Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘conservatism

Libertarian idealism vs. Conservative pragmatism

with one comment

Even as a Libertarian, I have often been tempted by Conservatism. In light of long-term societal developments and recent U.S. events, the temptation is here again.

I am particularly troubled by two issues:

Firstly, freedom requires responsibility and the ability and discipline not to use it indiscriminately: There is a difference between “is allowed to” and “should”, as well as between “is allowed to” and “would benefit from”, even between “is allowed to” and “will not be harmed by”. For instance (not necessarily with a Conservative angle), it is a very bad idea to binge drink and gorge oneself on fast food on a daily basis—but both are perfectly legal in e.g. the U.S.

However, large swaths of the population are stupid, uninformed, short-sighted, and/or reckless, or might have other weaknesses* that make them do things that are not good for them when they have the freedom to do so. Giving the wrong persons too much freedom leads to negative consequences for them. Worse, there can be negative side-effects for others, including their children and the tax payers.**

*The list could be quite long, and much would be irrelevant to this text. For instance, more-or-less anyone can be driven to do something stupid in anger, e.g. throwing a coffee mug at a wall.

**To stick with drinking: Even someone who never drinks in the presence of the children might damage them through e.g. being unable to keep jobs or being restricted to poor jobs. Tax payers might e.g. be forced to foot the bill for various forms of government aid that would not have been necessary with a sober parent.

Libertarians usually work with the explicit or implicit premise that we are each capable and responsible enough to make good decisions for ourselves—or, failing that, that we should be free to decide as long as the negative consequences only or mostly hit ourselves. At the same time, most humans are idiots and consequences often extend to others (cf. footnote above).*

*Incidentally, almost all ideologies are naive and overly optimistic about human nature. Communism, e.g., even ethical concerns aside, would be extremely unlikely to ever work as intended. Conservatism might be a partial exception (cf. below).

Secondly, many of the norms, traditions, behaviors, whatnot that were present in the past, but are now considered antiquated, might actually have had considerable benefits to them—even when these benefits are not obvious to us. For instance, there are strong signs that the current world underlies a dysgenic pressure; for instance, it might well be that a more modern life style leads to less individual happiness. Similarly, it might be that several norms (etc.) worked when they were all present, but that removing one of them causes problems when the others are not adapted. Trial and error over many generations might have led to a set of norms that happened to work well, while our current norms are often the result of chance or thoughtlessness and might work less well. Consider by analogy an ecosystem where one species is suddenly exterminated (or a new one artificially introduced): chances are that the effects will be highly negative, even though there are functioning ecosystems elsewhere that never had this species. In due time, a new balance will be found, but it might take a long time and the damage might be considerable. Indeed, more literally, humans are likely to partially have evolved to fit into a particular set of norms, and turn out to be maladjusted when those change,* or, vice versa, some norms might have evolved to keep biology in check.

*For instance, a pet hypothesis of mine is that many parent–teen conflicts are rooted in a conflict between current norms and biology: Once it was normal to be considered an adult, build an own life, find a spouse and have children (especially, for the girls), and whatnot, as a teen. Currently, a first real job might have to wait until after college, spouse and children until after thirty, and a too independent teen might be grounded even at seventeen-and-a-half.

Similarly, it is conceivable that removing a ban* on pre-marital sex** or introducing TV*** (let along e.g. heroin) could have negative effects on society and/or the individuals involved. It might or might not be that these specific examples are problematic,*** but it is extremely likely that problems will be present somewhere among the very many changes that have taken place over comparatively short time spans.

*Or e.g. a strong societal or religious norm. To keep the discussion simple, I will mostly speak in terms of laws instead of norms, customs, whatnot. This should not be seen as more than a convenience, however, and Conservatism is not just a matter of laws and public policy.

**To deliberately take an example of something considered perfectly normal by most modern Westerners, but which has been seen very differently at other times. Note that I do not call for the re-introduction of such a ban (nor for the abolition of TV).

***TV is given as an easily understood example of something that has brought large changes but might just as easily be underestimated. I am not implying that anti-TV sentiments would be common among Conservatives. If they are, I am not aware of it.

