Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why I am not a conservative (or a liberal) III; Eight political propositions

I’ve written a previous post about why I am not a conservative and one on why I am not a liberal. Now I move on to what I am. This may be more difficult. I know (and have explained already) that I do not accept the conservative attachment to the past as an ideology nor the modern conservative’s dogma that leads to fear of Shariah law in America, fear that abolishing antiquated restrictions on gays they would not tolerate on an ethnic group, or their bizarre (in my mind, at least) fear of atheists, as if we are a fifth column sworn to destroy their religion. In the same vein, I cannot accept the liberal leanings toward collectivism and income redistribution, among other notions. Although they are only somewhat developed in America, they have at best, gone far enough.

It is not that I disagree with either group completely either. I tend to have more in common with conservatives on some economic issues and more in common with liberals on some social ones, but even that is a mixed bag. But, I find I sometimes agree with one or the other more to the extent that they are consistent with what we now call libertarianism and once as 19th century or classic liberalism (which, of course, confuses everyone) or it is a constitutional issue or simply a matter of policy of which I approve.

Additionally, it is the prevalent partisanship associated with each group, the lengths and tactics they similarly employ to defeat the other side, which repels me, and which I thought was put well by John Adams in letters to Jefferson:

“The real terrors of both Parties have all ways been, and now are, the fear that they shall loose the Elections and consequently the Loaves and Fishes; and that their Antagonists will obtain them.”

. . .

“While all other Sciences have advanced, that of Government is at a stand; little better understood; little better practiced now then 3 or 4 thousand Years ago. What is the Reason? I say Parties and Factions will not suffer, or permit Improvements to be made. As soon as one Man hints at an Improvement his rival opposes it. No sooner has one Party discovered or invented an Amerlioration of the Condition of Man or the order of Society, than the opposite Party, belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it.”

It is not the different ideology that bothers me. Ideology is too often mistaken for partisanship. When I say partisanship I mean the attribution to another of negative personal characteristics, bad motives and either stupidity or mental incapacity based upon the fact that they differ politically. I mean the same thing as Mark Twain when he wrote:

“[W]e know exactly where to put our finger upon his insanity: it is where his opinion differs from ours....All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it. None but the Republicans. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.”

Of course, I am also only willing to take this so far. For example, knowing what I do of Hitler, I freely attribute to him a slew of negative qualities, bad motives, mental derangement and lack of veracity, without beating myself up about it. But some people have trouble telling Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Boehner, McConnell, Bush, Cheney and McCain from Hitler. Anyway, this is a side point. But, it leads me to the first proposition of my political theory:

Proposition 1 – Most statements about politics are general statements and should be subject to qualification, exception and nuance.

This might not seem very revolutionary, but, a vast number of political writings are quite dogmatic and act as if this is not so. It is quite common not to acknowledge any option but to follow them or whoever they most admire, or be wrong and fail. Few write, “I think” or “in my opinion” very much. You might think of problems or exceptions with whatever statement you are reading, but somehow they don’t occur to the expert or pundit. This is even so with my favorite political writers. It’s probably considered bad writing or unpersuasive to sound uncertain based on the belief that most people are so credulous they’ll believe what you say if you sound authoritative enough. In some instances, that is, of course, true. The following is from one of the funniest books ever written, Woody Allen’s Without Feathers:

“And so [Abraham] took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?”

And Abraham said, “But thou said—“

“Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake. “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?”

And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er—not really. . . no.”

“I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”

And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”

And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”

“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”

And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

Which brings me to my second proposition:

Proposition 2: Authority is necessary to a peaceful civilization, but, your obedience should end at the point it would require you to violate a deeply held belief or personal commitment, regardless of the ramifications.

I could have made the same point by quoting Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience or Justice Robert Jackson’s "The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact," or probably even a Dilbert comic strip. The important thing to remember is that in a free society we make the rules, for better or worse, but we need to have some order. I have a list of things I simply will not do, regardless of authority, only very few of which have been tested. I know I have values, but I hope I have the courage if the time ever comes (let’s hope it doesn't) to stand by the most serious of them. In the meantime, reading “libertarian” literature does help give me the feeling that I am not alone out there. And, even for those with libertarian bents, that is pleasant.

