Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Conserve THIS!

Now that I've been able to persuade my car radio to pick up Radio 4 (seriously, I so awful with technology that I should be Amish, except for that whole no sex, no booze thing), and have been embarking on mammoth driving sessions up and down the country, I've had time to listen to various politics shows in-between whiny whiteboy CDs.

This included Sunday night's Westminster Hour (now available on iPlayer), which ended by running the first part of the upcoming Conserve What? series, starting tomorrow.

The basic idea is to explain what it means to be a conservative (small "c", though the big C's are unsurprisingly involved) in the 21st Century. Obviously, this of interest to me, if only to get a better understanding of the opposition.

The program itself is pretty poor. This should come as no surprise given it's been put together by a Daily Mail journalist, Peter Oborne. Even if one were to take what was said at face value, one would find it difficult to take the program and put together a particularly useful picture of conservatism.

As is frequently the case, though, a great deal was revealed by accident.

First of all, Oborne tells us, conservatism isn't a philosophy, more of a sensibility. This, Oborne suggests, is why there are so few "conservative philosophers" (he suggests Edmund Burke might be the closest to having earned the label). He also suggests conservatives don't consider politics particularly important, at least not when compared to your family, or your mates.

This argument gets right to the heart of my problem with the Conservative party. Why would anyone think a "sensibility" is a good thing to base the rule of a country on? Because politics isn't important, you see. Looking after Britain is something you do in-between church picnics and long walks on the beach.

It might not be quite paradoxical to suggest one wants power in order to ensure that said power is never used, but the very last thing you could accuse Thatcher or George W. Bush of being during their time in office was idle (Bush's record-breaking holiday time notwithstanding). The conservative belief that people should just be left alone to do their own thing misses (or deliberately ignores) one of the fundamental points of progressives, namely that practically every piece of legislation means denying people the ability to do or have something, or at least make it harder to perform/acquire. The denial might be explicit (no murders) or implicit (relaxing health and safety laws will make it harder for people to perform their jobs safely, or gain compensation when things go wrong). It might apply to all people (no murders, thanks), or only to some (making it harder, albeit fractionally, for a given group to get jobs due to some mandated hiring quota). For progressives, the idea is to find the perfect balance, if indeed it exists at all (and it probably doesn't, but like a sin-free life, it doesn't follow that is not something worth attempting.) Just like refusing to decide is itself a decision [1], not interceding on behalf of one group of people is itself an exercise in power [2]. I don't want to imply that this invalidates conservatism entirely, since the idea that man should be free and that if it that ends up screwing you it's tough isn't an incoherent idea (just a supremely distasteful one that conservatives frequently go to great lengths to refute, usually fairly unconvincingly), but it's worth bearing in mind.

It should be noted that I brought progressives into this quite deliberately, because Oborne does as well. Many of his points regarding what conservatism is boiled down to "progressives do X, and we think that's bad". It really didn't do much to dispel the notion that conservatives spend their time deciding what they're against, rather than what they're for. Further, whilst I can't claim to be anything close to an expert on philosophies, I'm not sure progressives would be likely to claim their political outlook is nothing more than a sensibility, which makes comparing the two as theoretical equals less than totally convincing. My own interpretation of the progressive philosophy (and YMMV pretty strongly on this) can be boiled down to the well-worn idea that all people should be offered equality of opportunity. The aim of political activity and the objective of political power is to achieve that balance. Or, in situations in which that balance cannot be achieved (which, as acknowledged above, is probably all of them) the aim is to oscillate around the balance point like a pendulum. [3]

Oborne's definition of conservatism, in large part, boils down to "We don't want that". The reason for this, he claims, is that society has worked perfectly well up until now, and we should have more respect for the generations spent assembling said society than to simply reshape it upon a whim. Why rock the boat and risk the way we live our lives?

