Friday, March 12, 2010

"Suicide" on the Left

Mark Steyn offers some interesting comments on why Obama and the Democrats seem intent on committing political suicide by ramming health care "reform" down our throats (HT: HBL):
I've been saying in this space for two years that the governmentalization of health care is the fastest way to a permanent left-of-center political culture. It redefines the relationship between the citizen and the state in fundamental ways that make limited government all but impossible.
Steyn points to numerous examples, including the Departments of Energy and Education domestically. Once some program or department comes into being, it becomes almost impossible to eliminate. And so the country moves closer to
statism. Even when conservatives get control, they are operating within the context established by Leftists. Steyn concludes that the Left is willing to take a short-term hit in November in order to take a massive step towards their long-term goal.

While Steyn correctly notes that conservatives have done little to stop the Left, he fails to identify the fundamental reason. He accurately identifies the effect, but comes up short regarding the cause. Fundamentally, conservatives agree with the Left. Both sides accept altruism as the moral ideal, and they just disagree on its political manifestation.

Conservatives cannot challenge, let alone rollback, Leftist programs because they agree with the premise that we have a moral duty to self-sacrificially serve others. Conservatives cannot stop the Leftist political agenda because they are in agreement regarding the moral base of politics.

The Left is winning politically because it is the more consistent advocate of altruism. As Ayn Rand identified the issue:
  1. In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

  2. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.

  3. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.

While conservatives put forth a pretense of disagreement with the Left, they hold the same basic principles. Their meek complaints that a particular proposal goes "too far" is not a principled challenge, but an open admission that they are morally bankrupt.

More than a century ago the Left started the train rolling towards statism (ironically by regulating the rail roads). With each generation that train has picked up speed, aided and abetted by conservatives who have, with few exceptions, simply gone along for the ride. Altruism set the course, and until it is rejected, it matters little who sits in the locomotive.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Bravo to your identification of the fact that conservatism cannot offer principle opposition to statism because conservatism shares the same ethical foundation: altruism.

I would like to suggest an additional reason, one that is less fundamental, but still important: Conservatism does not even oppose statism, much less foundational altruism. Some of your articles on this weblog have shown that.

I define conservatism as an ideology (-ism) which most highly values God, Tradition (which is what they are "conserving"), Nation, and Family. There is nothing in those floating abstractions that rejects statism itself. To the contrary, all four invite statism in their defense.

Conservatism cannot offer principled opposition to statism.

(Of course, as always, particular individuals may have confused or mixed principles, regardless of the label they use for themselves. E.g., there are apparently some atheist conservatives, but they are rare mixed cases.)

Brian Phillips said...

I agree. Conservatives talk of free markets and liberty, but they will abandon both without a thought to the contradiction. And then they will come up with all kinds of rationalizations for their hypocrisy.

Anonymous said...

You are a breath of fresh air

Brian Phillips said...


Steve D said...

Good post. I agree with your conclusions. In fact it makes me wonder why anyone would ever think that the conservatives could oppose statism in the first place. At the most they might oppose a particular type of statism or perhaps some specific aspects of statism but definitely not statism in general.

I also agree with the Burgess who stated that that conservatism doesn’t even oppose statism politically much less morally. In many ways conservatism is actually a greater long term threat to freedom than liberalism. (although modern liberalism is perhaps lesser in degree but a more immediate threat).

I don’t however, think that family and nation are floating abstractions. I have one of each of these and I can guarantee that they are definitely real. On the other hand I don’t think they are possible justifications for a proper political theory either. I have a jar of mustard in my refrigerator and I don’t base my politics on that either.

Anyway there is no logical connection between god, family, tradition, nation and proper politics (or ethics for that matter).

Brian Phillips said...

I took the floating abstraction comment to apply to conservatives, and not all people. If that reading is correct, I would agree with Burgess (as well as his disclaimer).

Conservatives are Idealists (in the metaphysical/ epistemological sense). As such, they hold that ideas and concepts are not formed from observations of the world in which we live, but revelations from "true" reality, i.e., God.

Having divorced concepts from sense perception and reason, their abstractions are not tied to reality--they are floating. (Of course this is a generalization, and there many be exceptions.)

Steve D said...

Thanks for the explanation. I agree, conservatives are idealists (at least in the political realm). However, there is probably more that could be said on this subject. By that definition, for a true idealist all high order concepts would be floating abstractions.

They may believe that these (or all) concepts are revelations from ‘God’ but in fact they still must to a great degree have formed them correctly. In other words, I think what a conservative means by the word family is the same as me at least when he is not talking about politics.

It may be more correct to say they are real concepts which are being treated or used for political purposes as floating abstractions.

‘God‘ of course is a different story. I can’t figure out how this concept can be connected to reality so it might always be a floating abstraction.

Also, it occurred to me that these concepts were not just picked randomly. They are connected in some way that such that people seem to feel they can create a political ideology from them. Are they specially susceptible to being used as floating abstractions?

Also, I find the process by which the mind might form a floating abstraction interesting. One has to think they must be some tenuous connection to reality otherwise they couldn’t be formed in the first place. This is starting to stray somewhat from your original post, however so it may be a discussion for another day.

Brian Phillips said...

In OPAR Peikoff explains that a "floating abstraction" is a concept that one picks up from others without knowing its referents in reality. It is akin to a parrot talking.

God is an invalid concept. There is nothing in reality to which it can, or ever will, refer.

Steve D said...

“In OPAR Peikoff explains that a "floating abstraction" is a concept that one picks up from others without knowing its referents in reality.”

I think we are talking about Ayn Rand’s fallacy of the stolen concept, meaning the use of a concept while denying one or more of its referents. The concept because of the missing referent (s) is used incorrectly or imprecisely and therefore invalidates any logical process using this concept.

It’s not necessarily quite the same as a parrot talking since a parrot of course knows none of the referents while a stolen concept could occur due only to a single missing referent in a long chain. Another possibility is that an incorrect referent is used in place of the correct one. Therefore the meaning of the stolen concept may to some degree approximate the actual meaning of the concept. This actually makes it really dangerous, much more so in fact than a complete falsehood. I would argue this is another reason why conservatives may be actually worse than liberals. It is more difficult to argue against a half truth.

After thinking about this for a bit, this is what I think. The conclusion of a logical process could be wrong for two reasons. Either the premises or the logical process could be wrong. In the case of deductive logic, its almost always the premises. However inductive logic is much more difficult and often the problem is that it is not done correctly. We both agree that the politics of the conservatives is wrong. Burgess suggested their premises were wrong (i.e. their premises were floating abstractions). I suggested their premises were right but their inductive process was wrong (i.e. they used their concepts incorrectly since they do not logically validate any political theory). It is of course also possible that they are making both errors.

Brian Phillips said...

There is definitely some concept stealing going on. Freedom is one example--conservatives hold that we have a duty to help others. But freedom depends upon choice, which the concept of duty rejects.

I think the confusion is because we are speaking in generalities. On one issue the error might be a floating abstraction, and on another issue it might be a stolen concept.

In either case, the concept doesn't serve it cognitive purpose.

Burgess Laughlin said...

No, the fallacy of the stolen concept is not "the use of a concept while denying one or more of its referents." That definition is going in the wrong direction in cognition.

Instead the “'stolen concept' fallacy, first identified by Ayn Rand, is the fallacy of using a concept while denying the validity of its genetic roots, i.e., of an earlier concept(s) on which it logically depends."

Steve D said...

Absolutely, Burgess.
Thanks for the correction.