Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Defending the right to be wrong.

The most difficult right to respect, and this is true for both the Right and the Left, is the right to be wrong. Everyone believes in the right to be right. Very few believe in the right to be wrong. And let me be clear as to what I mean by wrong. I mean an action that may well be destructive or counter-productive to the self, but which does not violate the life, liberty or property of others. Actions that violate the sovereign realm of other people are crimes. It is true that an action can harm others and also harm oneself. It can be both wrong and a crime. However, an action that harms only the self is wrong but not a crime, in liberal thinking at least.

Invariably it is when people make wrong choices that the inner statist is released. Conservatives, who feign a love for freedom, withdraw their affection for “individual rights” when humans act in “wrong” ways. At that point, conservatives become mean. I have long suspected that there is a cruel psychology underneath political conservatism. It is, perhaps, acceptable or warranted, when it comes to actions that clearly are criminal: that is actions that violate the rights of others. However, this cruelty is found in all actions that the conservative finds distasteful or wrong, even those that violate the rights of no one.

I suspect this explains the conservative’s fondness for corporal punishment in dealing with children as well as his almost pathological need to see bad people executed. He is obsessed with “moral” issues and when people step outside the very strict boundaries of his moral world his immediate reaction is to call for swift, hard, punishment. It isn’t that using drugs are bad for you but that you must be punished for doing so. It isn’t just that being gay “is immoral” but that gays must be accorded inferior legal status, and that only because it isn’t likely that more stringent punishments can be inflicted.

The conservative impulse, which is strong in fundamentalist Christianity, doesn’t just want to “save” the alcoholic but to ban alcohol and inflict suffering on those who violate prohibition. The conservative doesn’t just wish to promote “family values” but outlaw all practices and actions which he finds contrary to those values. At the bottom of this is the deep desire to prevent people from doing what is “wrong.” The conservative mind sees punishment, fear, pain and suffering as the only method to secure “right decisions” from people.

I suspect that this temperament comes from the doctrine of original sin within Christian theology. Calvinists, who have strongly influenced conservative thinking, go much further. They preach the total depravity of man. Very few people in the world hold lower views of humanity than do the Calvinists. Because man is totally depraved and utterly sinful, the only reason that he acts decently, so they think, is fear: if not the fear of God, which the utterly depraved would not experience anyway, then the fear of government. The conservative wants a government that is a reflection of his God. The state must carry a bloody sword for the same reason that God must cast sinners into the fire to be burned. Without such we’d be surrounded by rape, murder, plunder, violence and depravity.

The Progressives and state socialists also wish to deny man the right to make mistakes. They just worry about other kinds of errors. Unlike the conservatives, who worry about man’s personal values, the socialists worry about his economic values. They fear man will act badly in the material realm. Instead of clubbing people over a dirty magazine they want to use the state to prevent you from taking a job at a wage they consider inappropriate.

These Progressives tend to treat those around them like small children in need of mother’s care. Their desire is to Nanny the world, to require that others make the “right” choices. This is preferable to the need to punish others. But psychologically it is torture for any rational adult to be treated like a child by those who have power over him. The Progressives are well meaning. But then, so are the conservatives. Both want the “right” outcome. Neither wishes to leave man free.

There is also a theology behind Progressive thinking though the obvious connections have long been lost. The Progressive Left clings to concepts of the social gospel that was born within Unitarianism and universalism. Here God is the father of all and all men are brothers. Salvation belongs, not just to the choice elect, as in Calvin’s dark world, but to all men. The Kingdom of God is for everyone equally. While the Progressives lost their theology they didn’t lose their desire to create the kingdom of God. Instead of offering it in the world to come, they transferred it to this life. Their goal is the establishment of God’s kingdom in this world.

Where the conservative obsesses with lust the progressive obsessed with greed. The two wings of modern politics merely have a different hierarchy of sin that must be addressed by force.

Ayn Rand once observed that each is willing to grant freedom only in the realm of man’s existence that they don’t value. The conservative, who believes spiritual values are critical, will regulate the spiritual realm of man’s life but leave him free in the material, economic realm. The Progressive, who believes that material existence is critical, will chain down man’s choices in the economic world while leaving his spiritual life (love, values, reading, etc) free.

I think she touched on an important point there. Conservatives don’t believe in free markets because free markets are inherently good but because they aren’t important. Your eternal soul doesn’t depend on material prosperity so you may be free in that realm. What really matters are your moral values, your spiritual beliefs, you willingness to obey the laws of God. So those realms have to be tightly controlled.

The Socialist tends to downplay those spiritual values and emphasizes material existence: who has the wealth, how it is distributed, and what goods and services people will share. Who you sleep with is unimportant to the socialist so he will grant you freedom in the bedroom, which his counterparts on the Right will deny. But he does believe your economic life is important so that must be tightly regulated and controlled.

If this is true, and it seems true to me, then neither Left nor Right have a particular fondness for human freedom. The conservative’s acceptance of free markets (not so obvious in recent years) is only an indication of his contempt for “worldly” wealth and material existence. It is the things of the next world, and the soul, which are really important. The Socialist’s willingness to allow same-sex couples to wed, or their reluctance to ban erotica, is not because they embrace social freedom but because such spiritual matters are unimportant to them. Each side controls that which they value and only grants freedom in the realms they consider unimportant.

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