conservatism and society

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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23 Responses

  1. Mike Farmer says:

    Talk about a simplistic position — when the whole world is going toward statism and you find countries in the top ten who have universal healthcare as the “free”-est, that doesn’t tell us much. First you have to define “free”. This study merely shows, in a statist world, the top ten relatively free countries — there’s not a lot to choose from when you define free as free of statism. You could have almost-totalitarianism in most of the world and still find the top ten countries with some freedoms to count as the “free”est, but it doesn’t mean freedom is on the rise. Actually, there’s none to choose from. Statism also has a definition we should keep in mind — it’s not just a bogeyman word. A statist country does not have a free economy.

    Let’s also get past the simplistic portrayal of “some” statists believing that all the problems in the world are caused by the growth of the state. Show me any serious thinker alive, even the most anti-statist, who holds this position.

    You’ve created a nice straw man, but not a good argument.Report

    • You are not an anarchist, IIRC, correct? Give that, I think it would be rather helpful if we had some idea of how you are defining “statism.” In the past, you have, for instance criticized support of measures like Wyden-Bennett as “statist” even though on net they create less, rather than more, government distortion of the marketplace.Report

  2. Mike Farmer says:

    No, I’m not an anarchist – I believe government should provide protection for basic rights, defend the country against attack, create good, peaceful foreign relations, police the streets and resolve disputes in courts of law. Maybe some infrastructure, but if we try hard we can come up with more innovative solutions for infrastructure.

    Statism is economic control and planning by a centralized government. There are varying degrees, but any control and planning is statist. America is going toward more control and planning, and has been for a long time, if you look at the line from the turn of the 20th until now going through ups and downs. There’s been a steady acceptance of government planning and control, and with healthcare reform as planned it will be another State revolution opening the door to control areas which have had relative freedom. It took Russia about 70 years to collapse — it will take us about 125, most likely, unless we can rush it along.Report

    • So this is an honest question.

      Do you believe that there are such things as externalities in economic transactions?

      In addition, what about common resource or public goods problems? Do none of those exist, either?Report

      • Pinky in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        Nob, I have no idea what Mike’s answer to your question would be. My answer is that government itself creates negative externalities. It slows down or even prevents adaptation. It adds costs. It can allocate resources inefficiently. Any consideration of possible gains from a governmental role has to take into account the possible costs.Report

        • Nob Akimoto in reply to Pinky says:

          So how would you account for the externalities of say common pool resources if not with government intervention?Report

          • Nob,

            The problem is that government regulation is the default solution. If we had limitations placed on government, then a negative externality would first be dealt with through government’s legitimate role in resolving disputes in courts where concerned parties would work out solutions with private sector resolution being the first choice — if an agreement is reached that a particular externality can’t be worked out equitably between private parties, and it’s decided that government regulation is the best route to reach resolution, then so be it. My point is that certain principles must be upheld which address limits on government intervention — as a society we should operate from the mindset that private resolution between concerned parties is the first choice.

            We’ll never know what innovative, creative, private solution to externalities can be applied until we change focus and end our dependence on government regulation as the first and only choice. Government shouldn’t have the power to force these solutions on us — we should be using government regulation as the last resort, and only then when it’s firmly established that the actions of government are protecting individual rights, and it’s not just something to control people’s behavior according to preferences of an ideology.Report

  3. Sam M says:

    “There are varying degrees, but any control and planning is statist.”

    This is an intersesting statement, at least to my eyes. It leaps out at me because I am a fairly libertarian guy, but I work in the strange field of economic and community development. In a very rural area. Very few of the local communities have well staffed “planning departments,” per se. Even fewer have zoning ordinances. But more and more are going for the latter. Know why? It’s the only way to keep the state off their backs. No kidding. If you have zoning ordinances, you can prevent certain state agencies (like, say, the Game Commission or the state foresters) from making certain decisions in certain places. So it’s weird, but what you have is all these staunchly conservative, rural people turning to government planning and zoning… in order to increase their freedom from state interference.

