Friday, March 16, 2007

Morality and consistency: Why Left and Right are both wrong.

Some people still fall for the idea that conservatives are for “limited government”. I’ve been arguing for years that they are not. My view is that they are socialists of the soul -- advocates of statism provided the state achieves the goals they lay out -- to remake man morally. In this sense they are like their socialist comrades who want to use the state to achieve the goals they lay out. They only differ on the ends not on the means.

We classical liberals talk about the means. We argue that the means must be considered and that it wrong to use force against peaceful individuals who are not violating the rights of others. We might disagree over times when such use might be necessary but our assumption, at the beginning of the debate, is that such a thing is wrong on the face of it and if done must be justified by reams of evidence.

The conservative and the progressive doesn’t have that problem. They don’t worry about the means only about the ends.

Many people have assumed that conservatives actually do support small, limited government. They make that mistake because some people identified as conservatives actually had a liberal streak that supported such ideas. Goldwater and Reagan were two prominent examples. Both men understood the basic liberal principles and were liberals to varying degrees. Though I think they were convinced too easily on when to make the exceptions.

The Libertarian wants small government across the board -- at least the real libertarians do (I exclude the racists, the nationalists, and such from this category). The Socialists, both of the Conservative stripe and the Progressive one, sometimes want limited government and sometimes don’t. They appear inconsistent. They are inconsistent if you look at the means only. If you look at the ends they usually aren’t inconsistent. Where the libertarian differs is that he is not only consistent when it comes to ends but to means as well.

Michael Medved, who used to write mediocre film reviews, and now writes bad conservative columns, realizes that conservatives look inconsistent. At the rabies-infested site he writes:

And how do we resolve some of the apparent conservative contradictions? -We want smaller government and fewer public employees at the same time we want to hire more soldiers, cops and border patrol agents. -We favor choice in education, but oppose choice in abortion policy. -We emphatically support the institution of marriage, but don’t want government backing for gays and lesbians who seek to get married.

Medved acknowledges: “it’s impossible to say that conservatives want 'small government' above all, when most of us want expanded governmental efforts to crack down on terrorists, crooks and illegal immigrants. Yes, we generally favor “less regulation” but we also want more restrictions on abortion, pornography and desecration of the flag.”

For this movie reviewer, turned faux philosopher, the reason for these apparent contradictions is that conservatives “make clear distinctions between right and wrong.” Hayek said conservatives were often excessively moral, or moralistic depending on your point of view. Yes, they make a distinctions between right and wrong. What they are incapable of doing is making other distinctions.

They don’t distinguish between means and ends. They basically argue that ends justify the means. Statism and big government is acceptable if it promotes the “right” or morality. So they don’t mind using force against peaceful individuals because ends are what they consider not means.

And they don’t distinguish between public and private. What actions are private, or outside the sphere of public control? They don’t have an answer for that.

Any action which infringes the rights of others is of public concern. Any action that harms the individual, or is claimed to harm them, but which infringes not on the liberty, life or property of others is private. For the conservative there is no difference -- everything is public domain. What a man reads is public domain because he might be reading the “wrong” things. What two peaceful individuals do with their genitals in private is of concern to the conservative because he is worried about immoral actions and doesn’t distinguish between the private and public realms.

To the conservative everything is assumed to be public. The socialist makes your material existence the public property of all. The conservative makes your spiritual, or moral existence, the public property of all. Each wants the state to act in ways to encourage the right actions. The progressives want to force you to be “fair” and the conservatives want to force you to be “virtuous.” As Medved says: “A decent society supports and rewards good choices and discourages bad ones.”

Medved says the state should act to “to avoid facilitating irresponsible behavior -- in both snuffing out potential life and encouraging reckless sexuality.” Consider this. If the conservative is willing to make your bedroom activities a matter of public policy what isn’t open to state control? It the hand of conservative government can reach into this most intimate area of human existence there is little outside the realm of government.

Medved recognizes that socialism rewards bad economic actions and punishes good actions. And he says it shouldn’t do that because that distorts the feed back loops in the economic sphere. But he advocates a government that punishes bad private, moral choices while rewarding good moral choices. He never thinks of the means per se only the ends. And he never considers that the feed back loops in morality are distorted by this as well.

Most importantly he leaves out of his discussion how we determine what is morally right and wrong. Yet the state is to actively encourage the former and discourage the latter. If government is to encourage the “right” and the “right” is left undefined then government power is left undefined. Undefined state power is unlimited power.

Virtually every important decision we make is either morally right or wrong in some way. Some decisions are morally neutral but they are insignificant to human happiness. All the major issues are issues of right and wrong. If the state is to actively involve itself in promoting the one and discouraging the other then exactly what areas of human existence is left in the private realm? None!

