Friday, April 22, 2016

Hayek was not a conservative. Here's why.

Hayek's essay 'Why I Am Not a Conservative' is often misremembered as a defensive claim that says conservatives are invested in traditions while liberals want to move forward, and since Hayek considers himself a liberal (in the original sense of the word), he does not want to be mistaken for a conservative. Because Hayek was an advocate of emergent orders who argued against remaking them wholesale, this argument would set him up to fail. But it's not his argument.

'Liberal' and 'conservative' as they're used colloquially don't fit Hayek's definitions. As political identifiers, both are increasingly vacuous. These terms need to be defined, not because one is good and the other is bad, but because both are useful. The essay isn't mounting a defence, it's setting out definitions.

If you could say to Hayek, "But you aren't describing what conservatives believe now!" I think he might respond, "Of course not. That's why I wrote the essay." Conservatism has real meaning, but it doesn't imply a timeless set of concrete policy proposals.

Can productive rhetoric defeat the smug?

I was talking with a friend yesterday about political labels, and it got me thinking about why I've, apparently, decided to dig in my heels for them. This article on 'The smug style in American liberalism' over at Vox just crystallized it for me.

 
If we don't have meaningful language to describe political principles and how and why policy goals are pursued, this is what can happen: We dismiss our opponents as evil. As stupid. We assume that they only reason that they could disagree with us is that they are openly hostile toward the things that we 'know' are good, or that they are simply ignorant of the 'right' information that will help the scales fall from their eyes. We set out to 'fix' people rather than inform them and ourselves.

I don't think this is exclusive to modern American liberals, even if they're the ones who may have best transferred the attitude into popular culture. I have met and know many conservatives and real liberals who are just as guilty. There is a powerful seductiveness to the idea of being so right that ignorance and evil are the only things that could make someone disagree with you.

This environment is corrosive to the democratic debate that forms the backbone of a functioning liberal democracy. It is corrosive to the stable set of rules for governance that help encourage positive, rather than negative or ungrounded, change. It replaces them with disdain and encourages unbound populism. And it makes people mean.

No one is perfect when it comes to how they engage with their interlocutors, but try to recognize when you've failed to see the merit behind an opposing point of view. Assume good intentions, and try to rein it in your reflexive indignation . Push back against vacuous language. Treat each other like humans. And I think things can get better.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The problem with the relative-merit defence of Harper's government

Here's, I think, my issue with Conservatives' demand that those of us unhappy with Harper's policies and Trudeau's policies hold back on critiquing what Harper did because the alternative was X, The-Even-Worse-Big-Government-Program from a Liberal or NDP (or both) government.

Like, sure. Fine. If all democracy is about is voting and passing laws, then I guess that might be the choice.

But it doesn't seem like it was the choice, does it? We didn't get Bad Conservative Policy Y instead of Worse Liberal Policy X, we got Bad Conservative Policy Y and then Worse Liberal Policy X. Nothing was prevented. So why, exactly, should people unhappy with both withhold criticism if they think the Harper government's bad policy was not literally the worst we could do?

The hard work against Worse Liberal Policy X includes a critique of Bad Conservative Policy Y when they're bad and worse forms of the same bad idea. The hard work of policy debate in a democracy determines what 'menu' of possible policies. The easy work of shoving a piece of paper in a ballot box just makes a choice from that narrow range. Democratic policy debate can't take place without criticism.

The Harper Conservative government (and all those who continue their reflexive opposition to its criticism) act as though they have to be judged by the relative options on the table at the time, as though this was an extraneous factor. But it wasn't, and it isn't. Demands for loyalty then and now have done serious damage to conservative and at least some real liberal participation in the much more meaningful process of deciding what's on the table by demanding shelter from the criticism due to bad policies.

You need to let people talk about why a policy is a bad idea, even if your party passed a law enacting it in the past, if you want things to improve in the future.