How to think like a Conservative

To a conservative, the character of a society is derived from more than the structure that law gives it. If you are going to reduce Conservatism to one simple phrase, one distinguishing thesis, it would be this: culture matters.

Conservatism argues that people with a healthy culture can form a happy society even with a poor structure of laws. It also posits the converse: that people with an unhealthy culture will not thrive even under the best legal structure.

Libertarianism focuses solely on the structure of laws. To the extent that it acknowledges the culture of a society at all, it insists that culture be left to laissez-fare as a matter of morality. Libertarians assume that societies with any arbitrary culture will turn out okay if the incentives of the law are well-designed.

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An interesting distinction

An interesting distinction but there is a problem. Law is part of culture. A fully healthy culture therefore by definition has healthy laws; and a culture with healthy laws is at least in that respect healthy. So these are not separable.

You may be thinking that laws are imposed from above, and culture is created from below. But law is also created from below, and the state, if it is competent, enforces those laws and does not violate societal expectations. For example, from below, people fiercely protect their person and property, refrain from taking their neighbors' property, and respect their neighbors' person. A competent state creates legislation which affirms this already-existing cultural fact. An incompetent state looks the other way while favored groups attack disfavored groups, which produces chaos and misery. Also there is the point that the state participates in the creation of culture, so that the state produces some law does not stop that law from being a part of the culture. The Soviet Union created Soviet culture, and when it collapsed, the Soviet-created culture persisted for a while and in many respects. For generations people had been corrupted by the government, and the corruption did not disappear when the government collapsed.

Furthermore, your description of libertarians only covers some of them. There is no contradiction between libertarianism and the belief that libertarian law is not sufficient to promote human thriving.

Consider: I am a non-poisonist. I advocate that people refrain from consuming poison, such as cyanide, in quantities great enough to kill them. Compare: I am a libertarian. I advocate that laws other than libertarian laws are poisonous.

But that doesn't mean that I think that refraining from drinking poison is sufficient to promote human thriving! A person needs to eat, for example. And similarly, it does not mean that I think that libertarian law is sufficient to promote human thriving. I am sure that there are many other things necessary to thriving and that a society that has libertarian law but is unhealthy in some other way may not thrive.

But I am still a libertarian. What makes me a libertarian is that the fact that libertarian law is not sufficient to promote human thriving does not lead me to advocate non-libertarian law as a means to fill in the gaps. That would be absurd, really. Similarly, refraining from drinking poison is not sufficient, but that doesn't lead me to advocate drinking poison as a way of filling in the gaps!

Non-libertarians are characterized by advocating non-libertarian law. If a person advocates libertarian law and opposes non-libertarian law, then he is a libertarian, regardless of whether he thinks libertarian law is sufficient to promote human thriving.

Some non-libertarians are non-libertarian because they believe that some societal problem is best remedied by violating somebody's liberty, despite his general approval of liberty. He considers such violations necessary evils.

Other non-libertarians are non-libertarian because they find libertarian law abhorrent. They do not consider the violations violations at all. They consider them right and just. Not a necessary evil, but a good to be celebrated.

But what the non-libertarians have in common is advocacy of some violation of libertarian ethics, whatever their reason.

An excellent summary

Another way to put it is that conservatives believe that cultural externalities, positive or negative, are more important and subtle than libertarians do.

I'm confused about the distinction...

I'm confused about this distinction for a couple of reasons.

Conservatism argues that people with a healthy culture can form a happy society even with a poor structure of laws. It also posits the converse: that people with an unhealthy culture will not thrive even under the best legal structure.

Strict adherence to the non-aggression principle means that law should be independent of culture. Thus, the relative beneficial or detrimental effect of an individual's particular culture choices could be observed more directly. When, on the other hand, laws set cultural norms by force, there are all sorts of secondary effects that muddy the waters: secrecy, shame, regulatory capture, hypocrisy, income redistribution, job-security incentives of enforcers and rehabilitators to increase the number contra-cultural individuals. If culture matters, wouldn't a conservative be content to let it matter, and not confuse the issue with all of these unintended consequences?

My second point of confusion--is the use of "conservative" here supposed to identify roughly the same group of people as the common use of "conservative"?

