Friday, February 02, 2007

Useful comments for an IATF RFC

The writer Arnold Kling over at TCS Daily has issued a "Request for Comment" on behalf of his "Ideological Affirmation Task Force" (thus IATF RFC). The request deals with comments referring to a list of principles of a "libertarian conservative" ideology that Mr. Kling has taken the liberty of drafting out. If I could describe the entire list with a single word, that word would be "wimpy". Let's look at some of the items on the list and you'll see what I mean.

Principle #1 is the first of the "economic principles":
We weave a thread of self-reliance into a sturdy fabric of interdependence. By respecting the law, we reinforce impersonal justice. By competing intensely and fairly in an impersonal global market, we raise our standard of living through specialization and innovation. By upholding Constitutional principles for limited government, we sustain our individual freedom.
Obviously this principle was written with equal parts pro-capitalism and pro-capitalist damage control in mind. That is, most of the principle is written from the point of view that a big chunk of the population believes that your average capitalist is either a ruthless "Gordon Gekko" or a sociopathic "Scrooge McDuck". Notice that there is a lot of useless verbiage -- "weaving the thread of self-reliance" and "competing intensely", for example -- which must be pleasantly reassuring for libertarians to read but is somewhat besides the point.

Principle #2 reads:
We are creative and pro-active in helping one another. We do not have the patience to wait for government, nor do we want to be lulled into passivity by the promise of government. Instead, to solve those problems that require collective action, we form voluntary associations, including civic groups, corporations, clubs, standards-setting bodies, consumer information services, and charitable foundations.
This is just as forceful and wordy as principle #1, and unfortunately still written from a defensive cringe. The first sentence in particular is a rather clumsy negation of a key principle of the modern welfare state: that individuals cannot be relied upon to held each other with private charity. And is it really necessary to elaborate all of the different voluntary associations in such detail?

Principle #3 is much the same as principle #2:
Government must be kept in its place. We hold government officials to high standards of competence, honesty, and fairness. However, we do not confuse government with family. We do not confuse government with religion. We do not confuse government with business. We are conscious that any expansion of government responsibility, however well-intended, crowds out those institutions that are the true bulwark of our society.
This is another clumsy anti-welfare state declaration, or at least an anti-something declaration. The sentence about "confusing government with religion" seems like a barrier for keeping people who think that the United States is a "Christian Nation" out of the "libertarian conservative" movement. As we'll see in the principles to follow, keeping the dope-smoking, non-traditional lifestyle, free love wing of libertarianism included in the ideology is a key priority of this list.

Principle #4 elevates the fetal-positioned cringe to a fundamental pillar of ideology:
We celebrate the successes of others. We are glad when an entrepreneur becomes wealthy by finding a way to fill a customer need. We are glad when an immigrant family climbs the ladder of success. We are glad when people living in other countries make economic progress and spur us to innovate and improve.
The economic principles do a pretty good job in covering the general basis of a free market economy in a somewhat haphazard way. It seems to me that this whole formulation of principles is really too mixed up with damage/image control to be of much use as an ideology. Principle #4 is especially ridiculous; why not just add in "I will not gloat when I screw you out of your last dime in a poker game. I will not blow cigar smoke rings in your face when my net worth increases on the New York stock exchange. I will not give you a $20 bill, then say 'Hey kid. Go buy yourself a decent meal.'" You get the idea.

Principle #5 is the first of the ethical principles:
Government cannot legislate morality, but it does mess with the incentives. Those incentives should never be tilted against the institution of the family whose mission is to raise children to be fine, upstanding citizens.
Not bad, although the first sentence is more cliche than anything else. But hey, alienate the pot smokers and your "libertarian conservatism" more or less becomes plain old "conservatism". Besides, government legislates morality (or messes with morality) all of the time. If government can't legislate morality, how do you expect that the principles of this ideology are going to be enacted?

Principle #6 is a no-brainer:
We maintain an ongoing conversation about morality and ethics. This conversation is informed by the Ten Commandments and Biblical scripture. It is informed by the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. It is vital to continue the conversation, even when consensus is difficult.
This is probably the most banal sentiment that can be expressed in our modern political idiom. Did Senator Hillary Clinton write this in a late night bull session or what? Notice the conspicuous Christianity included here; we don't want too many of the Bible-thumpers getting kicked out of the ideology.

