Conservative Thinking

It was just one of those email discussions with Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, about people whom we know who say they are good people and work hard at making things better and just hate freeloaders – and food stamps and the law that says anyone who shows up in an emergency room must get treatment, a law that drives hospitals into bankruptcy. You get what you pay for. They live that way. Everyone should. We both agreed it was a bit – but at least it’s not France, where, in the matter of healthcare, as with all other industrialized western nations, they said “fuck it” and set up a system where everyone gets covered and the doctors get a salary, the people having decided that was a fine use of their tax money. Of course that’ll never happen here. The free market always produces better results, and all that – or so our conservative friends tell us.


Rick commented that this does underscore the problem of finding common ground with those on the right – “no matter what you and they talk about, it will be like an American talking to an Italian about football – same name, different game.”


Rick added that one of these days he’d love to do a book on right versus left, but doesn’t know “if there will be anytime between now and the day I die that my brain will be up to the task of sorting it all out.”


It is hard to sort out, and, in an odd way, Rick may have hit upon the problem, considering this:


Soccer is running America into the ground, and there is very little anyone can do about it. Social critics have long observed that we live in a therapeutic society that treats young people as if they can do no wrong. Every kid is a winner, and nobody is ever left behind, no matter how many times they watch the ball going the other way. Whether the dumbing-down of America or soccer came first is hard to say, but soccer is clearly an important means by which American energy, drive, and competitiveness is being undermined to the point of no return. …


Soccer is of foreign origin, that is certainly true, but its promotion and implementation are thoroughly domestic. Soccer is a self-inflicted wound. Americans have nobody to blame but themselves. Conservative suburban families, the backbone of America, have turned to soccer in droves. Baseball is too intimidating, football too brutal, and basketball takes too much time to develop the required skills. American parents in the past several decades are overworked and exhausted, but their children are overweight and neglected. Soccer is the perfect antidote to television and video games. It forces kids to run and run, and everyone can play their role, no matter how minor or irrelevant to the game. Soccer and television are the peanut butter and jelly of parenting. …


You see the problem. Soccer is too damned egalitarian – everyone running around as if they’re important, not really knowing what they’re doing, but pretending they matter, when they don’t. And of course you get few if any individual heroes in any given soccer game – something more Italian than American, as Rick might say. How can a singular hero – a star – come out of this sort of football? The game levels any excellence and makes everyone okay, or mediocre – and exhausted – for no personal glory whatsoever.


And of course it is too easy on those who play, and too easily encouraging – “Sporting should be about breaking kids down before you start building them up.”


Yeah, that’s why some of us in high school ended up the in the marching band, thank you very much. Being broken down and then rebuilt to someone else’s physical, moral and ethical specifications looked to be unpleasant and seemed like something one ought to avoid, if possible. But that just shows the conservative liberal divide starts early – a lot of the guys in the marching band probably ended up Democrats.


The Duke of Wellington is often quoted as saying that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton” – sports drive life, or something, but you can read too much into soccer, as a game. Or maybe Wellington was right, and you have to see all this metaphorically – soccer just standing in for some larger societal problem.


And you need to consider who is saying these things about soccer. The deep thinker here is Stephen H. Webb – a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College, the author of American Providence and Taking Religion to School. And you might know Wabash College – Ezra Pound taught there for four months before they tossed him out on his ear. Pound went on to become TS Eliot’s mentor and editor, and then went off to Paris and became a major poet in his own right, all brilliance and anger – and then went quite mad. There’s little evidence he ever thought of Wabash again, save for that one line – “I have weathered the storm, and beaten out my Exile.” The sorts of people who thrive at Wabash, and don’t get booted from the faculty, are more circumspect and conventional. It’s a conservative place. And Webb is a Christian conservative.


And Webb was being a bit whimsical. For the same argument, without whimsy, you need to turn to Charles Murray – now working as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank in Washington. You might remember his 1994 best seller, The Bell Curve – arguing that success in life depends on innate intelligence, hinting that white folks have it and black folks don’t. It was just a genetic fact. Bob Herbert, writing for The New York Times, said the book was “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship.” And he added this – “Mr. Murray can protest all he wants, his book is just a genteel way of calling somebody a nigger.” But Murray did say he thought any attempt by the government to manipulate fertility – to phase out black folks – would be wrong. He wasn’t totally evil, after all. Fox News still runs stories to prove Murray was right about black folks.


