Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why Socialists Don't Understand What Makes Conservatives Tick

Over the past few years my sympathies for Kenysian economics, the welfare state and big government paternalism have evaporated like the mist on Pog Lake in the morning sun. Instead of viewing the Christian position as poised midway between a liberal kind of politics (on the environment and economics) and a conservative kind of politics (on the family, civil society and the sanctity of life), I have become increasingly sympathetic to the conservative position across the board.

I still view consumer capitalism in the form it has assumed in the past two centuries as a degenerate philosophy over-influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and a materialistic worldview. It tends to reduce all things to commodities - even people - and is destructive of the family and the influence of the Church. But not everything the left labels "capitalism" is bad. Much of what the left labels as "capitalist" actually pre-dates the Enlightenment by centuries and is the good fruit of Christendom - like the concept of private property, limited government, the division of powers, the widespread distribution of property, free enterprise, etc.

In order to make this less abstract, try to follow me on this thought experiment. My father ran a furniture refinishing and upholstery business for over 30 years. It was a small enterprise started on a shoestring and a bank loan, but it provided a living for my family and sent me to college. (I was the first person in my family to attend college.) It also provided jobs for 6-8 other people, who were well paid according to what they would have made at comparable jobs elsewhere (i.e. they received a "living wage"). Customers were provided with a good service; my father was known around town for doing the best quality work and those who wanted high quality were happy to pay more if he would do their work.

Now, according to socialism, my father was an immoral capitalist who extracted profit from the labour of the craftsmen and labourers who worked for him. They give no credit to him for the fact that he took the risks, put a mortgage on his home to keep the business going and had the initiative, energy and business skills to start and run a business and meet payroll every week. For all that, he deserved nothing more than a salary determined by the state; that is socialism. I think it is obvious why I find socialism to be a myth born of envy, fueled by greed, and steeped in irrationality. (And those are just its best points!)

Now, consider the multi-national, chemical company that located its chemical factory in Bophal, India and then had a terrible accident that killed and maimed many people. Did it locate there because health and safety regulations were less stringent and so endanger the lives of the locals for the sake of excess profit? I don't know, but let's say they did. Whether they did in this case or not, you would have to be naive to think similar things don't happen in sweatshops across the third world every day of the week. Now, this is dispicable; there is no way to sugar coat this evil exploitation of men, women and children just for the sake of extra profit. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote to Timothy that the love of money is the root of all evil.

But here is why socialists look stupid to conservatives; two reasons. First, socialists lump all business together as if capitalism were one big system and there is no difference between my father's business and the chemical factory. Yes, I know many socialists would reply by saying that they only want to nationalize the large corporations and leave small businesses alone. Well, you can't blame conservatives for being a bit suspicious about that. We all know what Marxist-Leninist ideology did to the peasant farmers in the Ukraine in 1933. So maybe, if the socialists got power they would leave small business alone; then again maybe not. But in order to satisfy the endless appetite of the state for taxes to fund the entitlement programs and re-distribution of wealth, can anyone seriously believe that small business would not be taxed out of existence? (Or if the government was really crafty, within an inch of their lives?) The Canadian government seems to be in the process of perfecting this art and the socialists have never even obtained power at the national level yet.

Second, a lot of academics in particular and social elites in general think conservatives are stupid. Yet the reality is that a lot of conservatives who abhor the chemical factory's actions have thought the issue through and concluded that the solution to this problem is for third world governments, with the cooperation and support of first world governments, to adopt health and safety standards comparable to those of the first world. This is the proper role of government. Yes, I know that is hard, but it is possible at least in the long run. The socialist solution is to destroy capitalism because of its flaws; but that is like tearing down the house because there is mold in one of the walls. We have a mold problem, but we aren't going to tear the house down; we are going to renovate the bathroom. It makes more sense to strip down to the frame and eliminate the mold; its cheaper (and takes less resources thus helping the environment!).

A lot of socialists seem to imagine that flaws invalidate the capitalist system but that flaws in the socialist system don't invalidate the socialist system. Why? Because socialism is rational and capitalism is pure evil, which means that my father's business was "pure evil." You have to be very highly educated (i.e. indoctrinated) in order to believe this level of nonsense.

Socialists criticize the violence inherent in the capitalist system; but maybe the truth is that violence is inherent in a fallen human race. Maybe it isn't capitalism that is responsible for all the evils of the world; maybe it's people. And it will still be people running the socialist state.

Frankly, I don't think socialists understand conservatives or their way of thinking. I don't think they give conservatives credit for thinking through the issues. They cannot for the life of them understand why the working class supports the "party of big business" and they cannot understand why conservatives can't see that socialism is in their best interests.

I think it all comes down to worldview. Conservatives understand one thing that liberals and socialists do not; that life is tragic. Of course, Christian conservatives know that ultimately, if you count eternity, it is a comedy. But in this age, between the first and second comings of Christ, utopia is not possible, hard choices must be made and human nature is not perfectible. Their obsession with class warfare and utopian dreams renders socialists unable to understand conservatives and what makes them tick. It is a different philosophy of history and a different philosophy of human nature. It is a lot deeper than selfish interests and economic motivations.


On the side of the angels said...

