Posted by: Jeff | May 4, 2010

Conservatism Is a Temperament, Not an Ideology

The key thing about a temperament is that it has no policy prescriptions. It’s more of a way of thinking or being that can be layered on top of just about any political ideology you can name. (Within limits.) Temperament is sort of like gravity; it’s a universal force that pulls your aim and your activities in a certain direction, no matter what it is you’re doing. Sometimes its effect is great, sometimes not, and sometimes it can result in wildly different effects depending on what it is you’re doing.

And the theme of David Brooks’ latest op-ed – we should remember that the influence of policy on life outcomes and well-being for a given population can be swamped by that of culture, ethnicity, psychology, and so forth – is classic temperamental conservatism. Especially his final paragraph encouraging humility when it comes to policy-making. Unfortunately, he then goes and tries to extrapolate some policy prescriptions of his own from this starting point:

…the first rule of policy-making should be, don’t promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds. If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands and ship them to strange, arid lands, you’re going to produce bad outcomes for generations. Second, try to establish basic security. If the government can establish a basic level of economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement — if you’re lucky. Third, try to use policy to strengthen relationships. The best policies, like good preschool and military service, fortify emotional bonds.

Ezra Klein zeroes in on the weakness here:

What is “basic security?” Does it include health care? Nutritious food? How do you strengthen relationships? Brooks recommends military service, but doesn’t that take people from their homes and ship them off to strange, arid lands? Or if he means to strengthen existing relationships, does that mean trying to set policy so that children don’t move away to college? Or so that people born in rural areas resist the lure of the city?

And what about when basic security and existing social bonds conflict? That brings up the military draft, again, and the question of whether we should have universal basic security through government programs or patchwork security through voluntary associations based around community ties. Indeed, I could use this paragraph to argue for busing on the grounds that it encourages relationships in much the way military service does and against busing in that it breaks up tribes of people and forces them to interact.

This gets at one of my basic problems with conservatism the political movement. An intellectually rigorous attempt to divine policy objectives from the conservative temperament (and I do think that’s what Brooks is attempting here) inevitably ends in this kind of hand-wavy, neither-this-nor-that business. So what happens is that most conservatives don’t bother making intellectually rigorous attempts to divine policy. And since conservatism is largely about conserving things – existing institutions, norms, communities, structures, and such precisely because of that humility Brooks’ rightly encourages – the attempt to move from temperament to politics tends to degrade very rapidly into raw power dealing; preserving the status quo, and preserving the comforts and authority of whoever happens to be among the privileged and the powerful of that status quo.

To avoid that, you need to clearly define what role philosophy/temperament should and should not play. Establishing goals and indicating cautions, yes. Providing actual policy descriptions, not so much. To quote Klein again: “The complexity of these outcomes should inspire modesty about the relevance of broad philosophical insights rather than well-designed tests of specific interventions. Brooks’s column doesn’t favor the conservative’s principled belief in less government so much as the technocrat’s commitment to voluminous evidence and careful studies.”

Certainly, this isn’t a danger for conservatism only. The liberal technocrat can become so enamored of his or her powers that they become convinced there’s no problem they can’t solve. Worse, the reliance on technocratic approaches can infect and degrade the moral premises one uses to decide what the goals of technocracy should be to begin with, at which point we’ve entered Brave New World territory. But I do think there’s something to Jonathan Chait’s old saw (the article seems to have gone down the internet memory hole) that political liberalism is outcome-oriented in a way political conservatism is not, and that this is largely a result of conservatism’s attempt to transform a temperament into an agenda.

Liberalism, I don’t think, has really ever attempted something equivalent to that. And the irony is this has actually made liberalism more flexible and humane than its supposedly humble and skeptical counterpart. Which is why the story of the left over the 20th century is largely about abandoning communism and socialism in favor of capitalism-based social democracy. It doesn’t seem to me that conservatism has gone through any comparable transformation.

And yeah, I think Matthew Yglesias is right, too.

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