May 22, 2003

Right-Wing Political Philosophy

Daniel Davies -- a fat young man without a good word for anyone -- explains right-wing political philosophy to us. I have compressed his argument into Powerpoint format:

  • The single most sensible thing said in political philosophy in the twentieth century was JK Galbraith's aphorism that the quest of conservative thought throughout the ages has been "the search for a higher moral justification for selfishness".
  • Some rightwingers are not hypocrites because they admit that their basic moral principle is "what I have, I keep".
  • Some rightwingers are hypocrites because they pretend that "what I have, I keep" is always and everywhere the best way to express a general unparticularised love for all sentient things.
  • Then there are the tricky cases where the rightwingers happen to be on the right side because we haven't yet discovered a better form of social organisation than private property for solving several important classes of optimisation problem.

Posted by DeLong at May 22, 2003 01:02 PM | TrackBack



Posted by: anne on May 22, 2003 01:34 PM

As conservative philosophy plays out in real life, it brings wide spread prosperity to the most people in an economy.

As left-wing philosophy plays out in real life, only the politicians and the bureaucrats become rich. Everyone else is poor.

Posted by: Jake on May 22, 2003 02:39 PM

Jake, you really mean that for all conservative philosophy? Including slavery, monarchism, fascism, imperialism, colonialism, segregation and child labour? And for all liberal philosophy? Including representative democracy, civil rights, child protection laws, public schools, student loans, unemployment insurance, government funded scientific research, bank regulation, food labelling laws, anti-pollution laws and public health services?

Wow. I didn't think there really was anyone who actually thought that way.

Posted by: Scott Martens on May 22, 2003 02:52 PM

>...the quest of conservative thought throughout the ages has been "the search for a higher moral justification for selfishness".

...the quest of socialist thought throughout the ages has been "the search for a higher moral justification for appropriation".

Posted by: Bucky Dent on May 22, 2003 03:04 PM

The search for the psychological pathology behind the other guy's political views has a long history. I think this itself might have a (pathological?) psychological explanation...

Posted by: stefan on May 22, 2003 03:21 PM

Daniel discusses the Grover Norquist philosophy.
Molly Ivins depicts a different kind of conservative philosophy as practiced in TX and much of the South in this interview with Bill Moyers.

MOYERS: I want to put this on the screen, so our viewers can see it. And then you tell me if it's true or not. These are the words of a state representative from Houston named Debbie Riddle. Quote: "Where did this idea come from, that everybody deserves free education? Free medical care. Free whatever? It comes from Moscow. From Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell." Now, do you know that that's true or not? Or is that just a work of fiction?

IVINS: No. That's absolutely true. That's one of our finer state representatives, not fully au courant on where the idea of free public education comes from.

MOYERS: You're talking about people who won the election. Republicans hold every statewide office in Texas now. They wouldn't be acting like this, would they, if they didn't have popular support?

IVINS: The Texas Republican party has been completely taken over by the Christian right. You're not looking at any kind of old-time Republicans. You're not looking at like, Poppy Bush Republicans, or people you would think of like that.

These people really believe that public institutions should be destroyed. They're trying to destroy the schools. They're trying to destroy the welfare system. They don't think government should be used to help people.

And it's really not because they're mean. They really think that government is bad. And that we should be doing all this on our own, through the churches. Well, the fact that that's not doable, that it's impossible, that it's an absurd proposition, is not something you can talk to these people about. It's like trying to talk to followers of David Koresh.

…IVINS: Well, part of the difference is, we've had 30 to 40 years of Republicans saying, "Government is bad government, can't do anything right. Government could screw up a two-car funeral. Everything they do is wrong. Blah, blah, blah."

And you know, before that, most people remember from the Depression, when their lives were just in dire chaos and misery, it was the government that came and helped. It was the government that got them WPA jobs, and got them on food allocations, and stuff like that.

MOYERS: You have described the people in power in Texas as the perfect unpoliticians. Unpoliticians. What do you mean by that?

