Notes From Babel

Why Isn’t Everyone a Progressive?

with 14 comments

E.D. Kain explains why he no longer considers himself a conservative.  He gives a lot of reasons, some prompting one to ask why he ever considered himself a conservative.  But testimonials of anyone publicly “switching sides” always interest me, and prompt me to re-examine just why it is I find the left such a non-option.  And I think I can plow through all the unimportant things down to a couple of the core psychological-emotional motivating factors that defines whether any given person will identify himself as “conservative” or “liberal.”

One of those things is whether you truly believe a “conservative” or a “liberal” political worldview is sustainable.  I admit I am intrigued by the notion of having every necessity of life guaranteed by the state, particularly when “necessities of life” include things like high-speed internet access and hip organic cuisine—one just cannot survive with the stigma of being unstylish or out of touch with leftist fads.  And I am aware that Europe’s experimentation with this sort of indulgent welfare state is, by certain accounts, going quite well.  But forgive me if I just don’t believe it.  While I’m sometimes tempted by the idea of packing up and heading to a generous European welfare state and living it up while the ship goes down, my gut reaction is that the ship is in fact going down.  I don’t think one can ever not be a fiscal conservative unless one is convinced that the new-math of welfare-state economics can actually work beyond a few generations.  And I’m not [convinced].

Another deep-seated psychological reason I cannot throw my lot in with liberals is that I don’t have compassion for the most of the would-be beneficiaries of their social safety nets.  Some, sure.  But I’ve come to the realization that what I might consider terribly unpleasant, others consider perfectly tolerable.  Take one example:  My wife, though conservative, is a filmmaker and photographer, and thus has a long list of Facebook friends on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum.  When a video went around the internet a while back profiling an Orange County, California family living in a motel room, the liberal bloc of my wife’s Friends noted the travesty of conservative OC governance that would let something like that happen in such a relatively wealthy area.  But this family was paying approximately $800 a month to live in a motel room.  While Orange County is still an expensive place to live, it’s not so expensive that apartments can’t be found for that amount.  Moreover, when the interviewer asked the family why they don’t move somewhere, perhaps out of state, where the cost of living is much more affordable.  The family responded they had no interest in moving out of temperate and beatific Orange County.

This epitomizes the majority of accounts of the impoverished that I’ve been exposed to in my lifetime.  Discomfort, yes.  Dire straits, hardly.

Anyone who harbors an over-abundance of concern to provide the kind of comfort they can’t imagine living without to those who, given the choice, might take it or leave it, is going to gravitate toward progressivism and its generous safety nets.  The rest of us who are concerned with true “sustainability”—not just the vogue environmentalist kind, but true long-term political survival—will tend toward conservatism.


Written by Tim Kowal

August 31, 2010 at 8:09 am

14 Responses

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  1. Dear Tim,

    Though applied to your argument the response is a vast oversimplification, I admit, my earnest reaction is to regard “long-term” anything as unearthly and unnatural. I don’t believe it really exists. Were it to exist in government, of all things… Nevermind. Here, have some Shelley.

    “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” -Crumbling plaque in desert sand.

    Cheers, Sir.



    August 31, 2010 at 8:51 am

    • I certainly take your point. But a due respect for impermanency need not lead to such a crushing defeatism. Besides, if “long term” anything is “unearthly” and “unnatural”–which I do not immediately dispute–then humanity itself is unearthly and unnatural, for our deepest desires revolve around the sense of the permanent, the eternal, the sacred. We must keep the well-documented limits in mind as we plod ahead toward these ends. But plod ahead we must, as we always have.

      Tim Kowal

      August 31, 2010 at 9:24 am

      • Ha, ha! Oh, that’s made me laugh well and with an amount of inner healing. I love the idea of humanity being unnatural.

        Hell, we invented the effing term, did we not?

        Fantastic. Nicely done.

        So, then, I expect we can happily build an unnatural empire to govern our unearthly business. Wow — I know a few green-party arguments in which this could really do some damage. Next time I feel like losing friends, I’m gonna pull this one out like a gunslinger’s pistol and go whangity-wang-wang with it.

        Too awesome.


        August 31, 2010 at 9:44 am

        • The endeavor of statecraft draws necessarily on transcendental assumptions, and thus cannot be purely naturalistic in the empirical sense. Indeed, the state’s natural enemy is the “state of nature,” which is marked by unpredictability and the rule of purely natural, physical forces. It is the imputation of objectivity onto the ephemeral, the transcendental–morals, ideals, laws, customs, etc.–that makes possible the state, which in turns makes possible that which otherwise cannot exist in a state of nature: predictability and enforceability in human relations.

          Tim Kowal

          August 31, 2010 at 10:10 am

        • Rock-solid. I can’t imagine a statesman saying frankly so, but it’s too bad; much unnecessary philosophical hedging can be truncated by calling the spade a spade.

          Media: “These sanctions are shocking!”

