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The Conscience of a Moderate

September 27, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
The Conscience of a Moderate

“Whether you like it or not” I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to get over that phrase—of course, neither will Gavin Newsom.  But isn’t it fitting?  As the inevitable logical extension of liberal thought, isn’t it somehow appropriate that Gavin Newsom would spew such drivel?

The whole point of pluralism is accepting that there are competing views of the good (religions, ways of life, etc.) and that they’re ultimately irreconcilable, which is a good thing.  But by saying pluralism is so totally right (implicit in the know-it-all jackassery of his statement) Newsom is devaluing the sentiment of tolerance underlying pluralism.

This tone is the water’s edge of liberal thought: our conception of justice is so complete, our knowledge of what is right so total, that we would be remiss not to impose it upon society—regardless or rather in spite of popular opinion.  Isn’t that type of thinking what made the Warren Court controversial?  No one could argue against Brown v. Board in terms of morality, but the decision did overturn popular will—for good I should add.

You see that same confidence in the well-known caricature of the limousine liberal.   They are the watchful guardians of society, and who are we to deny them a well-deserved bit of largesse?

For a particular example, look no farther than the stimulus: a million little tweaks that aggregated say, in one solemn voice, “I know better than society.”  Each of the component policies generally makes some sense.  And that’s what scares me.  Sure we could use some more money for vaccination programs.  Preventative medicine makes sense.  Sure we could use repaved roads.  That increases fuel economy.  Makes sense.  Of course what’s lost in the particular is gained in the aggregate.  The thing is so complex and convoluted that no one knows where all the money is.  And of course, who wouldn’t expect a 780 billion dollar bill shoved quickly through Congress to be good policy?[i] The point is not about whether the thing is a net macroeconomic good or ill (though whatever bs job “numbers”[ii] they end up attaching to the project should not be taken as proof); it’s that society is freaking complex, and this type of micromanagement is the height of folly and arrogance.

This isn’t an aberration.  The liberal state exists to tinker our way to perfection: a dash of environmental regulation here, a welfare-to-work program there.  Of course, then isn’t the only truly political task really technocratic?  We just need to use logic, reason, and rationality to refine our way to just the right amount of tweakage.

Conservatism, on the other hand, runs a different risk: that in its rejection of liberalism’s failed universality it will embrace narrow and particular views of the good.  Doesn’t conservative these days merely connote an affinity for prejudice—whether justified or not?  How else do Ron Paul, Jerry Falwell, and Richard Nixon all have a legitimate claim to the title?

So perhaps to get a cogent idea of the ideology we need to go back to the beginning, to the movement’s founder:

“The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.” -William F. Buckley, National Review Online

Holy shit: “disciples of Truth,” with a capitol “T.”  I don’t know if that’s one step from or one step past holy warrior.  And the tone of the whole thing reminds me of that half-joke that says, “Well there’s a reason it’s called the right.”  But the statement is more revealing in this sense than I think it realizes.  Not only does it capture the fundamental problem of liberalism—albeit in loaded terms—but it points to the fundamental kernel of truth underlying conservatism: it understands the limitations of the liberal state.

When conservatism talks about the importance of private charity and faith-based organizations, it is exactly this sort of importance of actualizing the good that it is invoking.  The same is true when it talks about personal responsibility or family values.  Of course, it’s not any family’s values; mostly those that would satisfy what the obsessively politically correct would call heteronormativity.  Hence the movement’s opposition to gay marriage.  Yet aside from the clear problems with this (generally in the vein of conservatives claiming that gays have equal rights because they can marry a woman just like the rest of us), at least conservatives are willing to take a stand for ecclesiasticism.

The truth of the matter is that “liberalism”[iii] and “conservatism”—essentially slightly different emotional outlooks within an acceptance of the Liberal State—are irrevocably street ideology, destined to be filled with nonsensical argument—whether you like it or not.  The only serious[iv]alternative in this barren wasteland of nonideas is of course that holy grail of American Politics: Bipartisanship or the Great Moderate Middle.

People act as if moderates are punters, unable to hold any convictions of their own.  But for me, being a political moderate always been a profound recognition of the ultimate absurdity of all political ideology—the belief that no one person or ideology can ever have a monopoly on the truth and a willingness to shift between them as necessary.  That may strike some as unprincipled.  But it is fact merely in the great American tradition of pragmatism, of treating the theoretical as only useful insofar as it improves the actual.  As we watch one side engage in a perverse spectacle of self-flagellation and the other impotently watch its ideals crash on the rocks of political reality, perhaps we could do worse than ask ourselves a simple question: Is this really all there is?


___[i]But don’t worry; they attached extremely onerous accountability, transparency, and reporting standards to the funds.  So you know the money is well spent.  Don’t bother thinking that giving federal dollars to state departments, local governments, and companies that never receive them might create problems—especially when you demand the funds be spent as quick as possible and according to unprecedented standards.  D.C. thought of everything.  These standards, by the way, are scaring rural entities away from Broadband funds.  So much for a newly connected rural America.

[ii] Right now everything you’re hearing is backtracked from a Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) Report.  They’re taking the percentage of dollars spent in a location or time period (in relation to the total amount) and multiplying that by the total estimated jobs created.  And that CEA report got its job numbers by using econometric models to forecast increased growth with the stimulus—a dangerous proposition given the historical uniqueness of the situation—and then multiplying that figure by the normal amount of jobs created per percent of economic growth.  I wish I could’ve pulled that shit in Macro.

[iii] And its cousin “progressivism.”

[iv] Communists feel free to express your token outrage.

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