Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Conservatism, Libertarianism, Progressivism,...Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand

A girlfriend asked me last night to help her understand the seeming contradictions being brought up in various news outlets concerning Paul Ryan's views of Ayn Rand and her philosophy.  Boy, I felt a little bit out of my depth, since on the political front, I am still pretty much playing ostrich, with my head in the sand. 

I really don't know what's up with me, since I have always struggled to control argumentative and somewhat tactless nature.  And historically I've had a huge interest in politics and political discourse and political history.  Of late, however, I've gotten tired of the unproductive discussion.  I've tired of trying to explain my views and then have people who think they know what I believe spit answers back at me based upon what they think I believe and how they think I come to my ideals.

And sometimes, I suspect, I unintentionally treat them the same, basing my arguments on what I think they believe.

It becomes a situation such as those about which we tell our kids, "If you each keep saying the same things, and you still disagree, you must either find a better way to communicate your ideas, or you have to be content to realize you disagree, but love each other anyway.  The discussion of the same disagreement over and over, quickly becomes bickering."

Sometimes I have time and energy to do my own research and study on various current topics of concern, and other times I must merely trust others.  When one is merely trusting others, her opinion is not based upon as strong a foundation as when she has done the research herself.  And since I'm not inclined to spend time on political research and study these days, I feel kind of like a fake when I get into such discussions.  My foundation is not as strong as it ought to be.  So I find myself avoiding such conversations.

Here I am then, after two years of "head in the sand" business, and someone is asking me to explain something to her.  I'm going to summarize here my reply, and I'd appreciate any further insights in the comments section.  But please, if you got to this post from facebook, leave the comments here, rather than on facebook, so they have a more permanent home.  I'd appreciate comments on the summaries I've given, but also on the particular issue of Paul Ryan's opinion of Ayn Rand's philosophies. 

I started my answer to my girlfriend straight off by saying that I could not speak particularly about Paul Ryan's views of Ayn Rand.  But that I could explain a little bit about how and why Conservatives like some of her philosophies, and why they have problems with other parts of her thinking.

We then got into a lengthier discussion of political terminology.  Keep in mind this whole discussion was kind of a primer, to introduce someone who is somewhat new to the whole public discourse on political issues and political history.  In case it makes a difference in understanding the following, this friend is also mostly on the conservative side of things.  She does not, however, have a great depth of vocabulary and historical knowledge base.  So that's why the bigger discussion came in.

Also please keep in mind that I am aware that, in the nature of a quick summary, stereotypes are always made; and therefore one must use caution when using such stereotypes for discussion.  An important aspect of this whole subject of political discourse is listen, listen, listen.  Please don't use my summaries to tell someone else what they believe and think.  But listen to them, and then try to understand from them what they believe and think.   Generalizations are never accurate for individuals; they can only describe tendencies.

1) Conservative:  The term is used today mostly by those who seek to return our nation to the rule of law established in our Constitution and its Amendments.  Some of the biggest issues today's Conservatives fight for are smaller federal government, lower taxes, less government regulation, states rights on issues that are not enumerated in the constitution as have been given to the federal governement.

2) Libertarian:  There are two main "kinds" of Libertarians, those who are Christian or have some other external standard of morality, and those who tend toward atheism and relativism.  People within the second group are not necessarily a-moral.  But their standard of morality is not based upon any historical tradition outside themselves. Each person's moral code, therefore, is seen as equally valid.

The Christian Libertarians are going to be quite similar to Conservatives.  A difference is that Conservatives tend to be less adamant about abolishing the federal laws that promote the Judeo-Christian morality that was the norm when our country was founded.  That's a little bit of a contradiction, but in a bigger discussion, I could probably explain it better.  We want to place people in office who share our moral vision, but we also would prefer any "enforcement" of that moral vision to come at the local levels rather than the national.  And we tend to go about that similar goal in a slightly different order of priority than would a Christian Libertarian.

The Libertarians share many small government economic and regulatory views with the Conservatives, but also take a stronger stand against government regulation of lifestyle than Conservatives tend to.