***Both definitely have brought great changes, but whether the net effect was positive or negative would have to be investigated in more detail. My personal strong suspicion, however, is that they have both been negative for society, while, when we look at direct effects, being positive for the individuals. I am highly uncertain about the net effect on the individuals when we factor in indirect effects.

Conservatism, however, to some degree amounts to “sticking with the true-and-tested”, to assume that a society that worked* did not need fixing, and that changes should be gradual and controlled—all of which would help in avoiding such problems.

*Which is not to say that a working society was a perfect society, or necessarily a good one. I would, on the contrary, strongly caution against building an idealized image of “yore”, even changes brought by scientific and economic progress aside. By analogy, being an animal in an ecosystem is not necessarily a great life, but, by-and-large, a stable and only gradually changing ecosystem is preferable to one which is severely disrupted.

For someone with a Libertarian heart, these problems raise very unpleasant questions, for instance when and whether the idea of a “bubble of rights” needs to consider indirect negative effects on others and when and whether the damage* to the public might be large enough to warrant restrictions on individual rights on a “necessary evil” basis. Looking at the current, disastrous U.S. developments, e.g., it is clear that many simple cannot or will not handle freedom responsibly. Chances are that Conservatism is pragmatically sounder than Libertarianism, and it often seems to me that a (not very realistic) world in which legislation is Libertarian and behavior voluntarily Conservative would be the best option.**

*A word chosen to differentiate from more generic claims about “the interests of the many”, “the greater good”, and similar. Here there is a very dangerous slippery slope, which could lead past Conservatism into Leftist politics, and which makes it necessary to tread very carefully.

**E.g. in that there is a right to pre-marital sex but that few make use of it.

A potential, if imperfect, way out is to treat areas like majority* in a more discriminating** and individualized manner: Instead of having everyone reach certain rights in a blanket manner at certain ages, some set of more relevant criteria (cf. below) could be used to determine whether any specific individual should be given the corresponding rights. It might then be that someone highly intelligent, well informed, and mature is allowed to do things that the metaphorical*** high-school drop-out is not allowed to do—or is allowed to do them earlier than the high-school drop-out. (Note that most, if not all, objections that could be raised on a “personal freedom” basis apply similarly to the current age based restrictions.) We might then have a Libertarian ideal for those who can handle it and Conservative pragmatism for those who can not.

*In the sense used in “age of majority” and with the “like” intending to include all the various “age of X”, e.g. “age of drinking”, “age of driving”.

**In its correct sense.

***Any given real high-school drop-out could still be highly intelligent, well informed, and mature—rare, true, but not impossible.

As an aside, this type of discrimination should not be limited to e.g. maturity according to current standards or to resolve a Conservative–Libertarian conflict. It should also include an increased freedom from e.g. more Leftist government interventionism, say that someone who fulfills certain criteria will be allowed to make his own decisions concerning health insurance, pension savings, and similar—no matter what restricting laws do or do not apply to others.

As to what criteria should be used, this is a tricky question and might involve different answers for different rights. A first suggestion would be to use some combination of I.Q. (or a similar score) and age, e.g. (!) that most* rights currently given at eighteen are awarded when min(I.Q., 130) + 3 x min(age, 30) >= 184. This would e.g. imply that someone with an I.Q. at or above 130 would receive them at eighteen, like today; someone with an I.Q. of 94 would do so at thirty, having had another dozen years to build knowledge and maturity; those in between would do so at an age varying linearly between eighteen and thirty; and those below 94 would never** do so.

*Off topic, I suspect that staggering the flow of rights more than today would be a good idea, so that the individual can learn to handle the rights and the responsibility gradually, instead of being hit with most of it in one go and with little preparation. To keep the main text reasonably simple, I have not made attempts to bring in such a staggering in the main text or the specific example.

**The specific number 94 arose as a side-effect of using a high-I.Q. of 130, a low-age of eighteen, and a high-age of thirty; and I am very open to discuss other values. However, I do note that someone with an even lower an I.Q. is horrifyingly limited. Chances are that no amount of time will be enough to catch up with an eighteen-year-old with an I.Q. in excess of 130, let alone a thirty-year-old with such an I.Q.

