Is Conservatism More Advanced than Progressivism?

May 18, 2010 at 1:52 pm (By Amba)

Somewhere, someone must have looked at it precisely this way.  But I haven’t seen it.  If you have, please let me know where.

The tendency towards ever bigger government organizing everything, planning and controlling more and more of social and economic life, is being portrayed — isn’t it? — as a necessity and an inevitability, given the size and complexity of modern societies and their growing global entanglement.  Conservatism’s preference for smaller government, most of it local, is portrayed as nostalgia for bygone times when everything was smaller-scale, and societies were more homogeneous and organically tradition-driven.  It’s regarded as “progressive” — and compassionate — to plan and organize and energetically tackle the big systemic problems, because if you leave problems alone, trusting or forcing them to solve themselves, they may just fester, or more likely, may solve themselves at enormous cost in human suffering and waste of lives.

Yes, they may.  But assuming they will shows a lack of faith and trust, not in God, necessarily, but just in the extraordinary (yet quite ordinary) self-organizing and innovating capacity of complex systems.  A society, or a world, is not a dinosaur that has such a tiny brain in its head that it needs another one in its ass (the latter perhaps being a good working definition of government).  Even a single organism is not a Command Central run by a unified conscious brain, but a collection of semi-autonomous centers managing their own affairs quite nicely in balance with one another.  But a society is even more like an ecosystem than an organism, with a remarkable capacity to maintain homeostasis, to right itself when thrown off balance by change, and to innovate towards a new balance when change tips it beyond righting.  Central control cannot possibly match the complex inherent intelligence of these processes.

This is not to say that human ingenuity has no place in these processes.  It is a part and a manifestation of these processes!  It’s simply that no single large entity, like a central government, can possibly see and wisely regulate every part of a large, complex system.  It works only when semiautonomous parts are free to regulate themselves and work things out with each other.

What am I saying?  That the conservative view may actually be more advanced than the progressive view.  It may not be consciously more advanced.  Conservatives may speak the traditional language of religious faith rather than that of cybernetics, systems theory, or chaos theory.  But the effect can be much the same:  a trust in people’s innate creative capacity to cope, to innovate, and to work things out for themselves, from the bottom up.  There is certainly a need to protect vulnerable people from the harshest consequences of change, and a place for government as well as religion to do so.  But there is not a need to convince people (as both government and religion have at times tried to do) that they are more vulnerable and helpless than they really are, and that they should cede their share of life’s creative force to some distant entity that knows better.  If God helps those who help themselves, government should not hinder those who govern themselves.

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43 Comments

  1. El Pollo Real said,

    If God helps those who help themselves, government should not hinder those who govern themselves

    That’s a nice tweetworthy aphorism.
    Coming from you, I’m not surprised. :)

  2. amba12 said,

    And you could be the one to tweet it!

    Twitter has probably made me (us all?) more aphoristic. Here’s a master aphorist.

  3. realpc920 said,

    ” the conservative view may actually be more advanced than the progressive view.”

    That was an excellent analysis Amba. I am not sure I would say the conservative view is more advanced though, because systems theory, etc., have been around a long time. There has been an ongoing contrast between the holistic and the reductionist perspectives, and progressives are on the reductionist side.

    I became sympathetic with conservative ideas, as you described them here, when I first learned about systems theory and holistic philosophy. I think anyone who has bothered to study those ideas would have to at least partly agree with you.

    And I completely agree with you.

  4. Michael Reynolds said,

    Yes, it’s best just to leave things alone and they usually take care of themselves. I mean, take the black plague. It took care of itself. Granted by killing about a third of the human race, give or take. But just think how much worse it would have been if a competent government had the knowledge to reduce the rat population. Why that would have been a real mess. So very much worse.

    Seriously? That’s your philosophy now?

    Tomorrow we may learn that an asteroid is hurtling toward earth. I think we should either a) let that solve itself or b) rely on local government to take care of things. I’m quite confident that the Town of Chapel Hill will be able to develop the technology and launch the intercepts.

    And if not, hey, at least we won’t have big government to worry about anymore because sooner or later in the aftermath of the impact the situation will solve itself. I anticipate that Tina Turner will build a Thunderdome. Two men enter, one man leaves. See? Solution! And much more advanced and organic and all.

  5. amba12 said,

    There you go again. See, now you’ve even got me sounding like Ronald Reagan.

    Yes, of course! there are SOME things we need big government to protect us from – a point which is acknowledged in at least two places in my post The question is, which? What is the balance? Where is the line?

  6. realpc920 said,

    “The question is, which? What is the balance? Where is the line?”

    Right. Wisdom is required, not mindless ideologies. We have to think and debate and always be skeptical. Don’t just rush in a “fix” everything, on the assumption that the “experts” always know what to do. But don’t just sit there and watch disasters happen either.

    It takes wisdom to govern, and wisdom is like grace. It’s there or it isn’t depending on the whims of Infinite Intelligence.

    We aren’t helpless and at the mercy of fate, but we aren’t gods either. Like it or not, our situation is dangerous and difficult.

  7. El Pollo Real said,

    And you could be the one to tweet it!
    Done!

    But just think how much worse it would have been if a competent government had the knowledge to reduce the rat population.

    I thought the Pied Piper took care of that?…oh wait, he was probably just a pedophile IRL. Link.

  8. amba12 said,

    Cool.

  9. Ron said,

    Isn’t there a theory that we actually have multiple ‘selves’ in our brain, all acting independently, one of which is something that creates the illusion of a single self, which allows the others to do their thing…. Maybe government could be like that!

  10. Ron said,

    Amba: I thought that was you in “King’s Row!” You’re holding up quite well…

  11. realpc920 said,

    “a theory that we actually have multiple ‘selves’ in our brain”

    That is definitely my experience. I feel like I’m the manager of an unruly team.

  12. El Pollo Real said,

    Isn’t there a theory that we actually have multiple ‘selves’ in our brain, all acting independently, one of which is something that creates the illusion of a single self, which allows the others to do their thing…. Maybe government could be like that!

    State’s rights vs. federal power?

    Each state is a different “self” belonging to the union. We have had a long tendency to repress individual state’s personalities, but this could reverse, especially once people “get” the notion in their heads. :)

  13. Maxwell James said,

    While I think your argument is based on a false premise, I’m too tired to actually argue it right now.

    However, in response to your italicized question, E.D. Kain of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen (and now True/Slant) has been doing some good writing on progressive federalism in recent weeks. For someone of my own left-libertarian orientation, his argument is fairly intriguing – you should check it out.

  14. Ron said,

    So what we’re calling political differences of ‘liberal’ vs ‘conservative’ might be more a form of…schizophrenia? Perhaps ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ refer more to brain halves…

  15. amba12 said,

    Maxwell: I will do that.

    I’m not sure it’s a false premise but it may be a false dichotomy, which I tried to avoid by saying human ingenuity is part of the process.

  16. William O. B'Livion said,

    Mr. Reynolds:
    If a government, even a city government, had the knowledge to reduce the infestation of rats they could simply share it. A combination of quarantine and cleanliness could very easily work on a local level, it would not be necessary for an overarching government to solve that problem.

    This is analogous to the approach I’m told many city and counties had towards venereal disease–when one was diagnosed with VD one was required by law to disclose ones sexual contacts, with the idea that these contacts would then be notified by the government (local, not federal) and the spread stopped. I’m not sure whether this was discontinued because it wasn’t working, or because the federal government decided it was an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.

    BTW, you’ve inadvertently proved WHY Big Government is not good at this sort of thing. It wasn’t rats, it was fleas. Rats were merely the easiest way to get fleas mobile.

    To your other hypothetical, the normal conservative (not libertarian, do not confuse the two) could be reasonably articulated as “problems should be handled at the lowest level possible”. Another way of putting it would be that a problem should be managed at or as close as possible to the “scope” of the problem. A largish rock on a collision course with earth IS the sort of thing that a local government cannot solve. In fact it’s something that right now only two MAYBE three nations have the industrial capability to solve IF THEY HAVE ENOUGH WARNING. Like 4-5 years. As it is we’d probably have to work with the Russians to solve it (the Chinese are the other alternative). And yes, the Brits, French and etc. have the *knowledge* to do it, but they don’t really have the industrial potential. They’d take 7-10 years if they had to go it alone. The EU as a whole would take 10-15. Mostly because they’d have to have 3 environmental impact studies, the team doing the boosters would be German, the warhead french, and the Italians would be responsible for managing the whole thing…

    Big government causes more problems than it fixes. Our current economic “crisis” was not caused by run-away greed, although greed is a factor, it was caused by piles and piles of government regulations that did virtually guaranteed SOME sort of crash eventually.

    Look at what the UN did with DDT. Because of ONE idiot publishing a book based on sketchy research the UN banned DDT. Because of this ban MILLIONS have died from malaria in Africa and other tropical developing nations (millions that would probably have died in inter-tribal wars because the UN peacekeepers were more interested in paying for sex with children, raping the local populace etc.) because of spurious research.

    Look at what the idiots in Washington did with CFCs, including Halon. Turns out no, it doesn’t harm the Ozone layer. But it’s replacements are more toxic and corrosive (at least the first two generations of replacements for Freon were).

    To revisit your two hypotheticals the most likely scenario is that in the Plague Years a strong central government would have focused on the /rats/ as you say, edicts would be handed down, and when they didn’t work (because the problem was fleas, not rats, rats just moved the fleas around) they would have REFUSED to consider that it was wrong, mostly because an entire industry (with lobbyists) would have grow up around whatever anti-rat solution was created.

    With the BFR heading our way, chances are that unless the US decided to go it alone, the rock would hit us. There’s just too much paperwork involved with the UN.

    There’s no evidence that people in government are any smarter than people outside. Nor more ethical, nor more interested in doing the right thing.

  17. William O. B'Livion said,

    As to the question at hand, Conservativism isn’t more advanced, it’s just better. Like a good old-fashioned wood screw with a single slit on the head isn’t more advanced than one of those modern, high-tech star-shaped machine screws, it’s just more appropriate (for some reason) to secure the stock of a AK to the receiver (guess what I did this evening?)

    People *aren’t* new. There really isn’t much difference in either the Hoi Polloi or the so-called “elites”. So why do you need high tech answers?

  18. Icepick said,

    Michael loves to be a complete dick about these things. So instead of trying to reason with him, or point out any previously stated or acknowledged nuance, just go with the flow and argue like he does. It’s easy to do. Here, I’ll help!

    Michael, the natural end of your philosophy is that a centralizaed government should make all decisions for everyone about everything. Think of all the problems totalitarians have solved! Hitler solved those nasty racial and ethnic clashes. Lenin and Stalin figured out how to eliminate the jealousy of class distinctions. And Pol Pot even figured out how to level those inequities in educational achievement. What more could a progressive dream of?

    One imagines that when Michael first heard of Orwell’s vision of the future he took offence that the face would dare scuff the bottom of the boot. After all, a lot of Central Planning by Those Superior Intellects What Care Much More Than The Rest Of Us Wretched Inferior Non-Progressives went into the planning, manufacture and distribution of that boot.

  19. Icepick said,

    Here, I’ll help!

    I’ve been dealing with doctors and a variety of cats recently, so I’m all about helping.

  20. amba12 said,

    Hell, 150,000 jobs were created in boot-manufacturing!!

  21. Donna B. said,

    To govern is to limit. Now that’s a good thing when what’s limited is harmful to everyone. However, when the limited thing is good for most yet harmful to the few… how does that work out? Should the few sacrifice themselves for the good of the most?

    Or should the most sacrifice what is good so that the few may not experience the worst?

    Is there something in between?

    Remember that government can only limit. Government cannot be the answer.

  22. amba12 said,

    Maxwell: very interesting. He calls it competitive federalism.

  23. Maxwell James said,

    Right – competitive federalism. I was definitely too sleepy to type last night.

    As for a false premise, what I was referring to was this: The tendency towards ever bigger government organizing everything, planning and controlling more and more of social and economic life, is being portrayed — isn’t it? — as a necessity and an inevitability, given the size and complexity of modern societies and their growing global entanglement.

    Only if by “everything” you mean healthcare and the financial sector – both of which have loudly demonstrated the challenges facing local governance in the globalized context. Finance and healthcare are a lot, but they’re certainly not everything. Even if you count immigration too (where conservatives also call for a much stronger federal role), that leaves a lot of room for local governments to continue doing their thing as they always have.

  24. Maxwell James said,

    While I’m in the habit of recommending reading, I also think you’d enjoy this essay and also this book, which I am currently in the middle of (and helpfully summarized in a short essay at the link). The latter I’d describe as a wonderful, small-c conservative argument for the economic and cognitive value of working with one’s hands. Maybe I’ll post a review when I’m done.

  25. amba12 said,

    It’s certainly true that federal regulation is one of those things people hate EXCEPT when it comes to the things THEY want regulated. Many of the same people who think Roe v. Wade should be reversed (because it prematurely imposed one standard on divers states) favor a constitutional right-to-life amendment or federal ban on abortion.

  26. amba12 said,

    Maxwell: if you have time to post a review, that would be fantastic. I think I remember a New York Times Magazine article about, or based on, that book. Wonderful title.

  27. amba12 said,

    Further musings: the whole point of federalism is that it protects diversity in those matters in which diversity is moral and practical. Trouble is, there’s diversity even on the question of what’s moral and practical. Oy.

  28. wj said,

    What repeatedly surprises me is that Michael advocates more government power without actually thinking it thru.

    Now, last I heard, the George W. Bush was not one of Michael’s great heroes. Would he have wanted the Bush administration to have had more power do do what it wanted (which is not what he would want)? And yet, that is what his approach does: gives more power to the government, no matter who is in charge at the moment. But perhaps he has a secret plan to keep anyone who disagrees with him out of power….

  29. Maxwell James said,

    Trouble is, there’s diversity even on the question of what’s moral and practical.

    Yeah, it’s not easy. You can make a pretty good argument that no one did more to concentrate the power of the federal government than Lincoln. And yet most people would agree that a federalist approach towards slavery would be pretty inappropriate at this point.

    That said, I find a great deal of appeal in Kain’s argument (also found here, which is where I originally read it). There’s a lot of experimental power in the lab of the states, some of which could certainly be put to better use than it currently is. And there’s no way we’ll ever all agree on how we want to be governed, so to some degree a more federalized approach is fairer as well.

    Moreover, on a very basic level, many problems that become global begin local and should be handled locally. For instance, the real estate bubble that precipitated the financial crisis was mostly concentrated in about 5 states. There was no good reason to try to solve that problem (and its aftermath) through a completely top-down strategy, yet most of the attempts to right the housing market have been exactly that.

  30. realpc said,

    So what we’re calling political differences of ‘liberal’ vs ‘conservative’ might be more a form of…schizophrenia? Perhaps ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ refer more to brain halves…

    No, liberal (or progressive, or left) vs. conservative (or right) is really about two necessary aspects of an evolving complex system. The system must be rooted in its past, and it must evolve towards its future. In information theory, these concepts are called “redundancy” and “novelty.” We can see this process at work in all of our everyday communication — everything we say is rooted in past knowledge, and adds something new. The concept is also found in linguistics, in that every sentence is expected to connect something “old” with something “new.”

    So the same thing that happens in our everyday communication, and in all complex information systems, also happens in our political system. We must have both conservatism and progressivism. It is impossible not to have them both.

    So it makes no sense to me when a person says they are a “progressive” or a “conservative.” Well actually, it can be interpreted to mean they lean one way or the other. But you can’t have a system that only has one or the other. If there is too much progressive newness, a system would disintegrate into chaos. But if nothing ever changes the system would die from stagnation.

    So once you look at our society, and everything, in terms of complex systems, you realize we are all progressives and we are all conservatives. Everyone acts as if you could be one or the other, but you can’t.

    For example, if you know someone who claims to be a “liberal” you can show them that they actually have many conservative beliefs and values. But they will not stop saying they are a “liberal.” Because the “liberal” label is associated with being educated and open-minded and tolerant,. If I say I am a liberal I am saying I am not an ignorant religious fundamentalist. And if I say I am a conservative that means i am not a lazy immoral pothead.

  31. wj said,

    Perhaps it would help clarify our use of “liberal” and “conservative” if we revived the use of “radical” and “reactionary” to the extremes of the political spectrum. Leaving “liberal” and “conservative” for those tendencies that real refers to.

    I realize that this qualifies as nuance, which is out of fashion in political discourse at the moment. But it would make for more intelligent political discussions IMHO.

  32. amba12 said,

    BRILLIANT comment, real.

    I’d like to add my obsessive notion of the social, tribal function of opinion. Political opinion often doesn’t seem to be about having thought things through, or even about rational self-interest. It is about group identification, allegiance, and approval, and validation, and bonding.

  33. realpc said,

    “It is about group identification, allegiance, and approval, and validation, and bonding.”

    Yes it’s mostly tribal, not rational.

  34. david said,

    I can’t resist thinking that what we’ve seen recently is that the Internet, and web-based technologies, create and disseminate and interweave new methods and means of (fill in the blank: entrepreneurship, terrorism, skulduggery, dissent, surveillance, all of the above) with which a government cannot keep up — unless it is the final, Iran-like arbiter and gateway of the technology and its portals.

    In other words, regulation cannot (at this moment in history, anyway) keep pace with human inventiveness, in all its dark and restless genius, unless the regulator is also the gatekeeper. And who’d want that?

    One may believe that human inventiveness must operate with as few restraints as possible; one must then live with the consequences.

    On the other hand, one may believe that mandating controls, regulating distribution and creating safety nets will in the end result in the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.

    Problem is: any resolution, finally reached after painstaking negotiation, or an election, or both, will be two steps behind the rapidly blossoming reality.

