Internal values vs. external policies

Posted by – February 20, 2017

I find political / ideological surveys nearly impossible to complete, because every possible answer mischaracterises me in some way. Some questions are about policy and others about values, and the purpose of the whole thing is to assign you to an appropriate political “tribe”, but my values and policy preferences turn out to be inconsistent and very dependent on how I interpret the question. Whether my interpretation matches that of others is down to luck, so I usually give up in frustration about halfway through.

As a reflection of this, on my Twitter profile I say I’m “liberal conservative”, which doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Let me try to explain.

On most policy-level questions I side with liberals. Drug decriminalisation? Yes please. Make markets as free as possible and use them as much as possible? Sure. Allow a market in human organs for transplantation? Yes, it would make everyone better off. No to trade barriers and protectionism? Absolutely. Decriminalize victimless crimes? Yes, except if that turns out to have really bad consequences. Privatize everything? Yes, up to a point, ownership promotes preservation and efficient use. State-owned resources are usually wasted horrendously and become political pawns.

These positions could be summed up as liberalism, perhaps “right liberalism” or “neoliberalism”. Add to this a resource redistribution scheme that prevents poverty (because poverty leads to disharmony and conflict, which is the ultimate evil), and schooling and public amenities enough to allow for social mobility (because desperation leads to disharmony and conflict), and you have roughly what people in the 1990’s thought the 2010’s was going to look like. Didn’t turn out that way, of course..
But I’m not liberal, I’m conservative! How can that be?

The reason I favour non-interventionism in general is that I have low confidence in the ability of human planners to discover and enforce good rules. And enforcing always involves the implicit use of violence, which to me seems prima facie extreme and unconservative.

I am more inclined to trust in organically evolved institutions and customs, both in that they are a better fit to human nature and in that they take into account local variations better than statewide rules can. An illustrative quote from Alexander Hamilton:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

I’m also conservative in the deep-down sense that my beliefs about a good life and a good society are conservative. I value caution, preservation, moderation and modesty. I think people should be very cautious about drugs, drink and gambling, and that it is a moral failing to allow your life to be destroyed by them; that polyamory is usually a façade for charismatic people to have sex with a lot of people who tolerate their situation but are harmed by it in the long term; that easy living and decadence in immoderation are harmful both to individuals and societies; that responsibilities come before happiness; I’m upset about divorce and adultery; I believe that everyone is responsible not just to the present moment but to the past and to the future. And so on and so on. My hope is that non-interventionism on the part of the state would lead to some more conservative outcomes, at least for those who would benefit from them. Many of the things I mentioned are either made worse or not helped by government intervention. I don’t want to impose these things on everyone, but I think communities with such values have a place in the world.

These positions could be called not just conservative, but moralistic. I am gung-ho about participating in social control to make people stay in line regarding these things, especially given that I am unwilling to use government force to do so. My positions even become nationalistic when you add in responsibilities from the past, like the responsibility to preserve one’s culture, nation, independence etc. And to the future also belongs the natural world, to which we don’t have the right to do anything we will. Another illustrative quote, from Jonathan Haidt, who is not conservative but a liberal / moderate social scientist trying here to sum up what conservatives believe:

Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed. Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience. Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder.

And here’s Oakeshott:

To be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the impossible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, the present laughter to the utopian bliss.

So I’m really conservative in terms of values, but thinking about things tends to lead me to liberal positions. You could say I’m liberal because I’m conservative!

Another interesting case is moral philosophy. I mostly judge people on whether they do (what I consider to be) their duty towards others, and whether they are virtuous in their actions. These moral positions are deontological ethics and virtue ethics, respectively. The other major position is consequentialism (or utilitarianism), that actions should be judged on their consequences. The greatest good for the greatest number. Doesn’t that sound logical? What is virtue, duty or a rule-book when children starve and preventable diseases kill? Why am I not a consequentialist?

Ultimately it’s because I don’t believe people are very good at doing difficult moral calculations, and that even if they were good at it, they wouldn’t want to behave according to the calculations anyway. It’s a limitation of human nature. On the other hand, people are good at aspiring to celebrated virtues & policing each other about their obligations, trying make make themselves look good and ostracising those who don’t. In other words, deontological ethics and virtue ethics actually work.

So… if I believe in virtue ethics and deontological ethics because it ultimately leads to the greater good, does that make me a consequentialist in the end? Maybe. Sort of. It sure makes it hard to directly answer questions about it.

There’s a pattern here that I find interesting. There’s the private / internal / fundamental level, which after interacting with facts about the outside world and logic is transformed, possibly into something like its opposite. Often I think disagreements about values are really about people meeting each other on the wrong level of thinking, or people disagreeing about facts (like the implications of human nature). Here’s one more example.

Am I a feminist? Well, no. At least in the sense that when something is described as a “feminist goal”, like having lots of women on the boards of corporations, or having female movie stars earn the same as male movie stars, I generally roll my eyes and hope the whole thing just goes away. Or in the sense of equality. I hardly know what it means as a policy position – that the sexes are different from each other is to me as clear as day, so it would seem that they can hardly be equal in any meaningful sense.
Then again, it’s easy to agree with definitions of feminism along the lines of “when gender is not essentially important, people should not be discriminated on the basis of gender”. I am not the sort of antifeminist who wants a male head of state or who would resent a female boss, and I think hardly anyone is these days. I live in a feminist society and have to some extent internalised its values, and I’m in no way the head of my own household (it’s just not up to me).

I suspect that in the absence of discrimination we would continue to see men be a disproportionate part of the top echelons of society (and of every profession, sport and hobby) – and also of the bottom, where they make up almost all of the prisoner and homeless population. But if it turned out that everything becomes perfectly statistically equal, I’d be ok with that.

So if you want to turn me into a feminist (in the sense of agreeing with public intellectuals about feminism-related topics), it’s not sufficient to change my values – you’d have to change my facts (that men and women are different) or my thinking.

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