Suppose one person thinks that 'culture matters', and therefore that it is justified to use force to make people attend Christian churches and refrain from swearing. Another person thinks that 'culture matters', and therefore it is justified to use force to make people recycle and sing praises to Mother Gaia. The first is commonly called "conservative" and the second "liberal". The common use seems to distinguish between types of culture (or maybe the relative duration of opposing cultures), not the intensity of wanting to impose one's culture on others.

While most American

While most American Conservatives hold libertarian sympathies, they are more willing to use law to influence culture because they believe in its profound effects on the happiness and long-term viability of society.

I use "Conservatives" to refer to the American Conservative movement. It is a diverse ideological group, so all statements I make about them are false about some subgroup of them. There is nothing to stop Gaia worshipers from adopting conservative attitudes on culture, but empirically they seem to follow the libertarian laissez-fare attitude.

What is wrong with this substitution?

What is wrong with this substitution?

While most American [Liberals] hold [civil] libertarian sympathies, they are more willing to use law to influence culture because they believe in its profound effects on the happiness and long-term viability of society.

Couldn't this statement be used to describe the amount of happiness and long-term social viability that stereotypical Democrats believe free healthcare could bring?

A willingness to use aggression might describe how any group differs from libertarians (where libertarians are the degenerate case that believe in no aggression). But I'm not sure I understand how aggression in the name of culture is a uniquely conservative trait.

Edit

In retrospect, I should have chosen a more culturally oriented example than "free healthcare". Perhaps "sympathy for third-world laborers".

There is no shortage of

There is no shortage of examples of progressive (liberal and left wing) social engineering. It's a term largely associated with the left, after all - that is, with accusations against the left by the right. "Social engineering" is a dirty word among conservatives, though of course conservatives also engage in it. Wikipedia has a short but useful article on social engineering (look for the "political science" disambiguation, not the "security" one).

While most American

While most American Conservatives hold libertarian sympathies, they are more willing to use law to influence culture because they believe in its profound effects on the happiness and long-term viability of society.

Not necessarily. A libertarian could very well believe even more strongly than a typical conservative that culture has profound effects on happiness and viability. What distinguishes him from a conservative is not that the conservative believes more strongly in the profound effects of culture, but that the conservative believes that (a) violating libertarian ethics will improve the culture, and (b) this is sufficient justification to violate libertarian ethics.

I will tell you right now that I do not believe that violating libertarian ethics would improve the culture. I believe that violating libertarian ethics will almost invariably corrupt the culture. In addition, I do not believe that improving culture would be sufficient justification for violating libertarian ethics.

Culture is a Very Fuzzy Word

Back when I was in college, majoring in cultural anthropology, I was taught that culture has multiple meanings. Because of this, I suspect that the word culture is about as meaningless as the words conservative and liberal. I have always regarded culture as the totality of the rules of a given group of people. Thus, Baptist culture is different than Catholic culture, Southern culture is different than Western culture, Libertarian culture is different than liberal culture (whatever that is!) and so on. The Internet has allowed a million different cultures to sprout, so having a discussion involving the phenomenon of culture is problematic, to say the least. I would say to Jacob that "culture matters" to every group of people. Those who violate the norms of any given culture are persecuted, either via the legal system, by shunning or other forms of peer-group pressure or by violence. The KKK, anti-abortionists, those who despise homosexuals, and terrorists of all stripes come to mind.

Culture ....

Claude Levi-Strauss spent his entire career trying to elucidate the "rules" of culture by comparing them to the rules that govern linguistics. He was very influential in his day - I don't know how influential he is these days, though. Sometimes, I like to draw similarities between anarchy and culture, because culture is dynamic and ever-changing, at least in open societies. Anarchy, because it doesn't respect rules and authority, produces new solutions to problems that will not occur to those bound by rules. The ever-changing quality of culture is what disturbs conservatives, because they are most comfortable with "tried-and-true" rules. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be comfortable with trying new ideas and ways of doing things. That dynamic tension is what has fueled the culture wars in this country for the last 40 years, a war that I see no end to. I'd like to see all of us adopt the best from both approaches. Just because it was good enough for your grandfather doesn't mean that it can't be improved!