Principle #7 reads:
Like new businesses, new moral ideals can revitalize our society, even though many of them fail. For example, we recognize that we are a better people without racial segregation or barriers to the education and career opportunities for women. However, we judge some social experiments to be failures, including eugenics, Communism, and nihilistic cultural relativism.
More damage control: just because we're "conservatives" doesn't mean that we want to "turn back the clock" on civil rights. But it also doesn't mean that our heads are as soft as overripe melons either. There is also a twinge of neoconservatism that pops up in the principles every once in a while. "Nihilism", for example, is considered a code word by many that indicates the "Straussian" neoconservative discipleship of the author.

Principle #8 is the first of the "international principles" and another banality:
Our ideology does not have to be sustained by military suppression. Although it can inspire people to fight against tyranny, ultimately our ideology allows us to live in peace.
In other words, we're willing to go to war, except when we aren't.

Principle #9 is an anti-Iraq declaration, plain and simple:
We believe that people all over the world yearn for liberty, and for them we stand as a beacon and a champion. But we recognize that freedom is not ours to give when community leaders are not ready to seize the opportunity that it offers.
And finally, principle #10 reads:
When foreign leaders issue threats against us, we take them at their word and act accordingly.
It's nice and direct. In fact, it's absolutely too direct. Certainly this is another correction of a standard neoconservative criticism of liberalism, but it seems much to specific of a correction. There must be other things the liberals are doing wrong in foreign policy if they can't be bothered to take the Osama bin Ladens of the world seriously.

All in all then, this is a list of sound basic principles buried under a pile of banalities designed to look good on television, the fashionable but brain-damaged slogans of the hour, thinly concealed euphemisms for critical problems of modern society that are somehow unmentionable in polite conversation, papered-over divisions for the sake of coalition building, and haphazard attempts to "reboot" the public image of capitalism in the face of public skepticism.

In the interest of providing some minimal level of constructive criticism, here is my list of replacement principles. Just throw out all of the original ones and substitute these instead:

Ethical and Economic Principles

1. The free individual, by virtue of engaging in lawful commerce, contributes to the general good of society.

2. Lawful commerce in modern societies requires the fundamental right of ownership of private property; the ownership of private property in turn requires the freedom of economic contract and the freedom of association for invdividuals.

3. Goverment is essential to the preservation of individual rights. A government that engages in unjust seizure or supression of these rights; whether by outright confiscation or usurpation, excessive taxation, the unequal enforcement of the laws, coercion via the threat of retaliatory action, or by undermining the private institutions of society; has become a danger to the general liberty of its citizens.

4. The family in particular is an essential private institution necessary for the continuation of a free society.

5. We recognize that the rights and freedoms of the citizens of any one nation depend, in part, upon the rights and freedoms of the citizens of other nations of the world. We further recognize that it is in the nature of free societies to extend the general scope of these rights and freedoms, and that it is in the nature of despotic regimes to extend the suppression of these rights and freedoms to the greatest possible extent. It is therefore an essential action of government to staunchly defend these rights and freedoms against despotic regimes, and to engage in peaceful coexistence or alliance with the free nations of the world.

6. Ethical behavior, being derived from numerous sources of wisdom throughout the cultures and history of the world, requires the freedom of private opinion, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of religion for its fullest acceptance by the people.

2 Comments:

Blogger Stacy McMahon said...

Two mostly-nitpicking comments:
1) I could be wrong, but I think Kling's wording "we do not confuse government with religion" was a reference to the quasi-religious reverence the left has for government, not a sop to the religious right.

2) Again I could be wrong, but you seem to be implying that government is often an impediment to freedom of contract, but in real life the opposite is more nearly the case. There's no contract if there's no contract enforcement, and enforcement is done by government.

Overall though, I like your list better than Kling's. See my post...

5:59 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

Hi Stacy,

Thank you for your constructive comments about my the list. I'm glad that you found much that is true in it. Let me address the points that you make:

1. You could very well be right in inferring the intention of the phrase "we do not confuse government with religion" better than I did. One of the reasons that I tried to make my list bold and simple was to avoid weakening the list by being too vague or confusing.

2. I didn't mean to imply that government is always an impediment to freedom of contract. I tried to address that in point three: "Government is essential to the preservation of individual rights."

Joe

2:16 PM  

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