January 29, 2010

Pick Your Authoritarian

Justin Katz

Commenting to my "That Anti-Republican Feeling," Dan writes:

Most people in this country self-identify as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. When people have to constantly choose between what they consider two evils (the socially authoritarian R's or the economically authoritarian D's), they either become utterly confused and vote for familiarity like this caller, or they become discouraged and stop participating in the system altogether, both of which support the corrupt status quo.

This false dichotomy is precisely one of the methods of cultural leverage that I was suggesting keeps voters feeling as if a vote for Republicans is a vote for evil. If the Democrats are too enthusiastic about the size of government (measured along a sliding scale of ever-greater intrusion), well, they're just wrong, but well intentioned. People who are just wrong can be persuaded. But if the Republicans are too enthusiastic about controlling personal behavior (measured along a sliding scale of ever-greater liberty), well, they must be animated by animus and are therefore beyond reason.

On the first analysis, these two "authoritarianisms" aren't comparable. Elected officials who advocate for smaller government are advocating their own limitation. To be sure, actual Republicans often fall far short of the ideals that the party espouses, but generally speaking, their social policies are defensive and aimed at preserving aspects of society and culture, not aggressive, and aimed at expanding their reach.

On the second analysis, the two categories aren't distinct. Sure, Democrats are happy to open the door for sexual dysfunction and permit the womb to be a killing field, but on matters of personal association and other liberties, such as those of religion and speech, they're not so sanguine. Moreover, their libertinism is married to their affection for government assistance. As I noted, the caller to Dan Yorke who began this conversation cited opposition to the welfare state as an example of his fiscal conservatism, but the welfare state is rooted in support for political policies and cultural trends that undermine self control.

Phrased from the opposite perspective, to the extent that Republicans are "authoritarian" on social issues, the purpose is to nudge society toward practices that ultimately enable greater liberty and alleviate the urge to use the government as a backstop. We can argue the specifics of implementation, of course. My view is that the federal government's role should not go much beyond maintaining the integrity of the states and the ability of individuals to affect state and local policy.

The point is that, to some extent, the choice that Dan describes really is an either/or that fiscally conservative social liberals strive not to address; a higher level of behavioral control must be maintained in order for a smaller government to be socially sustainable. More accurately, though, it's a choice between a nanny state that is actually authoritarian and a political philosophy in support of cultural developments that regulate some individual desires so as to enable a more profound freedom.

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Democracies (at least true democracies)always have a difficulty with "morals' or what might be called "social liberals". Jefferson is supposed to have said "our constitution is suitable for a Christian nation and no other". Although he very well might have intended to extoll Christianity, it is the agreement on morals which makes the diffence. The Constitution probably does assume Christian morals, but that point is only illustrative.

What is necessary is an agreement on morals, right and wrong if you will. For instance criminal law. That murder is a crime does not need to be proven, our society accepts it as a crime. The criminal law only offers guidance on standards of proof, and a penalty. What would be the effect on that if our society did not accept murder as a crime (some societies see it as civil)?

A lack of moral cohesiveness is where we run into trouble. Unfortunately the legislative bodies have abdicated their function to determine the will of the people and that role has been assumed by the courts.

Consider Abortion, a change in that law was obvioulsy a matter for legislative debate. In the vacuum left by legislators, the burden of decision fell on the courts. Presently we have the issue of Gay Rights. Although some people are firm in their beliefs, there is no definitive scientific answer to whether this is congenital, or "choice". Under our system of law, this is fundamental to the acquisition of "rights". In many cases the Courts seem to be getting ahead of society in establishing such rights. The legislatures seem to be getting ahead of things by creating discrimination laws to protect "race, religion, color, national origin and sexual preference". That presents an interesting question, is "religion" congenital or a choice? If it is a "choice" or "lifestyle" why is it afforded protection? Why should it be? It all stems from an original intention to prevent a "state relligion".

It can be fun to live in a democracy, but it may not be helpful to think too much about it.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at January 29, 2010 7:52 PM

Dan is exactly correct, and there is no false dichotomy. Most people are live and let live types. The GOP has immolated itself on the evangelical cross and bears false witness of "family values" and "natural law." It's disgusting to read, over and over, about philandering and closetted preachers talk of defending marriage as they burn that very house down around themselves.

I don't have time to dissect your post point by point, so I'll limit myself to this gem:

"... a higher level of behavioral control must be maintained in order for a smaller government to be socially sustainable."

This is absurd. Compelling gays to go straight is like trying to stop the weather, and preventing gays from shoring up the crumbling bedrock of civil society (crumbling due to the abandonment of civil society by straights) via marriage is what's damaging fiscal conservativism. If productive people are held apart as deviants and predudiced against by law, THEN they will be driven into impoverished fringe societies and unstable behaviours. If you want to civilize people, integrate them. If you want to stop the spread of AIDS, get gays invested in monogomous relationsships through marriage. If you want to raise house values, more married people = larger population in the market. If you want to stabilize society, get more people invested in stable relationships. Etc.

That is social conservativism. Predudice, fear, and xenophobia are not.