But, despite what I have written above, I do not consider myself that much of a “libertarian” either, as I find when I watch the Libertarian Party conventions, I shake my head a lot and sometimes cringe that they share some values with me. Too many of them almost seem to crave some anarchist version of the name, anarchy being what you get when you take libertarianism to its extreme and forget the common sense approach which recognizes that order is necessary for freedom, if it is not to simply dissolve into power.

At some point in the ‘80s, when I began paying attention to politics at all, I considered myself a liberal, but even then refused to join a political party. Eventually, I started describing myself as an “independent” and then added “moderate,” and then dropped liberal later in the 80s (I don’t really remember when) and was just an “independent moderate.” In the last few years I somewhat uncomfortably started adding “who leans libertarian” to the mix. The “uncomfortable” part is internal as I have also always had both a disinterest and dislike of being a member of any group. That is a little out of the mainstream, but it is more typical of those drawn to libertarian values than others.

When I say I am "independent," I mean that though I may agree with one party or another on various issues, I do not like to associate myself to any party or group of people whose opinion will naturally be taken to be mine based on my association with them, particularly by the members themselves or their opposition. I’d rather think for myself and take the bad with the good. Don't get me wrong - freedom of association is a critical value and an important constitutional law. I just don't have to act on it if I don't want to.

It may sound harmless to merely register for a party or to consider your self a member of one. After all, in both parties there are people who generally agree with most other members of it but have different beliefs as to even critical matters. So, Rudy Giuliani can be pro-choice and still a conservative (although it made him unacceptable to some conservatives), and Joe Lieberman can be pro-Iraqi war and still be a liberal (although, he had to run as an independent, as at least the politically active liberals in his own state turned against him). Many of politicians with mixed views are, in fact, politically assassinated by their own side. The right even has a term for it - RINOs (Republican In Name Only).

I don’t think belonging to a party is harmless, although it can bring some benefits. My dislike of faction is much the same beliefs as were held by many at the time of our founding. But, that went out of style while Washington was still president. Most people like to belong to groups, political and otherwise, and they want other people to like and respect them without having to prove themselves. This is much easier for people if they go along with what people they associate with believe. It is as true in politics as it is in religion.

Certainly this happened to me when a boy as I was surrounded by people who were liberals and, if I knew any conservatives, none of them influenced me. To the contrary, I was always independent when it came to religion. But, I believe the difference was that I thought about religion – you were tagged with one and expected to accept it. I rejected it and have not significantly changed my feelings since second grade, although I am always reading and thinking about it (ironically, some people insist I am religious but don't know it. I'm not, but that is a different post). But, when a kid, I never really thought about politics, as like many young people, it bored me terribly, and I just assumed that what everyone I knew seemed to believe was true. My “liberalism” was more assimilated through comments here and there that I remembered, but didn’t care enough to think deeply about. Just as an example, to my parents, JFK was among the greatest of men, and his death a great tragedy for the nation (I make no comment on him here). When Nixon was elected for the second time in 1972 I was told by an older sibling who I’m sure believed it, that Nixon had made it a law that everyone had to vote for him. That puzzled me, was of course completely wrong, but clearly put him in the “bad guy” category for me (of course, there was Watergate too). Also, and this is harder to explain, I somehow came to at least in a vague sense associate the police and the military and “law and order” Republicans with the Nazis, who were the biggest bad guys in the mind of a kid raised not so long after World War II in a Jewish family. Not that Communists weren’t undoubtedly bad guys too, but you had the feeling that they just wanted to rule you without killing you if they could, whereas the Nazis wanted to bake you and make you into a lampshade. It is probably hard for some to understand these associations, but those raised in that time and place and under those circumstances might understand better.

Proposition 3: Being independent comes from a recognition that our political associations, particularly if formed when young, come from factors other than critical analysis or reason; it is deeply affected by how we were raised.