In specific cases, other values/criteria in the formula and/or various exceptions might apply. For instance, the right to marry might reasonably involve some type of “success in life” measure, e.g. that a steady income has been present for some time, and might have a laxer I.Q.* criterion. If (!) a “no sex before marriage” principle was re-introduced, it might take the form that pre-marital sex is allowed for those with a high enough score, while “intra-marital” sex always is allowed.

*That no-one with an I.Q. below 94 was allowed to marry would, if nothing else, reduce the chances that this scheme gains acceptance from “small” to “zero”.

Formal tests of more specific abilities or knowledge are possible criteria, but must be applied with great caution, lest they be deliberately abused for nefarious agendas* or have accidental negative effects through oversights, subjectiveness, or incompetence**. Counting e.g. years of formal education is out: it might once have been plausible, but with the current degree inflation, the disputable value of formal (as opposed to self-) education, and the outright poor decision that higher formal education can be in e.g. the current U.S., it would do more harm than good. It might also kill the remaining credibility of the education system if too many strive for an easy degree for the specific purpose of gaining a higher score.

*E.g. to ensure that only those with the “correct” political opinions are allowed to vote in public elections.

**A good example is fiddling with various aptitude tests to remove differences in group outcomes without considering the possibility that these reflect differences in ability distributions between groups.

Excursion on practical problems:
Above, I have deliberate ignored practical problems, like when and how testing is done, how many re-rests might be allowed, how to ensure that test results are not made pointless by cheating, … They are not very interesting at the current level of abstraction, but must be very carefully investigated and considered if an implementation is ever attempted.

Excursion on culture clashes, etc.:
The complications of the “Secondly” above could apply in other situations, too, including culture clashes. There is a risk that biological adaptations to one system of norms might become maladaptations when the individual is moved to a society with a different set of norms.

Excursion on rule breaking and rules as a baseline of behavior:
A complication with any set of rules is that at least some will break them, including some who merely aim to demonstrate their disregard for the rules, “act cool”, be rebellious, whatnot. To the latter, the exact rules broken might not matter much; and even other rule-breakers might be directed more by the amount of “breakage” than the eventual behavior. For instance, if a speed-limit of 50 (in some unit) results in some traveling at a speed of 60, then raising the speed-limit to 60 will not cause everyone to now drive legally. More likely, 60 will be seen as the new baseline and some will now drive at a speed of 70. A child testing boundaries will not be content if a given boundary falls, when it can just proceed to test the next boundary. Avant-garde painters of one generation might seem like conventional bores to the next generation, who is set on pushing the envelope further. Etc. Correspondingly, pragmatically speaking, it can pay to have some amount of buffer in the rules—a point where a highly laissez-faire philosophy will fail.

Similarly, a too great laxness in one area can lead to problems in another. For instance, if school children learn that they can get away with almost anything without consequences at home, they might assume the same about school and behave accordingly. If they do get away with almost anything at school, they might take this lesson into the streets. Etc.


Written by michaeleriksson

June 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm

The temptation of conservatism

with 3 comments

I am currently in a period of reading various political articles and opinions on the Internet, including e.g. the blog of Pat Buchanan and other more conservative sources. (These readings have already contributed to my being more active in writing, and will likely result in a few more posts in the near future.)

Venturing into the conservative direction is always a little odd to me, because much of the conservative thoughts and principles* are almost as hard to combine with my libertarian**/classical liberal stance as what is found on the left (including the alleged liberals of the modern U.S., whose ideas are quite often antithetical to what the word “liberal” used to imply). At the same time, conservatives and libertarians have been allies against the Left in a great many countries and over long periods of time. Moreover, the “conservative world” has a certain beauty and many of the ideas have a potential pragmatic value (much unlike the very ugly world and largely hare-brained ideas of many Leftist groups, notably feminists).

*With the caveat that there are a many variations on the conservative theme, from country to country, from era to era, and even within e.g. the U.S. Republican party. For the purposes of this discussion, I speak approximately of those (or some of those) variations found among current Republicans self-identifying as conservative (and not e.g. libertarian), possibly with a tilt towards the paleoconservative faction. I avoid a direct interpretation of the word “conservative” to include e.g. “keep things as they were” and instead look at the expressed ideas.

