Monday, January 28, 2008

What This Free Market Needs is Some More Virtue, Part I (JM)

All day I was bemoaning the fact that there just did not seem to be a sufficient amount of really truly terrible journalism, but then, sometimes it’s because fate is waiting to hand you a present so special that you’ll really just want to be able to appreciate it in isolation for all of its pristine beauty. You see Matthew Yglesias, without a doubt the best blogger over at The Atlantic, alerted me to one of the funnier debates of which I have ever had the pleasure of being a witness. Seriously, it’s like watching someone who believes that the Earth is flat argue against someone who believes the Earth is shaped like a giant pinecone. Both are wrong, but you know they’re going to be indignant about it. Let’s start with Part I, the piece from The Weekly Standard:

No Substitute for Virtue
Why conservatives should be open to John McCain.
by Benjamin Storey & Jenna Silber Storey
01/24/2008 3:30:00 PM

So a note of irony from the beginning, I pretty sure I went to school with Jenna Silber Storey (in fact, I am like 99 percent sure she had the same advisor as me). I am further pretty sure that this doesn’t make me especially proud.

SOME OF THE SHARPEST minds of conservative punditry have lately been whetting their knives on the candidacy of John McCain. The trend of these arguments is disturbing, because it indicates conservatism may be drifting far from its roots. The ire against McCain contains elements of two of the greatest fallacies of modern political thought: the notion that ideology can replace virtue as the mainstay of a decent regime, and the cynical assumption that virtue is not real but vanity in disguise.

This is already pretty weird, right? The argument seems to be that “virtue” is actually the essence of conservatism, not “ideology”. Yet somehow, I suspect that if Jesus Christ himself came back from the dead and argued that we should raise taxes, let gays marry, treat immigrants like human beings and not spend all of our time naming things after Ronald Reagan this article would not necessarily be endorsing him.

The main current of opposition to McCain faults him for departures from strict free-market ideology. McCain's decisions about tax cuts, campaign finance, and greenhouse gas caps may be prudent or imprudent, and it is important to debate their practical effects on our economy and on our nation's well-being. Nonetheless, if conservatives succeed in marginalizing anyone who does not toe the doctrinaire line of their free market ideology, they will lose an important--indeed the most central and precious--aspect of their creed: the faith in the virtue of individuals to make a good society for themselves, rather than the faith in an ideology to make a good society for us.

This is soooo strange, because I totally agree with the first few sentences. Yes, not bowing to the shrine of free market capitalism is a virtue in a politician on either side of the aisle. But then they sum up the “most central and precious” part of the conservative ethos as: the faith in the virtue of individuals to make a good society for themselves, rather than faith in an ideology to make a good society for us.” This seems to me like the ultimate credo of the free-market right and if it isn’t it is gibberish that is so unacceptably vague they wouldn’t even allow it on a fortune cookie. Seriously, they better have a non-crazy explanation for this.

The modern form of this debate goes back at least as far as Immanuel Kant, who articulated the core of the progressive faith when he argued that "a people of devils" could form a well-governed society, as long as those devils were intelligent--that is, as long as they believed in the correct ideology. Alexander Hamilton knew better. Hamilton warned that when virtue came to be considered "only a graceful appendage of wealth . . . the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard." Hamilton was one of the most ardent believers in the benefits of commerce among the Founding Fathers. And yet he was not an ideologue. He knew that rigorous adherence to any single idea was a recipe for political decline. Hamilton argued that a decent political order requires virtuous statesmen because the activity of politics demands moral intelligence, or what the ancient philosophers called prudence. Even the best-designed republic requires prudent leadership, and Hamilton knew there is no substitute for this virtue.

Sigh… first of all, what debate? You seriously have not even made remotely clear the distinction between your bizarre paean to virtue and “ideology”. And to compose this as a debate between Immanuel Kant and Alexander Hamilton?! You know what this paragraph is? This is the freshman who raises their hand in seminar and compares the poetry of Byron with the political writings of Machiavelli, which in turn gets them a pat on the back for “thinking outside of the box”. Sadly, this has the effect of creating adults who point out how similar “oranges” are to “lower marginal tax rates” in order to prove a point no one understands in the first place. If your point was: we should be more practical about our application of the “free market”, instead of just assuming it is the solution to any problem that might occur , that is a point well taken. However, this is not your point. Your point is that “virtue” is somehow the opposite of, better than, mutually exclusive from or somehow othered from “ideology” and all this without explaining what you mean by virtue. Job well done.

