Thursday, 1 May 2014

Why I Am Not a Liberal - Or a Conservative

Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left.  (Proverbs 4:26-27, RSV)
     "You're a Party X supporter, Malcolm," a cousin said to me, "only you don't want to admit it."
     No, dear cousin, I am a policy supporter. If Party X supports more of my policies than Party Y, it will continue to get my (possibly grudging) vote, but I don't believe in party loyalties. In my opinion, once you identify with a particular political party, you come under internal psychological pressure to support its policies, rather than judge its policies by an objective standard. (I take the same attitude towards theological positions, which are worse, in that they are usually poorly defined.)
     It is a peculiar conceit of this world that there are only two political pigeon holes you must fit yourself into: liberal and conservative. At least it makes life simple. Instead of thinking for yourself, all you have to do is decide in which pigeon hole you want to build your nest, and the rest follows. The corollary, of course, is that those who manage to take control of the movement can lead all the rest of the flock to wherever they want to go.
     One can make a long list of topics on which there are official "liberal" and "conservative" positions: free markets, welfare, multiculturalism, abortion, women's liberation, the death penalty, homosexuality, religion, to name just a few. There are also regional variations. In Australia, liberals are supposed to support a republic, conservatives the monarchy. In the United States the divide falls between gun control and the right to bear arms.
     Let's look at just two of them: abortion and the death penalty. A crucial question in the debate over abortion is: does life begin at conception? For the death penalty, it is crucial to know whether it actually deters crimes. Since these two questions are quite independent, it is theoretically possible that you will decide in favour of the "liberal" position on one, and the "conservative" position on another. And even if you end up with both of them on the same side, how do either of these answers relate to financial issues, such as whether the certain decisions are best left to the free market? Keep going down the list and, unless you are a mindless sheep who refuses to think for itself, you will end up taking some position on the "wrong" side of the divide.
     What is the common denominator for each position? In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce provided the following definition:
Conservative: A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
     As a rule of thumb, this is pretty accurate. Liberals tend to support change for its own sake. The fact that some custom is old and venerable is good enough reason to attack it, while for conservatives it is good enough reason to retain it. Their motto is, if it's not broken, don't try to fix it. This rule of thumb will also explain regional differences. In Australia, the debate between republicans and monarchists is clearly mainly one of taste: little more than whether one respects or disrespects tradition. In the United States and the United Kingdom it is no longer an issue; it has been settled, but in different ways.
     No doubt  there are deep psychological reasons why people adopt these stances, but logic has little to do with it. Common sense should tell us that some things need to be changed and some need to be retained. Or, as one logician put it: the fact that something has been believed for ages is not sufficient reason to support it, and is an even worse reason for rejecting it.
      For another rule of thumb we may go the adage: a conservative is a liberal who has just been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who has just been arrested. It goes deeper than the truism that conservatives tend to lean towards law and order, and liberals to civil rights; it reflects different beliefs about the effectiveness of government. Liberals tend to have an optimistic view of the degree to which the law and government programs can reform society. They thus tend to see crime as a failure of government programs in such things as education or alleviating poverty, and the criminal therefore a victim of society. Conservatives, on the other hand, feel that such projects can have, at best, a more limited impact, and so they tend to focus on individual responsibility. John C. Wright wrote an amusing essay about this, entitled, "Conservatives are from Mars; leftists are from Venus", which is fairly accurate, provided you don't take it too far.
     At least it may be said that such world views have the beauty of consistency, and are a lot more logical than merely supporting or opposing novelty. Unfortunately, they still don't answer such questions as whether life begins at conception, or how much deterrence the death penalty might have.
     So, let me again state the principle: you may veer towards one world view rather than another, but unless you are prepared to let other people do your thinking for you, you shouldn't be concerned about what is the appropriate "liberal" or "conservative" position on an issue. (There is a good discussion of the overlap here.) At the very least, if you want to understand popular politics, you should accept that there are two separate axes: the economic axis and the social/moral one. This will explain the phenomenon of people who are economically conservative and socially liberal, or vice versa.
     Another dichotomy you will often hear is between "left" and "right". But what do these words mean - except, perhaps, as synonyms for "liberal" and "conservative" respectively? They tend to be relative, so that everyone can claim he is left or right of something else. Here in Australia, the Liberal Party is supposed to be the major party of the right, and the Labor Party the major representative of the left. But the latter consists of three factions, one of which calls itself the Right Wing. No formal factions exist in the Liberal Party, but there is an informal left wing, with many policies overlapping that of the Labor Party.
     Who among those of us who were adults at the time cannot remember the fall of the Soviet Union? In 1991, while it was lurching gradually towards democracy, suddenly the old guard Communists staged a coup d'état. At that point, to everyone's surprise, the people came out into the streets in force, and within two days the coup had collapsed. I remember it especially because of my own unusual circumstances. I was dining in a restaurant on what was supposed to be my last day in Madagascar, when one of my table mates casually mentioned that there had been of a Communist coup in Moscow. The next day was spent trying to get out of the country in the face of a local strike. When I finally arrived in Mauritius two days later, and was able to see a newspaper, it was all over but the shouting.