Many people, perhaps most, never get past this and make an examination of their beliefs. Some do and determine they are correct anyway.  If you do, and really make an effort, it is complicated and takes a long time (I do not concern myself with political or religious conversions upon getting a new paramour or staring college).  However, there is little doubt that as we age, people become more “conservative” about the values they have always felt strongly about, and shake their head at younger generations. At some point, what each older generation considers time-worn and immutable values may look quite different from what the last generation thought. For this reason, I do enjoy teasing modern conservatives that they are quite liberal, as their grandparents would never have accepted the unchaperoned young dating, dressing casually for dinner and other events, bikinis, pre-marital sex, divorce, multiple marriages, interracial marriage and dating and adoption without consideration of the baby's parents' religion, as examples, and their parents only grudgingly.

Proposition 4: Being independent requires an understanding that values are not immutable and often change over time for a society and for individuals as well; it is anathema to those who believe that ethics or morality are given to us by a deity, or must be a product of some authoritarian or historical factors.

My discovery that the conservatives were not the “bad guys” my family and others I knew believed them to be was to some degree an act of will and intentional discovery on my part. To some degree it was a reaction to Ronald Reagan, who I saw as a typically insincere and dangerous Republican or conservative when he was elected - to my anguish. It was later a little frustrating for me when I agreed with him on some things - his “hawkish” nature, his firing the air traffic controllers, as examples. Moreover, I could not understand why so many more people seemed to agree with him than me – could most of the country be fooled by him? In any event, no one other than those authors I read helped me get to independence, and if those authors had actually known me and had a shot at persuading me, they would have tried to pull me completely over to their view. My investigation was not something that at the time I ever remember discussing with anyone, but that was typical of me too. It was not at that time a very time consuming or frantic, but was mostly comprised of reading a book here or there. At the end of Reagan's terms, I was essentially an independent, and realized I possibly always had been to some extent without knowing it, even if I self-identified as a liberal. For example, in 1980 I really wanted to vote for the 3rd party, John Anderson, but voted for Carter out of fear of Reagan. Even in the early 90s I still had at least an “emotional” connection with the left and voted for Dukakis, who I was singularly unimpressed with, because I was still mad at G. H. W. Bush, because he was Reagan's vice president, despite the fact that I had always liked him. But, frankly, the more I learned about politics, the more both parties started seeming alike to me. And, I did not like what I saw. Still, I did not know enough, and it would be a very slow process.

Being an independent is not as easy as it may sound. Instead of partisans on both sides appreciating your “independence,” many of them can’t tolerate it, because in a sense, your existence is making a mockery of their predilection that you are either with them or against them. So, they will frequently claim that you don’t matter (though to some degree independents elect the president), that you don’t really exist (and are secretly in conspiracy with the other side) or label you as a fence sitter (which I happily acknowledge), or as having no values. You might loosely analogize it to rooting for two rival baseball teams or dating two women at a time who know about each other. It is never appreciated by others the way you would like.

Proposition 5: Moderation is a temperament that is necessary to learn or playing nicely with others, on a personal, political or societal level; however even moderation needs to be moderated, for in too strong a dose, it can be astronomically dangerous in the face of a lethal enemy (think Nazis, Bolsheviks and al Qaeda). Moderation also takes into consideration that conflicting principles or values can sometimes both be true.

When I say “moderate,” I do not mean that I see every issue in an equally balanced way or that every issue has two or more equally valuable views. It is a temperament. I mean that I am more than willing to try to understand the perspective of those I disagree with without disparaging them, questioning their character or even thinking them ugly. I believe, in fact, that all of the presidents in my lifetime, for all of their faults and all of their mistakes, meant the best for America, viewed from their own perspective. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t as biased as the rest of us, and willing to prevaricate and take steps to fulfill their own predilections.

It is this lack of moderation, I believe, which is both the cause and the effect of the biggest obstacles to the critical reasoning or analysis that would allow more rational thought to avoid many of the solvable problems that face us. It is the biggest obstacle to peace between members of a society and societies. The opposite of a moderate is a militant and what was known before the Civil War as a Fire-eater. Moderation is necessary for the attitude we call “tolerance,” accepting others we consider different from us or with whom we significantly disagree. It is also a gateway temperament to learning, particularly things that might change or modify our opinion. As an old Chinese proverb held it - The value of a cup is in its emptiness (although my boyhood hero, Bruce Lee, disagreed).