          Statesman: “We’re governing you, not softening your pillows. Be reasonable.”


          August 31, 2010 at 10:27 am

        • I’m quite certain that even if I knew what you were getting at to craft a rejoinder, I could not improve upon that allegorical exchange.

          Tim Kowal

          August 31, 2010 at 11:12 am

  2. Oh, I just meant that I can’t imagine any leader in government frankly admitting that a clear enemy of government is the “state of nature.”

    That’s all.


    August 31, 2010 at 11:17 am

  3. ‘The rest of us who are concerned with true “sustainability”—not just the vogue environmentalist kind, but true long-term political survival—will tend toward conservatism.’

    In principle, this is great. However, to find out what happens in practice, let’s consider the most recent period in which conservatives controlled almost all the levers of the government, 2000-2006.

    * In 2001 and 2003, temporary (by nature not sustainable) decreases in tax rates that, after a recession, sent the government from running surpluses to deficits.

    * A new entitlement/spending program for the elderly to pay for subscription drugs that was completely unfunded (Medicare part D)

    * Two new wars (spending!)

    * A vast expansion of the security state (more spending!)

    And so on. So in practice, Republican fiscal conservativism means less taxes and more spending? Forgive me if I can’t see how the arithmetic works out.

    So great, in principle conservatives are concerned with a stable, sustainable society and government. But recent experience suggests that they have largely abandoned these principles. While one would think some time out of power would cause conservatives to perhaps evaluate what, exactly, went wrong in 2000-2006, it seems not actually having to govern has made irresponsibility even more attractive. In this light, much like Erik, I fear the result if a Republican party who seems not to have learned any lessons at all from the past decade would to come to power again.

    Aaron W

    August 31, 2010 at 11:52 am

    • It is certainly too much to hope that the Republican un-conservatism of 2000-06 might be forgotten. But this becomes a subject of politics rather than political theory. If you’re objecting to Republicans’ strewing of ducats in those years, then you are advocating more fiscal conservatism, yes?

      As for politics, my view is the best one can hope for is inaction in Washington, which is perhaps best reached by a split of control of the House and Senate. That may well be where we’re headed in November.

      I certainly do not take the view that governmental inaction somehow equates to irresponsibility. At some point, perhaps. And the Wall Street issue is too big to tackle in a comment, but suffice to say the government was complicit in that mess through it’s lending and housing policies—a different problem from inaction, to be sure.

      But I do share some fear that Republicans haven’t learned well enough from their recent mistakes.

      Tim Kowal

      August 31, 2010 at 12:12 pm

      • Yes, I am advocating for more fiscal conservatism. Say what you will about the healthcare reform bill, but at least the Democrats attempted to have it all paid for. (Let’s leave the stimulus for now, though) Whether some of the spending cuts and taxes will actually take effect is obviously up in the air, (see AMT patch and doc fix) but it seems that if you actually want them to stick, you don’t vote for the party that runs on repeal. I’m not too fond of the Democratic party in many respects, but it seems they’re at least a little more tethered to reality at the moment.

        My hope is that much of the rhetoric from the Republicans right now is all for show. Perhaps Republican control of the House will lead to a 1986-esque compromise on some desperately needed tax reform (that may remove some of the lending and housing distortions you mentioned) However, if a strategy of obstruction leads to electoral success, all that will result is more obstruction. I would hope that gridlock would result in compromise on some important issues in need of reform (taxes and immigration spring to mind). Gridlock just for the sake of gridlock isn’t necessarily a good thing when our country is struggling with many unattended structural problems impeding long-term stability.

        Aaron W

        August 31, 2010 at 12:51 pm

        • I’m not sure the Democrats “attempted to have it all paid for” when they passed the PPACA. Surely there is a lot to suggest they were using tricks to make it appear to be paid for. And there was apparent admission that no one had read the thing. Policy aside, the constitutionalty of the thing is a monstrous problem, a new Wickard v. Filburn in the making, that Dems laughed off. This I found perhaps more irksome than any other aspect of the bill. I favor repeal of the individial mandate if only on constitutional grounds.

          I agree with much of the rest of your comment. I may favor some level of “gridlock” at the federal level in the abstract, but not now that so many of the leviathan programs they’ve created are dragging us to the edge of the cliff.

          Tim Kowal

          August 31, 2010 at 1:27 pm

  4. My most-conservative pal often says that a stable government is government’s aim. He loves governmental inaction, therefore. He loves executive vetoes and personally votes ‘no’ on every civic initiative.

    It’s a viable philosophy, I think. Not mine, but defensible.


    August 31, 2010 at 12:29 pm

  5. […] have been a number of reactions lately to my decision to no longer consider myself a ‘conservative’. Few have been exactly […]

  6. […] a comment » As I mentioned here, blogger E.D. Kain recently disavowed conservatism.  I mentioned this sort of thing intrigued me, […]

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