IVINS: Well, you know, there's such a contempt for politicians in this country any more. That I almost feel embarrassed sometimes, to stand up and say — right in front of God and everybody — that I actually like politicians.

MOYERS: So do I.

IVINS: And good politicians compromise. And they work together to get things done. They try to move the ball. And it really doesn't matter much whether you're on the right or on the left.

Real politicians, you know, Republicans, Democrats, they work together all the time, then go out and have a beer together. That's been the way it's been done. But now what we're getting is people elected to public office who have no sense of compromise. Who are so possessed by their certitude, and their sense of self-righteousness, as though they were on a mission from God.

And much of it is related to religion. That they feel entitled to run over other people. They feel that they have absolutely entitled to impose their views on other people, not only without compromise, without discussion, Bill.

Posted by: bakho on May 22, 2003 03:36 PM

"Then there are the tricky cases where the rightwingers happen to be on the right side because we haven't yet discovered a better form of social organisation than private property for solving several important classes of optimisation problem."

Oh, what's "tricky" about how they "happen" to be right? They are just right, er, correct, that's all. It's actually rather simple.

Although no doubt the leftwingers' basic principle "What you have, we take" is morally superior, because the leftwingers say so -- even if for some tricky reason it did happen to produce the results listed in the Black Book of Communism.

'Cause all that was mitigated by good intentions. ;-)

Posted by: Jim Glass on May 22, 2003 03:47 PM

I like this site a lot and often agree with the criticisms of my own side and the arguments it makes. But Davies' comments are just plain dumb. The 'conservative' view of economic affairs is largely based on the philosophical views expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution -- that you've got a right to life, liberty AND property, and government had better have a darn good reason before they start restricting those rights. Are there darn good reasons to do so? Sure. But are there a lot of crappy reasons, and do people on the left use those crappy reasons to try to take things that don't belong to them and otherwise control people's lives? You bet. Let's not start taking it for granted that people have rights, and that these rights include property rights.

Posted by: AGB on May 22, 2003 04:24 PM

Those people are NOT conservatives. Those are the right wing seekers after change who wished to appropriate the mantle of conservatism as a cover, then to replace it as it wore threadbare.

REAL conservatives are what Disraeli described, and they are not seeking justifications and formal structures for change of any sort, let alone in their favour. They are pleased by any incidental rewards of doing their perceived duty. This duty is of an organic rather than a mechanistic sort, a kind of weeding and gardening to eliminate harm while letting right prevail though its own internally sufficient and externally undirected logic. They see such incidental and not explicitly sought benefits as indications of the general correctness of an approach that had not been and did not need to be thought through and planned formally. But to impose a conscious purpose in one's own favour would distort the value of that feedback - the selfish gain might proceed from the attained selfishness rather than any inherent merit.

You in the USA don't HAVE any conservatives, or at any rate none that show on the radar. You have devoured them by loosing right wingers on them while left wingers did nothing to save those who were all that stood between them and the devourers, mistaking their natural defence for their enemy.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on May 22, 2003 04:26 PM

AGB Property laws have plenty of unintended consequences. The US has struggled with land and copyright law for example. I think that calling Daniel Davies, Michael Oakeshott, JK Galbraith and the Duc de la Rochefoucauld dumb is an act of hubris.

I think the point is about selectivity and motivation, not pure effects. Suppose that there were a list of ten policies that were generally agreed to be good, the argument is that the conservative would take the five that were best for his bank account. The radical would choose those that most agreed with his utopia. Everyone feels totally justified and will react with disbelief and incomprehension if the obvious rightness of their policies is not understood when frequently they just represent how good things would have to be if no compromise would be necessary. Rarely will the drift the different emphases cause be directly addressed but that is what this discussion is doing.

I think that sounds obscure but it happens all the time. Attacking Iraq gets justified because it is ruled by an evil dictator, there are nasty weapons and it is a threat to the stability of the world oil markets. All of these things are true but Saddam is not the worst dictator, Iraq didn't have the most WMDs, nor was it in breach of most UN resolutions. Why was it attacked?