There are obvious problems with this argument. Had this idea won over two hundred years ago, we would never have abolished slavery. Had it been persuasive forty years ago, homosexuality would not have been legalised. Evidently, neither of those resulted in the downfall of British civilisation. It would be difficult in this country (and all but impossible in America) to point to a single paradigm shift in history that we consider a good thing but which conservatives at the time did not oppose. As clear as those counters are, though, there is a more fundamental point to be made. The problem with conservatism is that it relies so heavily on slippery slope arguments. I've pointed out before that these have their place, but those occasions are comparatively infrequent. The conservative fear that change might lead to the collapse of civilisation as we know it that Oborne references is rooted in the perception of the various elements of society are not pendulums, but lines of dominoes. This is perfectly demonstrated by conservatives in America (you knew I was going to go there eventually), who are even now screaming that preventing 45 000 people a year from dying because they can't afford health insurance would be the death knell of freedom. The fact that their hero Reagan claimed the same thing about Medicare (seriously, he said if government-funded medical treatment for seniors wasn't stopped "[O]ne of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.") and turned out to be completely, embarrassingly wrong apparently doesn't matter. [4]

In the light of this, it's almost comical that Oborne accuses progressives of ignoring the lessons of history. What he means, I think, is that we focus on the negative aspects of history in our desire to avoid their repitition, and so in our eagerness to avoid a repeat of injustice, we might sweep aside some of the positive parts of our past as well. That, at least, is a defensible position. Perhaps we do have a tendency to throw baby out with bathwater. Oborne's problem, though, is that he thinks history in itself is virtuous. He accuses progressives of dismissing tradition, because we see it as prejudice. It would be far fairer to suggest that progressives focus on the prejudicial aspects of tradition and attempt to excise them. If Oborne wanted to argue that it might be a shame if a centuries-old ceremony was chucked out because there was no way to retain it in it's current, bigoted form (however passive that bigotry might be), then I'd at least be willing to listen. That stance is too complex for him, though. The progressive must be demonised. We can't possibly be faced with two unpleasant options and have chosen the lesser evil (or more precisely have chosen what our philosophy suggests is the lesser evil), we must simply be thumbing our nose at history due to an appalling lack of respect. [5]

This bizarre thought process results in Oborne lamenting the progressive desire to destroy venerable institutions. It apparently never occurs to him to consider the common traits shared by those institutions the progressive does want to see expunged (or altered). He once again makes his baffling statement that progressives are wilfully ignorant of history and declares that it is for this reason that conservatives recognise the corrupt nature of man, and furthermore that it is this realisation that leads to conservatives placing their faith in institutions instead. It is at this point that the wheels really fall off the wagon. It is most certainly not that progressives do not understand that man is prone to selfishness. In fact, it is for this very reason that we object to the idea of our government maintaining a policy of non-interference. Moreover, the idea that somehow an institution will counteract human mendacity, rather than multiplying it, is evidence enough that it is not the progressives that need to revisit their history lessons, but Oborne himself. Naturally, the government itself is an institution (how strange that Oborne trusts neither the common man nor arguably the most powerful of institutions, but somehow believes that all that lies in-between is sacrosanct, presuming of course that it is old enough), and so must be subjected to constant scrutiny to ensure its members are following the rules, but that is hardly an idea new to progressives.

Ultimately, the problem with progressivism is that we can never agree on which direction in which to proceed. The problem with conservatism is not dissimilar, only in their case it is better phrased as they can never agree on which direction in which to regress. Oborne admits that conservatism isn't automatically about stasis, it frequently involves the desire to change society as much as progressivism does, it is simply that in their case the aim is to change things back to how they were. A conservative might argue that this is an important distinction, that (to return to the analogy above) that they are attempting to re-stack dominoes rather than knock them down. This, of course, ignores the fact that society is constantly evolving in myriad ways, and therefore the fact an idea worked before does not imply that it isn't dangerous to return to it (again: consider slavery). Douglas Adams once perfectly encapsulated the way people often become more conservative as they grow older:
Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
This thinking can be expressed in another way: if we've changed anything in the last five years it was a cataclysmic mistake that must be reversed. If we've changed anything in the last thirty years it was a sad loss to society, and we must attempt to find our way back to it. If we've changed anything in the last seventy years, then we don't expect to see it back, but we'll still complain about it being gone, sotto voce in case the fascist PC brigade overhear.

