Monday, June 26, 2006

Just when you think someone is a conservative...

they go liberal on you. Here is an excerpt from Andrew Sullivan's comments about Warren Buffett's multibillion dollar gift to charity (author's italics):
Nepotism is indeed a corrosive element in a democratic society; dynasticism is poison to democracy. I know it's only natural to want to hand over all your wealth to your children, and I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it as such. But it is not the only moral claim; and those who elevate the biological family to supreme status in our society seem to me to be missing something important. Take care of them, of course. But keep them in their place. Along with the rather base impulse to benefit one's own genetic material, there is also philia -- the love based on choice and acceptance of another free human being -- and agape -- the love for all as one loves oneself. These two other forms of love and giving are clearly morally superior to "family values."
This is an exercise in the muddying of waters. Mr. Sullivan is indeed correct in a limited sense. It seems to me plausible that any moral imperative, family or otherwise, can be outweighed by a sufficiently compelling moral counter-imperative. For example, although conservatives generally believe that the private ownership of property is a fundamental human right, conservatives would also conceed that a sufficiently dire external threat to a nation -- say, an invading power bent on total annihilation -- would indeed justify a nation's government in confiscating private property, if necessary, to continue the war effort.

So assume that a nation is in the normal condition of peacetime affairs. Is nepotism still a corrosive element in a democracy? In the sense of bestowing offices or jobs upon relatives irregardless of merit, or in abusing a public office or position of trust to bestow privileges upon family members, nepotism is bad for democracy. Nepotism in the sense of bestowing a gift of private property to a family member hardly seems more dangerous to democracy than simply not bestowing such a gift at all. Unless, of course, one comes from a family of undercapitalized narcoterrorists. But if large accumulations of privately owned property, as such, are not corrosive of democracy, then why would expect divisions of such property to be any more corrosive?

Is dynasticism poison to democracy? If we suppose that dynasticism means previously elected offices becoming hereditary priviledges, then of course it is. On the other hand, if by dynasticism we mean more than one person from the same family cooperating to accomplish some legal goal by legitimate means, then it's hard to see what the fuss about. Again, as long as the freedom to campaign for office and the freedom of economic contract are not poison to democracy in themselves, it's not clear why these freedoms somehow become more sinister when people who are related or who are family members exercise them.

And thus we come to the argument that agape love is morally superior to "family values". In the context of property rights, this sounds suspiciously like the familiar assertion of liberals that 9/11 should have been followed by a massive surge of volunteerism and public sacrifice, all on behalf of and orchestrated by Big Government. Perhaps the least relevant argument one can make either for or against this assertion is a scholastic ranking of the various forms of "value" and "love" into a heirarchy: a conservative could just a plausibly argue that "family values" are of supreme importance but that good citizenship and public spirit should be included as good values. What really matters to conservatives is that family values can be morally superior to and serve as a bulwark against what we might call "government values".


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home