**For the sake of convenience and to avoid confusion with pseudo-liberals, I will speak only of “libertarian” below, even if this is potentially imprecise, and could be taken to include e.g. “Left libertarians”. Such inclusion is not intended, and I find the latter combination to border on a contradiction in terms.

To take a few examples (where I stress that I discuss pragmatic possibilities, and do not express ethical or ideological approval):

  1. Christianity: In a country with a strong (if preferably moderate) Christianity, there are a number of potential benefits, including stronger “Christian values”*, a greater focus on “core families” (cf. below), and greater contentment/less existential doubt/more purpose in life through the belief in a bigger something, rewards (to me) and punishments (to my enemies) after death, and similar. However, the probably greatest benefit is as an inoculation against more** dangerous belief systems: Many people appear to have a positive need for something to believe in, often in a fanatical manner, or something to fill their lives in a quasi-religious manner—in particular, among those less-than-bright. In the past and large parts of the “West”, Christianity has swept up many or most of these people (together with many considerably more reasoned individuals). In e.g. 1920s/1930s Germany, this was not (or not sufficiently) the case. Ditto e.g. revolutionary Russia***. Ditto large parts of the current Islamic world. Ditto e.g. various politically correct extremists, the Antifa, …, in the modern U.S., Germany, and Sweden. The result ranges from droves of the easily lead gathering around a detrimental “golden calf” to fanatics trying to over-through society-as-it-is with force or shutting down their opponents through violence. It is no coincidence that dictatorships and groups of fanatics are often strongly anti-religious****—the religions are competitors.

    *Exactly what is meant with this expression is another thing that can vary considerably, but by-and-large few see them as negative, and what forms the “common core” is almost invariably (including by me) seen as something positive, notably the “Golden Rule” and related values.

    **Christianity is obviously not free from disadvantages and risks—no religion, quasi-religious ideology, or similar belief system is. Compared to many others, however, the reasonably modern Christianity fairs well. If we posit that some form of religion or quasi-religion is near unavoidable, modern Christianity is a much better choice than modern Islam, feminism, “anti-fascism” (a movement with disturbingly much in common with fascism…), and many others.

    ***A case can be made that Russia was in very urgent need of change, and I find it easier to understand a communist revolutionary of that time than a non-revolutionary communist of today—it was a different world with a different set of problems. (And the communists were not the only revolutionaries in Russia back then…) Still, the cure was worse than the disease and far worse than the competing Western democracies. To boot, other countries have proved that a more peaceful transition is possible, e.g. Sweden and the U.K. (To which can be noted that the English civil war and the over-through of monarchy by violence proved very short-lived, while the later gradual drift of power from the King/Queen to parliament has stuck. France, similarly, went like a pendulum between monarchy and republic for a disturbingly long time after the French revolution.)

    ****Which is not in anyway to imply that being anti-religious is automatically bad: There are other reasons why someone can be anti-religious.

    As an aside, the same principle very likely contributes to the wasteful obsession with celebrities many display today, replacing, so to speak, the one Madonna with the other.

  2. The “traditional family” has much to offer, especially when compared to the all-too-common divorce scenarios of today, or the many single mothers who never entered a stable relationship with the father.* There are many studies to show both that divorces are damaging to children and that they benefit from having two parents. My personal experiences after my parents divorce, even was it an amicable one, are very much in the same line. Other changes in family demographics, notably the higher average age of marriage** (the more so in Europe than in the U.S.), can have negative effects, including a lack of population growth or a dysgenic pressure***. To boot, rational considerations aside, the wholesomeness so often depicted in family life in somewhat older sources (whether more or less idealized than today) has a great temptation.

    *Some other comparisons are trickier and might require considerable research, e.g. on whether marriage provides benefits over a more casual, but stable and long-term, relationship, or the one male and one female parent constellation over male/male or female/female constellations. (I would voice some a priori skepticism towards the female/female constellation, however: I was raised by my mother and grand-mother, with comparatively little male involvement, which comes close to this situation, and the lack of a male role-model/mentor/whatnot was a very severe disadvantage to my development, and likely to my sister’s. I refrain from an outright rejection because there is no guarantee that it would be the same with another child, other women, or other circumstances in detail. However, note that my complaint is not an uncommon one.)