Be that as it may, Murray is riding another pony now. It’s Webb’s soccer argument, without the soccer. Murray just gave the 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture to the American Enterprise Institute – The Happiness of People.


Now he’s worried that we’ll all become Europeans. He thinks Obama wants to turn us French – the healthcare reforms – or Swedish – possible bank nationalizations – or something European:


In short, the question has suddenly become urgently relevant because President Obama and his leading intellectual heroes are the American equivalent of Europe’s social democrats. There’s nothing sinister about that. They share an intellectually respectable view that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are more progressive than America’s and advocate reforms that would make the American system more like the European system.


And Murray is worried because the European system actually works:


I am delighted when I get a chance to go to Stockholm or Amsterdam, not to mention Rome or Paris. When I get there, the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system. Quite the contrary. There’s a lot to like – a lot to love – about day-to-day life in Europe, something that should be kept in mind when I get to some less complimentary observations.


But he’s sure those people are doomed:


The European model can’t continue to work much longer. Europe’s catastrophically low birth rates and soaring immigration from cultures with alien values will see to that. So let me rephrase the question. If we could avoid Europe’s demographic problems, do we want the United States to be like Europe?


He argues we certainly do not, but the reasons are not economic, as they seem to be doing fine over there, even if he says their economies are somewhat “sclerotic” – a fine word. Nope – Murray has other fish to fry:


First, I will argue that the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish – it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness. Second, I will argue that twenty-first-century science will prove me right.


He has much to say, in detail – worth considering at the link – but a few things stand out, like where he actually sounds like a football coach who hates soccer, or like Stephen Webb, saying the European model “drains too much of the life from life.” It takes away what he calls transcendent meaning:


To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.


And the problem is, really, that things shouldn’t be too easy, or give you places to blend in, somewhat like what Webb says of soccer:


Put aside all the sophisticated ways of conceptualizing governmental functions and think of it in this simplistic way: Almost anything that government does in social policy can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things. Sometimes, taking the trouble out of things is a good idea. Having an effective police force takes some of the trouble out of walking home safely at night, and I’m glad it does.


The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality – it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met – family and community really do have the action – then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.


This may strike you as nonsense, as making things harder for everyone than they need to be, but he’s serious, even if the logic is odd. Think about what he is saying. A small group working to help each other out – the family – is wonderful. A group one size larger – a church, your faith – is also wonderful. A group one size even larger than that – a community – is also wonderful. But that’s where it stops – go one size larger – a government where everyone votes and there is an agreement to provide some basic services – is awful, as that is neither family nor faith nor community, no matter what Lincoln said about government of, by and for the people. Obviously, liberals, who define democratic government as Lincoln did, the ultimate community, don’t draw that line in the sand in the same place.


And regarding making things harder for everyone than they need to be, he’s okay with that:


Taking the trouble out of the stuff of life strips people – already has stripped people – of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, “I made a difference.”


Yep, just like soccer – and it’s that European thing:


I have been making a number of claims with no data. The data exist. I could document the role of the welfare state in destroying the family in low-income communities. I could cite extensive quantitative evidence of decline in civic engagement and document the displacement effect that government intervention has had on civic engagement. But such evidence focuses on those near the bottom of society where the American welfare state has been most intrusive. If we want to know where America as a whole is headed – its destination – we should look to Europe.


What follows that is anecdote after anecdote, which settles down, finally, into his beef with what he calls “the equality premise” – which, in a bell curve way, drives him crazy:


The equality premise says that, in a fair society, different groups of people – men and women, blacks and whites, straights and gays, the children of poor people and the children of rich people – will naturally have the same distributions of outcomes in life – the same mean income, the same mean educational attainment, the same proportions who become janitors and CEOs. When that doesn’t happen, it is because of bad human behavior and an unfair society. For the last forty years, this premise has justified thousands of pages of government regulations and legislation that has reached into everything from the paperwork required to fire someone to the funding of high school wrestling teams. Everything that we associate with the phrase “politically correct” eventually comes back to the equality premise. Every form of affirmative action derives from it. Much of the Democratic Party’s proposed domestic legislation assumes that it is true.