The relativistic/atheistic Libertarians also share the small government goals.  But because their morality is less structured, you might sense a more fatalistic or nihilistic attitude of dog-eat-dog-ness in their free market ideals.  There is a much stronger sense that people ought to be free to live and act how they want.  These people, mind you, do have a morality under which they live.  But there will be less inclination to talk about it, because each person has to establish his or her own moral code, so there is less commonality.  Also there is a much stronger sense that any and every morality is OK.  Each moral code is equally valid.

3) Progressive:  Progressives see the flaws and faults and failures in the free market system and seek to use experts and institutions and the government to solve them, rather than allowing or trusting individuals, families and other local entities to do so.  I tend to lump Progressives into two camps, also.  Again it's based upon religious foundations.  This is where this discussion will likely become offensive to those who hold the Progressive view.  But again, I'm on the outside of that view.  This is a summary, and I am willing to learn where I am wrong.

There are Progressives who genuinely seek to better the world, and genuinely think the government and the experts are capable of fulfilling this better than individuals.  Many of these people are Christians, or hold to the Judea-Christian moral code.  They understand and believe that bigger and better and more inclusive government programs are a valid option to show Christlike love to our neighbors.  They see the societal ill of people suffering, as trumping the societal ill of ignoring our legal foundations. 

But there are other, less noble or ethical Progressives.  Again, these tend to be those who espouse no organized religion and who find all morality relative.  These people are Marxist to their core.  Logically, since they have no moral code because they believe in no higher power, they believe that a "noble" end justifies any means.  But again, how does one define "noble", under this Godless philosophy?

These people will use any person or people group and any situation as they see fit.  Their primary goal is to maintain their power.  We are seeing in America today, an accelerating use of the standard Marxist ploys in the currents of society and government.  This faction of the Progressive movement imprison people in dependency under the guise of generosity and care.  They provoke and nurture class warfare and jealousy.  They take advantage of crises, or even perceived crises, to grab more and more power.  They twist the truth in order to forward their agenda, because remember any means justifies their "noble" end.   It's not wrong to lie and deceive when you're trying to help people.

But all this, these people do under the mantle of those same Progressive ideals that the religious Progressives promote out of genuine love for others.  They cloak their talk in terms of love and peace and betterment.  But they see themselves as the brokers who ought to define what those same terms mean for each person, group and situation.

After that introduction to some of the political terminology that is active in the current discussion, I continued to explain to my friend the different levels at which one might claim adherence to or defend Conservatism.

From the legal angle, adherence to the Constitution and its Amendments is a goal.  Conservatives like to live according to the rules.  They feel that society is more stable and therefore more peaceful and prosperous when the rule of law is followed. And becasue they tend to believe in respect for authority, they consider following the Constitution to be the morally right way to govern.

From the academic or philosophical angle, Conservatives can explain based upon the long standing principles of free market capitalism, limited government, freedom, positive human rights, etc. why our system works.  And in a lengthier discussion, I could explain why we don't see capitalism as greedy or selfish or cold-hearted.  Let me summarize this aspect by saying that we believe in the intrinsic morality of individuals making their own choices for their altruism and their business dealings.  We believe that although there will under any system be bad people doing bad things, that more people are benefited when individuals rather than the government make more of the choices for people.

From the historical angle, Conservatives believe that history bears out the futility of solving societal problems with bigger government. Simply put, whenever and wherever it's been tried, it has failed.  People work less diligently when they are heavily taxed and heavily regulated.  There is an ever increasing number of people needing government help and and ever decreasing number of prosperous businesses and individuals to foot the bill.  People under such increasing government largess, do progressively fewer individual acts of altruism, and they gradually care less and less about their neighbors, since the governments and institutions can provide what others need.  "That's what the programs are for." 

From an economic angle, and somewhat related to the historical, Conservatives believe that wealth creation comes from individuals not the government.  Everyone's standard of living benefits from greater freedom, less regulation, and lower taxes.  From a purely economic analysis, in an institutional system of social programs, there is a huge cost involved in administering such programs.  Time and time again, the private sector has been shown to do a more efficient job of administering such programs.  But this focus on "the bottom line," when isolated from the bigger principles of Conservatism, can easily leave the impression that Conservatism is all about money.

In a word, Conservatives believe that history bears out the idea that big government is unsustainable from both an economic, and an ethical or moral stand.  Both prosperity and morality decrease as government control and social programs increase.  Freedom, motivation, and happiness itself is sacrificed when government is bigger and more invasive.

