Sunday, October 26, 2008

the crucial question, continued

Interesting thing, about being a liberal. Conservatives complain about liberal attacks on morality, or our refusal to partake in the language of morals and "oughts". But if you actually do talk about the moral consequences of political opinions, you're going to be regarded as another preachy liberal. So let me give fair warning to one and all: my politics is a politics of morality, and I will argue about morality, which means that, yes, I'll moralize. If you don't like it, there are many other places on the web to point your browser.

Conor Friedersdorf has penned a reply to my post on conservative incompleteness.

First of all: I very much doubt you can find any conservatives who think Katrina victims shouldn’t have been helped. Link please?

How many do you want, exactly? I suppose you could say that claiming that people deserve something and saying that they shouldn't be helped are two different things. But then, you can find people who will say simply that they shouldn't be helped. It's very strange to me that Conor very much doubts this. Yes, they're crazies. They exist, in greater numbers than I imagine Conor would care to know. Moving on.

Suffering exists in the world, and in the United States. That is an inevitable consequence of life. The fact that it is inevitable does not obviate our responsibility, as individuals or a society, to make good faith efforts to ameliorate that suffering. In a sense, any individual's thoughts about how far that responsibility extends determines whether they are a liberal, or a conservative, or a libertarian, or a socialist, or whatever else. I believe that we have a duty to provide a robust social safety net for people who have failed to provide for themselves, while I recognize the loss of efficiency and the danger of dependency that such a stance ensures. My disappointment and frustration with conservatism comes from the fact that so much of conservatism seems to rest not on the insistence that we must choose to leave some behind, but on the refusal to admit to the fact that there are those who are left behind at all. And despite his efforts to refute me, this is precisely the refusal that Conor perpetuates.

Conor first seems to suggest that there are no people who say that we shouldn't have a safety net. This is kind of mad to me. I find it hard to believe that Conor has never encountered an extremist (or, depending on your point of a view, a real) libertarian. He says "find me a conservative who would say, 'Let the child starve.'" Let me assure Friedersdorf: there is, in fact, a small but vocal minority of people who would say just that. Did Conor not go to college? Or never have a dorm room conversation when he was there? Has he never met anyone who believes that, indeed, people have no positive rights? The fact that he's talking about a baby, of course, is a way to rig the game. But, yes, there are some people who would say let the baby starve. (Go to an objectivist convention. Ask around.)

If we don't pick an example that makes Friederdorf's position the easiest to argue, you'll find things more complicated still. Many people are happy to extend positive rights (like food and shelter) to children but not to adults. So, okay-- how about those adults? Again, there are questions of fairness, and efficacy. Those questions are important, and legitimate. Again, those questions don't remove the question of what happens next: if an adult is in a position where no one but the government is willing to care for him or her, and needs care, what then? If the answer is "tough noogies", that's at least an answer, and a more popular one than I think Conor gives credit for. Does Friedersdorf think we should provide a safety net for them? He seems to say that we should, up to an extent. Fair enough, although I think that this gives the game away, when it comes to limiting the intellectual and philosophical scope of government, to a degree that Conor hasn't begun to unpack.

I promise you, there are very many people who think we should do nothing at all about suffering adults. In fact, I'd wager that their number includes the majority of libertarians and many conservatives. So... what happens to those people? What happens to those people if government does not provide for them? Again, you will hear reasons why it's bad for government to provide for him, from conservatives, and you'll hear reasons why it's unfair for government to provide for him. But you'll find precious few conservatives that will have anything whatsoever to say about what, exactly, will happen to such a person. You can say that they'll just continue to suffer, or you can say that we should care for them, or you can come up with an alternative scheme for how they can be cared for. You can't, however, act like pointing out the difficulties inherent in this caring for people amounts to an answer about what exactly will happen to them without government.

That's what I want to see on the right. I want the right to move past the point where ignoring or denying the existence of need is an essential part of their discourse. Yet in the midst of attempting to refute me, Conor does exactly what drives me to distraction:

Again, I’m inclined to house poor people too, but not if the consequences of doing so are worse than them being homeless. If doing something is a net minus, I say do nothing for the good of those who’ll be harmed.