The ever-changing quality of

The ever-changing quality of culture is what disturbs conservatives, because they are most comfortable with "tried-and-true" rules. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be comfortable with trying new ideas and ways of doing things.

That's a common idea, even held by conservatives and liberals, but I think it breaks down under scrutiny. For starters, one big political distinction between left and right is anti-capitalism versus pro-capitalism. But hostility to capitalism is ancient. For example, laws against charging interest go way back. In many ways capitalism in its current incarnation is the new thing and anti-capitalism is an atavistic reactionary response to it, and anti-capitalism tends to be stronger on the liberal side of the fence.

Also, there are many possible directions of "new" - many different directions from the current way we do things to some new way of doing things. And liberals are really only comfortable with certain directions of new. Really only comfortable with one direction of new, in fact. Their direction.

For example, making every woman in America wear a burqa would certainly be a new experience for most American women. But it is not in the direction of new that liberals usually have in mind when they advocate change.

Another point is that a capitalist economy is subject to rapid change, much more so than a socialist economy. In fact one of the major complaints that critics of capitalism have against capitalism is that it allows rapid change, often to the detriment of certain groups. The Luddites are one example. And every time somebody objects to a plant closing, he's objecting to a change. Michael Moore, in his movie Roger and Me, presents a liberal/leftist case against a GM decision to close a plant in Flint, Michigan. That is a change that he does not like. Another target of liberal and anti-capitalist sentiment is globalization - anti-globalists resent and seek to prevent and reverse the increasing globalization of the world economy.

Environmentalists, associated much more strongly with the left than with the right, often seek to control or reverse what they consider to be the out-of-control changes that are occurring today. Some have sought to curtail or even reverse population growth, claiming that it was unsustainable and would lead to mass starvation and/or destruction of the planet. Some have sought to return us to a time when we were using less fossil fuels and electricity. A popular phrase among the environmentally-minded is "back to nature" - the phrase itself explicitly recommends a reversal of change, a turning back to a simpler way of being. Also popular among liberals is "fair trade coffee" - coffee grown by traditional methods. That is not forward-looking. It is backward-looking.

And so on.

Times change

A "conservative" is just a progressive minus 20 years or so. In 20 years gay marriage will be the conservative position, while the progressives are arguing for inter-species marriage and a public option for pizza delivery.

Conservatives have no coherent ideology that amounts to anything more than "the progressive agenda, but slower".

Conservative Ideology

I agree that a very large percentage of "conservatives" don't have a coherent ideology, but then, neither do "liberals". If more people did, we wouldn't be in our present fix of yelling and pointing fingers at each other. Edmund Burke would be a good starting place for a coherent "conservative" ideology, as would the thinkers of the Enlightenment for "liberals", but few today, as Chet Bowers argues, are even familiar with the names, let alone the writings, of those thinkers. Far too many "conservatives" selectively quote Adam Smith to support their position, not realizing that Adam Smith had a number of positions that would be quite similar to the beliefs of contemporary "liberals". Adam Smith was opposed to Mercantilism, which isn't all that much different from State Capitalism.

Ah, Where to Start?

Unfortunately, I'll not be able to engage in a spirited debate with you on this topic, Constant, because I'm going out of town on Thursday and won't be back for a week. And I don't do computers when I'm on vacation!

But, let me counter a few of your points. Before I do that, though, have you read either Wendell Berry or Chet Bowers? If you acquire a passing familiarity with either (both, preferably), you'll have a much better idea of where I'm coming from.

Islam prohibits charging interest, so opposition to interest is still around. I'm not opposed to capitalism, but I am opposed to State Capitalism and I would argue that many liberals, whom you seem to have an intense dislike (hatred?) for, are also opposed to State Capitalism. Michael Moore is one of them. Personally, I don't know any "liberals" who would force people to do something that they don't want to do, but then, I'm not your ordinary "liberal", whatever the heck that is.

I'd encourage you to stop tossing the words "liberal" and "conservative" around so, well, liberally. For your arguments to make any sense, you have to define your words more precisely. There are a thousand definitions of "liberal" and "conservative", which is why I am asking you to familiarize yourself with Wendell Berry and Chet Bowers.