    I might also note that local politics is a strange bird altogether. I know tons of county commissioners and and township supervisors who attended/organized Tea Party events in their free time, but for their day jobs regularly lobby for grants, tax breaks and other goodies from Washington and the state capital.

    All of which is a long way of saying that strict black/white arguments tend to get bogged down when confronted by reality. Also, people who end up getting things done tend to be people who are able to shrug off their own inconsistencies. For instance, I pointed out the irony to one of the Tea-Party/grant-seeker guys. “Hey,” I said, “If your so uncomfortable with the government doing anything, how come your going after that $100,000 government grant for facade improvements downtown?”

    “I dunno. Someone’s gonna spend it. Might as well be us.”

    “Seems hypocritical, no?”


    “And your fine with that?”


    And there you have it. I guess you can spend a lot of time calling these people hypocrites. But again… they’re getting stuff done. They wish the game was set up differently. But it’s not. So they play.Report

  4. Bob Cheeks says:

    E.D. another problem related to ‘conservatism’ is the fact that culturally we’ve lost the meaning of the founding symbols. Those ideas and concepts found in the Art. of Conf., Disquisition on Gummint, Constit. , etc.
    Free societies produce “liberal” constitutions. And these models were, as you know, tied to the agrarian model, defined by a Jeffersonian resistance to industrial society that collapsed under the economic pressure, immigration, the immanentization of reason and the expansion of the nat’l state.
    The collapse of the Christian movement as an ordering force, followed by the rise of the ideologizing of man resulted in the disorders inherent in modernity, particularly the collapse of the liberal constitutional model….the problem we are now discussing.
    We are pretty much left to our own devices and of course to God’s will. I am tempted to say “It sure don’t look good,” but hey, only God knows. Watch the fellows over at the Front Portch Republic. Their hearts are good and they seek the truth. Our problem, of course, is that we’ve become so corrupt, so debased, we have to flush the political toilet, hang the offenders and participated the philosopher’s quest for thef existential truth of our existence.Report

  5. Mike Farmer says:

    “They wish the game was set up differently. But it’s not. So they play.”

    Exactly! Read my newest post at BonzaiReport

  6. Michael Drew says:

    Conservatism, I would argue, is first and foremost about preserving or regaining a stable society.

    Are you then a conservative, E.D.? To me you seem far too concerned about justice and welfare as ends rather than just as means to a stable society to be a conservative by that definition, but I have only a thumbnail sketch of your priorities. Would you sacrifice justice for stability if it the two were in conflict? Indeed, would you sacrifice a unit of justice for a unit of stability? Because that, it seems to me, is exactly what would be required of a conservative under this definition.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Michael Drew says:


      I think justice and stability are not things you can trade out – at least in the long-term. Of course you could implement stability via a military takeover for instance, impose it with an iron fist. But as history as taught us, that will be a very temporary fix, whereas justice and liberty and prosperity will all go much further toward creating a lasting stability. Similarly, the reason I support safety nets (welfare) is that in any system there is inequity and hardship, but you can soften those things with good governance and smart social welfare programs that are not too invasive toward the rest of the economy but help prevent people from falling through the cracks.Report

      • zic in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        ED, the welfare safety net is an investment — a speculative investment — in people. It gives them opportunity to grow and achieve, a chance to lead their own version of the American dream instead of being trapped in the American nightmare. It’s a way of caring for — of conserving — your resources. Failing to provide that safety net is rather akin to failing to maintain your roof, and letting your house rot from water problems.

        Very nice take on the ‘government is bad’ meme. In my book, it’s not that it’s bad, it’s that it’s slow, difficult to turn, and subject to regulatory capture that pushes the ship of state off course.Report

  7. Hudson says:

    Don’t worry, the state will not wither away anytime soon, certainnly not in the U.S. With no reliable stewards of the federal purse, we march onward and upward. Stable? I think not. We teeter on the brink of total absurdity, waiting for the topple point.