Here. This, exactly. And what then, Conor? This is exactly what drives me so crazy! What I am asking conservatives like Friedersdorf is to drop the other shoe. So Conor thinks there are some prices that are too high to be paid in order to house people. This is a fair position. Now say what this means: there are times when I, Conor Friedersdorf, will choose to leave some people homeless. Say it! Admit that you are condemning some people to homelessness. Don't wander off without making that clear. This is exactly what I'm addressing. Tell them, and tell us, what exactly you're willing to let people endure. It's a tough world. Maybe the most responsible thing is to have a tough answer to these questions. Could be. I remain open to the opinion that a working public policy apparatus might have to leave some people in a very tough position. I refuse to allow that opinion to be buttressed by ignoring the fact that people will be left in tough positions, or by pretending that it isn't so. I refuse.

I rarely get emotional, about this stuff, but I got a little emotional about this. And why? Ultimately, it's the attitude that, somehow, a real inability to provide for oneself just doesn't happen, or that it's so rare as to be unmentionable. It's this fundamental incredulity that people could have these wants and needs. The notion that hungry people are some liberal construct. This idea that, when I say "there are people who are going to be cared for by government, or not be cared for at all", it's some irrelevant gotcha, instead of a very frank and simple statement about the reality of suffering, here, now, in this country.

So let's be clear: there are millions and millions of people in this country who don't have what I would call an even basic ability to provide for themselves. There are something like 37 million people in poverty, in this country, today, now. There are something like 45 million Americans with no health care, no way to secure coverage, and no recourse from the government, in this country, today, now. There are some 3 to 3.5 million people who are homeless, in this country, today, now. Friedersdorf snorts at the idea that anyone is starving in this country. Well, yeah, on the large scale, there are vanishingly few people who are actually starving in this country, the way they starve in other countries-- although if you think there is literally no one like that, out there on the streets, you're wrong. Even though there are few people in this country literally starving, does Conor think that there aren't far, far too many who go to bed hungry? That there aren't people who can't procure enough food to satisfy their hunger, or their nutritional needs? I hope he doesn't think that way. I'm told it's the liberals who are naive, after all.

No conservatives come out and say "There are no poor" or "there are no suffering" in America. Cognitively, theoretically, they understand these things. But in actual practice, in practical conversation, many elide these facts, sweep by them, dance around them. Conor is incredulous at the idea that conservatives would say "Don't feed the starving child". So am I! The difference is, Conor thinks its implausible because he assumes the answer of everyone is "feed that child". I think it's implausible because conservatives are so invested in not talking about the starving child at all. They slip by the starving baby, the way Conor expressed his willingness to leave people homeless without actually saying he was willing to do so.

Let’s simplify this. A car accident kills two parents, but their infant survives. There is no family. They belonged to no church. they had no life insurance. Do I think the government should pay the baby’s hospital bill? Yes. Do I think it should facilitate adoptive parents? Yes. In the unlikely event that there are no adoptive parents, should it be raised as a ward of the state? Yes.

With respect-- this says so much about the way people like Friedersdorf see the world. To your average conservative, human suffering is a strange mistake, a weird exception that has to be confronted with skepticism and doubt. Never mind the statistics-- those things are notional, abstract, at arms length. How could there really be no one to care for you, if you were an orphaned child? Could that really happen? Let me say from personal experience that this skepticism towards the idea of the genuine inability to provide for yourself, or to have a community around you to provide for you-- that's conservative fantasy. I'm sure it seems very hard to believe for some people, because they have been raised with the privilege of a robust community safety net. Good for them. They shouldn't kid themselves that these things don't happen. Conor says "self-sufficiency and community are superior options for everyone involved in the vast majority of cases when they are feasible alternatives". Ah, well. Those conservative alternatives. Those conservative shoulds. Just like when they say "children should be raised by two loving parents". Lots of things should be the case. Sometimes I feel like I'm awash in shoulds.

Ross Douthat posted last week about Jacob Weisberg's comparison of libertarianism to socialism. Ross did a very curious, and in my mind indefensible, thing. He wrote a post that suggested that the only victims of capitalism are those suffering from the financial crisis. I wrote him an email (as he no longer allows comments). I said, isn't there something wrong, here? Those are the only victims? What about the poor? What about poverty? What about those left behind? I'm no socialist. I'm not longing for Marxist revolution. I recognize that, maybe, this is the best system. But does being a good capitalist now really require that we just pretend that the system has no flaws, that no one falls through the cracks? Are we required now to be such unthinking cheerleaders of this capitalist enterprise that we can act like only this financial crisis has produced losers? I can take a conservatism that says that we must make tough choices about the good of the many at the expense of the few. I can't take one that acts as if the few doesn't exist, or as if they are so miniscule they present no moral quandrary to us at all. Ross never replied to my email.