But, leaving this aside a moment, I do have to admit to my own bias. I do also believe that there is so often a “middle way,” or a “golden mean,” that at least listening to other viewpoints is helpful, that compromise can often lend itself to at least surviving to fight another day, that common ground is not only possible but often desirable, and other sentiments. I do not have to say much about this. Most of us were taught this when little, stories about the jug with two handles and the saying that there is your story, my story and the truth, and so on. But, how can I believe that and not also believe that sometimes moderation may be wrong - that some basic principles must be immutable if, to borrow from Faulkner, at the last ding dong of doom man is to prevail?

You should not take any of the above to mean that I feel I have special powers of moderation or tolerance, even if I have a predilection in that regard. I believe Americans, in general, are amazingly tolerant and moderate people, even ones who sometimes seem otherwise. That is a conclusion I come to not by reason but a reading of history. I do believe our form of government, particularly the first amendment and a system of peaceful and frequent transfer of power, has played a significant role in this. Those who are intolerant or immoderate or uncivil are often noisier than others and get more attention. Even among those Americans, I still believe there is more tolerance and moderation than in most other countries. But, while I praise moderation, there should be a warning label on it.

Proposition 6: Just like honesty is the best policy, and yet not the only policy, the goal of individual freedom or liberty is but a primarily important political policy or value, and not the only one. 

When I say I "lean libertarian," I mean that I hold the value of individual freedom of single importance among our rights and believe that to the degree it is so accepted and acted upon by a society as a group, the better the chances are for that society to be successful in the long run, if not destroyed by a more powerful group, nature or from too much moderation.

Biographically, even as a young child I was often obstinately individualistic, and it remains to some degree the most distinguishing characteristic of mine for others, as it is still frequently mentioned to me (not always in a good way - nooooo, not by a long shot). Despite that, I maintain I am conventional in all but perhaps 1% of cultural norms, and that this little bit is enough to make a big difference to people. This lack of convention was to some degree inconsistent with my “liberal” upbringing, but would have probably been just as inconsistent to a “conservative” upbringing, for both ideologies emphasize conventionality to different models.

More, there is no doubt for me that sometimes the way to get to the lady is to go through the tiger’s door. If that seems mysterious for you, I merely mean that often our goals our arrived by doing the opposite of what seems the most direct path. Here’s how Alan Watts, an American writer on eastern philosophy put it long ago in an old book I picked up recently on being immediately caught up with the message in the title - The Wisdom of Insecurity:

"I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the “backwards law.” When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink you float. When you hold your breath you lose it—which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, “Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.” (Alan Watts).

His last quote you can find in Matthew, Mark and Luke. He does not mean, of course, that it is good to be insecure. He means by trying so hard to find security, or to seek perfection, we often find the opposite and that by allowing yourself to accept pain or suffering or insecurity, you actually free yourself from the fight. This eastern philosophy (but, brought to us through Schopenhauer too) is difficult to understand and sometimes, from a western viewpoint, seems preposterous. As I was laughing my way through some of it, I also realized that it was how I dealt with many issues throughout my life.

Of the authors I read back when I was trying to free my self from emotional ties to ideology that was contrary to my individualistic notions, Friedrich Hayek, was among the most challenging for me. I learned of him from a Ronald Reagan answer to a question and thought it would help me understand conservatives better if I read him. I dismissed him on my first reading as a typical conservative - still “the enemy,” not really understanding at all what a libertarian was (and it was not a word he used to describe himself), nor how sympathetic my own “personal” philosophy of life was to his studied one. But, something inside me recognized a connection which I couldn’t shake it and by the time I started this blog in 2006, I had read his most successful book, The Road to Serfdom at least twice more over the next 15-20 years. I have read it twice more in the last 5 years, closer and closer. Since then I have also perused his more detailed and specific The Constitution of Liberty once and am now on my second and closer reading, among some other shorter writings. If I could get every politician to read a few books, either of these two would be among them (though I hear Law, Legislation and Liberty is excellent too – I haven’t read it). He has become one among two writers I feel most politically in tune with (the other, Karl Popper, is more famous as an epistemologist and a philosopher of the modern scientific method), and I read and quote Hayek more and more frequently (you may have noticed). But, the first time I read him, I was not ready in my political education to fully comprehend it. Although I am also a skeptic by nature and read every non-fiction book with an eye to disagreement, particularly if I feel a natural bond with them or their idea, I think it was lack of education rather than skeptism that led me to reject him early on.