If we changed something before that, of course, it is history, and we must fight tooth and nail to preserve it.

Time is not on the side of the conservatives. If a change is wrought, there is only so long to reverse it before it simply becomes the new order. It is one of life's great ironies that today's conservatives might fight to maintain the ideals yesterday's conservatives vilified so thoroughly. But then each generation of conservatives is convinced that their own lifetime represents the global maximum of human civilisation, and that unlike all the other previous conservatives, the ones who wanted the throne to have unchecked power or to tell brown people what they could and couldn't do, they're really, really right this time.

One last point: Oborne needs to bone up on his analogy skills. His attempt to compare conservative vs. progressive thought to a sprinting race doesn't really work. Conservatives always want the fastest person to win, because that's what the rules demand, he suggests, whereas progressives want to tinker with the rules so the same person wins each time. This is by way of suggesting conservatives are more concerned with the rule of law than progressives are. Aside from the sheer lunacy of anyone alive during the previous Conservative administration suggesting they have a superior commitment to due process than anyone else does, this entirely misses the point. The rules for, say, the 200m are fixed now. There was a time when they weren't. There will almost certainly have been a point at which people sat down and discussed how to deal with the fact that the track curves, and so everyone couldn't start on the same line. I don't imagine the discussion took very long (assuming someone present had a basic grasp of geometry), but the point is that sports and games require development to make them fair. Football is still developing, for example, with FIFA continuing to tweak the rules [6]. Football is also a much better analogy for society, by the way, because it is a sport in which one teams actions directly affect the other. Fairness is about ensuring consistency of interaction, not just ensuring everyone has the same conditions under which they can go it alone. The progressive is interested not in ensuring all runners have a turn at winning the race, but in fiddling with the rules until every runner has the same chance of running the race. It's not the same thing, and I should know.

Right, that took forever to write, and is probably too long for anyone to bother reading. Still, it should serve as a reminder to Spielbergo that it isn't the number of posts that counts, it's the insane length to which you can stretch each one.

[1] A brief and terrifying insight into my day job; whilst in Munich I attended a talk regarding imprecise decision making, which concerns itself with the idea that rather than offering people Option 1 or Option 2, you should offer those options along with Can't Decide. One member of the audience then asked whether or not you should extend the situation to Option 1, Option 2, Can't Decide, and Can't Decide Whether You Can't Decide. It says a lot about the company I keep that this observation resulted in at least as many thoughtful faces as it did rolling of eyes.

[2] Let us recall Paulo Friere here: "In the struggle between the weak and the strong, remaining silent is not to be neutral; it is to give victory to the strong".

[3] This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I'm in complete agreement with Stuart Lee on the subject of Political Correctness. The ideas and initiatives that the term is used to describe are borne of a conscious attempt to ensure bigotry and prejudice are no longer commonly expressed in society. If people want to argue it's gone too far, then I wouldn't immediately object. I'd suggest though that we're closer to the balance point than we were forty or fifty years ago, it's just that we're also on the other side now. At some point, the pendulum will swing back again, and we'll probably pass the balance point again, but hopefully not stray so far from it.

[4] The point I made above about British conservatives consistently standing on the wrong side of history applies tenfold to our American cousins. Slavery, women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, free medical attention for seniors,anti-pollution laws, food safety laws, on and on and on.

[5] Note again the defining characteristic of so much Conservative argument. There cannot be complex situations with no easy answers; there can only be easy answers which progressives refuse to see.