We are living in a period of conservative realignment. One way or another, conservatism is going to change. The changes that confront conservatism, however, will largely be procedural: the great failings of conservatism in the public mind have been in how its proponents have argued, not in what they are arguing. Questions of honesty. Questions of integrity. Questions of strategy and tactics, questions of respect for dissenters, questions of loyalty and free-thinking. But I am stuck on this question of content. As much rot in terms of process as there seems to be in the conservative mainstream, it's this question that most concerns me.

When I was in high school, a conservative friend of mine assailed me for not reading enough conservative books and magazines, saying I was in the cocoon. He was right. I worked on it. I keep working at it. I try hard to be cordial with my conservative interlocutors. I try hard to keep an open mind, and I try hard to listen. But if we are going to be honest, and open, I can't get past this fundamental conservative failing, this shrinking from the face of the reality of human need and human suffering. Most conservatives, I suspect, must deny this suffering. They have to. They have to, because somewhere along the way they decided that in fact it was our duty to help those incapable of helping themselves. This is a victory, in some ways, for liberalism, in that it inevitably privileges systems that expand the role of government. I don't think the average conservative recognizes the degree to which an ethic that requires us to feed that starving child is profoundly unconservative. I think this is responsible for the feeling many conservatives have that movement towards liberalism is inevitable. But it creates an irresponsible dialogue, one that invites denial as a principle mechanism.

As long as conservatism is under girded by people who deny human need to suit their conception of America, American conservatism will be an immature ideology. It will be an ideology full of fabulists and fantasists, people who tell themselves convenient lies, people telling a false story about the lack of suffering in America, back and forth, back and forth, assuring each other that there are no such suffering people, it's all just some liberal ploy....

Tonight, American children will go to bed hungry, because no one can afford to give them enough to eat. Tonight someone huddles in an alleyway with nowhere else to sleep. Tonight someone falls deeper into alcoholism because he has no ability to enter a rehab facility. It's happening, in this country, now. Is this a self-parody of liberal thought? Sure. Do I sometimes devolve to caricature when discussing these first principles? I'm sure. But there is this fundamental dishonesty that I encounter in conservatism again and again, and I have to point it out, even in the face of my own pretension and self-importance. The bigger question is this: is the existence of that suffering the only question a responsible government has to concern itself with? Of course not. Do I also have to balance questions of the many versus the few? I do. I believe strongly that whenever the question is whether we can afford to offer basic social services in the face of truly immediate and necessary needs-- needs of housing, food, health care, clothing-- the answer is yes. And I believe that the negative consequences of providing that safety net has been dramatically exaggerated by those who have the privilege of never having to take advantage of it. But, it's true, at some point I may face a situation where the negative consequences of helping someone outweigh the benefits. Then I'll have to confront my own "and then whats". I swear to you I will confront them honestly and with a full appreciation of the consequences.

So again, these people, who are real and alive, today, now. What does conservatism have to say to these people?

For some, it's "life's tough". That's a fair position. For some, it's "let's help you". That's also fair, although I think most conservatives dramatically underestimate how complicating and immense the consequences of that thinking are, or how, once you start down the road of providing for people who can't provide for themselves, the question of where to stop gets a lot more difficult to answer than you expect. I'll take either of those answers, at the end of the day. I won't take the unspoken conservative meme that there just isn't this need out there, because that notion has this to say to those people: nothing. Nothing at all.

Update: You want to say that conservatives do not truly understand or care about the real problems of the lower class in America.

No. When they argue against the continuation of certain aspects of the social safety net, I want them to either propose a realistic alternative or honestly discuss what the removal of that program will mean in human terms. Neither arguments of the type "the negative consequences of program X are..." or "program X is unfair because..." answer the question: what are the human consequences of denying this social service?

Update II: Again, I didn't say most conservatives don't care. I think most conservatives do care, which is why they need to act as though American poverty and suffering are some sort of strange occurrence. In order to maintain a largely conservative set of policy positions, while also maintaining that society is responsible for providing basic needs in an emergency capacity, they have to think that there just isn't that many people out there in a state of need. That isn't true. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in conservative opposition to universal health care. MAny conservatives are profoundly uncomfortable with the status quo. But they can't, for reasons of ideological consistency, support real government funded universal health care. So they argue against the 47 million figure (because, you know, if it was 25 million, it wouldn't be a problem). Then they argue that it's inefficient for government to provide health care. Then they argue that it's unfair to those with coverage currently.