Posted by: Jack on May 22, 2003 05:32 PM

Economic Libertarianism is based on two pillars; 1)that free market capitalism maximizes societal income or production and therefore is the best economic system and 2)that individual freedom and intellectual liberty are unalienable rights.

The real world problems with the notion of aggregate wealth being the proper measure of the success of a political economy are several. During the recent tax cut debate the Krugman point about averages vs means reminds that total "utility" requires weighing both aggregate and distributive considerations (not all $350 billion tax cuts are equal). A pervading sense of economic security may be greater, but unmeasured, in one society deemed poorer than another. Perhaps life expectancy or population growth is the true measure of societal economic success.

In order to have a capitalistic society you must have a society with a stable government. Employment rates affect the political stability of democracies differently than plutocracies.

Whether freedom and liberty are unalienable rights requires conclusions to questions concerning the existance of God, the nature of time, etc. and are beyond the scope of this comment section - of course the host may wish to
post the answer.

Posted by: CMike on May 22, 2003 06:34 PM

Jim Glass, recalibrate your irony detector. D2 was trying to be funny, as he often does. D2 is also a Brit and is not bound in any way by the US constitution.

PM Lawrence: I "devoured the conservatives by loosing the right wingers on them?" Moi? What happened to individual responsibility? I suppose I killed the Kennedys too.

Posted by: zizka on May 22, 2003 06:41 PM

I think that's a little unfair to principled conservatives (George Bush Jr. need not apply). Conservatism just means not changing things unless you're absolutely sure they are broken. The conservatives in the US are now the Dems - they want to keep things more or less as they are. The Republicans are reactionaries - they want to (and have been remarkably succesful in doing so) get rid of the New Deal and roll the US back to the pre-1920's. Inasmuch as they have been succesful (especially in repealing or weakening all the of the financial protections governing the securities markets) the 90's were the 20's in many important senses.

Now the question is whether or not we're going to have to go through the 30's again - with a reactionary at the helm. Imagine Hoover in charge during the Great Depression.

And laugh, that you might not weep.

Posted by: Ian Welsh on May 22, 2003 07:37 PM


I notice that you haven't stated whether or not you support this - in my view, ludicrous - argument. Do you? If you do, it takes you down several notches on my respect-o-meter.

There is a very large school of "conservatives" whose beliefs stem not from any sort of self-interest, but from principled consideration of human nature. This school considers that government, having a legal monopoly on the use of massive force, is at best a necessary evil, and at worst a deadly tyranny over the governed, and as such best limited to handle only those roles that it is indisputably best fitted to deal with. Insofar as this school of thought can be considered "conservative", it is so only with regards to late 19th century political philosophy. Perhaps you've heard of it; it's called "classical liberalism".

As far as the argument from self-interest goes, it is about as justified as the one that says that all "progressives" everywhere are motivated by Nietzschen ressentiment of their betters, and a wish to see the high brought low at any cost. I know for a fact, given the tax records that you disclosed on this site not so long ago, that you make a great deal more than I do, and yet I am against the sort of tax-structure you consider ideal. Given our relative financial positions and "self-interest", shouldn't it be the other way around? Does the fact it isn't make us both dupes? I'd like to think otherwise.

Again, I note that you seem to have been careful not to state whether or not you agree with the porcine curmudgeon. If you don't, I don't want to seem as if I'm putting words in your mouth, so my apologies in advance. Daniel Davies' argument just strikes me as one of daftest it is possible to advance, and likely to appeal only to the most braindead left-wing ideologues.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on May 22, 2003 08:08 PM

I think some of you conservatives here are taking this too seriously. It's like Doonesbury. It's supposed to be *funny,* with a decent bit of truth to it (by our way of thinking). It's not supposed to be a real argument, and certainly not a comprehensive indictment of conservative political philosophy in 100 words or less... :)

Posted by: Ali Soleimani on May 22, 2003 08:34 PM

Well, I was trying to be funny too. But the people responsible for overwhelming the good conservatives are the bad conservatives who overwhelmed them, not everyone in the whole US of A.