    **While not stringently related to the “traditional family” there are strong connections, e.g. in that a more relaxed attitude towards pre-marital sex, prostitution, and pornography reduces the incentives to get married at a younger age.

    ***Another contributing factor is how long people study after high school, and this can lead to more generations and a greater population of the less bright: Few people start a family in an economically insecure situation, and if we compare the scenarios “graduate high school and get a job” with “graduate high school, complete a bachelor, throw in a master, pay off most of the debt accumulated in college” there is a clear difference. (Other factors can contribute too.) I stress that I do not suggest cutting down on education to increase birth-rates among the bright.

    Several other common (value-)conservative opinions could have benefits in the general area of family. For instance, a more restrictive approach to abortions could result in a more responsible behavior towards sex or preventatives, or, again, increase the chance that people (or at least women) seek an earlier marriage in order to avoid the risk of becoming a single parent.

  3. A focus on “law and order” has very obvious advantages (as long as one remains on the right side of the law*), including greater physical security, less corporate losses to criminals, fewer junkies**, … An interesting point to bear in mind is that it is often minorities and “weak” societal groups that are hurt the most by crime. For instance, Black people (as a group) are not only put in prison at a considerably higher rate than Whites—they are also the victims of crimes at a higher rate, live in more insecure neighborhoods, deal with more fall-out, … A magic wish to eradicate all crime without negative side-effects would correspondingly favor them the more—and even more conventional methods could very well have a greater positive net effect.

    *One of the reasons I stress the importance of “civic rights” over e.g. the interests of the police is that doing this is not always easy (or even recommendable) and not always under the control of the citizen: There are laws that are outright unjust, others that are arbitrary or unpredictable, and even someone who still sticks to the letter of the law can be the victim of false accusations (or unwarranted suspicions arising for other reasons). This is particularly dangerous when computers come into play.

    **At least under some set of assumptions. By and large, the overall societal problems appear to diminish when various drugs are treated more leniently, if in doubt because of the profitability of criminal enterprises. Cf. e.g. the great failure of the Great Experiment. Here and elsewhere it can pay to keep in mind that the result that would seem to occur at a casual look are not always the results that actually do occur. Then again, this post is not about why conservatism would be a great thing, but why some of its ideas can have benefits and why they sometimes tempt me.

Unfortunately, there is often a conflict between my world-view and such ideas. As an atheist, I would be troubled recommending a greater focus on Christianity. As someone in favour of individual choice, I cannot mandate e.g. that reproduction take place solely within traditional marriages. Etc. Indeed, it is often not even necessarily the case that e.g. Christianity would be better in general (including for the intelligent and educated). Some advantages can apply; others will not, and the inoculation effect is certainly for the dumb masses. An attempt to apply these ideas could amount to dividing the population into those (in some sense) trusted to think for themselves/act on their own discretion and those required to be guided by others—an idea that could be taken from a great many Leftist parties and movements around the world… These simultaneously show why this is a potentially very bad idea (even ethics aside): Those who see themselves as the enlightened few and who presume to dictate* what other people should feel and think are quite often highly unsuitable for the task, themselves among those who would be in greatest need of guidance…

*As opposed to conviction through rational arguments and presentation of facts.

Of course, in many other cases there is a more direct overlap, for instance in that U.S. conservatives tend to favour small government. In other cases, the widely held ideas can make sense outright without being something that follows naturally from being e.g. conservative or libertarian, as with the tendency to an “old school” interpretation of the constitution: The U.S. constitution (including the “Bill of Rights”, but not necessarily later amendments) was an unusually thought-through document intended to preserve rights and balance powers with an eye on the risk that some part of government, most likely the executive or legislative branch or a part thereof, would at some point try reduce the rights of the population (or otherwise cause mischief). If a re-interpretation of the original intention is allowed or if too great a lee-way is given when interpreting new situations*, then this central function is weakened and the constitution fails in its purpose.

*A 240 or so years old document cannot realistically have foreseen every situation that can arise today or the society we currently live in. By implication, some degree of deviation might well be necessary. It should, however, be kept to the necessary minimum, in order to a. keep the constitution intact, b. ensure that the judicial branch does not intrude on the legislative through implicitly making new laws by such re-interpretation. For farther-going changes I point to the possibility of introducing new amendments.

