Saturday, September 27, 2008

Conservatives and Government

I was watching this talk again (if you haven't watched it yet, please, please do), and noticed that Haidt says something about conservatism that seems at odds with my understanding of it.
He says "Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed; they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions; they want order even at some cost to those on the bottom."

At first blush, this makes sense. But it highlights a contradiction: if conservatives honor institutions that promote order, then why is there such widespread loathing and disdain for government in conservative circles? Why aren't conservatives staunch defenders of government, given that it is the ultimate order-promoting institution we have?

Haidt seems to be saying that, at root, the distinction between liberals and conservatives isn't so much that they have different morals per se; it's that they have opposite polarities with respect to order and chaos. So how come it's the pro-chaos group that respects government, and the pro-order group that wishes it would just go away?

The word "institution" has multiple meanings:

2a: a signficant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture
2b: an established organization or corporation (as a bank or university) especially of a public character

So there is a more concrete, organizational interpretation, and a more abstract, behavioral interpretation. People who speak of marriage, for instance, as an institution, are relying on the abstract interpretation.

Perhaps conservatives do honor and respect the idea of government, as an institution in the abstract, but dislike the concrete organization that currently fills that role?

That's possible, but it's a perspective not unique to conservatives. There are plenty of liberals who also honor government in the abstract, but dislike, say, the Bush administration, or whatever other concrete incarnation of that abstraction currently exists.

The conservative attitude seems to go deeper. They don't seem to honor or respect even the idea of government. "That government is best which governs least" doesn't discriminate -- it's a statement of principle that applies equally well to representative democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, whatever.

So we're back where we started: government is vital to stability and order, yet it's also the favorite whipping boy of those whose morality is wired to value order and stability over fairness. How can this be?

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