It may be an American idiom, though. In the South you have "y'all" for the plural you. In the north it would be "you guys" or the like if disambiguation is needed. (And around here in Oregon at least, "guys" can include females or indeed be all females.)

Posted by: zizka on May 22, 2003 08:47 PM

For a quick internal worldview snapshot, I always liked,

"I got mine, it was entirely merit, luck had nothing to do with it, and I don't owe anything to anybody."

The concepts of luck and market failure never seem to enter their minds.

Posted by: BrilliantIdiot on May 23, 2003 04:44 AM

While most of my ideological commitments are liberal, I consider the biggest virtue of the presence of a conservative force its demanding that liberalism really work at justifying itself, to prevent bad use of coercion. In other words, it's coercive power at work in restraining coercive power.

And Nozick can hardly be thought of as trying to justify selfishness. ;)

Posted by: Walter on May 23, 2003 05:09 AM

Alan KH,

These terms are mostly relative approximations to political situation. Fascism was historically born from military organization, and against communism. And the military is on the right. On the other hand, I do not think that Adam Smith was on the right.


Posted by: Antoni Jaume on May 23, 2003 06:44 AM

How about this Orwell's quote for the most sensible thing said in political philosophy in the 20th century? Speaking of sawing away the branch of traditional ideas on which man is seated:

"But unfortunately, there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a a bed of roses, but a cesspool full of barbed wire."

Posted by: maciej on May 23, 2003 06:48 AM

"Why is it that fascism is consigned to the right when fascism has less in common with Adam Smith than it has with Vladimir Lenin?"

Credit where it is due. It was Stalin who advocated the elimination of the kulaks as a class. Millions died of the famine that resulted from the ensuing grain seizures and enforced collectivization. But then as Lenin said: You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Posted by: Bob Briant on May 23, 2003 06:59 AM

This "us vs them" business always brings out the best in people.

I know it isn't entirely what Davies said, but in large measure the topic at hand, that is keeping this string going, but still, zizka is right. This is that irony stuff that (in another recent discussion at this location, we all learned) Brits think they are so much better at than Yanks. Please, please quit proving the Brits right!!!

Posted by: K Harris on May 23, 2003 07:02 AM

JKG's one insightful remark:

"Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism, the reverse is true."

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on May 23, 2003 07:50 AM

Jim, Adam Smith certainly thought that this was a tricky issue in morality so I'd invite you to consider it again.

I'd note that the proposal that property rights and market exchange will create the best outcomes always and everywhere is something genuinely deserving of the name "fundamentalism", while the proposal that they are the best social invention that we have come up with so far is something that even Karl Marx wouldn't disagree with.

Posted by: dsquared on May 23, 2003 10:15 AM


JKG had more than one insightful remark. For instance (this is a paraphrase from memory):

"Everyone, industrialist and union leader alike, thinks market discipline is a great thing -- for everyone else."

Examples of this are too frequent to be funny.

Posted by: Karl on May 23, 2003 01:38 PM

By the way, I posted an extended reply from a conservative perspective at the BrothersJudd: The post is titled, "WHO'S SELFISH?"

Posted by: pj on May 23, 2003 05:46 PM

Daniel Davies -- a fat young man without a good word for anyone --

That nailed it right there.

Posted by: Lee on May 23, 2003 06:09 PM

Invisible hand, nothing. All the "free market" stuff is for the birds and consumption by us gullible foreigners.

"The first marketable [semiconductor] chips were not produced until 1961, but they were so expensive compared with transistors that they had no commercial market. Nonetheless, the timing was fortuitous. President John F Kennedy had just committed the United States to a landing on the moon by the end of the decade. The new ICs [integrated circuits] would be critical to the space program's success and to related military technologies. The US government, and especially the Department of Defense, became the first major chip customer and constituted the entire market for ICs until 1964." - from David Yoffie: International Trade and Competition; McGraw-Hill (1990) p. 390.

