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I've said before, back in April and in August, that one of the things that makes political arguments so villainous is that the two sides think that any reasonable person who looked at the facts would come to the same conclusion that they have. Therefore the other side can't possibly mean what they say, there must be some evil motive behind their opposition. So to address this, as an ex-conservative who's now a liberal, I wrote the following two essays, and promised one more:
The promised 3rd one was going to be about the first principle of lifestyle liberalism, which follows. I had to break this into two pieces because honestly, there isn't a single principle that binds together economic or classical liberals with the lifestyle or counterculture liberals. They're bound together by a handful of charismatic writers and leaders, and by a mutual loathing of conservatives ... which is why, in times when the conservatives don't have a charismatic or powerful leader for both kinds of liberals to hate, the liberal coalition has a hard time agreeing on what to do. But I digress.

To oversimplify what I've already written before, the first principle of conservativism is that there is one obviously best way to live, one prescribed by social and religious pressure, and that when you deviate from that path in any way you're (at the very least) less productive than you otherwise might be, and so you're hurting yourself, letting down those who are depending on you, setting a bad example for others, and by inspiring charity being an economic drain on your loved ones and your whole country. Therefore it is appropriate to stop you.

In a rare moment of candor, in an essay I wish I could forward you a copy of entitled "In Defense of Hypocrisy," conservative morality czar (and problem gambler) William Bennett made the following case, and I am indebted to him for clarifying my thinking on this. The following wording is my own, though, because I'm going to be even blunter than he was. What he and I agree on, more or less, is that for the purposes of this discussion, there are three kinds of people:
  1. There are a lot of people for whom the straight and narrow is comfortable and comforting. It is no trouble for them to stay on the straight and narrow. At the end of their life, they may express some wistful feeling that they wish they'd taken more risks and broken more social rules, but they really know better, because they enjoy the rewards that staying on the straight and narrow gave them and left for their children. For now, let's call them the "naturally compliant," if only because it's more polite than what I usually call them ("mundanes").

  2. There are a few people who simply can not live on the straight and narrow, either because they are badly broken, or because they are biologically wired for urges that are outside the straight and narrow, or because they are a member of some minority group that the other people on the straight and narrow won't accept in their midst. For now, let's call them "deviants," not specifically for the pejorative sense of the word but because their unpopularity comes from the fact that they deviate from a popular and successful way of life.

  3. There quite a few people who can live on the straight and narrow, but who find it uncomfortable and depressing. Given a choice, they'd leave the straight and narrow, and live some alternative path. For now, let's call them "potential deviants."
In "In Defense of Hypocrisy," William Bennett laid out the argument that it is for the protection of the potential deviants that we must suppress all deviation from the straight and narrow. If the people in group 3 (the potential deviants) are allowed to see the people in group 2 (the deviants) surviving and thriving, then they too will deviate, and thereby impoverish themselves, impoverish their loved ones, and impoverish the nation.

Ah, but suppress them how? Even Bennett admits that it is impossible for even the most draconian police state to prevent, in his example, all homosexual conduct. And decades of "war on drugs" haven't put a dent in the $6,000,000,000.00 a year cocaine trade, let alone any other drugs. Back in the 14th century, the Pope declared a literal war on the nation of Languedoc over their informal policy of tolerating protestant heretics and Jews, raised an army that murdered whole cities and annexed the territory to the supposedly more pious nation of France. The result was not the prevention of protestantism or heresy, but a steady rise from there on of anti-clericalism in France, the victor. There is no way to suppress all of group 2, and even Bennett admits this. So what does he advocate?

What conservatives advocate to keep as many people as possible on the straight and narrow is that from time to time, members of group 2 be singled out for public draconian humiliation at the very least, lengthy and mind-breaking jail sentences at best, and if such campaigns mean that from time to time that the police must look the other way while an angry mob attacks or even kills a deviant or two, that's an acceptable price to pay.

A lifestyle liberal, then, is simply someone who disagrees, on one or more of the following grounds:
  • It's unfair. Anti-deviance campaigns can't possibly affect all deviants in the same way, so they ensconce in law and public policy a kind of "scapegoat principle" where an unfortunate few must be murdered or otherwise destroyed for the benefit of the greater number. That's human sacrifice.

