A Conflict of the Conservative Vision

There is one popular framework of politics that I often think about. It is the basis of a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. I was introduced to it by my conservative father.

Sowell theorizes that the political right and left are defined by two distinct visions. Conservatives and right-wingers are supposedly adherents of a constrained vision. Whereas liberals and left-wingers are supposedly adherents of an unconstrained vision.

For some reason, this popped back into my mind on my walk this morning. Two thoughts occurred to me.

First, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I always feel the need to clarify that conservatism and liberalism are not necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. This is one of those cases where that is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Sowell is most directly talking about psychological predispositions here. But he seems to be assuming that they are the same as ideological labels as expressed through ideological movements. I have severe doubts that this is the case, not to dismiss the strong correlation. I just think something gets missed in too simplistic of categories.

When I consider conservative politics, I don’t see a constrained vision at work.

Plutocratic paternalism is not a constrained vision. Neoliberal laissez-faire globalization is not a constrained vision. Neoconservative nation-building and neo-imperialism is not a constrained vision. Corporatist progressivism that dismisses the precautionary principle is not a constrained vision. Theocratic nationalism is not a constrained vision. A large militarized police/security state with heavily guarded borders is not a constrained vision.

Yet all of these things define the political right.

Sowell doesn’t really mean a constrained vision. I think even he knows that this is the case. What he actually argues for is constrained empathy, compassion, and morality. It is an attitude of me and my own, but me and my own can be quite unconstrained. A me and my own attitude would only be constrained, if it respected everyone else’s me and my own attitude. Obviously, that isn’t the case with the American political right.

The extreme version of the constrained live-and-let-live worldview are the anarcho-libertarians. And they tend to be left-wingers.

Conservatives don’t want to constrain their vision, their power over others, or their ability to act in large ways. What they want to constrain is having to concern themselves about the consequences and the externalized costs. They choose to constrain their sense of moral responsibility and social responsibility. So, in their worldview, a corporation should have the right to act unconstrained, which is to say they shouldn’t be constrained to the rights of workers, protection of the environment, etc. Instead, everyone and everything else should be constrained to their agenda.

This angle of responsibility brings me the second thought.

When I consider Jesus’ teachings, I can’t help but feel that whatever he was preaching it for damn sure wasn’t the ideology of the political right. I’m not saying it was liberalism either, just certainly not conservatism and even more certainly not right-wing libertarianism.

Jesus’ vision was as unconstrained as one could imagine. He was preaching about an unconstrained attitude of compassion and care. It was universal love for all of humanity. No limitations. No questions asked. Just help the needy and defend the weak. It wasn’t an overtly political vision, but in psychological terms it was the opposite of conservative-minded.

The only times Jesus spoke of constraint was when people sought to act without genuine moral concern for their fellow humans. In those instances, he would say such things as,  “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” But all this was saying was that people should constrain their hatred, bigotry, and judgment in favor of an unconstrained vision of love.

I’m forced to conclude that Sowell’s conflict of visions is something other than what it is portrayed as.

* * * *

Some additional thoughts:

The ideas of constraint and unconstraint aren’t objective categories. It depends on what they are being defined according to.

What kind of constraint or unconstraint and for what purpose? Who is implementing, controlling, and enforcing the constraint or unconstraint? Who is being constrained or unconstrained? Who is benefiting and who is being harmed? What are the costs, especially externalized costs, and who is paying for them?

To be fair, all of the confusion involved can’t just be blamed on conservatives. I only focused on conservatives because it is a way of framing politics that is particularly popular among conservatives.

In reality, liberals are no more consistently unconstrained in a principled fashion than are conservatives consistently constrained in a principled fashion. Many liberals might like to think of themselves as being more unconstrained than they actually are, but liberals aren’t anarchists or anything close to it. There are more things liberals seek to constrain than unconstrain.