Like Watts, but not as directly, you learn by reading Hayek how freedom is often arrived at by taking a road that which would seem to head you elsewhere. As just a smattering – The only way to prevent coercion is by the threat of coercion; ignorance is the beginning of wisdom (from Socrates – an early lesson for me from my mother); the more men know collectively the smaller the amount any one man can know; the advance and preservation of civilization based on maximizing the opportunity for accidents; a free society requires winners and losers, to be truly free you have to be prepared for bad things to happen; the road to financial success for a nation or even the world relies to some degree on some having more than others. Yada, yada, yada.

I don’t mean this to be a wiki article on Hayek, which this could easily dissolve into as I am still reading him intensely, but if someone wanted to know my basic political sentiments they could read any of his major works along with Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. If I was designing a “how to think like David" course (which, strangely, no one has ever asked me to do) I would add, Lao Tze’s Tao te Ching (more foundational for me than political), de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Thoreau’s speech nowadays called Civil Disobedience (although I have almost always been too lazy to protest anything myself) and his almost ignored Life without Principle. Again, it is not that I agree with anyone perfectly and no prolific writer is even perfectly consistent with themselves – who among us is? It’s just that I believe they have put their fingers on the most important values, at least, for me, and said it better and at greater length than I ever will. There are many other authors, of course, many of whom I haven’t or won’t get to read, but I’m in the game trying.

By the way, if you think I am just substituting one dogma – call it libertarianism to make it easy - for another, you might not think so if you read these works, because the one thing these writers were not was dogmatic (and they are all dead, by the way). In fact, if you are dogmatic and think you are in concert with them, you must have misunderstood.

I am so easily distracted by books. Back to subject under discussion --

As I said above, I do not call myself a full libertarian and one of the reasons is that like many political ideologies (more dogmatic ideologues don’t like to even admit that they have an ideology), there is little agreement on what it is. An anarchist or geolibertarian (look it up), which are forms of libertarianism, neither of which suits me, is very different from an economic or social libertarian, both of which suit me to a much greater, if imperfect, extent. I’m not going into all the differences there. Wikipedia does. What I will say is summed up in my penultimate proposition:

Proposition 7: Of all the values which contribute to the happiness of man individually and collectively, the value of individual liberty, as a direction and a goal, is the most efficient, the most effective, and the most desirable way to get there.

All of the above is rather vague, isn’t it? It might be hard to tell how I feel about any modern issue I haven’t discussed with someone personally or who have not read what I’ve written. But, that’s possibly the best working definition of an independent moderate who leans libertarian. You can’t tell what they think about a particular political issue without discussing it with them. I leave you with my last proposition for today:

Propostion 8: The good news is that our society has always been directed to a large degree on a libertarian pathway and it is our heritage of what is called the enlightenment or enlightenment values that have forged the way.

It is the gospel of enlightenment values that I routinely preach to other people about (most of whom I know only from the internet and some who despise the very sight of my screen name) and which values are as familiar to you in many ways as to me, even if you spend little or no time thinking about them. But, that too, is for another post.


  1. Great. 40,000 freakin' words to summarize your politics, which EVERYONE masochistic enough to read your friggin' blogs already knows anyway. Let's see, do I want to read this blog again or hit myself in the head with a hammer? I'm going to go find a hammer.

  2. Please, Googalah, goddess of blogs, please help him find a hammer.

    And it was 4,909 words.

  3. Proposition 7 was the most cogent and insightful.
    Not surprisingly I agree with most of this with a few quibbles.
    I am, however, less sanguine about the prospects for continued individual liberty in this country (see proposition 7 again) with the increased acceptance of nanny state meddling. It has an erosionary effect on liberty that will have a tendency to erode and topple it. It also tends to develop individuals who are less comfortable with and less able to deal with liberty.

  4. Then I shall relieve your apprehension in this week's post.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .