The conservative vice

by on August 15, 2006 at 6:43 am in Political Science | Permalink

Having covered the libertarian and liberal vices, this one seems only fair.  Of course these vices change with the times, but the current conservative vice I would describe as follows:

Using meritocratic arguments to reassign marginal products

It is best explained by example.  An anti-war liberal will say "Our occupation of Iraq has gone badly.  Things are worse than under Saddam."  In addition to contesting this comparison, many conservatives will respond: "But if the Iraqis weren’t so intent on killing each other, they could have a decent society, just like the Kurds do."  The claim is true, but it represents an attempt to reassign marginal products away from one policy and toward some other infra-marginal fact.

Or consider domestic policy.  Policy X does not make a dent in the poverty rate, and this is pointed out by a critic.  A conservative might respond: "But if those people would live by Confucian or Korean family values, they would do just fine."

The conservative vice is not intrinsic to conservatism, but I see it to an increasing degree.  Perhaps it is a response to the combination of a nominal conservative majority in goverment yet a growing inability to control events.

This intellectual move is not in every case false.  If we are considering the relative obligations of citizen and state, for instance, it must be recognized that a state can do only so much for self-destructive citizens.  But when the vice is "applied" to situations where a more consequences-oriented approach is warranted, well, then it becomes a vice.

Michael Stack August 15, 2006 at 9:24 am

I agree completely. In fact, I often give libertarianism a sub-heading of, “Improvements at the margin”. I think that is its great attraction (for me, at least).

Bill August 15, 2006 at 9:59 am

One has to consider time frames of course. The adoption of relatively a rlativly free market system in Russia was disastrous for it’s first few years with improving results later on. One can , of course, argue about whether recent successes were due to backsliding by Putin in regards to liberalization. When I was stationed in Iraq, an Iraqi friend said to me, “Bill, the situation here is terrible. Things were better under Saddam.” I replied that Saddam was only in jail, not dead, and that perhaps he would like to have him released. My friend laughed and declined the offer, noting that it’s part of the human condition to complain.

joan August 15, 2006 at 10:29 am

It is the neo-conservative vice. It is caused by trying to defend the indefencible polices that they have supported. For the most part real conservatives remembered their principles. Read what George Will says today.
http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2006/08/foreign_policy_realists.html

kbj August 15, 2006 at 10:52 am

And where was George Will when it mattered? Oh right he was cheerleading for the war. Rah rah rah.

Taeyoung August 15, 2006 at 11:03 am

Or consider domestic policy. Policy X does not make a dent in the poverty rate, and this is pointed out by a critic. A conservative might respond: “But if those people would live by Confucian or Korean family values, they would do just fine.”

I can see the Iraq issue, where we actively intervened to disrupt a mostly stable oppression in favour of an unstable situation we hope to see evolve towards civil society. But with poverty? Isn’t the conservative position pretty much that the state should get out of the way and encourage self-reliance? I.e. that (conservative) Policy X is never intended to solve poverty all by itself, just open up the conditions for people willing and able to escape poverty to do so? E.g. by adopting a Confucian ethos of diligence and respectfulness. Indeed, isn’t the underlying understanding of poverty, among conservatives, that it is first and foremost a cultural problem, rather than a regulatory issue solveable by government intervention?

joan August 15, 2006 at 11:24 am

kbj–He opposed the war as did many members of the Bush I administration, CATO, and almost all conservatives old enough to remember vietnam. It was the politicions of both parties that were unwilling to cast a vote that would seem soft on terror. If you recall the public thought it was a great idea.

erik s August 15, 2006 at 12:19 pm

joan- I can’t find evidence to support your claim that Will didn’t support the war. I have found this from March 21, 2003:
“America’s critics cannot truthfully charge that rage or any other passion fuels America’s remarkably measured and patently reluctant resumption of the war against Iraq — the 12-year war, the war of 17 U.N. resolutions.”

and from March 19, 2003:
“The president demonstrated Monday night that he understands a tested political axiom: If you do not like the news, make some of your own.

He had allowed for pointless diplomacy to proceed too long, thereby dissipating some of his principal asset, his aura of serene decisiveness…

To the incredibly inflated United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, who earlier Monday had said that a war without U.N. approval would be illegitimate, the president reasserted America’s “sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security.” ”

On March 7, 2003 Will argued for a preemptive doctrine (while attacking the French).

Earlier, on January 30, 2003 Will wrote this:
“Last Saturday an Iraqi man leapt into a U.N. vehicle. Screaming “Save me! Save me!” he was dragged from the vehicle while, The Post reported, an inspector sat “looking on impassively.” U.N. security guards turned the man over to Iraqi authorities. The man may have been seeking asylum. Or he may have been an Iraqi agent demonstrating to other Iraqis the dangers of approaching the inspectors.

Either way, says an administration official, that chilling lesson was made clear to all Iraqis. And so was the futility of the inspection process.”

Do you still think that Will opposed the war?

David J. Balan August 15, 2006 at 1:32 pm

In my view, the problem with comtemporary American “conservatives” is not that they have a subtle intellectual blind spot that might be diagnosed and corrected, but rather that they are mostly bad people with an evil agenda that they can’t explicitly own up to. Hate black people or Muslims and get a kick out of seeing them get harassed by the authorities? Piously point out that, while of course you abhor bigotry in all its forms, it must be confessed that there is a statistical argument in favor of profiling. Love religious obscurantism and the illiberal order that it would impose? Point out the studies that show that prayer is good for your health. And on and on. One might argue that it shouldn’t matter, that arguments should be evaulated on their merits without regard for the motives of those advancing them. That might be true if we were talking about questions that can be finally and objectively resolved. But on most important issues, the questions are sufficiently difficult, and the answers sufficiently unclear, that whether or not an argument is offered in good faith does matter.

Jake August 15, 2006 at 3:13 pm

“while of course you abhor bigotry in all its forms, it must be confessed that there is a statistical argument in favor of profiling.”

You’re right. Better to just throw evidence away.

David J. Balan August 15, 2006 at 3:32 pm

I agree with Taeyoung that civilized discourse generally requires respect for, and willingness to be persuaded by, those who disagree with you; and even requires granting the benefit of the doubt in cases where there isn’t much doubt. The questions here are: (i) is there enough evidence to demonstrate bad motives behind much of what is said by the contemporary American right; and (ii) do motives matter? On (i), the evidence seems to me to be pretty overwhelming. On (ii) the answer is it does matter. In cases where the truth or the right course of action are not obvious (i.e., where bad arguments or bits of evidence are not immediately driven out by good ones), admitting the bad guys into the discourse carries a cost. I agree that the threshold for exclusion should be high, but once it’s met, it’s met

mineavatar August 15, 2006 at 6:22 pm

Is this simply an example of truthiness?

Jeff Brown August 16, 2006 at 11:03 am

Could someone help me understand this use of the word “marginal’?

Alexander August 20, 2006 at 1:17 pm

A better way of putting it would be like this: a surgeon is trying to use a chainsaw in theatre. Someone asks – “but why use a chainsaw? Why not a scapel?† The surgeon replies, “well, if this patient had been considerate enough to have been a tree..!†

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