I personally fall more on the side of unconstraint, but not the careless and mindless unrestraint that is prevalent in our society, especially as seen among the extreme defenders of laissez-faire capitalism. I’m certainly not critical of conservatism because of Sowell’s claim of it being an constrained vision, at least not when compared to my own principles and ideals. I wish conservatives were more constrained and supportive of constraint.

I’m all the time advocating for the precautionary principle. That has to be the single greatest expression of genuine conservative-minded constraint. Yet it is political liberals who hold it up as a central value and standard, a guidepost of wise and responsible decision-making. If conservatives really gave a shit about constraint, they’d start with the precautionary principle.

I have an overall unconstrained vision, but certain conditions are necessary in order to have an actual functioning society that is as unconstrained as possible. Those conditions, in a very basic sense, are themselves constraints. The whole issue isn’t as binary as a conservative like Sowell would like it to be. The conflict of constrained versus unconstrained only exists in Sowell’s brain and in the brain of anyone who shares his view.

Many conservatives would consider me utopian in my desired unconstraint. I’m very much a leftist in my belief in human potential as being preferably unrestrained (as much as is possible), something conservatives tend to fear. I’m not seeking perfection, as conservatives suspect. I don’t even know what perfection means. That seems like another projection of the conservative mind.

What conservatives too often mean by constrained is that they don’t want to question their own assumptions. They want to take their beliefs as reality, and so constrain all of politics to their narrow view and all of society to their simplistic understanding. They want a rigid social order that constrains others to their worldview.

This connects back to my last post. Howard Schwartz, an author on liberty in American society, commented on that post. He pointed out that this kind of person is seeking stable essences for the purposes of psychological security. As I’d put it, they are constraining their own minds in order to lessen the stress and anxiety they feel when confronting cognitive dissonance.

My oft repeated position is that the world is complex. This is true, whether or not we like it. Constraining one’s beliefs about reality doesn’t constrain reality itself. I favor an unconstrained vision simply because only it can encompass that complexity. I also favor it because, as long as we have globalization, we better have a vision of social and moral responsibility that can match its scope.

Oddly, it is for this very reason I can simultaneously defend certain practical constraints to an even greater degree than is seen in mainstream American conservatism. I’m a cautious-minded progressive, a wary optimist.

Foundations and Frameworks

Even after a four post spree on JFK, my mind was stuck on the discussion. What was catching in my craw more than anything was Thomas Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions.

I don’t know if Sowell understands what is so significant about this distinction.

Like many conservatives, I get the sense he merely wishes to use it to dismiss liberalism and rationalize it away. In the conservative telling, the constrained vision conforms snugly to the cold hard reality of depraved human nature (or to Christianize it as ‘fallen’; or to state it less dramatically as psychologically limited) whereas the unconstrained vision is ungrounded idealism and impractical utopianism or worse (basically, the same aforementioned depraved human nature but let loose to run amuk or unanchored to run aground).

This can feel, at its worst, like a Manichaean opposition of Good vs Evil or else just righteous submission vs the temptation of sin. The moral of the story is this: Humans are limited and their only wise recourse is to grimly accept this limitation. Anything else will lead to oppression and suffering, failure and tragedy, immorality and wrongheadedness. No one can deny that it makes for great emotion-rousing rhetoric. However, as for sober-minded analysis, it seems less than useful for actually understanding the intricacies of human nature.

Considering this, I’d rather not fall into the same trap of over-simplified thinking and unfair portrayals. Neither constrained nor unconstrained is more real than the other, certainly no more conforming to human nature. They are both, after all, expressions of the same human nature. Each holds a piece of the puzzle, an aspect of truth. We must take each seriously on its own terms, and not try to force one into the terms of the other. That attempt at ideological enforcement is the sin I charged against conservatives seeking to co-opt JFK’s legacy.

The ever-present problem is that I’m coming from a liberal-minded perspective in judging these conservatives. Co-opting a liberal icon or liberal strategies and rhetoric, that is precisely what (reactionary) conservatism is all about… or so argues Corey Robin and I partly agree. It is as I argue with being a “little bit muddy” is precisely what liberalism is all about. The motivations of one makes little sense to the motivations of the other.