Just as the socialist wants all economic choices determined by public policy the conservative wants all moral decisions determined by state policy.

Medved says conservatives “emphasize that choices carry consequences”. But even here they are inconsistent.

Yes, choices have consequences, and that is precisely why the private choices of individuals are of no concern to the state. Just as bad economic decisions impact those who make them bad moral decisions do the same. The conservative doesn’t want to protect us from economic errors but is hell bent on preventing us from making moral errors.

You would be hard pressed to find a difference between the conservative and the socialist here. The socialist says that economic decisions impact on the greater society and therefore the state should regulate them. The conservative says the moral decisions we make impact on the great society and thus the state should regulate them, ie, reward the good and discourage the bad.

In reality a bad economic decision may be have far more impact on others than a bad moral decision. Yet the conservative wants the one under state domain and not the other. A CEO who screws up can put tens of thousands of people out of work, that can destroy marriages, lead to suicides, drinking, drug abuse, crime. A man sleeping with another man hardly impacts anyone except the two of them. The conservative is all worried about the later and not the former.

Medved is 100% correct when he says that choices result in consequences. And in the economic realm we understand that means that those who make the choices must live with the consequences as well as enjoy the benefits. But the same is true in the private realm. It is the individual who makes the choice who must live with the consequences: good or bad.

We know that when you separate choices and consequences you get a distorted form of human action. When government strips people of the freedom to make economic choices bad things happen. When government strips people of the freedom to make private, moral choices bad things happen. The principles apply to both realms. But this is something Medved doesn’t see.

He is so hell bent on imposing his vision of morality on others that he doesn’t see how he is contradicting himself. When ever the state severs the connections between actions and consequences it distorts human action. And that is true economically and morally. Where state involvement is justified is when such actions leave the private realm and violate the rights of others.

Economic activity that uses stolen property violates the rights of others and thus is open to state intervention to prevent that. Private sexuality is not when it is consenting but it is no longer private when forced on an unwilling partner, then it is rape, and open to state intervention. In either the economic or moral realm actions which violate the rights of others may be prevented . Otherwise individual choice is private and ought to be outside the realm of the state.

And we must recognize that many of the “moral” controls that the Medved’s want are economic controls. Take his desire to ban pornography. He is advocating the control of the production, distribution, exchange and ownership of certain kinds of property. He is controlling both market activities and property.

Here again the socialist and the conservative are similar. Both pretend that one can regulate the field they consider of importance while leaving the unimportant free for individual choice. The socialist thinks he can regulate material production and leave man’s soul free. The conservative is “spiritual” not “materialistic” so he demands control of man’s private moral sphere pretending he can leave man’s material existence free.

In reality man is both body and soul. Regulating the one sphere leads inevitably to the regulation of the other sphere. The socialist says he wants freedom of the press yet to print one must beg for paper from the state and the use of a state publishing houses. Man is not a disembodied spirit but needs property and exchange to achieve his goals. A free mind is not possible without free markets. And if you want to regulate man’s moral choices you must regulate his economic ones. It is the economic realm that makes his moral choices possible. You end up controlling exchange and property rights because these are the means by which moral choices are made. Control of the one realm always leads to control of the other. Both must be free or neither will be.

The hallmark of the conservative is the fearful clinging to the past, the holding on to ancient values or moral traditions. See Hayek’s Why I am Not a Conservative for more on this. Yet the great market advocate Ludwig von Mises also described that as the hallmark of the socialist, bureaucratic state. He wrote that in a bureaucratic society the first step of any endeavor “is to obtain the consent of old men accustomed to doing things in prescribed ways, and no longer open to new ideas. No progress and no reforms can be expected in a state of affairs where the first step is to obtain the consent of old men. The pioneers of new methods are considered rebels and are treated as such. For a bureaucratic mind, law abidance, i.e., clinging to the customary and antiquated is the first of all virtues."

The bureaucratic mentality (and in reality he is speaking about state control in general not the more narrow definition of bureaucratic that we often use) is inherently conservative. Interestingly the British socialist Evan Luard is forced to agree: "collective power is also conservative because within the democratic system, political parties and leaders are obliged to converge to a point near the average views of the majority... Because the majority are rarely in favor of important or imaginative changes, this inhibits any radical challenge to the status quo.”

The conservative claims he wants free markets. But free markets challenge conservative values. The great “moral evils” that the conservative hates are often the direct result of profit seeking entrepreneurs meetings the needs and wants of consumers. Pornography exists because it makes a profit. Drugs are profitable -- even more so under prohibition.