That was neither the first nor last example of the US government, and especially the Department of Defense, applying defense spending to underwrite the research, design, development and marketing risks of innovative technologies. Designing and building the B-47 and B-52 bombers helped towards the design and assembly plant costs of making civil airliners. The SEMATECH technology support program, launched in 1987 by Caspar Weinberger, was intended to regenerate IC chip design and the design and manufacture of the associated manufacturing equipment industries the US - but with questionable effectiveness in the event, according to Richard Lester: Productive Edge (1998).

Nanotechnology is lining up for DOD handouts right now.

Posted by: Bob Briant on May 23, 2003 08:35 PM

Brad, I can picture you sitting back and laughing as you read this thread. I fell off my chair a few times as I read through it.

Posted by: Rook on May 23, 2003 10:07 PM

Anyone remotely familiar with 20th century US legal ideas on property rights must surely know that the notion that private property is a solution for various classes of optimization problems is downright silly.


ps why does the blog program now want my email address? i already have enough spam thank you very much...

Posted by: Ian on May 24, 2003 10:52 AM

"Jim Glass, recalibrate your irony detector. D2 was trying to be funny, as he often does. "

Aw, you didn't see my smiley? ;-)

It's easy to tell when D2 is having fun, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's kidding.

"Jim ... I'd note that the proposal that property rights and market exchange will create the best outcomes always and everywhere is something genuinely deserving of the name "fundamentalism"..."

Well, if I ever meet a person who thinks property rights and market exchange create the best outcomes *always and everywhere* I'll remember that and call him the "fundamentalist" he is. But I've never met such a person yet.

BTW, with your affinity for propping up straw men, have you thought of taking up a hobby like, oh, scarecrow design? ;-) [<-- smiley = kidding!]

Posted by: Jim Glass on May 24, 2003 10:24 PM

Funny, Jim, I meet those guys all the time. What's your address? I'll send you the next bunch I run into.

A libertarian who has taken a few undergrad econ courses and worked them into a personal religious belief is a wondrous thing.

Posted by: zizka on May 25, 2003 10:24 AM

That's the single most sensible thing said in political discourse in an entire century? My goodness.

It's certainly a provocative thought, but why is it that I notice you could change the word "selfishness" to "freedom" or "individuality" the statement would be equally interesting and provocative--and, to some ears, the same exact statement?

Lowering taxes is a very high political priority for me. It is a virtual certainly that Brad DeLong makes considerably more money than I do, yet I would be very happy to see his taxes cut, even if that means he gets more money back than I do. Now, is that selifsh of me?

But then, I've long maintained that today's "conservatives" aren't really conservative at all. Indeed, I think Brad's the conservative, when you get right down to it.

Posted by: Dean Esmay on May 25, 2003 07:31 PM

Radical-conservative-libertarians simply have no concern for anyone other than themselves. Let us keep on cutting taxes folks until there is just enough revenue left for defense. The hell with Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, Public Schools, Veteran's Benefits, Public Roads and Bridges, etc etc. Cut cut cut. I is a looney radical-conservative-libertarian. Grrrrrr.

Posted by: lise on May 26, 2003 11:51 AM

Zizka, Jim - I've also run into many people who believe that markets always provide the best result, and that any interference with the market whatsoever is EVIL. It's next to impossible to have rational political discussions with such people.

Posted by: aphrael on May 28, 2003 12:01 AM

Funny, I don't make much money, and I want to cut taxes because I believe that's the best way to help everybody.

How is such a thing possible? I must be a brainwashed fool, or semi-literate, or something.

Posted by: Dean Esmay on May 29, 2003 10:53 PM

"Zizka, Jim - I've also run into many people who believe that markets always provide the best result, and that any interference with the market whatsoever is EVIL. It's next to impossible to have rational political discussions with such people."

Hmm. Let's start taking bets on how long Mark Bahner's screed/response to this statement is...

Posted by: andres on June 2, 2003 01:36 AM

Considering the way that political definitions evolved over the last century in the USA it seems communication is stifled muchtime due to the incoherence of the nomenclature. The latest article i've read amongst a long line of commentary in regard to this conundrum:

Posted by: reader on June 3, 2003 08:55 PM
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