This is a more serious issue than it first appears. The liberal/conservative distinction may be greater than most realize. It’s not just that they operate according to different terms. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that they operate on entirely different levels of thought and behavior, entirely different social and psychological realities, entirely different which isn’t to say entirely exclusionary and oppositional, not necessarily so.

That is a major insight that has been dawning on me.

Conservatism and liberalism, as general categories, maybe aren’t polar opposites. Maybe the reason conservatism so easily allies with or gets combined/confluent/conflated(?) with right-wing ideologies is that conservatism is more on the opposite end of the spectrum from leftism. My suspicion is that liberalism is something else altogether, a separate spectrum stretched between liberal-mindedness and anti-liberal-mindedness (Is it akin to the dualistic pairing of anarchism and authoritarianism?). From the conservative point of view, it seems difficult to understand liberalism other than as a facade for leftism, most often the dread communism. Likewise, from the liberal point of view, there can be a tendency to see conservatism at best as soft fascism or paternalistic fundamentalism.

I sense a complexity that gets hidden behind all the rhetoric. Some conservatives can seem quite liberal-minded. And some liberals can seem quite conservative-minded. According to mainstream ideological thought, this obviously makes no sense.

Constrained and unconstrained begins with a simple division: inclusionary vs exclusionary, narrow vs broad, closed vs open, etc.

This is seen in studies based on simple observations such as eye movements. Conservatives tend to remain focused and undistracted whereas liberals are constantly shifting their eyes to look about at faces around them. Some have speculated that this focus is why conservatives are disproportionately found in professions that are narrowly defined with clear limits, articulate rules, and systematic procedures (e.g., lawyers, managers, and surgeons).

However, from this simple division, complex worldviews form about which much else aggregates. There is more going on here than merely focused or not.

Conservatism seems more basic. In times of stress or tiredness, cognitive overload leads everyone into conservative-mindedness. Our focus narrows as we look for the problem or stressor, seek out the potential enemy or other threat, draw inward to save our reserve of energy. It is much more difficult to shift into liberal-mindedness and maintain it. It is a ‘higher’ cognitive functioning and requites a higher cost of effort and energy.

What is achieved with this extra effort and energy?

I’ve wondered if liberal-mindedness is built on conservative-mindedness in the way civilization is built on tribalism.

When civilizations are under stress, people return to tribalistic behaviors in seeking safety in their nation, race, ethnicity, kin, or religion. Liberal-mindedness, like civilization itself, is not entirely natural in that it is a redirecting of human nature toward conditions quite different from the conditions in which human nature evolved. Civilization probably wouldn’t even be possible if not for this redirecting of liberal-mindedness into greater unconstrained visions. Civilization is the outward manifestation of liberal-mindedness; in turn, civilization is what enables and sustains liberal-mindedness.

This isn’t to say liberal-mindedness is a modern invention. I think it was always there, but it just would have played a lesser or more mediated role in simpler societies. Every society needs some people with liberal-minded abilities and everyone needs some liberal-minded abilities some of the time. Still, it seems more like a secondary functioning within conservative-minded tribalism. The shackles of the constrained vision in this kind of society are less often loosened and only for brief periods, but the unrestrained vision of modern social democracies can’t operate that way.

Conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness could be better understood in the framework of Spiral Dynamics. Conservative-mindedness is more about the basic levels of individual and social development, the base of what Ken Wilber would call a holarchy. Liberal-mindedness maybe isn’t even distinct and maybe can’t act independently at those basic levels. Full liberal-mindedness is more of an emergent property, gradually taking form but only at a very late stage in development is it able to assert its own authority. At the more complex levels of individual and social development, liberal-mindedness comes into its own, becoming something entirely new and unpredictable. Being children of modernity, we forget how strange is our socially liberal modern society. We take it for granted and don’t understand how fragile it is, how easily lost or destroyed. Regression ever threatens.

