Friday, February 8, 2008

Conservatism, Leftism, and that Hard-to-Reach Chewy Center

Conservatives sometimes present their political bent as the pragmatic approach: holding on to the values and practices we currently have seems like the practical, safe way to go. On a related, but somewhat different note Jim Ryan over at Philosoblog has written a defense of conservatism that strikes me as so horrendously ridiculous that it has forced me to break my general silence on matters of political philosophy. His main theme, essentially, is that leftism of all sorts (communist, progressive, liberal) ultimately comes together with fascism. As a somewhat odd leftist, one who supports Comprehensive Liberalism, I do not necessarily object to a certain affinity between leftism and fascism (one which surfaced in rather interesting ways when continental leftists took up Carl Schmitt against Rawls and Habermas). What I do object to, however, is conservatism. I want to quote the central paragraph in Ryan’s argument in full. It begins by arguing against the view of conservatism as being on the right—instead, Ryan wants to say, there is no right; only a center and its periphery:

Replace the left-vs-right model with a web of values, like a spider's web, with a center, a sweet spot where those decisions lie that best fulfill as many of the values as possible (a sort of satisficing or net satisfaction optimum, where there is the best resonance with as many of the valuable strands of the web as possible.) Fascism and leftism are represented by the space outside of the web and on the same plane as the web, where one has traveled along any of the radial strands away from the center and left the web. The various trajectories by which one can leave the web are the flavors of fascism. Hitler is at, say, 3:00 far outside the web, having traveled along the strand that represents the value of lifting the German people out of their misery. Lenin is at 10:00, having traveled along the strand of regard for the welfare of the lower and working classes. It's all statism and general-will-oriented anti-individualism, in which one no longer makes any effort to hit the sweet spot of values. It's all fascism. And it's all leftism. In no sense is the center of the web - conservatism - to the right of anything.

At first, this looks wonderfully convincing—I admit that I had to spend a few minutes thinking about it. Indeed, if conservatism is all about holding on to that sweet spot, where values are perfectly balanced, then the attempts to move away from this web are one and all misguided. But—since once I re-read the argument I found that there was essentially nothing to be said in its favor—I’m going to drop the “first let’s try to make this point look respectable” spiel and jump straight to what is obviously and glaringly wrong with it: it assumes that conservatism involves defending “a sweet spot where those decisions lie that best fulfill as many of the values as possible.” Of course this will not involve the fulfillment of every value, since values do, after all, conflict (security vs. privacy, liberty vs. respect for others, and the rest of the laundry list). So, much like Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds,” this sweet spot will involve some sort of balance between values, in which each value is maximally fulfilled in such a way that it allows also for the best maximal fulfillment of all other values. That is: it isn’t perfect, but it is as perfect as possible, i.e., the best of all possible political arrangements.

We might note that this arrangement can take two very different forms, depending on what values we are talking about optimally satisfying. In Rorty’s terminology, we can take up solidarity, where we attempt to optimally satisfy the values held within a given community; or we can take up objectivity, which will attempt to optimally satisfy objective values. Both attempts at hitting the “sweet spot” are, of course, seriously problematic. The solidarity attempt will be rather difficult if the community is not homogenous—witness, for example, today’s uproar over a suggestion to accommodate elements of sharia law within the British legal code. And insofar as even the most homogenous communities aren’t homogenous—which is, ultimately, why we don’t have societies that everyone is perfectly satisfied with (add to this the fact that individuals also hold internally conflicting values, which are themselves hard to balance)—the project seems a bit harder than one might at first imagine. The objectivity attempt will fare even worse, for more or less obvious reasons: we don’t quite know what the objectively right values are. That isn’t, of course, to say that they don’t exist; but on the objectivity model, the ongoing task of political philosophy is to figure out those values so that, eventually, they might be put into practice (of course one could add that we already have some approximations of these values, and we do have those in practice; but what we do not seem to have is the ideal balance of objective values).

The “sweet spot” at the center of the web that Ryan claims conservatism defends has, then, the following features: it is the best possible balance of values, and manages either to get an objectively ideal optimization of value satisfaction, or an optimization that is perfect for the community in question. This sounds, in other words, suspiciously like a utopia. Now let me be the first to say this: If we had a utopian society and conservatives were the ones defending it, I’d probably support them (if, maybe, grudgingly, for like the underground man I do enjoy shattering crystal palaces). But, uhm, we don’t have a utopian society. We don’t have it, in part, because we don’t know where the center of the web lies. And that’s why Ryan’s web analogy is pretty much absurd. First off, it doesn’t defend any existing conservatism; it defends an ideal conservatism of the sort that, really, most human beings would be likely to fall behind. But obviously since our society is not arranged according to the “sweet spot” model, it stands to reason that conservatives are not actually the people defending that “sweet spot”, so it may well make sense to say that they are on the “right” of the political spectrum rather than its center. Second, the web analogy misses the rather important point that those who want to change society are—duh!—usually not doing it perversely to ruin a good thing but because they want to make the society better. Ryan’s own examples should make this pretty obvious. Hitler wasn’t trying to ruin society by “lifting the German people out of their misery”—he was doing just that: trying to lift the German people out of their misery. Sure, in a perfect “sweet spot” society people wouldn’t be miserable; but when people are miserable, trying to overcome that misery seems, well, not so much as a move away from the ideal center, but a move toward it. Lenin wasn’t concerned with the welfare of the workers just because he wanted to screw with the existing order; the workers really were in an unacceptably miserable state.

Now Hitler and Lenin were obviously wrong in their methods, wrong in their theories, wrong in their morals, wrong about a lot of things. But, also obviously, this does not mean that all efforts to change society are wrong, and that all leftist causes are equivalent to Hitler’s fascism or to Lenin’s communism. In fact, what leftists generally want to do, as I’ve been suggesting, is move society toward the “sweet spot,” to nudge or drag or throw it closer toward a system that involves the optimal satisfaction of values. Conservatives, generally, are the people who resist such change. So let me conclude with two points. First, that some attempts to change society are obviously horribly mistaken and lead to disastrous consequences does not mean that all attempts to change society are equally bad (anyone who has taken Intro to Logic should get that one). Second, if the center of the web is the arrangement we want, then we should be supporting the leftists. We should do so discriminately and try to avoid supporting people like Hitler or Lenin (or at least Stalin). But if the sweet spot at the center is what we want, then conservatism is precisely the one position we can rule out at the start.

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