Sunday, July 18, 2010

Optimistic and Pessimistic Conservatism

There are two different worldviews behind economic conservatism: an optimistic worldview and a pessimistic worldview. Interestingly, although these worldviews are diametrically opposed in their assumptions, they lead to the same conclusions about policy.

Optimistic conservatism holds that the world provides boundless opportunities for prosperity. Anyone willing to work at it can become a success. From this point of view, organized government programs to help the unfortunate are not only unnecessary but counter-productive: they breed dependency, which just delays the recipients from taking the steps necessary to achieve lasting prosperity. Optimistic conservatism also views efforts to manage the environment and natural resources as a waste of money and effort: nature is boundless, and we will never exhaust its riches; if we run out of some resource, we only need to look around to find a suitable replacement. Optimistic conservatism is the attitude of an idealized pioneer exploring the American West: endless land for farming, bountiful game for hunting, plenty of gold in the hills and streams to make anyone rich who would but put in the effort.

Pessimistic conservatism, on the other hand, has a much darker view of the world. The world is a brutal place, and misery is the lot of most of its inhabitants. Poverty, hunger, violence, ignorance are the norm for most of the people. We cannot hope to change their plight. The best that we can do is to work to insure that there is a chosen few who escape from the misery. We can work to build havens in which it is possible to practice a civilized life, to enjoy prosperity, to participate in civilized arts, sports, religion and politics. Pessimistic conservatives differ on exactly who the chosen should be, and what type of havens should be preserved: Should it be at the level of individuals, or families, or communities, or nations? Should the chosen be determined by merit (the brightest, hardest-working, most virtuous), or should it be determined by circumstance (what family you were born into, what country)? The pessimistic conservative objects to institutionalized efforts to help the unfortunate, because such efforts are doomed to failure (the poor will always be with us) and worse run the risk of taking everyone down. It's better to have a few people who are able to enjoy the fruits of civilization than it is to have everyone equally miserable.

So conservatism naturally inhabits the two ends of the pessimistic-to-optimistic spectrum. Liberalism is appropriate for those in the middle. We believe that we can have prosperity for all, we can have a healthy natural environment, we can have enough resources for all. But these things are only possible if we work together for the benefit of our planet and all its inhabitants. It's not going to happen by accident, it's not going to happen magically as a result of everyone pursuing their own selfish ends. It requires cooperation.

I think that there is a compromise possible between liberalism and conservatism. I don't think that there is anything wrong with forming havens of like-minded people who are only concerned with the well-being of their own people, provided they follow one commandment: Keep your hands off of other havens! If your way of helping your own involves exploiting others (clearing their forests, taking their resources, diverting their workers towards your own needs, rather than theirs) then it's not okay with me. If you want to be self-contained and mind your own business, like the Amish or isolated tribes around the world, go ahead. But if you are going to be an internationalist---getting resources from all over the world, getting laborers in distant countries to manufacture your goods for you---then I think you have to be internationalist in your notion of who "your people" are. Anyone who works for your benefit is one of your people, and their needs are as important as yours.
Permalink 11:17 AM