Sunday Night Journal — April 29, 2012
Dialogue and Motive
A few days ago in a comment thread Paul linked to this interesting report on a study which claims to find that conservatives understand the views of liberals better than liberals understand the views of conservatives. I take Studies of this sort in general with a pretty big dose of skepticism—after all, hardly a week seems to pass that someone doesn’t produce a Study purporting to prove that conservatives are fundamentally stupid, etc. This one is intriguing partly because the results actually go counter to the self-admitted bias of the liberal psychology professor who did it, and partly because, for what it’s worth, my personal experience supports the conclusion.
As far as I can remember I have never encountered, either in person or in print, a liberal who was able and/or willing to understand conservative arguments on their own terms—that is, to address what the conservative says he intends, and the arguments with which he supports that intention, rather than what the liberal assumes he intends. For instance, on the question of our responsibility toward the poor: if a conservative agrees that there is such a responsibility, but that there are better ways to meet it than the federal programs beloved of liberals, the liberal generally does not acknowledge that this is a disagreement about means and not ends. Instead, he concludes that the conservative doesn’t care about the poor, is a social Darwinist, etc. There simply doesn’t seem to be any willingness or ability on the part of liberals to believe that conservatives actually have the common good at heart, but differ about how to achieve it.
I don’t say that conservatives don’t often fall into the same way of thinking. But the study indicates that there are more exceptions to the tendency on the conservative than on the liberal side.
The liberal response seems always to assume that opposition to a particular approach toward solving a problem is opposition to solving the problem at all. In other words, the liberal is incapable of believing, or at least disinclined to believe, that any approach to a problem other than the liberal one can be reasonable and sincere. If you oppose affirmative action, you must favor racism. If you oppose giving more money to any and all government educational agencies, you must want children to be ignorant. (The teachers’ union in my state has been doing this for decades, pretty effectively: any opposition to anything it wants is deemed opposition to education, period.) If you think our programs for the elderly are unsustainable, you must want to push an old lady in a wheelchair over a cliff, as Congressman Paul Ryan was depicted doing in an ad attacking his proposals for Social Security and Medicare reform.
(I always feel obliged to insert this disclaimer: yes, I am mindful of the inadequacy of terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” “left,” and “right,” especially in the American context, but that doesn’t mean the parties don’t exist.)
Ryan, Rand, and Georgetown
Speaking of Paul Ryan: I have long wondered how it is that Christian admirers of Ayn Rand reconcile Rand’s ideas with their faith. At the level of fundamental metaphysics, the two simply cannot be reconciled. Rand’s philosophy as a whole can fairly be described as satanic, except that Satan does not share her foolish belief that there is no such thing as spiritual reality. I’ve suspected that what they, the Christians, do is to separate Rand’s economic ideas from her metaphysics. They read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead and are thrilled by the achievements of the heroes, and filled with indignation toward their malicious collectivist enemies. They either miss or mostly ignore the materialist and atheist foundations of Rand’s didactic stories; what they see is an inspiring story of individual heroism against collective stupidity and venality. It wouldn’t be so hard to do that if one only read Atlas, which is the only work of any length by Rand that I’ve read; perhaps the same is true of The Fountainhead.
And they aren’t totally off base, at least if we ignore the question of literary judgment—I thought Atlas was bad to the point of being funny. Her opposition to collectivism was the one thing that Rand got mostly right. Her family’s pharmacy was confiscated by the early Soviet government, so she had direct experience of what happens when a government decides to confiscate private property, ostensibly for the benefit of the people but in practice for the benefit of those who run the government, either directly or indirectly. It doesn’t seem to be recognized by the most vociferous denouncers of Rand’s ideas that what disgusted her most (at least on the evidence of Atlas Shrugged) was not so much government itself as crony capitalism, the appropriation of government’s power by private interests. The most loathsome characters in Atlas are those who can’t compete with the genius of the heroes and therefore use the power of government to rig the game in their favor, like a football team that bribes the officials.
And she’s half-right about individual achievement. It’s a fine thing when a gifted person exercises those gifts, and a shabby one when the envious scheme to bring him down. Anyone can cheer the one and boo the other, just as audiences cheer and boo the heroes and villains of any melodrama. She was only half-right, because her gifted heroes are grotesquely egotistical, and risibly enchanted with their own (highly implausible) superiority, like characters in some cartoon version of Nietzsche.
Paul Ryan, a Catholic, is somewhat notorious for acknowledging Rand’s influence on him, while simultaneously claiming that his economic vision is compatible with Catholic social teaching. In the past week or so he has made some remarks distancing himself from Rand, and has been accused of lying about his earlier enthusiasm, as expressed in remarks such as “I give outAtlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well... I try to make my interns read it.” (This remark is usually paraphrased as something like “forces his staff to read Atlas Shrugged,” which is not exactly the same thing, and lacks the light tone of the actual words. The primary source and context for this remark seems to be a 2003 article in the Weekly Standard which is available only to subscribers.)
I don’t think there is necessarily any contradiction between Ryan's past and current views (which is not to say that they are entirely coherent). In fact they are what I would expect to hear from the sort of Christian I was wondering about. Every admiring word about Rand that I’ve heard attributed to Ryan has been in the context of economics, and he seems offended that people would think this makes him a full-fledged metaphysical Randian. This doesn’t say much for his intellectual consistency, but it doesn’t surprise me very much.
At any rate, I think there are a lot of good things in his address he gave at Georgetown last week, which you can read here. Some of the Georgetown faculty are up in arms about him, in particular accusing him of being insufficiently orthodox, which is pretty funny coming from them. (Nor do those who signed the letter of protest—theology professors and others—seem likely to have much knowledge of economic reality). But—in line with the study I referred to earlier—they don’t seem even to attempt to meet the argument that his proposals will actually preserve the essentials of the social safety net they advocate. They assume that his disagreement with their means is a disagreement about the end. I am certainly willing to believe that he needs to keep working at the project of basing his economic views less on Ayn Rand and more on the teachings of the Church, but I’m not convinced that he deserves their wholesale condemnation, and I think his ideas deserve an open and charitable debate.
I don’t want to take a position on Ryan’s budget proposal (apart from the fact that I think it should include defense cuts, which it reportedly does not). These things have gotten so vastly complicated that it’s almost impossible for an ordinary person to grasp what a plan like this really contains and what its significance really is. And that in itself is a symptom of something gone badly wrong. What we need are honest and disinterested experts to study it and explain it to the rest of us. But most of the people who have the time for that sort of thing are highly partisan and can be expected to slant things their way, usually in the most hyperbolic way possible. I admit that I tend to dismiss liberal rhetoric about “gutting” social programs, because they say that about any attempt whatsoever to constrain the growth of their favored programs.
I do, however, take Ryan at his word that he believes his plan would be the best thing for the country as a whole, and is not just a cover for his desire to push somebody off a cliff. As he says,
Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.
But you can’t have a civil dialogue when one side assumes that anything said by the other is only meant to divert attention from an evil conspiracy.