To bring this back now to Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand, again, I can't speak specifically to that.  But I can say that Conservatives tend to agree with Rand on the economic principles of small government and free markets.  But we also tend to demand a morality based upon the Judeo-Christian moral code that was the norm when our country was founded.  The founding fathers and other thinkers of that era wrote often that this system of government, and its economic and societal freedoms, would only work as long as the populace held to that same standard. 

This is not the same, mind you, as making laws to enforce a certain religion.  Each person's eternal well-being, and their views on the meaning of life in general, must never be codified by government.  But for a free society to work well, there must be some tradition of shared morality.

I suspect that Paul Ryan would agree with that.

The following quote is one of my favorites to explain how conservatives see morality working within the freedoms established in our founding documents.  It's from a letter John Adams wrote to rally the troops of the Massachusetts Militia.  But this little nugget of a quote is not nearly as good as the whole, so take a moment later to read the whole thing.

"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

The great French proponent of classical liberalism, Alexis de Tocqueville, toured America to discover the secrets of her greatness, and perhaps put them to use in his native land during her struggles and revolutions. He wrote extensively about his discoveries in the two volume, Democracy in America.  About morality in America, he wrote, "America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."

Those ideas must frame any discussion of Conservative principles as opposed to the principles of Libertarianism.  Conservatives will promote and strive for the limited government ideals espoused in our Constitution and her Amendments.  We will base arguments upon the historical wisdom and philosophies held to by those who founded our country.  But we will stop short of holding to any philosophy that is based upon a shifting or relativist morality.  In order for our system to work well and properly, there must be right and wrong.


Paul Schmidt said...

An excellent essay, I enjoyed reading it.
A couple minor quibbles, if I may...
You write that Christian Progressives "see the societal ill of people suffering, as trumping the societal ill of ignoring our legal foundations." In my experience, progressives (not just the Christian variety) don't see bypassing legal restrictions as a societal ill at all, rather, it's just a problem to be solved via some exercise in (il)logic.
With regards to the Marxist Progressives, I think there may be two categories here. I've had numerous debates with people of this ideology, and what one may call the 'rank and file' Progressives firmly believe their goals are inherently noble, but the are not power grabbers. They become, for want of a better term, the useful idiots for the actual power-seekers, but they are unaware of filling that role (and, as well, of other unintended consequenses of thier favored policies).
I have to say, though, I got a bit lost at the first sentence of your last paragraph. I don't see that Conservative principals are necessarily opposed to Libertarian principals, generally speaking. Libertarians are Constitutional Constructionists/Originalists, so there shouldn't be much argument there. Yes, there are plenty of Randian libertarians -Objectivists, actually - who are athiest, but end up operationally Conservative in many ways. (For the record, I don't think Ryan is an Objectivist; one needn't be one to find much to like in Rand's writings.) Or am I missing a point, here?

theMom said...

Thanks for the input, Paul. I always like to hear and respect your opinions.

That last paragraph was not so much a "opposed to" in any general way, but specific to the original sentences of the post, ... that this friend had asked me to explain the contradictory things she was hearing. One person in her life listens to NPR, so was hearing all about Ryan's alleged adherence to Rand's principles which include, again allegedly, her less morally based principles.

A second person in her life listens to conservative talk radio, so had a totally different take on Ryan.

I, having my head currently in the sand, could only address those things within Conservatism and Libertarianism that could be seen as opposed to each other, in order to make a guess at what might be portrayed as opposite takes on Ryan's views of Rand.

Does that make sense? I ought to have been more clear.

Paul Schmidt said...

Ah, I see now. I think the question could be answered with a lot less philosophy. :-)

PBS, a left-leaning media outlet, is ascribing Ayn Rand's athiest philosophy to Ryan in an attempt to diminish Ryan amongst Christian Conservatives.

Although Ryan has said that he's been influenced by Ayn Rand, he's clearly a staunch Christian, and I don't think a significant number of Conservatives are fooled. PBS' liberal audience are heartened, however. And, I hope, in for a rude awakening this November. :-)

theMom said...

Haha, yes. I am always too wordy. My "too much information" filter is faulty. :-)