I think again it comes down to Conservative doubts about the actual effectiveness of certain kinds of regulation, and the bureaucratized intrusions on private life and business by state organs like the EPA. Far from being seen as an aid to the public, many Conservatives view the EPA as a punitive body not as interested in protecting or conserving the environment as in punishing individuals and businesses for arbitrary or otherwise meaningless offenses. (see again: Pournelle’s Iron Law.)
Jay’s final two “goals” are the broadest of all, and this makes them the least easy to address.
“A reliable and expanding future” sounds like Star Trek to my ears. Evocative and tantalizing. But hard to qualify or quantify. I’d like a reliable and expanding future too, if I could nail down what that looks like in detail. But reliable in what ways? How expanding, exactly, and what does that mean? And how to ensure that what appears “reliable” is in fact sustainable, or even feasible, over more than a few decades? I look to Europe right now and I see an aggregate of governments who all more or less had promised to build reliable and expanding futures for their people. It’s landed them in a rather difficult pickle since the definitions of “reliable and expanding” may have expanded to the point that the state literally can’t meet the demand, thus making the state un-reliable, and thus the pressure on the members of the E.U. to double down, consolidate liabilities, shuffle funds from the prospering or at least industrious member nations to the poorer and/or floundering nations, etc.
As in all things which sound superb, at face value, I think “Reliable and expanding future” contains within it the seeds for a host of potential problems. For most of the reasons I’ve already outlined in this piece: the sclerosis of bureaucracy, the unnecessarily haphazard and punitive nature of regulatory organizations and agencies, the potential for currency inflation, taxes which exceed reasonable levels, and so forth.
Ironically, the so-called party of Conservativism — the Republican Party — has spent the last ten years devoting great sums of money, material, and manpower to tackling Jay’s final objective: a safer world around the planet so Americans, and everyone else can prosper. Misguided as it sometimes seems, and has been, the Global War On Terror (GWOT) and its combat theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq have been a concrete case of attempting to create a safer world, with more potential for prosperity. The Hussein regime and the Taliban were and are despotic and heinous on every level identifiable by either Conservatives or Liberals, and while the futures of both nations remain in serious doubt, it must be said that trying to “fix” the world through military strength is something political heroes of both Left and Right (Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Bush) have been quite fond of.
The Liberal idea of “creating a safer world where everyone can prosper” sometimes appears to amount to nothing more than wanting to turn the United States into another European Union: a centralized oligarchic collection of countries with a significant Socialist political and policy history, run from up top by people who think they know best what the people at the bottom really want and need. Not necessarily what they might vote for, per se. But what is “best” for them in the long term.
In exchange for a degree of personal and individual state autonomy, there is the promise of care and security: social, medical, fiscal, geriatric.
I have to wonder if anyone who is a U.S. Liberal and has been pining for European solutions to U.S. problems is at all concerned about Europe’s present political and financial difficulties? From where I sit, much of what’s suggested in the E.U. capitol, for solutions, seems like more of the same thing that’s caused a lot of the problems in the E.U. these past few years. Oh, I am sure the E.U. will muddle through. But even if it doesn’t, and even if we see a breakup of the E.U. I don’t doubt that many of America’s liberals will continue to seek “European” modeled programs and policy. To such an extent that I wonder if the fact that something is deemed “European” regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea, is enough to sway some Liberals to be in favor of it?
Granted, for Conservatives, there is an earned label of Ostrich-like stubbornness: nope, if it didn’t originate on our shores, we don’t want it! Phooey!
But then again, why not? The United States was founded from the get-go to be different from Europe. When Europe was a collection of Kings, Queens, and monarchies, the United States was doing it different. When Europe was a collection of populist dictatorships, the United States was doing it different. When Europe was engaged in communism — in the form of the Warsaw Pact — the United States was doing it different. So different, in fact, that the United States took the army it had built to fend off and destroy Europe’s dictators, and used that army as a shield against the Soviets, so that much of the Western European scene could engage in Socialism of one sort or another.