      The point was that, in the following months, the press would regularly refer to the "failed right wing coup". What a strange expression! I thought. This was the first time I had heard hardline Communists referred to as "right wing". No doubt it was a recognition that, in this case, the hardline Communists were the reactionary party, but it still sounded inappropriate. Also, I suspect some journalists were embarrassed to admit that democracy had been saved by the "right".
     Currently in Europe there are a number of political parties campaigning on reducing or eliminating immigration from the Third World in general and the Muslim world in particular, and they are normally described as "far right". Well, it is one thing to label such policies are "right wing", but quite another to assume that all the rest of the party's policies line up. Take Pim Fortuyn's List in the Netherlands, prior to his assassination in 2002. He was against Muslim immigration - but also in favour of the country's relaxed drug laws, euthanasia, and homosexuality. If he had been able to get his way, he would have dismayed both the "left" and the "right."
     The British National Party also calls for reduced coloured immigration, and has anti-Semitic features, as well as various other policies which might legitimately be classed as right wing. But it also indulges in anti-capitalism rhetoric, and is in favour of increasing pensions, more spending on the National Health Service, and nationalisation of various industries, all of which sound distinctly left wing. So, if you happen to google "BNP left wing" you will discover a thriving little argument in progress about whether the BNP fits into the "left" or "right" pigeon hole, both sides trying to attach to it the label of its opponents. It would be far more profitable to examine its policies on their own merits.
      I will go out on a limb here and state that the blame for this confusion lies squarely with the left. A lot of people call themselves conservative; far fewer self-identify as right wing. But a lot of people do self-identify as left wing, and they label anyone they disagree with as "right wing", without considering whether the people so labeled have much in common with one another or whether, in fact, their policies might overlap those of the "left".
     Where did these terms come from? There is no dispute here; they originated with the National Assembly during the French Revolution, when those who wanted radical changes sat on the left, and the supporters of moderation sat on the right. Please note that the right wasn't tremendously conservative; they still wanted changes, just not as far-reaching as those of the left. Also, the left was not socialistic. Indeed, the major economic achievement of their victory was the creation of a nouveau riche capitalist class who had gotten hold of confiscated royal and aristocratic property at knock-down prices.
     So, how does this play out in the modern world? We don't need to talk about authoritarianism, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment of opponents, and the like. Everyone knows that the extremists at both ends of the spectrum use the same set of illiberal methods. It is generally accepted that Communism is an extreme form of leftism. From the historical meaning of the terms, I can accept reactionary régimes such as Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, and the short-lived colonel's rule in Greece being labeled right wing. But where do Fascism and Nazism fit in? It must be emphasized that they were not reactionary. They didn't seek, for instance, to bring back the monarchy or aristocratic privilege. They were outright revolutionaries, appealing to the disaffected masses, and openly calling for the sweeping away of the effete bourgeois system, to be replaced by a bright new order designed to last a thousand years. The original Nazi Party platform demanded such things as land reform, an expansion of the age pension, profit sharing in heavy industry, the abolition of unearned income and the breaking of rent slavery.
     Sure, they fought with the Communists. They were competing for the same potential supporters. Conflicts aren't always between opposites; sometimes they are between rivals. The Chinese Communists broke with the Russian Communists, and the Vietnamese Communists broke with those of China, and later Cambodia. It wasn't because one group had suddenly started to fly on its right wing. Anyway, if the distinction were clear to the participants, the same was not necessarily so for the hangers-on. For instance, Argentina owed its railways, utilities, power - indeed, everything that dragged the country into the nineteenth century - to Great Britain, and this tended to be resented by certain nationalists, such as Juan Perón. So, during the war he initially supported the Axis powers. Afterwards, when he had become a populist dictator, he allowed Nazi war criminals to settle in the country, while at the same time cozening up the Soviet Union. Both actions were probably taken because they cheesed off the English speaking democracies.
     You should not assume I am arguing that the Nazis and Fascists were left wing - though the case has been made - but merely to point out that not every movement can be so easily pigeon-holed. Certainly, the dichotomy tends to dissipate once we move out of the Western milieu where the terms originated. The classic modern example is the Islamists: completely reactionary from the point of view of their own culture, totally radical from ours.
     The same goes for other terms. Many a woman has got her knickers in a knot trying to determine whether a particular position is the "feminist" one. Seldom is it recognized that feminism covers a wide range of positions, some mutually exclusive, and some of which are easier to justify than others. You don't need to accept or reject the whole package.
     Don't get me wrong. These terms are not worthless. I use them myself. Certain broad tendencies do exist, and at some point or other a label must be found for them. But once you adopt the view that only two worldviews are possible, with no possible variation or overlap, then you are letting faceless opinion makers do your thinking for you.