Also, the USA is a society of individuals. We are not a society of fascist Spartans nor communist comrades. Our society is rich due to the dynamism of it's population. Embrace productive people of all types. That is freedom. Denial of productive people is not freedom, but it's inverse.

Posted by: Kevin at January 30, 2010 2:27 PM


I wouldn't argue for using the law to "compel gays to go straight." Moreover, I've written reams explaining why assertions that same-sex marriage will have the effect of "shoring up the crumbling bedrock of civil society" are erroneous. Presumably, you don't have time to read those reams, so I won't indulge quixotic in attempts to expand your understanding.

I will, however, make three points related to your commentary:

1. The idea that "impoverished fringe societies" will result from disallowing homosexuals to redefine the institution of marriage in such a way as to include themselves is entirely laughable. Homosexuals, on average, are wealthier and have higher levels of advanced degrees than the population as a whole. Moreover, the notion that they're treated, culturally, as pariahs is self-refuting. Your comment about housing prices proves that you are asserting more than arguing. I'd argue that, with their being wealthier and of a more "single professional" character, seeing them pair up could just as easily decrease the demand for housing, driving prices down.

2. I've argued multiple times that the "conservative case" for same-sex marriage is only remotely plausible if it comes conjoined with advocacy for tighter divorce laws. Indeed, depending on specifics, I suspect such a two-pronged policy would have a reasonable shot at gaining support from a decisive number of social conservatives. That's a perfect illustration of my point: If the law were constructed to support the longevity and stability of marriage, then expanding the freedom of entering into it would entail less of a risk.

3. None of the above has any relevance to the question of "embracing people." To be sure, one could argue that it denies real diversity to insist that men and women are so interchangeable that there can be no institution marking relationships between the genders as distinct from relationships within the genders. At any rate, denying a right to redefine marriage is not a denial of the person any more than denying me the right to claim a public sector pension refutes my status as a worker.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 30, 2010 3:03 PM

Thanks for posting this, Justin.

I myself am a 'socially liberal fiscal conservative', and I think that the vast majority of people out there are.

What bothers me, and I'll give an example, is that the way the political lines are drawn now doesn't reflect the reality on the ground.

My example is abortion. Sure, there are people on both sides, but -most- of us would be happy to end the political back-and-forth caused by issues like this. I think pro-choice people often pick bad leaders just because they're pro-choice. Similarly, the anti-abortion crowd often votes for politicians they agree with on this one issue, at the expense of bad leadership with regards to the rest of the issues at-hand.

Unfortunately, with extremists driving both parties, if I was to endorse a sensible policy, like cutting taxpayer funding and limiting late-term abortion, while guaranteeing access to first-trimester abortions, I'd be attacked by both sides. At the same time, the policy itself would likely be agreeable to 80% of the voters. That doesn't make sense to me.

Posted by: mangeek at January 30, 2010 8:39 PM

I doubt, very seriously that your "compromise" would actually be agreeable to four-fifths of voters. I say that because it is agreeable only to those who lack the imagination, the self-awareness, or the biological knowledge to realize that the distinctions made between conception and birth are wholly aesthetic.

Imagine a scenario in which legal guardians have the right to execute mentally unstable teens. One side thinks the right ought to extend all the way to mild depression, and the other side abhors the law in its entirety. You're insisting that the compromise position ought to draw the line such that we can only kill kids who are out there enough to make us uncomfortable.

See, to me, an extremist on the pro-life side is one who'll kill abortionists. To you, it's me.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 30, 2010 8:59 PM

I understand Justin, but In discussions around coffee tables all over the place, I've found that most people -do- draw a line somewhere in between. Somewhere along that 9-month voyage, life happens.

You believe it happens the second that cell gets all its genes. Does that mean you think birth control pills or an IUD are abortion? If so, that's a view held by a small minority of Catholics, let alone the population at-large. You're entitled to your opinion, and I would very much like to devise a system that allows you to opt-out of paying for abortive medicine.

My moral compass says that the line is drawn when that little baby is able to survive outside the womb. I think that happens around six months or so. (bonus points here for incentivizing the anti-abortion crowd to support more research into pushing that line farther back)

The presence of limbs, a brain, and rudimentary thoughts trouble me; but my lunch also had limbs, a brain, and rudimentary thoughts. You brought up a few days ago how many people are turned to your camp by actual experience with the nasty business of abortion, I hear the same type of stuff from people who've seen factory farming and modern slaughterhouses. Surely, that's no way to tend to God's four-legged flock?

Anyways, here's the issue:

You have two politicians going up for an election. One is an anti-abortion 'stooge-listed' democrat; the other is pro-choice but committed to good governance. What calculus do you use to determine who you would vote for? In the General Assembly or on a local level, what does it matter, so long as Roe vs. Wade stands? Isn't a vote for a member of the GA based on their abortion stance sort of like throwing the vote away? What hope is there of overturning Roe vs. Wade given that under eight years of Bush, it didn't even breach the surface?*

* Note: I'm pro-choice, but I think Roe vs. Wade is a legal abomination, I'd rather see this sussed-out state-by-state. The constitution guarantees movement between the states, and I don't think a long drive is too much to ask someone who's decided to have an abortion. I myself would donate to a service that helps get people to where they could get them, much like what happens in Ireland.