This is the kind of posturing I hate - the automatic presumption that socialism and left-of-centre politics has to follow the american model of corresponding morality when it comes to the family, sexual mores and the culture of death versus the dignity and sanctity of life....
Why does every amercian naturally opine that the intrinsic soical teachings within Rerum Novarum, Quadragesima Anno, Pacem in Terris, Populorum Progressio, Solicitudio rei Socialis and caritas in veritate are axiomatically precluded from the political arena because they are invariably aligned in the US with pro-gay, pro-death anti-family and pro-positive discrimination politics ???!!!
It's insane !
Why should some maniacal neo-con who's pro-war, pro-capital punishment, anti-welfare [i.e. anti the actuation of the corporal works of mercy for the nation's dispossessed and disenfranchised] be considered as conducive to catholicism merely because they're pro-family and pro-life?
Yes Life is the fundamental principle - no catholic can support anyone who acts, promotes or legislates anything contrary to the sanctity of life - but as well as abortion and euthanasia this also includes the judicial murder of capital punishment [i.e. not a death penalty exercised in the self-defence of the individual, community or state, but the execution of an incarcerated individual [who is neither an immediate or direct threat to life] as punishment]] or the instigators of an illegal unjust war [that's judicial murder and an automatically excommunicable offence!]
We can't keep equivocating with either left or right when Catholicism is vehemently defiantly against BOTH!!!
You're forever being told that a third political force in the US would come to nothing against the massive binary sytem you've had thrust upon you - that is a lie ! You're catholics and you should become a political force AS CATHOLICS !
I suggest you actually start arguing for the entirety of Catholicism...and if that means fighting republican and democrat all the way ? So be it !!!

David said...

On the side of the...(do you mind if I just call you Paul?) are you saying that Christianity in America seems to be excessively polarised along strictly political lines, lines which equally - if differently - distort the truth of the gospel and the reality of God? If so I would broadly agree. I'm sure someone must've written about it somewhere, because I suppose that in England politics and religion are constitutionally entwined in such a way that there is no specific fear that religion will bleed into politics; kind of like the way in which nominal Christianity enables people to mentally assent to a belief system without having to give what we might consider more genuine commitment. In America, as I understand it, religion is not allowed to influence politics at an official level and so (like the return of the repressed) haunts American politics on both sides. (I would add though that I don't necessarily agree with Christianity's nominal role in British politics, after all, hypocrisy is hardly a virtue! And also, it's interesting to see the rise of Islam as a political force in the UK because suddenly we are confronted with a radicalised religious community unashamed of their - frankly abhorrent - politics).
In his defence though I don't think that Craig is supporting the "conservative" party in America because in his head they are equal to the gospel, or even necessarily resemble the gospel; rather conservativism represents for him a sensible refuge from the excesses (often kindly meant - though not always) of Enlightenment modernity as played out in socialist ideologies. Of course, there is a temptation (and not one I think he - or his arch-enemy Halden - always avoids) to conflate politics with his faith in Christ, as though a good or perfect political system were in any way efficacious in dealing with the human heart. Anyway, I am rambling now.

David said...

I was joking about calling Halden your arch-enemy; he's more of a nemesis.

Craig Carter said...

Is a nemesis better than an arch-enemy? It still sounds scary.

Craig Carter said...

On the Side,
Lord forgive me, but "posturing"? As in I'm on the side of the angels? (I'm just teasing!)

I have great sympathy for your concern that Catholic social teaching is not represented well in either of the two sides in American politics. You are quite right to be frustrated.

I do think, however, that conservatives like me have no greater problem than those who would align with the Democratic Party in trying to be authentically Christian across the spectrum of issues. I am more of a Distributist than a Capitalist myself.

But if you would assume that the best way to implement Catholic social teaching on the common good and fairness to the working class is to have a European-style, socialist, nanny state, however, I would question you. (I don't know your opinion.) I think the principle of subsidiarity and the encouragement of civil society is part of the solution. Even today, one third of the hospitals in the US are run by the Catholic Church. This drives statists crazy, but I think it is healthy that the federal government does not control them directly and totally.

So all I can say is that I'm really open to non-statist and non-capitalist solutions to social problems. For example, I think the Co-op Movement, which started in Nova Scotia is a very healthy thing and should be more widespread.

Kevin said...

Just wanted to chime in my agreement that socialism is not the answer (and that it seems like conservatives are not really understood by the left). I would say though that I don't think it helps to get huffy and call socialists stupid. I've met too many smart liberals to think all liberals stupid (and too many dumb conservatives to think all conservatives smart). Intelligent people find themselves on both ends of the debate.

As for the economy, I think the solution to the problem economically is a move towards smaller more localized economies. I don't really think this can be done by the government. Certainly socialism isn't the solution.

What needs to happen is a grassroots move towards small business and more stable, non-growth based economics.

The only place the government has in this is to stop giving massive benefits tax-wise to megabusiness (agrobusiness in particular).

Many of my thoughts on this issue come from the book Deep Economy

Craig Carter said...

I agree with everything you said. I've not read Deep Economy, but I'm putting it on the list. It sounds like it has some things in common with Distributism.

Anything that favors widespread property ownership and small business run by owners sounds good to me.