Thursday, March 06, 2008

Conservative Contradictions

A friend of mine sometimes infuriates me by espousing both Libertarianism and totalitarian authoritarianism--often in the same breath. Yes, big L libertarianism, sometimes to the extreme of Ayn Rand, and advocating amongst other things martial law and putting liberals up against the wall. I have my problems with both, more with authoritarianism and totalitarianism--I tend to agree with small L libertarianism, with full recognition of the proviso that capitalism is a joint venture between private industry and government, and cannot exist without the services and protection government provides. Libertarianism is also based upon the fantastical creature Homo Economicus--the rationally self-optimizing individual who exists only in economics textbooks, as studies too numerous to name have proven. But libertarianism is based upon the core belief that people know what's best for themselves, while authoritarianism is constructed on the principle that the people cannot be trusted and must be told what to do. They are, at root, fundamentally incompatible. His head is like a bag lady's cart, loaded with random baggage which does not go together.

And yet, in reading tributes to William F. Buckley this week, I see that he shared the same incoherent split: libertarian and authoritarian. He was amongst the first to advocate decriminalization of soft drugs, and yet he also harbored a desire for the legislation of morality. I had a great admiration for Buckley, but where does this come from?

It comes, I think, from a reactionary response to Communism. Communism was economically totalitarian, socially libertarian, and atheistic. Buckley was a Catholic, and Fascism was the Catholic political response to Communism. Communism split Christianity in two; it espoused (but never practiced) the ethic of charity, and inflicted an iron grip upon economic activity. The opposite is Buckley's conservativism, which abandoned charity but clung to the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church. The result is a hodge podge of Libertarianism, by which you are no longer your brother's keeper, and moral despotism, by which you become your brother's keeper, and indeed, your brother's master. Reactionaries to Communism called anything that contradicted their views Communist, and so forgot what they were fighting against. They fired at everything, and lost sight of the goal.

These paired opposites are contradictory. Consistancy is the goblin of small minds only when it is a consistancy over time; the stubborn pig-headedness which insists that it was always right. Inconsistancy between views held all at once is dogmatism--equally small minded, and founded upon a lack of self-awareness. The dogmatism at work here is anti-communism. More recently, it has been replaced with anti-liberalism--even though libertarianism is a liberal doctrine. And so we now have secular conservatives who are comically attached to authoritarianism but who are no longer attached to religiosity, not realizing the roots of these opinions. They ape their masters without understanding them. Oddly enough, the Communists themselves railed endlessly against decadence; a position of moral authoritarianism remarkably similar to that of conservatives.

To be a consistant Christian, you may be morally authoritarian (but not necessarily), but you must be egalitarian and charitable. This is the main and repeated message of the gospels. You can, of course, abandon Christian ethics and go entirely secular, and if you are conservative be libertarian across the board. Or you can be entirely Christian and push for charity and moralistic laws. But you cannot do both in a consistent manner.

The split goes still further. Conservatives are obsessed with freeloaders, people who take but do not pay into the system. This would, of course, include those who refuse to pay their taxes, a common pose amongst conservatives. An obvious contradiction, but not the one I'm going for. In order to catch freeloaders, an elaborate system of checks must be established--and a large bureaucracy to oversee the dispensation of money. Each critic of the system, who finds a single notorious case of exploitation, necessitates an extra layer of bureaucracy to double check the work of the existing bureaucracy. The opposition and the press all play into this game, leading to the zero-error ethic. And the best way to make no mistakes is to do nothing; a bloated bureaucracy that does nothing and provides no significant services--the nightmare of small government conservatives, created in large part by... small government conservatives.

There is a cutoff point where it is cheaper to let some people defraud the system than to expend the energy to catch them all. But in the media and in political sound bytes, one case of fraud is enough to embarrass the government. And so we endlessly pursue ghosts, and the cost forever escalates, and services decline. A friend of mine who works in the Canadian government says that each document she produces must go through fifteen layers of approval to make it to the cabinet. All fifteen layers have been instituted recently, to protect the government from embarrasment--by a conservative government, who made its mandate by pointing out cases of fraud.

In government, there is no cutoff point at which it costs more to the incumbent party to protect itself from embarrassment than it does to allow a few mistakes to get by to provide baseline services--unless the government takes responsibility and explains costs and benefits, and since conservatives don't believe in government, the benefits are never considered worth the cost. Eventually, all revenue will be consumed by the bureaucracy. Let's take another bete noir of conservatives: health care. Private medical insurance profits by denying health care and keeping the premiums. As long as they can get away with doing this, it makes sense to keep denying health care until the bureaucracy of denial equals the cost of providing the health care. In other words, private health care will reach an equilibrium where at least half of the money spent on health care goes to administration rather than actual medical services (and probably more than half, since even providing the service requires administrative costs.) Public health care, where denial is not an issue, is not subject to the same dynamic. America spends 15% of its GDP (the highest in the world) on health care, and yet 25% of its people are entirely excluded, while a great many more are left stranded when they need it most, even though they are insured. The Europeans spend about 12% on lavish systems that provide everything to everyone. Canada spends 8 to 9%--we are starving the system, probably quite deliberately, as American HMO's are clawing at the door and lobbying intensively. The 50% ratio for expense to service appears to be borne out by a comparison of the American vs. Canadian health care systems, if you compare efficiency, coverage, and price.

The moralistic, authoritarian streak leads to big government. Liberalism leads to big government, but only within fiscal limits--big government financed by deficits results in a delayed tax burden on the poor and middle class, which liberals despise because it compromises their ability to govern. Big money is a flight risk, so they cannot be counted on to foot the bill--another contradiction to the freeloader argument, since the rich gain a disproportionately larger benefit from infrastructure. Conservatives, however, consider government a lost cause, and debt an inevitable result. And since they are so accustomed to flinging accusations of mismanagement, when their turn comes around, all resources go to defending against such charges, actual or possible. And yet no one has higher levels of pork barrel spending, precisely because corporate interests are much slicker in concealing their attempts to defraud the system. There has not been a fiscally responsible conservative government since Margaret Thatcher, and the pattern is so entrenched that it is not likely to end short of a massive overhaul of conservativism.

During the cold war and the culture wars, the left lost their minds, but the right lost their souls. I've gone on at great length in other posts about the failures of the left--political correctness, post-modernism, multiculturalism, anti-rationalism, etc. But the right is no better, no less partisan, and no less irrational. On the left there has been a great foment, and old prejudices and foolish alliances have been shed, though not by its less illustrious members. But the right clings to the consistency of small minds, while dispensing with the consistency of sound minds. With the death of Buckley, and the continued efforts of the likes of Tim O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, what is the likelihood that the right will reform its ways?