    One measure of this absurdity is the length of congressional legislation. According the Slate, the average length of a House or Senate bill today is 15.2 pages, up from 2.5 pages in 1948. Spending bills, stuffed with pork, frequently run over 1,000 pages. This year’s stimulus bill ran to 1,100 pages. The climate bill was 1,200 pages. Clinton’s 1993 health care plan was 1,342 pages. The 07′ budget from compassionate conservative G. Bush topped out at 1,482 pages. I think this year’s budget teetered on 2,000 pages. Hardly the sort of book load you carried under your arm in ye olde school days, eh?

    Any chance these monsters will teeter backwards to shorter length? I wouldn’t count on it.

    But there is a California organization, Honor In Office, seeking to place ballot initiatives on as many state ballots as possible that would require politicians, under oath, to swear that they had read the bills before passing or rejecting them. I mention this as a grassroots group worthy of support. My recommendation would be for every ten pages of text, there would be required one page of summary conclusion containing each measure in the bill–and force politicians to at least read this much before they spend more of our money.Report

  8. Kyle R. Cupp says:

    I’d just like to see government powers clearly defined and derived, big or small as they may need to be.Report

  9. steve says:

    We can go back to smaller government and no safety nets quite easily, if we go back to large families and an agrarian/factory worker economy. You would also need to accept the very high rates of poverty among the elderly and very young seen in the early 1900s. If we are going to live in a world where we want to compete internationally, where jobs change quickly, where large numbers of people are out of work for substantial periods, we need a way to make for all of that to work. We became the world’s economic superpower with 70% tax rates and lots of unions. Somehow, China is growing. Somehow, the whole rest of the world was growing, until we got debt crazy. Show me a successful country that does not have a vigorous public sector.


  10. Mike Farmer says:

    Steve, you’re promoting China as the example we need to follow?

    The fact is that what you are talking about is countries who are successful due to the amount of capitalism they allow — China is growing because of capitalism — it’s not the state intervention in these countries that’s causing the economic growth. China has a 25% corporate tax — that helps.

    What you can’t see is what the world would look like with more capitalism and economic freedom — All of South America would be booming — all of Africa would be booming — the Middle East would be booming. What you are judging is a small part of the world’s population that has done fairly well in spite of government intervention, because they have allowed a measure of economic freedom.

    If the whole world experienced economic freedom and less State intervention, you’d realize how paltry the present growth is in comparison.Report

    • JosephFM in reply to Mike Farmer says:

      Mike, to me this sounds akin to a Marxist saying that “true communism has never been put into practice”. That’s not how societies work. If only, if only, if only my impossible ideological utopia existed, everyone would be prospering and happy, but those damn (capitalists, statists, conservatives, liberals, whatever) keep blocking it.Report

    • JosephFM in reply to Mike Farmer says:

      Also, in a lot of places, there is no capitalism because there is hardly any capital, and in many there is barely a state either – and when there is it’s just another armed gang like the one they overpowered, or the remnants of a colonial government imposed by foreign powers and brushed over with a false patina of democracy.

      The only kind of capitalism that has ever existed without a strong state is gangsterism.Report

      • mike farmer in reply to JosephFM says:

        No, joseph — that’s a different argument designed to make me look like a Utopian, unrealistic true-believer, and it has nothing to do with what I wrote. There are economic realities associated with capitalism and there are economic realities associated with communism. It can be determined which realities create economic growth. Of course, in countries where there are no states, you have gangsterism, but that proves part of my point. You seem to be saying the world is static and cannot change, but countries have evolved to create economic freedom — and when they do, the economy does much better. Communism/socialism doesn’t create economic growth, capitalism does — whether anyone accepts that, and whether or not countries implement capitalism, has nothing to do with which economic reality creates economic growth.Report

        • As a matter of fact, read the economic history of Argentina startng from the turn of the 20th century. Argentina had a limited government, free market during the early 20th century and was on its way to becoming a major, global economic power, averaging 2.8 growth a year — then Peron stepped in with his mixture of Stalinism/Hitlerism/socialism and by the time Argentina could get him out,the State had had a taste of statism and never let go of its power, thus stopping economic growth.Report

  11. Are you saying Singapore has a Universal Healthcare system? Because it definitely does not.

    Although calling Singapore Statist in other aspects would be an understatement.Report