[6] Others know far more about this than I, of course, but I confess the fiddling with the rules of football might have more to do with keeping the game exciting and flowing smoothly than with the idea that there exists inherent unfairness that needs to be tackled. Hopefully though my central point survives.


Tomsk said...

Interesting ... I like the idea of developing a generalized Douglas Adams theory of conservatism.

I'm not sure I'd associate conservatism with a desire to leave people alone though. That's something I'd associate with liberalism (in the British/European sense of the word). Conservatism is more about law and order, taking orders from your betters and generally keeping the status quo, at least historically. That I think can be contrasted with the modern conservative philosophy of cutting the size of the state above all else.

SpaceSquid said...

"I'm not sure I'd associate conservatism with a desire to leave people alone though. That's something I'd associate with liberalism (in the British/European sense of the word)."

Yeah, what I guess I'd call libertarianism due to my exposure to Americanisms. Still, the idea of the program asks what it means to be a conservative now, which certainly seems to have a fairly healthy libertarian streak. It could be argued that is is very telling that a show about a group dedicated to the historical status quo might misrepresent its own history, and that a group dedicated to minimizing change will itself change with the times, and then deny the change ever took place.

Gooder said...

I've not heard the program but it does sound a poor one in terms of establishing conservatism. (I don't understand the suggestion of sensibility rather then a poltical belief without listening to it)

In the British sense conservatism is born mostly out of the lassez faire stance that it wasn't the governments place to dictate the day to day workings of the economy and society.

The state was there to provide defense, maintain & order and manage the 'larger' aspects of the economy so it kept running - see the collapse of pre-Revolutionary France when this bit goes by the by.

Obviously these days things have moved on and with have a political system where the government is much more involved in our daily lives in various ways.

No I would argue mordern conservatim (again in the British sense) isn't about regression but about trying to ease off on the level of state involvement (since Labour has made things increasingly fiddly and complex over the years) whislt trying to make the best of existing vital services like the NHS using the power of the free market where possible.

How succesful these goals can be is of course in question. But it seems that New Labour has already started applying some of this anyway ni terms of opening up state services to private ownership and the free market in everything from the NHS, to schools to the postal system.

In my mind liberalism equates to those who drive to 'free' up society as much as possible for all although perversely this often leads to more legislation than before, such as laws on age discrimination at work for example.

I'm sure that what an american would call a conservative is very different to what many what consider one over here. Laregly based on the fact the American has a long history of being suspcious of federal goverenance and 'big' government.

To be honest I don't see much difference between the Tories and New Labour these days since both have over the years drifted towards a mutal central position. As the Tories slowly accept more state involvement they look as to how implement thing as simply as possible whilst New Labour advocate all kinds of state involvement but then open it up to private enterprise to carry out so government doesn't have to spemd on it.

Anyway that's just my take on it and I've always been pretty centralist so maybe I'm just imagining that everyone is slowly coming to the same place!

BigHead said...

Re: [1]: I rolled my eyes. Actually I rolled my eyes at Fuzzy's initial suggestion also.

Tomsk said...

Gooder - you're right to say that there's not a lot of difference between the Tories and New Labour nowadays, but this isn't because they've all become closet centrist Lib Dems. It's because they've both accepted Thatcher's economic legacy, and in many ways Blair and Brown have pushed it further. That's why Labour can't offer a coherent critique of the financial crisis: they're as much to blame as anyone else.

The idea that the mean of two parties' positions defines the political centre is an illusion. Heath's Conservative party of the 1970's is undoubtedly more left-wing than New Labour today, for example. What the parties actually do is frame the political debate, so that positions to the left or right of wherever they happen to stand appear radical.

The US Republican party understand this very well, and that's why they don't suppress their extremist wing. Their mere existence exerts a rightward pull on the American imagination. That's why there's such opposition to Obama's healthcare plan, even though it's far more conservative than the plan put forward by the Nixon administration.

So to say you're centrist isn't really saying anything, because there's no independent frame of reference.