Now, I’m not saying the United States is perfect. Far from it. I do not think we have ever been “perfect” in the past, nor do I expect us to be “perfect” in the future. But I do think there is room in the world for at least one major country that isn’t set up expressly as a pension, welfare, and healthcare program for its citizens. That the state’s job is, in fact, to protect and guarantee individual liberties and opportunity. So that a man or a woman might rise (or fall) according to his or her abilities. That it is the responsibility of the individual to seek out and secure his own nest egg, his own healthcare, his own lifestyle, as best as he is able. And that while the state can and does provide necessary safeguards and we do at present seem to be saddled with a certain amount of inevitable “socialist” setup, in the form of social security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc, this doesn’t mean the fix-all for our problems as a society is to push all the way over into actual Socialism (or Communism) with the state assuming more and more responsibility for (and thus more control over) the welfare and daily needs of the citizens.
To reiterate: as much as disparity and poverty are both saddening and alarming, speaking as someone who has been very poor at times in his life, and who is at present not at all wealthy according to the current standards in our country, I know of no program (current or historical) which has ever managed to erase the problem of poor people. Though I can think of at least half a dozen national experiments in the last century which were all too good at erasing prosperity; at least for everyone not in the well-connected political class. The way you got rich in the Soviet days was by moving up the government ladder. Being a part of or connected to the Politburo. And even then that kind of “wealth” was illusory, because the system it was based on collapsed of its own necrotic accord.
And also to reiterate: I don’t think most American Liberals want a Soviet States of America. But there are ways to re-create many of the USSR’s same difficulties, without ever actually labeling ourselves as having become communist or socialist. Just erect enough programs with enough agencies, agents, and bureaucrats, and you get similar results. We seem to be halfway there already. Many Conservatives have given up the idea of reversing or rolling it back, and now cling simply to the idea that maybe the process can be slowed or halted. Freeze the state’s size, scope, cost, and power. Freeze it fast!
Now, I am not anti-government by any stretch. And I don’t think many Conservatives are truly anti-government either, when you get right down to it. The rhetoric is decidedly anti-government, so I understand it may be easy for a Liberal to look at it and conclude that Conservatives want a Wild West scenario with no laws, no taxes, no services, no regulation, it’s dog-eat-dog and everybody for himself or herself. I don’t think I can say I support or desire this, nor would I conclude that anyone else who is Conservative would want this. Certainly not us small-c conservatives for whom government is both necessary and desirable — provided that there are limits.
But it’s the lack of limitations which I think ought to concern both Liberals and Conservatives alike at present.
Now, to be realistic, Conservatives love certain limitations (abortion) and hate others (guns.) Liberals love some limitations (guns) and hate others (abortion.) Part of what makes it frustrating for me personally to be a small-c conservative is that I can see logic and reasoning on both sides of many of these issues.
For instance, I think it’s not insane that a person purchasing a firearm be required to demonstrate practical and safe proficiency on that firearm, prior to being able to carry and use it privately. Much like we’re all required to prove we know how to drive our cars before we can get licenses to drive, and we’re required by law to be licensed when behind the wheel. Q.E.D.
But that’s heresy according to some staunch 2nd amendment folk, for whom there must be no restrictions or licensing or state interference on firearms operation or ownership at any time for any reason, otherwise it’s a gross infraction of a Constitutional right.
On the flip side I have a severe ethical problem with abortion as birth control. I believe in choice — so far as contraception goes, and I believe that pregnancies resulting from rape, incest, or which present severe medical danger for the mother, justify the practice. But on-demand abortion? I’ve stated before in this space that I’m not thrilled with it. I am not prepared to ban it, but I am not thrilled with it. And I am sympathetic to the arguments of those who would ban it, though I also grasp the individual liberty quotient where pregnant women are concerned: their bodies, their choices. I would also ad, “Their responsibilities, and the responsibilities of the fathers too,” but that’s my conservative side speaking.