Even the hated gay rights movement is a phenomenon of modern capitalism -- it did not exist in socialist countries even though socialist states tended to oppress gays as well. Gay Marxist Dennis Altman conceded: "not only does modern capitalism create the socioeconomic conditions for the emergence of a homosexual identity, it creates the psychological ones as well. In short, the new homosexual could only emerge in the conditions created by modern capitalism."

Once the forces of competitive capitalism are unleashed entrepreneurs produce goods and services which conservatives oppose. The market economy creates competition in ideas, information and images. Yet the conservative forces don't want these new ideas competing with their own. But if the conservative succeeds in controlling the economy to the degree necessary to achieve this goal he will simultaneously destroy economic prosperity. This happens because to control the "undesired" effects of modern capitalism is to control capitalism. If central control of the economy is imposed the creative nature of capitalism is destroyed. Whether the conservative elites, be they Afrikaner Calvinists in South Africa or the Chinese Communist Party, like it or not, economic liberalization will ultimately lead to social liberalization. One need only read Sir Samuel Brittan’s essay Capitalism and the Permissive Society to see how this true.

Conservative jurist Richard Posner understood the connection between free markets and moral values. He wrote in his book Sex and Reason about the changing status of women due to economic advancement. As women were able to compete in the marketplace and earn their living independent of men you saw “the movement toward sexual permissiveness”. Posner argues this new permissiveness was “a consequence rather than a cause of their changing social and economic status” and that “traditional sexual morality is founded on women’s dependence upon men. As that dependence lessens, the traditional morality weakens. The function of that morality is to protect the male’s interest in warranted confidence that his children really are his biological issue. Women will cooperate in securing that interest only if they are compensated for doing so, as they were when they need the protection of men in order to have children and when careers not involving children were closed to them. Women need and receive less male protection as their childbearing role diminishes and their market opportunities grow.

Man’s “spiritual”, moral and economic existence is entirely intertwined. It can not be separated. The socialists of the Left and the Right but assume it can be, that one side of human existence is susceptible to state control while the other can be left free. That is the greatest delusion of the socialists, conservative or progressive.

Finally, I have to wonder about something. Medved says all choices lead to consequences. I agree. There are natural consequences to actions. If actions have consequences then why does the state need to impose further consequences upon the actors? (Again, I refer to the private realm not the public realm.)

We punish crime, properly defined, because it violates the rights of others. But why punish drug taking? The choice itself, says Medved, has consequences. Are not consequences the cost of choices? And what happens when you tamper with costs through state controls? You distort the signals they send. People don’t know the true cost of their choice because you have inflated it with government regulation.

Why then does the conservative wish to do this? Simple: in his heart he doesn’t believe that the natural consequences of “immoral” decisions are high enough. He wants to tax them by making the consequences larger.

If taking drugs screws up your life the conservative not only wants this but also wishes you to be in prison, your family left without you, you raped by HIV-infected criminals, and your life totally ruined. He wants to inflate the cost because the consequences he talks about aren’t bad enough to satisfy his desire to punish people. HL Mencken once said the Puritan “is someone who is terribly afraid that someone else, somewhere else, is having a good time.” The conservative is a similar species but is someone terrified that there is someone, somewhere who isn’t suffering enough for his bad choices.

As much as they deny it the conservative sees himself as God. At the very least he sees God as a bigger version of himself. He wants there to be detrimental consequences to actions he says are sinful. Unfortunately the world as God allegedly created it doesn’t inflict as much punishment on moral sins as the conservative deems necessary. So he wants the lash of the state brought in to scar the back of sinners. Natural consequences are not vindictive enough to satisfy the conservative.

At the core that is the issue. The conservative is driven by an overwhelming desire to punish others and make them miserable. They require artificial, government created consequences to magnify the harm being done. Now why? They say it is to stop people from making bad choices. But what makes a choice a bad choice if not the consequences?

If the natural consequences don’t prevent people from taking these “immoral” actions then why inflate the situation with artificial consequences? If illegitimacy has it's own consequences why the state imposed scarlet letter? It is not the prevention of bad consequences that drives this policy. It can’t be otherwise they wouldn’t be adding artificial consequences to the natural ones.

So if not consequences what? I go back to what I just said -- the driving force behind the modern conservative is the desire to punish people. They don’t think natural consequences are sufficiently damaging and they want to inflict more damage. That puts to the lie the argument that they are attempting to prevent damage. You don’t prevent damage by compounding it and compounding consequences through state force is precisely what the conservative seeks.

Photos: Medved looking frightenly like a Mullah, Privacy in the conservative world, flappers, and Hester Prim.

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