My friend Chris Kosley posted an interesting question on my Facebook feed the other day. I thought that it deserved a reasoned response. So for those of you who are not my FB friends (or are not Chris), here was his question:
Bruce, here's a question that I hope you (or anyone who sees this post, ftm) don't mind trying to answer: What is the end game for conservatives? I mean, what is the vision that conservative ideals aspire to reaching eventually? What are some outcomes that you feel conservative policies would us lead to, as a society?
I ask because it struck me that from my perspective, the stated goals of liberal/progressive ideals are fairly obvious. Fairness, social justice, truly equal opportunity, preservation of the ecosphere, prosperity that grows and spreads among many (as opposed to shrinking and concentrating among a select few), widespread safety and security, and freedom from the fear of economic ruin - just to name a few. Ultimately, the goal would be to have a healthy, prosperous society that *all* members get to enjoy.
Leaving aside, for a moment, whether or not we're actually any good at achieving those ideals, I am curious to hear, from your perspective, if or how conservatives differ in their long-range views of how things would turn out if their policy choices and actions were more fully implemented?
And here is my answer:
All great questions, that deserved a bit of my time to answer.
First, I prefer to speak only for myself. While you may consider me a “Conservative,” I can assure you that many people who consider themselves “Movement Conservatives” would not recognize me as such.
Second, my observation and experience has taught me that at the abstract level, all (or at least most) people subscribe to the same sets of values. What differs is the ways that they interpret them, and the ways that they balance priorities. To pick as an example of a philosophy to which neither of us subscribe, Islamism seeks justice through the creation of a society in which all are free to pursue God’s will—a state from which all other virtues will flow. So none of the virtues that you listed are particularly effective at differentiating Progressivism from any other movement.
Third, your sequencing is telling. Let’s take a look: (i) fairness; (ii) justice; (iii) equal opportunity; (iv) environmental preservation; (v) prosperity that “grows and spreads;” (vi) safety and security; (vii) freedom from fear. All fine things. And though I’m not certain precisely how I might sequence them on any given day, I am certain that freedom would come first on my list. I also note—curiously—that you omitted any sense of “peace,” meaning not only the absence of war between nations, but also the absence of tension between neighboring ethnic groups, interests, groups, faiths, street gangs, or other groups.
Now I concede that, at a personal level, I have always had a problem with authority. The idea that someone else knows what’s best for me, or possesses the discretion and power to direct me to make certain pre-selected sacrifices for the benefit of others, has always rubbed me the wrong way. I was quite young when I decided that I would prefer to do things my own way and risk failure than to follow instructions that struck me as wrong. So I suppose that a deep-grained anti-authoritarianism colors everything I see.
As I see things, individual freedom is what makes all good things both possible and worthwhile. People must be free to strive for greatness, they must be allowed to enjoy the benefits of making good decisions (not to discount the role of luck in all outcomes), and they must be allowed to hurt and to learn from their bad decisions. Certainly, any decent society would build a safety net capable of helping people recover from catastrophic decisions—and accepting those incapable of recovery as “wards of the state.” And yes, there are certain investments—like infrastructure and defense—for which collective action is a practical necessity, and the achievement of these goals necessarily requires individuals to relinquish a certain amount of autonomy. Such infrastructure needs also extend to the creation of certain “rules of the road” and consequent enforcers. All of these things cost money, and all require sacrifice and taxation. My preference for speaking only for myself notwithstanding, very few people who consider themselves Conservatives would argue with any of these needs.
But the basic idea is that only in the presence of individual freedom are equality of opportunity, economic growth, broad-based prosperity, peace, and tolerance even possible. Furthermore, though I know few people who advocate on behalf of unfairness or injustice, my experience has been that many causes championed by those who parade beneath the banners of fairness and justice are neither fair nor just. So I tend to refrain from claiming their mantle for myself.
