Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Institutions, individuals, and American Politics (aka: Progressivism becomes Conservatism)

Recently, Chris Rock said:
I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.
How can this statement make sense?  Here is a simple way of imagining US politics.  I included a version of this, in my post on jubilee.
This could use less loaded language.  High respect here  means being careful
about changing or controlling something.  Low respect means being more
willing to change or control something.

Let's begin with conservatism.  It is kind of the core of the natural state of human community, which was surely made possible by our biological tendency to strongly favor our tribe, our tribe's leaders, and our tribe's idiosyncrasies.  Loyalty to our received institutions is the core value here.  There's a place for that value.  There is real value in the Burkean sense of trepidation about changing institutions.  Capitalism creates a constant stream of challenges to status quo arrangements.  But, the American Constitution, one of our received institutional foundations, is the cornerstone of American liberalism and capitalism, so American conservatives are in the awkward position of defending the very system that inevitably speeds adaptive changes in status quo moral norms.  This is probably one of the lucky accidents of the modern West.

Libertarians tend to have some affiliation with conservatives in the U.S.  I think that this is because libertarians share a respect for our liberal Constitution.  But, where conservatives emphasize the duty of individuals to serve institutions, libertarians see the value of institutions as a product of how they serve individuals.  Libertarians can be protective of the Constitution or religious institutions, but are more likely to view them from a Hayekian perspective - that these institutions are emergent human creations.  Whether it is the law, the market, or religion, we may see imperfections and sources of unfairness, but with emergent systems, we must be wary of the uncountable number of interactions and relationships that escape our limited observations.  Just as we wouldn't want to roll through the rainforest, say, killing all the large predators, libertarians are wary of popular proposals aimed at broadly manipulating public behaviors and outcomes, because of possible unintended and unseen consequences.  Libertarians are Burkean liberals, and they defend emergent order, in the form of markets and free society, and core institutions that promote their peaceful incubation.

Moving around the circle, liberals are much like libertarians, but with less trepidation about changing institutions.  From conservatives' point of view, liberals frequently seem anti-American, or anti-religious.  That is because it is important to liberals that their institutions - institutions that they have control over and that have control over them - are just, and they are not hesitant about calling out their own institutions when they disagree with them.  This is also a product of the modern West - a sense that we aren't just custodians of received institutions, but that we are responsible for correcting our institutions when they are in error.  Libertarians and liberals each generally value both limited government and democracy, but liberals tend to favor democracy where libertarians favor limited government.  For liberals, democracy represents the power to perfect our institutions.  The Bill of Rights might be the best American example of liberalism, with the 1960's Civil Rights battle as its most recent apex.  And, when liberalism triumphs, in hindsight, it is usually a universal triumph.  The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution describe a multi-century process of the triumph of individuals over institutions.- the triumph of broad progress over imposed status hierarchies.

Moving from liberal to progressive, we move from a sense of perfecting institutions to serve individuals toward a sense of perfecting institutions to perfect individuals.  Where conservatives would press others into a world that once was, progressives would press others into a world that never was.  Where liberals would mold existing institutions to make people free, progressives would mold existing institutions to make people behave.  Here, we have another accident of history.  The Civil Rights advancements of the 1960's were a great liberal victory.  But, we can divide those advancements into two categories.  The more libertarian victories were changes that reduced governmentally imposed discrimination.  These were changes that allowed institutions to better serve individuals.  The more progressive victories were changes that imposed rules on private citizens.  Even though the core victories were libertarian victories, the progressive changes became a part of the package of changes we identify with the Civil Rights era, and libertarian opposition to those elements meant that progressives took the mantle as heirs to Civil Rights liberalism.

I say this is an accident of history, because progressivism is decidedly illiberal.  As with all of these political conceptions, there is a core of virtue here.  The progressive core is a sense of justice - of righting past wrongs.  We need this, just as we need the sensibilities held dear by the other wings of political ideology.  This sense of justice - of fighting oppressors - leads to categorizations.  Rich vs. poor.  Majority vs. minority.  Men vs. women.  Employer vs. employee.  These categories can become the core principle itself.  Progressive policy positions are usually a reflection of the need to rebalance power among these groups.  Where liberalism demanded individualist equality under the law, progressivism applies the law based on group identity.  Progressive policies are usually associated with positive liberties.  In commercial contexts, this usually means that employers and capitalists are coerced for the presumed benefit of employees and consumers, through redistribution, progressive taxation, and a host of norms imposed selectively on private for-profit firms, such as workplace and wage restrictions and anti-discrimination rules.  Positive liberties generally, in practice, equate to the selective denial of negative liberties.

So, while this is rooted in a quest for justice, in practice it is essentially ad hominem.  This article is a case in point:  "Wal-Mart’s new scheme to prey on America’s poor".  Note that the article makes no attempt to even create a poorly constructed straw man set of expectations.  Wal-Mart is creating valuable banking services for poor people, which is bad...because it's Wal-Mart.  There is a movement to create low income banking services through the Post Office.  The movement must insist on preventing Wal-Mart from establishing banking services and must implement them politically through the Post Office, because the Post Office represents control.  Imagine if both the Post Office and Wal-Mart start offering banking services.  Where do you imagine most poor people will choose to bank?

The attempt at egalitarianism and at leveling social injustices arises from a virtuous sense of justice.  But, in practice these ideas serve as a sort of original sin - a problem that can never be rectified - and thus morph into a permanent lineup of favored and disfavored groups.  The writings of Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, etc. are infused with these explicit appeals to ad hominem. They talk about "The rich" or "corporations" or "Wall Street" as a monolith, with rhetorical tactics that would be clearly offensive if directed at an ethnic group or race.  The message is "They're different than you and me".  Progressives become modern Pharisees.  Advocacy, OWS marches, and Facebook status updates are like loud public prayers at the temple.  Corporations and investors are perpetually unclean in the eyes of the unbending law of egalitarianism.

Progressives oppose Citizens United*, for instance, in spite of liberal principles regarding political speech, explicitly because some of the plaintiffs are associations formed to facilitate shared ownership of productive capital.  Corporations own capital - a progressive original sin.  If your core principle is that rights should be enforced selectively to counter power, and capital represents power, then "getting money out of politics" seems principled.  But, really, there are any number of sources of political power - all of them distributed unequally.  Progressives are simply singling out the one source of power that is associated with their chosen out-group and selectively attempting to remove it from the realm of protected rights.  There is no principled difference between this position and, say, preventing gay couples from marrying or keeping minorities out of good schools or limiting property rights for women.  Progressives will argue that selective treatment is warranted here, as a way to correct for power imbalances.  But all sectarians think they have their own good reasons for selective treatment.  Progressives are applying conservative (or, more precisely, sectarian) principles.  They have simply changed who's in and who's out.**

Thus, progressivism in power is crude conservatism.  There doesn't seem to be an ideological mechanism for progressivism to transmute into conservatism, as there was from conservatism through libertarianism and liberalism.  The mechanism is power.  In power, progressivism becomes conservatism, but not the conservatism that we are accustomed to, which at least defends our received liberal foundations.  It is a pre-liberal conservatism, explicit in its insider-outsider identity-based favoritism, and decidedly anti-bourgeois.

* I am endlessly amused by the fact that opponents to Citizens United, who generally use slogans, such as, "Money is not speech, and human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights." fight this ruling by forming corporations, associations, and affiliations, and with a united voice making public statements of conscience.  Here is a petition that implores boards of trustees, congregations, and committees to demand that "corporations aren't persons and money is not speech" and ends with "This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations."  Clearly, these groups are engaged in reducing the rights and status of commercial producers.  I am curious about the motivations that cause them to avoid language that would make this more clear in their petitions.  This disconnection does not come from a shallow or conscious place.

**  Of course, I'm being unfair to conservatism here.  Prejudice is sometimes a kind of a side effect of conservative biases.  Progressivism has made a prejudicial viewpoint a core principle.  Think of how frequently the progressive media will simply note that something good happened to the rich, or whites, or corporations, or men, and this is understood to be bad news.  If we think in progressive terms, we can see how there is some base virtue at work here - a desire to pull outcomes toward a mean.  But, if we think about this in terms of avoiding a corrosive mindset, it's really quite nasty.  With any prejudiced point of view, our biases start to inform our interpretation of the world and our acceptance of perceived facts.  If prejudice is a central virtue, how in the world can you expect to interpret facts with a remotely objective perspective, especially if you are surrounded by like minded ideological partners.  Think of how biased and ill-informed people generally are who openly espouse white supremacy, misogyny, and nativism.  Accepting that progressive prejudices are ground in a sense of justice, still, why would we expect them to be any more reasonable or informed than unjust prejudices?  Even the wise Benjamin Franklin famously wrote a friend about German immigrants, "…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it; and as Kolbern says of the young Hotttentots, that they are not esteemed men till they have shewn their manhood by beating their mothers, so they seem to think themselves not free, till they feel their liberty in abusing and insulting their Teachers…."  And, he didn't consider it a virtue to dislike Germans.  This mistake was by accident because he was kind of put off by them.  Imagine how ignorant he would have been if he considered being anti-German to be a morally uplifting core principle.

Being a financial nerd around progressives is, I suspect, like being an evolutionary biologist around creationists.  Creationists would constantly be talking about your favorite subject.  You might at first think, "Oh! Yeah!  Seemingly irreducible complexity!  What a fascinating topic.  How could these mechanisms evolve?"  But, you would soon find that their interest in the topic is to specifically not learn those things.  Such is the case with progressives and inequality, or the balance between wages, interest, and profits, or markets in general.  Progressive approaches to economic and social matters are informed by the goal of pulling down the status of commercial associations.  This does not lend itself to objective review of stochastic statistical information that moves around a tentatively stationary mean.

Take an issue like income inequality - a favorite issue today.  To the extent that it is an interesting subject - which it seems to be to many people - it is the product of a complex web of causes, such as the revolutionary global explosion of the internet and digital technology, the empowerment and education of women, the extension of education and retirement in our lifecycles, changing household composition and size, the new trend of lower income being associated with more leisure, etc.  Yet almost all of the discussion revolves around factional political issues like tax rates, which probably are a small part of the story, or growing corporate profits, which is empirically incorrect.

The reaction to much economic progress makes me think of this scene from Seinfeld.  (George is basically demanding that any change in his dating life is a Pareto improvement.) Whenever I hear something about foreigners or robots or some other source of new productivity taking everyone's jobs, I want to ask, "Do you want to be able to get your hand out of her hair, or do you not want to be able to get it out?":

  I think you'll get it out.


  1. Great blogging Kevin!

    Chuck E.

  2. Yes, second that - brilliant piece! It hadn't occurred to me before - the subtle difference between liberal and progressive.