Conservatives need to defend free markets not as an ideology but as an aspect of policy that serves the purpose of allowing individual excellence to flourish. A defense of free markets as a means to a good society, rather than as an end in itself, has served us well in the past. The struggle against communism, for example, was not only, or even primarily, about free markets. It was about human dignity and the worth of a political order that allows individuals to live decent and virtuous lives. Freedom of enterprise is a part--but only a part--of that decent political order. The problem with absolute faith in any ideology, including that of the free market, becomes evident with a glance at the flagship publication of the libertarians, Reason magazine. It is no coincidence that Reason publishes hagiographies of Milton Freedman as well as pleas for drug legalization and appreciations of cartoon pornography: economic libertarianism, elevated to the status of inviolable first principle, leads to moral libertarianism.

That first sentence is amazing, I mean that is the basic ethos of every “free market” nutbar. “Individual excellence” is the core of every silly argument that the free marketistas make. So the big example here is the struggle against communism being about more than just the free market, but about “human dignity” and allowing “individuals to live decent and virtuous lives”. About the first part, I could not agree more, the battle against communism had virtue in that it was a fight against totalitarian, violent governance. The second part is weird and becomes clearer when you give examples of your problem with editors and writers of Reason: 1) His name is Milton Friedman; 2) we did not fight communism so that individuals could have the opportunity to not do drugs and not look at pornography. Your insane moral standards aside, the fight against the Soviet Union was about freeing individuals from an imposed economic and moral order, not to grant them your imaginary new moral order. This is seriously causing me cognitive dissonance, you are attacking the work done by Reason, which I applaud; but you are attacking them for fundamentally stupid reasons, which I do not. This whole article is like being pissed off at Yankees fans for not talking about their 26 World Championships enough or more accurately at Britney Spears for not having enough babies.

The moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism is poisonous to public life. By teaching that 'greed is good,' strict free-market ideology holds out the promise that private vices can be public virtues. Recent congressional history has laid bare the fallacy of this argument. Republicans who proclaimed from the stump that greed was good turned out to believe it when they got into office, amassing earmarks and bridges to nowhere by means of their newfound powers. Why should we be surprised? To expect them to do otherwise would be to expect that men sometimes risk their self-interest for the sake of the public good, which our economist friends tell us is impossible. Conservatives who forget that the free market is properly a piece of policy rather than an ideological end-in-itself not only obscure the importance of individual virtue, they undermine it.

There is little to disagree with in this paragraph (though not too many politicians probably gave stump speeches about how greed is good).

Many think that the conservative movement is currently on shaky ground. In a perceived crisis, it is a human temptation is to run to ideologies to save the day. But conservative thought will be impoverished if its advocates close themselves in the "clean and well-lit prison of one idea," as G. K. Chesterton warned. To do so would be to fall prey to the fallacy that theories can govern men. Men must govern men, and men have characters, good or bad, and those characters are decisive for how the country is led. The ideology of the economists leads far too many to sneer at the honest, if imperfect, attempts of a man to be virtuous and to put that virtue in the service of his country. More damaging than any of the particular quarrels with McCain is the evident cynicism of some public intellectuals toward the possibility of virtue in public life.

Here’s the thing, how is it even remotely possible to believe that some weird conception of “virtue” is not ideology. Unless Benjamin or Jenna Silber Storey have direct knowledge of God’s will or have somehow scientifically created a standard for virtue and a detector that can measure it, this is just a silly designation.

The mixed motives of even the most earnest public servant are a subject McCain himself examines with probity and insight in his book, Worth the Fighting For. Senator McCain is not perfect, but he has the priceless virtue of believing in virtue. He knows himself to be ambitious, but he also knows that to be honorable he must put his ambition in the service of something greater than himself: his country. Difficult as it is to embody virtue in action or define it in thought, conservatives must have the courage to acknowledge the reality of virtue and its necessary role in public life. Hamilton didn't think that virtue was an attractive ornament; he insisted that it was indispensable to republican government. Free-market ideologues, who pride themselves on their hard-headedness, are insufficiently hard-headed about this stubborn fact.

John McCain VI (Virtue Index): .76

.12 For being pro-life

.23 For being a war hero

.41 For believe virtue is a virtue

Other notable candidates’ VI: John Edwards: .24, Barack Obama .59, Mitt Romney: .15, George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic: .98 (Who knew?) But of course, keep in mind that we also need to consider Park Adjusted Virtue (PAV), Virtue Adjusted to Era (VI+) and OPS. So keep in mind libertarians, the reason you're wrong is that you just aren't crazy enough!

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