I would argue that a true environmentalist would be a conservative. To me being a conservative means to want to conserve. And the environment, the source of our ability to continue to exist as a species, is a very good place to start.

I stand by my characterization of conservative and liberal responses to cultural change and do not believe that "it breaks down under scrutiny."

I'll not be able to engage

I'll not be able to engage in a spirited debate with you on this topic

I'm not looking for a spirited debate. I'm just pointing out that the situation is not as simple as you depict.

I'd encourage you to stop tossing the words "liberal" and "conservative" around so, well, liberally. For your arguments to make any sense, you have to define your words more precisely.

I am defining them the way they should be defined: as they are used today to label and self-label. Look at the blog entry, starting with its title: "How to think like a conservative". Someone reading this title is liable to think that what is being offered is an explanation of the way that the likes of Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and the like think - people who self-label and who are labeled "conservative". The reader is not likely to think that what is being offered is an explanation of the way that Al Gore (a noted environmentalist) thinks. Very few people consider Al Gore a conservative. If you called Al Gore a conservative, because of his environmentalism, you would confuse your listener. I will now give ostensive definitions based on how people are publicly labeled and self-labeled.

Liberal: Ezra Klein, Obama, Brad DeLong, Matt Yglesias, Paul Krugman, Arianna Huffington

Conservative: Michelle Malkin, Robert Stacy McCain, Victor Davis Hanson, Hugh Hewitt, Rush Limbaugh

Libertarian: John Stossel, Radley Balko, Wendy McElroy, David Friedman, Bryan Caplan

I would argue that a true environmentalist would be a conservative. To me being a conservative means to want to conserve. And the environment, the source of our ability to continue to exist as a species, is a very good place to start.

But when you do that, when you try to invent a definition for "conservative" that makes sense to you but grossly violates common usage, you stop speaking a common language and you start speaking idiosyncratic jargon which nobody but you will really understand. That is a great way to confuse, mislead, and talk at cross-purposes with everybody else.

I stand by my characterization of conservative and liberal responses to cultural change and do not believe that "it breaks down under scrutiny."

You have done this by inventing an idiosyncratic jargon which makes your beliefs true by definition. That is not enlightening to anyone, least of all yourself. You are essentially committing the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.

Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby

I'll accept the compliment of being idiosyncratic and I am also a contrarian. But often, it is those who are idiosyncratic and contrarian that point to a way out of the difficulty folks find themselves in. You are Br'er Rabbit and your definitions of "conservative" and "liberal" are the Tar Baby. But the fox is nowhere to be seen and you, along with millions of others, are stuck with no one to snatch you free.

I'm amused that you claim that I'm not enlightening myself - how did you determine that? Have you read Chet Bowers yet? Here, read just this one essay - is that asking too much? The one entitled "Some Thoughts on the Misuse of Our Politial Language 2004".

I'm not interested in making

I'm not interested in making correct observations, but interesting ones.

The point is not who believes in the ideas I outlined, but the ideas themselves.

House of Cards

As Ha-Joon Chang says, you culturalists can't handle your own core concept. Conservatives define culture extremely poorly, never account for its historical and situational origins, and wind up treating it as an expression of biology. Substitute the word "race," and you get the true picture of the pseudo-intellectual disaster that is "conservatism."

I won't even bother pointing out what we ought to think of any group that claims its own culture is "healthy."

If you are going to reduce

If you are going to reduce Conservatism to one simple phrase, one distinguishing thesis, it would be this: culture matters.

Nope. The correct phrase would be: 'cheap labor'.

Taking decisions like making

Taking decisions like making good laws for your society is relevant to the same scenario which is mostly required for them.Thinking like conservative society is more good to make a healthy culture too.
product design

Conservative society is

Conservative society is definitely a good option for making our culture more healthy. It will be beneficial for everyone. But we also have to make good laws for it.rabbit repellent

I consider myself as conservative...

I guess that I can consider myself as the conservative type of person and I think that culture really matters. Although there are times that I also don't really care about my own culture, I mean we all know that sometimes we tend to forget. However, I think that thinking as a conservative is not such a bad idea.