As an excursion on how little it can take to bring those weak in critical thinking into a “fold” (and the potential benefits of an inoculation through bringing them into another fold in time): During my later school years, a few of us grew politically active. After already having developed a reasonably mature ideology (for a teen), I read up thoroughly on all the major Swedish parties, and only after that joined one them* —and I kept reading after that. A former class mate had joined the social democrats. Her road? “I read one of their pamphlets and it seemed to make sense!” (Or something very similar. This is not a verbatim quote, but the pamphlet part and the brevity of her “research” reflect her unambiguous own statements.) There are people who are so lacking in insight and naive that they join a party based on a single pamphlet—and which party they join is then mostly determined by whose pamphlet they read first… (Such documents are by their nature written to appeal to the readers, show only one side of the issues, and give an over-simplified view of the world—when the politically naive and weak at critical thinking pick up any political pamphlet, chances are that it will “make sense”!)

*“Moderaterna”, in U.S. terms a comparatively centrist part of the Republicans with a strong libertarian/neo-liberal streak (at least back then).

Excursion on “respect”: A common complaint from conservatives appear to be lack of respect, especially in the younger generation (“children do not respect their teachers/parents anymore”). At the same time, a stereotypical “angry black youth” complaint is lack of respect, being disrespected, whatnot, while Aretha Franklin was quite keen on just respect. I am honestly far from certain that it was better in the past, especially lacking the direct comparison, and do believe that e.g. teachers should not be respected more than anyone else just for being teachers (“respect is earned”). However, I do agree that there is a major problem with a lack of even a basic respect for other people and their rights, boundaries, interests, whatnot, that permeates (in my case, German) society in a depressing manner. For instance, about half the bicycle drivers in Cologne drive (illegally) on the side-walk instead of the street when no separate bicycle lane is present—even to the point of blocking or endangering the pedestrians. (To which can be added a number of other traffic violations and a general disregard for both pedestrians and cars.) Similarly, there are plenty of people who take small children into public, including grocery stores and even restaurants—and make no attempts whatsoever to silence them when they start screaming. Most corporations, let alone government agencies, appear to view their customers as a mere nuisance when it comes to anything but paying: There is no respect for the customer as a client, for the agreements entered (unless the customer is in violation…), or often even the law. Etc. (And do not get me started on the politically correct…) Lack of respect for others, the unwillingness to see them as humans with rights and feelings, the refusal to pause and ask whether a certain action is actually justifiable or just convenient, …, that is a truly major societal problem. Other conservative complaints about attitude, e.g. that the people of today are lazy or lack a sense of responsibility for their own lives, have a lot of truth in them and can be pragmatical societal problems, but are not that much of an issue from a libertarian ideological point of view: If someone is lazy, he rarely hurts others*; someone who lacks respect for others tends to very soon hurt others, be it out of carelessness or callousness.

*With some reservations for the details involved. For instance, if someone is lazy and does not fulfill his obligations towards his employer or if he stays at home and collects a social security check he really does not need, then others are being hurt. This is a step beyond e.g. “is in a dead-end job because of laziness in school”, “lives from day to day because he only works when the money runs out”, “never is promoted because he never goes the extra mile”, etc. (This also points to the benefit of investigating why people are lazy and what society might be doing wrong.)

Excursion on the level of reasoning, etc.: It is interesting that the level of reasoning used in conservative (generally, non-Leftist) contexts tends to be much higher than in e.g. politically correct (generally, Leftist) contexts, the tone against others less negative, the risk of misrepresentation of others opinions smaller, the degree of emotionality lower, and so on. Often, it appears to be a group of adults trying to have a conversation with a group children. (Caveat: There are obviously great variations within any group and the impression could in parts result from having visited more “deplorables” from one group than from the other. However, this well matches what I have seen over decades in several countries, and I am loath to give too much “benefit of a doubt”. I note that even e.g. some Leftist college professors/institutions are known to behave in an absurd manner.) Even Buchanan, who appears to be widely considered a crack-pot on the Left and who was usually mentioned with some condescension in Sweden during his presidential campaigning, does better than a great many Leftist debaters—and compared to the typical Leftist blogger he is a shining beacon of rationality and fairness.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 31, 2017 at 2:17 pm