He says scientific breakthroughs and his own work in statistics will end all that:


Within a decade, no one will try to defend the equality premise. All sorts of groups will be known to differ in qualities that affect what professions they choose, how much money they make, and how they live their lives in all sorts of ways.


It’s all in your genes. And of course the elite, the real Americans, had better wake up:


When I say that something akin to a political Great Awakening is required among America’s elites, what I mean is that America’s elites have to ask themselves how much they really do value what has made America exceptional, and what they are willing to do to preserve it. Let me close with a few remarks about what that will entail.


American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves. Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I’m thinking of qualities such as American optimism even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it. That’s quite uncommon among the peoples of the world. There is the striking lack of class envy in America – by and large, Americans celebrate others’ success instead of resenting it. That’s just about unique, certainly compared to European countries, and something that drives European intellectuals crazy. And then there is perhaps the most important symptom of all, the signature of American exceptionalism- – the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies. It is hard to think of a more inspiriting quality for a population to possess, and the American population still possesses it to an astonishing degree. No other country comes close.


Yeah, yeah – we are different from everyone else, and better. And it’s time to be done with the mongrels and losers, and this is the hour:


The possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real. And so it is our job to make the case for that reawakening. It won’t happen by appealing to people on the basis of lower marginal tax rates or keeping a health care system that lets them choose their own doctor. The drift toward the European model can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.


Yep, it’s your junior high football coach meets Doctor Strangelove. And that was the 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture to the American Enterprise Institute.


Of course Irving Kristol – the “godfather of neoconservatism” – has a son, William “Bill” Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, with his history of being spectacularly wrong about most everything. The son was just let go by the New York Times as his twice-weekly columns were pedestrian and required the Times to post factual corrections week after week (he was just picked up by the Washington Post). The Times has replaced the younger Kristol with the Atlantic’s Ross Douthat, the author of Grand New Party: How the Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. You may not agree with him, but he’s a far better writer – lively and engaging – and he checks his facts.


And he liked the Murray speech – but he has reservations. His thought is that the grand economic argument between left and right is not something that you can “resolve” with “proof” or better empirical results:


At bottom, I think the argument suffers from a problem that’s common to both sides in the debates over the desirability of European-style social democracy – namely, the hope that what’s ultimately a philosophical and moral controversy can have a tidy empirical resolution. So long as Murray’s speech is making the philosophical case for limited government – that human existence in the shadow of a nanny state doesn’t conduce to “Aristotelian happiness,” as he puts it, because it strips human beings of the deeper sorts of agency and responsibility that ought to be involved in a life well lived – he’s on firm (if obviously arguable) ground. But when he segues into the possibility that the emerging science of human nature will “prove” the limits of welfare-statism, and force liberals to give ground, I think he’s indulging in a conservative version of Jon Chait’s famous argument that liberals support bigger government because they’re rigorous empiricists, whereas conservatives oppose it because they’re hidebound dogmatists. In both cases, there’s an unwarranted hope that the right facts and figures can settle a debate that ultimately depends on the philosophical assumptions that you bring to it.


Douthat argues it’s all in the assumptions, and simple positing that something is so, and building on your assumption, proves nothing:


I don’t want to dismiss the arguments about the practical costs and benefits associated with different styles of welfare states, mind you. I like those arguments, and they matter a great deal. I would just deny that they can come close to settling, in any meaningful sense, the debate over how big the American welfare state should be overall, and whether we should copy Western Europe or disdain it.


That’s because both the American and the European models of government are successful in purely practical terms, to the extent that purely practical terms exist – which is to say, both models have provided, over an extended period of time, levels of prosperity and stability unparalleled in human history. … And as long as this remains the case, where you come out on the debates over whether we should prefer the continent’s sturdier safety nets to America’s lower unemployment and higher growth rates (or the continent’s more equitable provision of health care to America’s lead in health-care innovation, or what-have-you) will ultimately boil down to values as much as it will to what the numbers say.


And maybe it’s all a matter of something like taste:


How much do you prize equality and ease of life? The more you do, the more you’ll favor a European approach to the relationship between state and society. How much do you prize voluntarism, entrepreneurship, and the value of lives oriented around service to one’s family, and to God? The more you do, the more you’ll find to like in the American arrangement.


Where this debate is concerned, I’m proud to stand with Charles Murray – but I don’t think that we should labor under the false hope that scientific advances are going to tilt the argument dramatically in our direction.