Posted by: mangeek at January 30, 2010 9:48 PM

1. Most methods of contraception are not abortificants.

2. Your moral compass isn't pointing toward a pole, but toward the magnet that you've placed next to it. Suppose a doctor removes a baby from the womb of a mother who would otherwise abort and places the child in whatever contraption is necessary. No adoptive parent emerges. Can the doctor kill the baby? If not, why not? The baby cannot survive outside of the contraption. What is magical about the womb that makes it the one environment (the one contraption, if you will) from which it is moral to kill a human being in order to remove him or her?

3. Abortion isn't really a state issue, and at any rate, people are suffering hugely by this particular state's mismanagement.

4. Still not sure I could support somebody who believes that, of all the possible charities, one that funds the killing of unborn children is worthy of financial support.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 30, 2010 10:53 PM

1. Agreed. IUDs are, though, and they're on the rise. Morning After Pills are, if they prevent implantation, right? Is a free-floating fertilized zygote that hasn't implanted considered a life? Implantation, to me, seems a much better place to 'begin the countdown', given that a fair number of 'conceived' eggs probably don't implant in nature (see: success ratios of 'conceived' eggs to born babies in in-vitro situations). Are 'extra' fertilized eggs that never make it to the womb ("woah, we don't need Octomom here, I'll leave three in, and four out") considered murder?

2. The reason I see to secure a right to abortion is to protect the mother from... well... becoming a mother. Maybe she's not ready. If you invent the contraption and pair it with adoption services, the 'service' to the woman is still effectively rendered (read: the sixteen year-old gets to finish high school). The part that I'm having trouble with is the contraption... I made clear that if the baby could 'survive outside the womb', it would be 'protected' in my view... If the contraption grows the baby, you can't kill it once it matures enough to make it 'on the outside'. If it holds it in stasis as-removed, then I would be OK with killing it. The womb nor the contraption have any significance to me, only the viability of the baby. I personally wouldn't have a moral issue throwing away a glass tube with a four-month fetus in it, but I would have one with throwing away a seven-month fetus, seeing as how it could 'make it'. The only 'contraption' for now is wholly-owned by the mother, which implies that she has the sole right to 'end support' while the fetus is existentially dependent on her.

3. Why not? I'd like to see gay marriage, civil unions, abortion, narcotic legalization, education, prostitution, etc. be handled as state issues. It would give us definitive answers to 'what works' and return us to a land where more people can pursue 'life liberty and happiness' in a community that agrees more closely with their definition thereof. It pains me to think that so many of the people I know feel trapped in a quasi-Gomorrah, while others feel like they're stuck in Plymouth, circa 1650.

4. Good point... I'm obligated to go where my moral compass points me, just like you, only a different compass. Luckily, ours align occasionally. When they do, we should walk together. I'd rather be involved trying to prevent those who aren't ready from getting pregnant in the first place, but I was a foolish kid once. Lets make a deal... I'll fund teen pregnancy prevention instead, and you agree that life begins at implantation. Maybe if we both take a step away from the edges, more lives are saved.

Posted by: mangeek at January 31, 2010 12:09 AM

addendum before I go...

"I was a foolish kid once" doesn't mean what it could infer. I've made bad choices before, but never... um... caused life.

Posted by: mangeek at January 31, 2010 12:21 AM

1. I think you're a bit too confident in including IUDs. Whatever the case, though, you're missing the pro-life point. The human life cycle begins at some point, and as a both moral and legal matters, human beings ought to have the bare minimum of protection that others cannot kill them as a matter of convenience. The life cycle begins at conception, at which point a wholly new organism has been initiated and will progress through to natural death unless somebody else interferes with his or her growth and development. Choosing the stage of implantation is a selection for convenience because it allows a certain range of killings that other people want (abortion, in vitro). The question is what rights the organism ought to have, and frankly, I see no plausible argument that begins with the nascent human being's rights that can draw any lines between conception and self-awareness, which would expand the kill-able window well after birth.

2. But the womb "grows the baby." We already have that technology. So, again, supposing somebody invents a fully functional artificial womb. A doctor knowingly transfers the baby from the mother to the artificial womb. It still takes work and commitment to keep the baby developing. Why can't the doctor abort the baby, at that point? Conversely, in most cases, the mother did indeed place the baby in her womb, and the zygote, fetus, and so on are all viable within the environment in which she placed them. Moreover, babies are existentially dependent on their parents for much longer than their initial nine months of pre-birth life. If you starve your children to death, you've killed them. You could argue that the state can relieve parents of children via surrogacy, orphanages, and adoption, and that has a parallel in the possibility that a fetus could be removed and developed by somebody other than the mother, but that only returns to the "contraption" argument. The question is what rights an unborn child has. Your viability argument is incoherent because whether the mother or the state has responsibility for the necessary contraption and care has no effect on the rights originating with the child.

3. I'm not saying abortion shouldn't be a state issue. I'm saying that it doesn't apply to large extent in state elections, currently.

4. When life begins is not for me to agree. It's for us all to comprehend and acknowledge.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 31, 2010 8:10 AM