Notes From Babel

Ends and Means

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It looks like the League is experiencing some technical troubles, as some of their recent posts have gone missing.  I caught this one on my Google Reader, and had to comment:

Following up a bit on my “General America” piece, I wanted to add that I find the “all markets all the time” position within conservatism to be somewhat unfulfilling as well.  Market solutions are only solutions insofar as they do not necessarily perpetuate problems quite so badly as government solutions.  Choice and economic liberty are only useful instruments within society because they avoid many of the traps that come along with big government picking winners, rewarding rent seekers, and so forth. To base an entire philosophy of governance along these lines is somewhat short-sighted, I would argue.

Perhaps this comes down, paradoxically, to the philosophy of choice –that very thing which rests at the heart of both liberalism and capitalism and, for that matter, contemporary conservatism.  There is something fundamentally antithetical to conservatism – or to the way conservatism has been classically understood – about the notion that choice should rest at the epicenter of society, should so inform all public debate and should so define who we as a people.  With choice you must also parcel competition, liberty, and a host of other ideas which conservatives and libertarians especially hold dear.  That these things are the best vehicles for our economy is hard to debate, but that a world of limitless choice, fierce competition, and little if any public sector (or ‘commons’ for that matter) is best for society in the long run is a more difficult claim to make.

This is not to say that we should scrap free trade or limited government or any of these things – only that as a philosophy, man cannot live on free trade alone.  A conservatism not rooted in tradition is not really conservatism at all. A conservatism focused too entirely on market solutions inevitably ends up falling short, and may as well be libertarianism with a dash of culture war populism sprinkled on for flavor.

Similarly, a conservatism which takes its first philosophical baby-steps only as far back as the American revolution is doomed to perpetual immaturity.

This is a perpetual debate, of course—this question of what are the true “ends” of political society.  But saying things like “choice and economic liberty are only useful instruments within society” raises the inevitable question: instruments for what? It’s no good to set up a system to ensure things like liberty, unless and until those things get in the way of achieving [name your favorite cause].

Simply put, the notion that liberty is only a means to achieve some higher good is an evil bit of nonsense that assumes that liberty itself is not as high a good as some pet cause.

There was something Schwarzenegger said a while back along these lines:

The horrible thing about politics is that, the more they attack each other, the more that they try to derail each other, the worse it is for the people. That’s why … you know, you’ve got to go beyond just the principles. You’ve got to go and say, “What is right for the country right now?”

When we abandon ideals in order to get cool stuff through government intervention, we do so by forfeiting the only kind of justice that humans are capable of.  Abiding by first principles is rigorous and often keeps us from enacting neat bits of legislation that sure seem like swell ideas.  But it is this focus on process-oriented justice that keeps us from devolving into the tyranny of ends-oriented justice.

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Written by Tim Kowal

March 3, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Political Theory

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