Such complex societies as ours can only maintain themselves by reversing the priorities of the tribalistic social order. As conservative-mindedness began as the foundation for liberal-mindedness, the latter then becomes the frame for the former. A modern society can only function well as long as conservative-mindedness operates within a liberal-minded social order. Ultimately, for the unconstrained vision to be itself, it can’t exist within the constraints of the constrained vision. However, the constrained vision can fully operate within the unconstrained vision. The relationship between the two can’t be at the same level of functioning.

To put this in political terms, social democracies can allow for religion but only to the extent that church and state are kept separate. Social democracy and theocracy are mutually exclusive. Similarly, kin and state must be kept separate as social democracy and nepotism are also mutually exclusive. Social democracy requires the emphasis be put on the greater whole rather than subordinating the whole to the parts.

The foundation, by definition, must remain at the bottom of the house. A foundation can no more be the entire house than tribalism can dominate and rule over a complex socially democracy. Each has a role to play and they can only play their role to the degree they function according to their respective purposes. If the foundation becomes unstable, the whole house is brought down to the same level, an equality created by leveling downward. That is to say, the house falls down.

Modern civilization feels so precarious as we keep wondering about how strong the foundation is. This is a reasonable worry.

We have little faith in the stability of the house because we have little understanding of its architecture. For too long, we simply trusted it to remain standing. But for a house to remain standing, it must constantly be repaired and fortified. We have too many occupants and not enough architects and builders. We are coming to realize how little we understand about why houses remain standing… or what brings them down.

This is problematic, to say the least, because this liberal/conservative relationship is not understood. But this lack of understanding isn’t inevitable and certainly not desirable. We need to get past polarization and find balance. What we see as being separate and at odds is actually part of the same human nature. If all of this didn’t work together, civilization wouldn’t be possible in the first place. A house divided… well, ya know…

There is a good reason for why even modern conservatives are relatively liberal-minded compared to conservatives in the past (or even most liberals in the past). And there is good reason for why liberal-mindedness increases with each generation as the complexity of society increases. This is most definitely not meant to dismiss conservative-mindedness, the very foundation of human nature and civilization. It is just that it must be kept in mind that foundations have very specific purposes. To try to place the foundation on the roof would lead to disaster.

At the same time, there is good reason for why liberals so easily revert to conservative-mindedness. There is much more to a house than its foundation, but a house isn’t very stable without a strong foundation. It is because liberals are so capable of switching between liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness that they are able to fully secure the frame to the foundation. Conservatives are less capable in this, as research shows. Still, they have another talent. They become reactionary conservatives by co-opting the products and artifacts of liberalism and then using these to adapt. This process is the way conservatives strengthen the foundation, thus more firmly strengthening the walls that attach to that foundation, and thus allowing new floors to be built at the next level.

Conservatives working at ground level and liberals working above. In between, what they are building together takes form.

This co-opting can be annoying to liberals, but it is necessary. What annoys liberals is that conservatives won’t admit that co-opting is what they’re doing, won’t give liberals credit for their efforts. Liberals seem more willing to treat conservatives as equals, as fellow builders. The conflict is that conservatives seem less willing to offer respect in return. It isn’t just that conservatives won’t admit their agenda to liberals. As far as I can tell, they don’t even admit this to themselves.

There is something about conservatism that is resistant to self-awareness. Foundations, after all, aren’t designed for letting light in. They are optimally made to be buried, secured deep in the ground.

That is fine as far as it goes, but it would be nice if conservatives learned to appreciate the value of also building windows and doors in order to let light  in. With light, we can then look upon the foundation and see if it is well built or if it needs further strengthening, see if there are any leaks or cracks in the basement. Conservatives seem afraid of what they might see or what others might see, afraid that if a critical eye is turned to the fundamentals of society that the whole thing will become vulnerable from our loss of faith. But what is the point of strength at all costs? Sure, walls built like foundations without windows and doors could potentially be very strong walls, but such a structure wouldn’t be a house and there would be no easy way to repair it as needed.

