Further Notes on Dispositional Politics
I’ve been thrilled to watch the discussion about dispositional politics unfolding here at the League. Here are some further thoughts, in part to try to rein things in. Not all politics is dispositional.
First, a disposition isn’t a political program or an ideology. Michael Oakeshott is the paradigm of the dispositional conservative, and he was quite right when he insisted that his commitment to a particular disposition did not, indeed could not, commit him to a particular course of action. Oakeshott famously found even Hayek too programmatic, which may be taking dispositionalism a bit too far.
Next to Oakeshott, Hayek is to my mind the preeminent dispositionalist. Yet Hayek is a bit of a chameleon here, in that he seems to appreciate both the liberal and the conservative dispositions, and to believe that a society can’t function through time without some measure of each. I think Hayek is probably right here, and, at any rate, we’re going to have people of both dispositions in any society, so we’d might as well be frank about it and see where that leads us.
In the end, Hayek seems to side with the tinkerers, though not, of course, in the form of top-down planning. This is also where I fall. My own dispositional liberalism is tempered, in that it usually smiles on individual experiments in living, but not on government planning of the lives of individuals. There seems something improperly grasping about the latter, just intuitively.
Is it possible that something as crude as a disposition just isn’t able to distinguish between top-down and bottom-up change? Have I overlayered a disposition with an ideology here? I am unsure. The key point is that we can’t reliably infer specific policy stances from dispositions. The former change with the passage of time. The latter are timeless parts of the human condition.
A disposition isn’t even an emotion. It’s a tendency, external stimuli being equal, to feel a particular range of emotions about a general class of stimuli. Taken by itself, a disposition says precisely nothing about the external world. This is why I am not uncomfortable in recognizing a common liberal disposition, even while I disagree profoundly with many modern liberal policy prescriptions. Having a common disposition doesn’t mean I’m in bed with them.
Consider the recent health care debate. I consistently opposed all of the major reform proposals, and my only consolation has been that my predictions have been coming true right on schedule. I predicted as follows: the proposal as approved will cost substantially more than we were told beforehand – check; we will find this out almost immediately – check; by then it will not matter – check; and grassroots Republican repeal efforts will be squelched – check. There remain only two unfulfilled predictions, that after implementation our health outcomes won’t noticeably improve, and that state-corporate corruption will increase. These I’ll just have to be patient about, but they seemed the safer bets from the outset.
One thing I did not predict, however, was doomsday. I think the recent law was a bad idea, and I still think so. I don’t think it will be the end of the country. I don’t think your grandma is going to be euthanized in a medical gulag in the Nevada desert. I don’t think America is going to turn into Soviet Russia. Not from this, anyway.
Which is just to say that someone of a more conservative disposition sees a change like this in a much more severe light than I do. Those of a conservative disposition failed as a group to advance an independent vision of how to reform the American healthcare system. I think their disposition was partly to blame here. Dispositional conservatives got their buttons pushed. Dispositional liberals evaluated, each according to different standards, and the political left-liberals got a few more steps toward what they ultimately want, unfortunately.
Consider also conservatives’ attitudes not just toward change, but toward established institutions. Theirs tends toward reverence. Mine tends strongly to doubt — except for those established institutions that lend themselves to individual experiment and expression.
Take monarchy. When I look at monarchy, I generally agree with David Hume. Monarchy derives neither from Adam and Eve nor from a primeval social contract, as in Hume’s day its defenders tended to claim. Instead, all monarchy can be traced back to a passel of rude, uncultured, but highly effective brigands. As a matter of historical fact, Hume was entirely correct.
In the case of England, these thieves were so successful that they stole an entire very large island from its inhabitants and rightful owners. Then the brigands called it real — that is royal — estate. And they taxed people for the privilege of living on their very own land. (Americans: Don’t laugh. We did exactly the same to Hawaii, and much worse elsewhere.)
And a funny thing happened. The people thanked their overlords. Those taxed bowed and scraped to the thieves-turned-tax-collectors and to their descendants, thanking them for the privilege to go on living. They agonized before God when the time came to kill a king, whereas, to my mind, killing a king was the bloody obvious first order of business, which should have been dealt with centuries ago.
Conservatives, to put it mildly, don’t think this way. They tend to point out the useful, unifying effect of a national imagery, centered on a family; the pageantry and the beauty of a national symbol; the way in which royalty ties today’s nation to yesteryear. And, in the last ditch, they’ll note that royalty separates tourists from their cash like nothing else on earth. But whatever the reason, they’re not about to turn republican.
Now, it’s clear even to me that for purposes of state and national ceremonial, we may need people to perform a bit of solemn playacting. But there’s no great mystery to it. The French, who have long done without a monarch, have an admirable (and very French) approach — every few years they choose a model or an actress to play the part of Marianne in national ceremonies and official images.
Another approach, and one that seems suited to the American character, would simply be to choose among the citizens by lot, and to have the winner perform the ceremonial functions that otherwise clutter up a president’s time. There would no longer be these empty debates about whether (an African-American, a woman, a gay or lesbian person, an atheist) could carry the national standard. In each case, it would only be a matter of time, and before too long, the ceremonial leaders as a group would really come to resemble the country. A constitutional monarch may be a fine thing, and it could well have its uses, but why should that person always be upper-class and a blood relation of all the previous monarchs? Diversity here would unify.
But these things appeal to me precisely because I have a taste for novelty and because I tend to discount tradition. These are probably the areas where I, and not the conservatives, sound a little unhinged. I wouldn’t dare take them seriously myself, and neither should you.
 I know that this etymology is apocryphal. But given the doctrine of escheat to the crown, it expresses a profound truth anyway.