  35. Ron said,

    But Real, I’m not sure you need to be ‘one or the other’ to identify oneself as liberal or conservative, even if you recognize that you have some of the traits/beliefs of the other.

    If, say, 80% of my beliefs could be read as liberal, is it not fair to self-identify in that way?

    You may even consciously subsume some of the beliefs of ‘the other side’ for some broader intention; perhaps to either convert or purge society of these beliefs.

  36. wj said,

    Ron,
    Once you self-identify with one group (even if you have mental reservations about some of their beliefs/positions) there is going to be a tendency to be more of a real member of the tribe you have joined. Which is to say, to adjust your positions to more closely match theirs.

    I suspect that this is one of the reasons that people self-identify as “independents” — it allows them to be part of a tribe which holds heterogeneous beliefs across a variety of issues.

  37. realpc said,

    I’m not sure you need to be ‘one or the other’ to identify oneself as liberal or conservative, even if you recognize that you have some of the traits/beliefs of the other.

    Yes i said it could mean leaning one way or the other. But the labels still don’t work well because it’s hard to know exactly what is newer and what is older. As the original post explains, big government socialism is not necessarily the latest greatest thing.

  38. realpc said,

    I suspect that this is one of the reasons that people self-identify as “independents” — it allows them to be part of a tribe which holds heterogeneous beliefs across a variety of issues.

    I don’t feel like independents form a coherent tribe. I don’t feel that I belong to a political tribe, except maybe the one Amba belongs to, if it exists. But as soon as something becomes a political tribe in our society, it becomes over-simplified and loses a lot of its meaning. This is because, I think, our society is now much too complex for tribalism, even though we are still a tribal animal.

    Progressives seem to want the whole world to join together in one big tribe. They don’t see any problem with that, because they “know” their ideology is correct in all ways, and if only people were educated they would all become enlightened progressives.

    But the communist revolutions showed what happens once an ideological tribe beats all its adversaries — it immediately splits up into viciously warring sub-tribes.

  39. amba12 said,

    wj — that’s true, it is a tribe, one whose shibboleth is “Surprise me!”

  40. amba12 said,

    But I also agree with real that as soon as you try to define a “tribe” you oversimplify it. You start to draw “us vs. them” boundaries. I think I am looking for a way to live which does not so clearly draw boundaries between either ideas or people, which basically means a life lived less from the mind (this from someone who has lived most of her life in and from the mind). It’s a matter of seeing that ideas and categories are necessary and useful for some purposes, but are basically arbitrary cartoons of reality. You can’t live without them, but you can take them for what they are.

  41. wj said,

    I see my imprecision (or brevity) created some misunderstanding. Sorry about that.

    I didn’t mean “tribe” in the sense of having a coherent set of ideas. But more as a mental construct for those who do not want to be pigeonholed. The closest that the “independent tribe” has to a uniform position is something along the lines of “I don’t subscribe totally to either of the other two ideological positions. ” And I think that the primary purpose is to give independents a sense that they are not alone; that they belong to a group with something in common. Even if all that is in common is rejection of a couple of ideological straight-jackets, it is enough to make people more comfortable with where they are.

  42. realpc said,

    It’s a matter of seeing that ideas and categories are necessary and useful for some purposes, but are basically arbitrary cartoons of reality. You can’t live without them, but you can take them for what they are.

    We are stuck with the way our minds work, and how our reasoning is limited. But we can be aware of the limits and we can observe our minds (because our self is more than our logical mind). We are going to think in over-simplified ways, but we can either be aware of this or not.

    The over-simplification is not because of ignorance or stupidity, and we can’t make ourselves very much smarter than we are. We over-simplify because our minds are finite and the universe is infinite, and because we live in a society that is too complex for the kind of creature we are.

    I guess post-modernism is about this kind of awareness. I realize that post-modernism has been stretched and distorted to mean all kinds of crazy things. But I think it originally was about trying to have some awareness of our cognitive limitations.

    What “thinking outside the box” meant originally.

  43. Norma said,

    The only fresh, original and workable ideas come from conservatives, oddly enough. Progressivism is marxism-lite. Unfortunately, once one has become accustomed to the goodies government gives out with strings, it’s awfully hard to pull back the hand. And isn’t that the point of it all? It’s buying votes. And even conservatives often don’t “get it.” They’ll complain about welfare, SNAP or rent assistance, and not even total up the vast amounts lavished on the middle-class as their tax money is recycled. We need a new garage door and when getting bids we learned there will be a “tax rebate” because the door is insulated. That means our $1300 door will probably be costing taxpayers $5,000. And what really poor person even has a garage or a car to put in it?

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