Monday, November 3, 2008

voting and state-consciousness

Peter Suderman reacts to my thoughts on not voting. As is typical of me, I was lazy and used Peter's piece as a surrogate for arguments against voting. Like I said in that post, there are worse things than not voting. I just find that many people who don't vote out of apathy or laziness use the existence of arguments from principle against voting as cover for why they don't vote.

Peter also says "It’s not that voting is of no consequence, but it’s easy — and dangerous — to give politics in general and the office of the presidency more importance than either deserve." I think this is a profoundly conservative notion, in the old sense. Peter doesn't want state-consciousness to grow beyond where it already has. To me, the foundation of real conservatism isn't merely the rejection of state-expanding policy proposals but the rejection of the notion that society should be driven in large measure by policies of state at all. So Peter wants to normalize (re-normalize, or keep normalized) not voting, because the notion that everyone has a compelling duty to vote expands the degree to which people are required to participate in the state enterprise. That's why I want to encourage voting, but never coerce people into voting.

I can dig advocating the morality of not voting in this sense of conservative anti-statism, with the appropriate caveat that I reject that anti-statism. Anti-statist conservatism, I think, has one of the prouder histories in the conservative line, as much as I disagree with it. The anti-statist sees the average person as being only marginally an actor within the governmental enterprise. (In this sense, I think a true conservative will always prefer "the American person" over "the American citizen," "the American voter," or-- shudder!-- "the American taxpayer".) I'm broadly sympathetic to this kind of thinking, actually, although that support is far more philosophical than pragmatic. I too am concerned with limiting the degree to which democratic citizens have any particular positive responsibilities at all. This is one of many reasons why I oppose national ID. (Do we really want to be the kind of society where anyone with a badge is entitled to stop citizens without cause and ask to see their papers? A national ID policy without any legal duty to possess said ID is meaningless. A national ID with such a duty empowers the police and the state to harass and intimidate citizens at any moment without any justifiable cause.)

But this resistance to state-think has consequences. I told Eve Tushnet once that I don't believe in an actually conservative will to political power. You might say "How convenient for a liberal!" It's not that I don't think that people should or can try to politically achieve conservative policy. It's that I don't see how a principled anti-statist can take control of the state. Taking power within the state apparatus inherently legitimizes that apparatus. And, I suspect, once in power, principled anti-statist will suddenly be confronted with responsibilities that make shrinking the state far less easy and attractive than they thought before they took power. People often talk about George W. Bush betraying conservatism. I don't think that's quite right. I don't think Bush took power and decided "I'm going to abandon my belief in small government." I suspect that, like many conservatives, Bush took power and slowly realized that his ideology was incompatible with the office. Day after day, he was confronted with duties, and these duties were inevitably state duties, and he inevitably was forced to expand the state. So conservative power, I imagine, becomes self-defeating. Which is another reason why conservatism is far more comfortable as an insurgency.

Some conservative policy preferences are just self-evidently non-conservative, to me. Abstinence-only education, for example, could hardly be more pro-statist: it seeks to replace the family and the community with the (public) school system as the educator of sexual morals. (The moment where the social conservative complains that in the face of contemporary times, the family and the community are unequal to the task of imprinting sexual morality, well... that's the moment of liberal realization, in my view. Conservatives can develop sympathy for liberalism when they realize the inadequacy of any structure but the state to achieving the social change they desire, even if they believe the state to be the engine of last resort.) There are other policy preferences which are less pro-statist at heart, of course, while still requiring the use of the state to enact them. So someone who runs for and gains office under the desire to limit eminent domain finds himself empowering the same system that seeks to take private property in the first place.

I think in light of all this that "real" conservatives will always be disadvantaged when it comes to limiting the state from within. A conservative has to vote for a politician understanding that he will in some sense be an enemy for the duration that he holds office. Which is fine, of course. But it should give conservatives pause when they consider the degree to which taking political power is really going to lead to the change they want to see in their society.

Hidden within this discussion, by the way, I think lies the debate about gay marriage, and I think James's apparent continuing unease at the subject. The urge to ban the legal contract of marriage between two consenting adults does not in any way seem congruent with the notion of a limited state, because it inherently makes a judgment about the quality of that union. I have been saying that I think you can be morally opposed to homosexuality and still think that the state has no business regulating which two adults can marry. Many proponents of prop 8, meanwhile, are trying to insist that you can have no animus against gay couples and still oppose gay marriage. I'm skeptical of this claim, but I can imagine a situation where it is true. What is a bridge too far, it seems to me, is this desperate spin that claims that it is, in fact, the opponents of gay marriage who are working against discrimination. That's just bogus. And I suspect James knows it is bogus. Look: opponents of Prop 8 want to preserve the right of gay people in California to marry. Supporters of Prop 8 want to deny that right. There are arguments for either side, but I'm convinced that there is no coherent argument that it is the proponents of Prop 8 who risk having their rights denied. The only possible right they could have in mind is the right not to be offended-- which is a right that we don't have, and in fact is utterly at odds with the notion of a free and self-determining democratic citzenry.

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