Friday, May 16, 2008

Is Our Conservatives Learning?

Attempting to negotiate a balance between libertarianism and conservatism, Jim Manzi has arrived at the idea of subsidiarity:

The best answer for conservatives or libertarians is federalism, or more precisely, subsidiarity – the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, a typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.
The idea stands up as nothing worse than toothless, half-true cant until that last part: the suggestion that we -- the we in question being conservatives in the present context -- "can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform." I am reminded of Ghandi's quip about Christianity: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians."

Can they? Will they?

This begs the very knotty questions always in play in this never-ending tussle between libertarianism (either right-ish or left-ish varieties) and that which labels itself conservatism: after some jurisdiction or other is freed to pursue a novel approach in the name of subsidiarity, will conservatives actually watch the results in good faith and draw informed, fact-based, actionable conclusions? Or will they instead dig in their ideological heels and insist they were right all along, facts be damned?

I am willing to let experience answer that question for us. I think the answer is fairly clear.

The world over, conservatives remain unwilling to learn anything from the failures of abstinence-based sex education as compared with reality-based sex education in preventing AIDS and teen pregnancy.

Conservatives in America are nothing if not unshakably certain that social democracy cannot possibly succeed (at anything, on any level, for anyone), the long experience of nearly all of Western Europe notwithstanding.

Any conservatives who are quietly and thoughtfully noticing how gay-tolerant jurisdictions are not falling into the sea are lost in the din of their fellow conservatives' strident anti-gay shrieking and politicking.

I see no broad-based willingness among American conservatives to learn anything about prostitution from the example of Las Vegas.

Oregon's experience with its twice-voter-approved legalization of controlled, regulated euthenasia seems to have convinced few conservatives. (We had to do it twice because conservatives were certain it would cause our state to become the world's leading producer of Soylent Green by the morning after passage. Fourteen years later and counting, we still lag far behind West Virginia, Texas, Alabama, and several other states.)

Conservatives in Islamic societies and beyond have had plenty of time to observe women driving cars, exposing their heads to sunlight, marrying people of their own choosing, speaking in public, working for pay, attending schools, playing sports, dancing -- heck, even voting. How long before they overcome the paralyzing fear of the "unintended consequences"?

Despite countless millions of contrary instances spanning time and distance, prominent conservative Leon Kass still can't bring himself to accept eating in public.

The examples could be multiplied from there. The trouble with subsidiarity as a compromise between conservatism and libertarianism is rather straightforward: it points to the site of the cleavage, not to a point of overlap. A person who is genuinely willing to learn from experience is, ipso facto, something other than a conservative.


Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

The abject inability of conservatives to learn thier lessons is never, to me, more demonstrated to a crystal clarity as when they act in complete dismay that they have such trouble winning elections in Oregon.

I remember, back before ol Ron Saxton ran for Gov the first time, back when he was establishing his intellectual cred by punditing on KATU, how unfair it seemed that republicans didn't win elections for the Big Four (Gov, Sec of State, Treasurer, AG) state offices. I started to realize it then. It seemed kind of whiny. He came off like Reinhard's intelligent brother (which is no high bar to hit).

Ever since then, the whine has been gently keening. And, as witlings like Manning and Saxton keep losing elections, they dimly realize it's something with the message that's the problem. But when they finally get two and two together, they get six: in a bizarre turnaround on that well-worn relationship-jettisoning phrase, it's not them, it's us.

We're the problem. The electorate. We just don't get it you see. We watch corruption in the national republican party (who latterly have perfected the ciruclar firing squad of blame which, in the past, only we liberals were so good at doing).

They so sincerely state thier positions, and if we'd just wise up, you see, they'd win every election without having to cheat!

And this train of "poor us" thought has realized its latest evolution in the bizarre "Conservative Majority Project", which asks us to believe ... with an unironic straight face ... that voting republicans in will ensure a government free of corruption and utterly wise.

I mean, I've been watching reupblicans screw things up ever since Nixon. I'm supposed to take that as anything more than self delusion? Who should I believe – them or my lying eyes. Individual republicans might be honorable. The party, never, and the individual republican will always bow to the will of the party.

Ben Westlund is quite possibly the only smart republican in Oregon.

Will they ever learn? No. And that's why I'll never vote for one.

Conservative republicans: never right, never sorry.

Dale said...

SJKP, good observations. You've shown more patience than I've been able to muster when it comes to distinguishing one lying Oregon Republican from the next. Ever since the Yankee Taliban wing of the party swallowed the Oregon GOP, driving out the last few moderates, I stopped taking any of them seriously or bothering with the finer points. They're just a colorless mass of whining, lying, and hypocrisy, ranging from Lars Larson on one edge to Kevin Mannix on the other edge and lots of Sizemore-ish sitting on the couch bellowing for tax cuts inbetween.

By today's standards, Hatfield and Packwood are no worse than quaintly annoying. Not that I ever voted for those two either, but it was at least thinkable. They were human.