What I wonder is what would happen if this shared building process were to become conscious and out in the open. Couldn’t conservatives remain who they are while working with liberals and giving them their due? I think they could. However, as far as I can tell, they can only do so within the liberal framework. If liberals can accept a conservative foundation, why can’t conservatives accept a liberal framework built upon it?

How is a well functioning liberal framework built when liberals are less interested or able in forcing their liberal-mindedness onto others? Or to the degree they do attempt force, how do liberals resist becoming increasingly conservative-minded and so having their guiding purpose weakened? Conservatives have a great ability and compulsion to force conservative-mindedness onto others. Liberals, at their worst, are weak and pathetic. This is why liberal-mindedness isn’t the foundation. Nonetheless, liberalism has its role to play. But how do we convince conservatives to stop obstructing, to stop preening over what a lovely foundation they have and let others build something worthy upon that foundation?

Too often, it feels like liberals can’t win for losing. Can’t gain the upper hand except by playing according to the rules of conservatism and becoming conservative in the process. Liberals have to somehow get conservatives to believe that it is in their own conservative-minded interest to defend the liberal social order. Conservatives have to come to understand that merely defending the foundation won’t by itself ensure that the house remains standing. If they like living in this house of social democracy with all of its modern benefits and comforts, then they too have to accept responsibility for maintaining it.

Liberals can’t force conservatives into this understanding. But there are other tools besides force. It takes more than a hammer to build a house. So, what are these other tools?

Foundations are symbolic of short term interests. Conservatives are very focused and so are good at this. However, conservatives lack the vision to see what could or should be built upon the foundation or how the foundation is built limits what later can be built upon it.

Enslaving black people and creating a slave-based constitution is an example of this. This was a conservative social order based on hierarchical authority and justified by fundamentalist religion and classical thought. It was very strongly structured and certainly wasn’t overflowing with liberal-minded social democracy. Because of this, the unforeseen consequences were dire.

Even for the self(ish)-interests of the white aristocracy, this ended up not being beneficial in the long term. It was a bad deal all around. The liberal-minded during the revolution foresaw this, but the conservative-minded paid them no heed. There is more to building a strong nation than simply building a strong founding. It is necessary to know what the end result will look like and what good is achieved by it. There was no way a nation built on slavery wouldn’t lead to vast suffering and conflict. We are still suffering the consequences to this day.

The foundation was strong, but it was a bad foundation. The problem is that it is hard to dig a foundation up after a house is already built on top of it, a house that is now inhabited. Conservatives would be wise to unconstrain their vision a bit and look beyond mere foundations. Trying to use the present to remake the past doesn’t solve the problems built on the past.

A conservative could argue that many liberals, on the other hand, don’t have much appreciation for foundations at all. That very well might be true.

Foundation building isn’t the talent of liberals. Liberals are able to build grand edifices, as even conservatives will admit. I push  this point a little further in arguing that civilization itself is the grandest of edifices made possible by innovative liberals, by the dreaming and scheming liberal mind.

Nonetheless, even though foundation building isn’t their talent, I find it interesting that liberals can worry more about foundations than conservatives. Liberals instinctively understand their grand edifices will stand or fall depending on the foundations. But since foundations are closer to the conservative nature, they tend to take them more for granted… or something like that.

This is an issue I’ve tried to make sense of before.

This is how liberals in America can become quite conservative-minded, sometimes seemingly having forsaken their liberal-mindedness in the process. Liberals have done this because they want to save what they have already built and are afraid to build further until it has been secured. Reactionary conservatives, however, can feel like a mutant species of ideology. They have gone so far in the direction of co-opting liberalism that they seemingly forget their roles as conservatives. They aren’t necessarily any more loyal to the foundations of traditionalism than are liberals.

This is where my metaphor begins to break down. How do we make sense of this American phenomenon of conservative-minded liberals and reactionary-minded conservatives? How can we get conservatives to act conservative-minded so that liberals can go back to being liberal-minded?  Or is there a way to shift this strange dynamic toward a constructive end?