Anyway, the type and kinds of limits we allow our government to place on us as individuals seem to largely define us as Conservatives and Liberals. We fear and avoid certain limits, and embrace others, based on our ideological leaning. Legislation or Supreme Court rulings swinging one way or the other on a contested issue (like abortion) are forever under threat because half the country thinks the law is bad and wants it removed, while the other half of the country loves the law and wants it upheld.
Too often I suspect we — as Americans — get lost in the weeds trying to ban, or remove from banning, behaviors. All the while the government itself slowly gets larger, more expensive, and more intrusive on our lives. I’ve heard some Liberals say they want the government out of a woman’s uterus, but they’re fine having the government ban porn, because porn exploits women. I’ve heard Conservatives say they want the government’s hands off their gun collections, but want flag-burning banned or made into a criminal offense, because flag-burning is anti-American and seditious.
The lesson I take from it is we don’t seem to mind the government getting bigger and/or more intrusive, as long as it’s getting bigger and more intrusive at the expense of The Other Side™.
The problem is, once the government gets bigger and more intrusive, it seldom shrinks or becomes less intrusive. Take the TSA, for instance. Does anyone, Left or Right, enjoy the TSA at the airport these days? We may or may not be safer from airline terrorism as a result of the TSA, but from what I can tell, irritation with and dislike of the TSA at the airport is one of the few things Liberals and Conservatives can probably agree on. But does this mean we will get rid of the TSA? I doubt it. Intrusive — sometimes scarily intrusive — airport security seems here to stay. We grumble and we shuffle through the lines, stripping off our belts and shoes (or more) while being patted, probed, scanned, and having our “junk” (male and female) placed under scrutiny. Now maybe this has stopped another 9/11 from happening. But then again I think armed pilots, armored cockpit doors, and a more aware, more proactive population of airline passengers — people with a Todd Beamer mentality — might be all it takes. No need for a TSA.
That’s mostly an illustration, but I wanted to make it because I am worried that our government is too much into our business, costs too much of our money, and doesn’t deliver as promised. I think our government doesn’t necessarily do what it does for our benefit anymore, as much as it does it for the benefit of interest groups with money — be they corporate, fiscal, religious, or environmental. If the 20th century presented us with a battle between the power of the individual vs. the power of the state, the 21st century seems to be a declaration that the state has won. Lock, stock, and barrel.
And I am not sure that’s a good thing. And I think this is a large part of what informs my conservative views.
So while I am nominally in favor of Jay’s list of “goals” for society, I doubt very much that government is the proper arbiter or enactor. I think the state’s ability and effectiveness has drawbacks — regardless of how much money or manpower we throw at a thing — and I have to always ask this question lately whenever I hear about the government assuming some new type or kind of authority in an area where such authority never existed before: am I comfortable with the state having this kind of power if people I don’t want in office have their hands on the levers of power?
I suspect for most Americans, they’re fine with the state shoe-horning its way into the business and affairs of the citizenry, and the world at large, provided that the people doing the shoe-horning are the “right kind” of people. Republicans? Democrats? Which “team” are any of us on, and how much do we trust the “team” to use (abuse?) the power of government? How willing are we to turn a blind eye to that abuse as long as our “team” is in control? Go team!
These are hypothetical questions I ask myself.
They’re a big reason I think a lot of well-intentioned government intervention harms our society, and our freedoms, as opposed to helping.
And while I’d love to imagine a Star Trek future for us, where we are all infinitely prosperous (without money) and infinitely healthy (magic medicine) and are also largely unchained from the chore of having to provide for our own well-being — because machines, computers and replicators do most of the work — I don’t think we’re there yet. In fact, we may never “be” there at all. So we’re left to do as best as we can with what we have and who we are. Right now. And while some Liberal efforts to change or transform — Obama’s word — America seem at first glance to be wholly positive, I think the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That as “bad” as it may seem right now, it could be and might just very well become, worse. Maybe, much, much worse. And is it worth this risk? Any of what’s prescribed? Agitated for? Voted on? Pushed forward as “rights” that are merely entitlements?