The New York Times will have a handful with this guy – what with his saying all these people claiming they have the facts of the matter, on the left or the right, are full of crap. But that’s better than the younger Kristol – see April 4, 2003:


There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America … that the Shi’a can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shi’a in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq’s always been very secular.


But you can argue with Douthat. Matthew Yglesias does:


Left out of here is what the right always loves to leave out of discussions of economic policy choices: interest. If you’re poor in the United States and you live in a neighborhood where poor people can afford to live, you will almost certainly be living in a neighborhood that’s much more dangerous than the neighborhoods in which poor Dutch people live. You’ll also find yourself living in a country that’s much less friendly to the interests of people who can’t afford a car than is the Netherlands. Conversely, if a European executive meets an American executive and feels a twinge of jealousy, it’s not for the American’s greater level of “entrepreneurship” it’s for the fact that the U.S. social model leaves top executives much richer than European executives. In Finland, low-end wages are higher than they are in the United States. This is great for relatively low-skill Finnish people. But it also means that there are many fewer mid-price restaurants in Helsinki than in a typical American city, which is bad for the sort-of-upper-middle-class professionals (or Americans on a trip) who are likely to patronize such restaurants.


In the US and in Europe, income level is fairly predictive of voting behavior and this is neither a coincidence nor the reflection of an abstract disagreement about the value of “voluntarism.” It reflects the fact that politics is, among other things, a concrete contest over concrete economic interests. In a broad sense, both the American and European models work quite well compared to living standards enjoyed in other parts of the world. But in comparison, the models work differently for different kinds of people because different people have different interests. I don’t think, for example, that America’s high child poverty rate reflects American preference for “service to one’s family” over “ease of life.”


Yeah – but should our kids be playing soccer? As for Rick the News Guy from Atlanta ever writing his book on the left and right – that may be futile. Neither side can understand the other.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in America Becoming French, America is Becoming Europe, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Charles Murray, Conservative Thought, Conservative Values, Soccer, The Bell Curve, The Conservative-Liberal Divide. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Conservative Thinking

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    Two points here:

    First of all, soccer does not strike me as all that “easy” (those guys seem to run around for hours, sometimes bouncing the ball off their knees and heads, hardly ever scoring, and often as not, it all seems to end in a tie) and does have its stars who, being apparently better at it than their teammates, get paid more (think David Beckham). Nothing very un-American about that, at least in my opinion

    It’s also worth noting that, even if it were the anti-American-values thing it’s accused of being, soccer is the same flop in this country today that it has always been, and always will be. In other words, if soccer were the threat to our values this Stephen Webb guy claims, wouldn’t it have to have a huge following among Americans?

    Secondly, and more importantly, did Charles Murray make up this “equality premise” concept out of thin air, or does he really imagine that all the so-called “politically correct” crowd believes that, “in a fair society, different groups of people – men and women, blacks and whites, straights and gays, the children of poor people and the children of rich people — will naturally have the same distributions of outcomes in life — the same mean income, the same mean educational attainment, the same proportions who become janitors and CEOs”?

    They, of course, don’t — and the very fact that nobody believes it means flat-out that his whole line of thinking here is based on some huge misunderstanding, and that he should, in the style of Emily Litella of old Saturday Night Live fame, just retract the whole thing and end it with a polite “Never mind.”

    This “equality” idea — made famous in this county with the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” phrase — simply means that in a fair society, we understand that all humans are born with the same innate opportunities to do well for themselves, and that if for some reason they don’t get to enjoy those natural rights, then gosh darn it, we should make sure that they do.

    For one thing, knowing that how well a child will do in life seems to statistically depend on how wealthy his school district is, might help us correct the inequality of his opportunities. Still, ensuring that his outcome comes out equal to the best of them, of course, is not in our job description, but will largely be left up to the individual himself.

    Hey, equal opportunity is not really so hard to comprehend, so why do conservatives consistently have such a hard time grasping it? (Or is it that they do understand it, but are, for some reason, just pretending not to?)

    Comprehending soccer, on the other hand, is something else altogether.


  2. Randall says:

    “To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences. ”

    Hey, this guy is onto something. He just explained why George Bush’s eight years were not a “source of deep satisfaction”.

  3. Pingback: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me « Just Above Sunset

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