  • It's unnecessary. Even if it was once true that the only best way to make an economic contribution to society was to work hard all the time and spend no money or time on pleasure, that may not be true in a world that needs more creative workers and not so many grunt workers. And even if it is still true, there is more than one kind of contribution that individuals can make to society. The great artists and musicians and inventors of history haven't always been economic producers, but their creations once harnessed by the naturally compliant have unmistakably improved quality of life for all of us.

  • It's corrosive. Anti-deviance campaigns sanction selective prosecution, create situations where the wealthy are most tempted to use their wealth to bribe or otherwise suborn the law, put public officials into the position of being vulnerable to blackmail by criminals over their own deviant conduct, and encourage mob violence. All of these things, when tolerated in the long run, are corrosive to civil society and the rule of law. When civil society and the rule of law collapse into either anarchy or machine politics or totalitarianism, then even the naturally compliant aren't very productive any more.
So to a lifestyle liberal, it seems obvious that a social conservative is someone who advocates human sacrifice, waste of creative human potential, and descent into anarchy by way of mafia rule or totalitarianism.


Sep. 10th, 2004 01:01 pm (UTC)
Re: oops I'm a No. 2
Actually the point of these three essays wasn't to even begin talking about the solutions or the problems. The point of this thread of discussion was to point out that conservatives versus liberals is not a battle of good versus evil. We should ever be so lucky. Battles between good and evil tend to wrap up on the side of good in a single generation or less. No, the worst and longest lasting wars and struggles are between good and contradictory good.

Will we all starve if the majority of the human population were to leave the straight and narrow to suck down tons of drugs, screw each other in heaps, and write crappy poetry or paint crappy paintings while living in comfort funded by the handful of remaining saps who insist on working at real jobs? Absolutely.

Will we pay a harsh price as a society if we prevent this outcome by making social pariahs and jailed criminals out of everybody who can't live on the straight and narrow? Absolutely. Will we gain as a society if, from among those supported in minimal comfort, some of the people who have the leisure to create and care for the unfunded parts of our society do a really good job of creating things for the people on the straight and narrow to exploit? Absolutely.

Two conflicting goods. Two conflicting evils, where we can choose to prevent one but only at the expense of the other. We can't even talk about solving this equation, we can't even begin to strike a balance, until there's a broad agreement that both wrongs must be prevented, both goods must be served somehow.

Interestingly enough, we may be going there by way of the very avenue you suggested to me a while back: Social Security Disability Insurance as applied to mental illness. We've pretty much dismantled AFDC, because it created a powerful incentive to irresponsible behavior. But now the people who would have been single parents on AFDC don't have to have kids to get paid, they just have to be sufficiently crazy as to be unemployable. I already know people who are being paid not to work, collecting SSDI for their mental illness. Some of them are perfectly reasonable functioning members of society, making contributions to the world around them. Some are learning to be artists, or entering the clergy, or working in volunteer organizations. They can be perfectly productive ... as long as we keep them out of the workplace. Inside a modern productive workplace, trust me, you don't want to be there with them. Even if they don't snap (again) in a way that gets people hurt, they scare the other people enough to drag down everybody around them's productivity.

How many people can we as a society carry on SSDI? Well, a lot more of them if wages went up enough that the taxes on those wages were enough to keep the SSA solvent. And a lot more of them if we take every immigrant who wants a job and put them to work here instead of back in their home country, here where the companies don't benefit from being out from under US law and scrutiny. Frankly, we're going to need their wages to support the Boomers just in retirement, even without the creeping expansion of SSDI. (Ironically, this is one of the areas where Dubya and I come close to agreeing.)

Sep. 10th, 2004 01:19 pm (UTC)
Re: oops I'm a No. 2
"They can be perfectly productive ... as long as we keep them out of the workplace. Inside a modern productive workplace, trust me, you don't want to be there with them. Even if they don't snap (again) in a way that gets people hurt, they scare the other people enough to drag down everybody around them's productivity."

That's my story with little embelishment. SSDI and the VA pay me to stay out of the workforce.

Of course I'm old enough that I don't much care what may happen when the money runs out.... I'm just happy to stay out of jail or a mental hospital!