That said, I suppose that I do owe you a list. Without pretending that it’s complete, here is a decent start: (i) Individual freedom; (ii) Equality of opportunity; (iii) Economic growth; (iv) Tolerance of differences. Give me a society that achieves these four goals, and I believe that all other good things will flow as a matter of course.
Fourth, I think that you confuse policy preferences with philosophical preferences. Yes, philosophy does play a role in shaping policy thinking, but so do pragmatism and perception. Let’s dive into a couple of controversial policy areas as examples: abortion and health care.
On abortion, I consider myself pro-choice. Unlike various groups like Planned Parenthood, for example, I am pro-everybody’s-choice. So a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy should be free to terminate or carry to term, at her sole discretion. A doctor advising such a woman should be free to counsel her in whatever way he or she considers best. An employer configuring health insurance should be free to choose whatever policy best serves the employer’s needs. And no one should ever have to subsidize individual decisions of which he or she disapproves. Some women may not have the ability to make their choices effective? That’s genuinely unfortunate—in matters of abortion as in all other walks of life. The appropriate response is for those who see this challenge as a pressing problem to form organizations (or to donate to organizations) capable of providing the transport and/or medical services to these women. The inappropriate response is for those who see this challenge as a pressing problem to form organizations (or to donate to organizations) dedicated to passing laws forcing those who disapprove of these womens’ decisions to subsidize them.
On health care, the U.S. has long had a severely flawed system. It does some things superbly—primarily R&D and quality of care. It does other things poorly—primarily related to cost and complexity. I favor a reform program that increases simplicity, supply, and competition as the most effective ways to preserve the good parts while improving the poor parts. As far as I can tell, Obamacare does the opposite. It preserves what it worst about American medicine, while crippling what it does best. It is a bill that increases complexity and centralizes discretionary decision-making in a government bureaucracy. While some individuals will benefit (as is always the case any time resources are reshuffled), and they will have heartwarming stories, it is a program that will reduce the availability of health care in America, degrade the quality of care, motivate less innovation, and cost more. If you see a virtue in that list anywhere, let me know—because I don’t. Opposition to Obamacare is not a study in tradeoffs. It is a program that literally has no virtues. In order to favor it, you have to believe that government bureaucrats are systematically superior decision-makers to the current combination of insurers, hospital administrators, doctors, and individuals. While I have no great love of insurers or hospital administrators, at least they have some skin in the game, and may be occasionally accountable for their decisions. That’s more than I can say for most civil servants.
More broadly though, what guides many of my policy preferences is my reading of history. Free individual decision-making works. Markets are the best, most effective, and if I must use the term, fairest ways to allocate resources. The Soviet Union failed because central planning is unworkable—not because the regime hired poor central planners. Capitalism scares people for the same reason that democracy, freedom of conscience, and sexual liberation do. It takes a leap of faith to believe that a society shaped by individual decisions—replete with misinformation, stupidity, passion, and greed—will prove superior to one shaped by the best dispassionate minds. It doesn’t seem to make any sense. Surely, scholars, priests, nobility, the workers vanguard, scientists, academics, technocrats, and philosopher kings understand things about the world that the masses do not. Surely, they would make the best possible decisions—both about the directions society should take and the appropriate steps in that direction.
Alas, they do not.
My read of contemporary Progressive politics is that motives aside, the political agenda that it favors will not achieve even the goals that it has set for itself. When I look at current Progressive leaders like Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, or most of the SF Board of Supervisors, I see people proposing policies that are patently unfair; promote social inequality and inter-group tension rather than justice; imbalance opportunity in favor of selected groups (e.g., unions); do little to preserve the ecosphere; reduce and concentrate prosperity; reduce safety and security; and increase the fear of economic ruin. Using your own list as a scorecard, I would still oppose these people and their policies (though in all fairness, I suppose that I might reassess whether they were they qualified as “least bad”).
So there you have it. To the extent that I have an "end game" in mind, it would have to be this: Free individuals to make their own decisions. The "best of all possible worlds" will follow.