Posted by: Jeff | June 23, 2010

Even If We Were An Ant Colony, It Wouldn’t Be So Bad

J.M. Bernstein wrote a neat post at The New York Times the other day trying to dissect the causes of the Tea Parties’ anger. Being a philosopher he relies on other philosophers for a lot of his insights, Hegel in particular. It’s an extremely smart and perceptive piece, and I highly recommend reading it in full. Jason Steorts, over at The Corner, was not so impressed, however:

One of the more baleful consequences of the progressive’s Hegelian state, it seems to me, is the way it alienates us from one another: Services traditionally performed by one citizen for another with whom he or she has a relationship — e.g. adult children’s caring for their elderly parents — are outsourced to the “anonymous blob” of government, which can neither enter into relationships with individuals nor care about them as family and friends care about one another nor take account of their unique circumstances when helping them.  Even if we grant the efficacy of government programs (which a mountain of empirical evidence forbids us to do), the expansion of the state’s role brings our form of life marginally closer to that of an ant colony.

Okay, part of me wants to respond to this by doubling down on on Steorts’ rhetoric and saying, “Yeah, so? Ant colonies work.” And that really is an important point to make. Because I understand the emotional and intuitive pull that leads people to think things like charity, care and mutual aid should be distributed by people with actual human relationships to one another in actual communities — as opposed to being distributed by the anonymous government blob, which indeed cannot enter into relationships with the people who receive its aid. (That’s speaking from a view of 30,000 feet, mind you. I’m sure plenty of individual civil servants enjoy very meaningful relationships with the people they’ve aided.)

The thing is, the government blob has actually done a much better job of distributing that aid, and the proof of this is the fact that western governments are larger, more complex and distribute more wealth than they ever have before, and the impoverishment of the western world is as low as it’s ever been. (I have no idea what “mountains of empirical evidence” against the efficacy of government programs Steorts is referring to. I’d like to see it.) Yes, reliance on the blob has probably increased our alienation from one another, but in exchange for that alienation we have received a remarkable alleviation of human suffering.

If Steorts would like to see more honesty from Bernstein, I’d like to see more honesty from Steorts. He should acknowledge that his first concern is this hand-wavy, ideologically driven conflict between abstract notions called “family,” “civil society,” and “the state” — and his desire to see the latter kept squashed as far down as possible relative to the other two. Meanwhile, the real-world ability of particular flesh-and-blood human beings to get food, shelter, work, health care and education for themselves and their loved ones is apparently of secondary importance to him. I’d like him to be honest about that because, once that set of priorities is laid bear — and I think that set of priorities largely defines conservatism in general — the vast majority of Americans would most likely find it a thoroughly unappetizing worldview.

But you know what? I don’t think I need to go nearly so far. Speaking sensibly, I live in America, which has a damn big government and welfare state — I’ve been a resident of Texas, California, and now Washington, D.C. — and I’ve never felt as if I were part of an ant colony. In point of fact, I find my country remarkably vibrant and diverse. I’ve also been to several European countries, which have even bigger governments and welfare states, and they were pretty vibrant and diverse too. So, to whatever degree we’ve moved towards becoming ant colonies, the distance seems to have been minimal, while the benefits have been immense.

And that’s my real complaint: Steorts’ argument — and the equivalent argument of most conservatives — places such a purist emphasis on the ideological imperative of avoiding the “ant colony” that it ignores practical reality. Which, when you think about it, is really unconservative.

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