Those arguments have varying degrees of salience. But even the effective ones are essentially dodges: saying that universal health care has negative consequences doesn't answer the question of what we should do with so many people with no health care. Very often, those opposed to governmental programs for universal health care mention the problems, and then drop it. I'm asking them to not drop it. If the answer is simply to say "we're going to have people with no health care," that is a defensible position, but articulate it-- don't leave us hanging.


Anonymous said...

I don't think it's dishonesty. One of the reactions I vividly remember from Katrina, was people of varying governing philosophies, genuinely (imo) stating their shock that "that kind of poverty" existed in the U.S.

This isn't really a point, just a side note, but I think a similar amount of people would be surprised at the great wealth many members of our society enjoy if they got an up close glimpse of it. Again, I'm not trying to say anything there one way or the other, I just think it's an interesting thought.

Matoko said...

It isn't's just that that the big chunk in the middle of the bellcurve honestly believe that absolutely anyone can bootstrap themselves up with good ol' judeoxian morality and the puritan work ethic. The lower tail of the bellcurve recognizes they need help, the upper tail realizes the lower tail needs help too. That is why the upper tail and the lower tail tend to vote democratic, because they both recognize, in different ways, the deep neccessity of charity and aid. Think of a bellcurve distribution of say....20/50/30 mapping to liberals/conservatives/liberals, with the big chunk in the middle consisting of Dr. Pournelle's 40percenters, Jefferson's yeoman farmers, and Ross and Reihan's Sam's Clubbers.
This is headachingly obvious to me.....but I do realize that not everyone shares my unique and uncomfortable skull-furniture, which largly seems to be chairs made of antlers upholstered with broken glass.

Matoko said...

The bellcurve of IQ I mean.

Max said...

first a couple of asides: you should look into changing the layout of this blog. posts this long are disorienting when they're only one column wide.

dovetailing: you could have made this argument in a couple of paragraphs and spared us most of the rhetorical flourish. it would make the argument stronger.

it seems to me that you have constructed a fantastical narrative in your mind akin to the one you attribute to conservatives: namely a belief that liberals are somehow more in tune with social suffering than conservatives, because liberals want to do more about it. you accuse conservatives of refusing to acknowledge the consequences of a minimized social safety net, and imply that this is one more symptom of an apparent widespread conservative misunderstanding of the nature of human suffering in america.

I won't try to argue that conservatives have an equal or better understanding of human suffering, because I have no idea. And my point would really be that, as far as I can tell, you have no idea either. I don't know what would give you the impression that, because liberal ideology advocates government intervention to cure societal ills, it is therefore somehow more knowledgeable about those ills -- except what appears to me, with respect, to be more of a resentful feeling than any kind of real analysis.

not that analysis should be expected, since I have no idea how a person would even begin to analyze such a phenomenon. But now we're back to the initial problem: you are deeply simplifying two not-simple political ideologies -- and truly not doing one of them justice. (There may be a rule somewhere that disqualifies any serious intellectual discussion of conservative thought as soon as the author links to Rush Limbaugh, I'm not sure.)

You want to say that conservatives do not truly understand or care about the real problems of the lower class in America. Your proof of this is 1. anecdotes about conservatives refusing to spell out for you in every detail the consequences of particular scenarios (a bizarre proof since, again, it's anecdotal; and also, in conor's case, seemingly unnecessary to state the obvious that not helping a homeless man means he remains homeless, and a bit nitpicky on your part, I think). 2. that conservative ideology opposes public safety nets.

2. is closer to a real argument, anyway, so that's something. but what you keep missing is that what conservatives are opposed to is a safety net built and maintained by the government. though it might be unbelievable to you this is not because conservatives hate poor people. it's because they believe that community safety nets -- family, friends, neighborhoods, schools, houses of worship, and so on -- are simply better at helping people than the government could ever be. is that so difficult to grok? it's pretty much one of the fundamental beliefs of the conservative movement, and yet you all but ignore it here.

perhaps I'm misunderstanding some of this argument but right now it seems to me like 10 pounds of indignation and 1 cup of thought.

Raghav said...

Really, I think Conor's point was the importance of thinking at the margin.

It's true that if conservative or libertarian principles were put into effect, many people would be hungry or starve. But in hac lachrymarum valle, people would go hungry and die even if we had good liberal governments. Those people might be foreigners or people not yet born, but discounting their preferences simply reflects nationalism or a high rate of time preference, not greater benevolence toward one's fellow human beings.