Journal Entry

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Conservatism

Here is a fascinating essay by Philip Agre (by way of David Moles's blog), and here is my partial rebuttal to it.

Posted by benrosen at August 17, 2004 05:36 PM | Up to blog
Comments

Hi Benjamin...

On David's blog, you wrote:

I'm interested in your arguments for Bush, Derek, off topic though they may be. You do realize that Bush has greatly increased the size of the federal government, while Clinton shrunk it? And that Kerry (to the dismay of the left) does not actually seem less hawkish with regard to our enemies than Bush? (Unless, of course, you consider France and Germany our enemies...)

With regard to Bush's spending policies, yes...you're absolutely right. I don't think Bush is a true fiscal conservative, although he was pretty upfront about this in his campaign. His "compassionate conservatism" seems to me to couple the worst aspects of big government and relgion-inspired social policy. I don't link this aspect of Bush's Presidency one bit.

With regard to Kerry, it's hard to really say what he seems. I've seen, and supported, the actions of Bush regarding foreign policy. With Kerry, I've seen him vote to give Bush war powers and then go on a dozen talk shows to say he really didn't want Bush to go to war, which is mealy-mouthed.

Kerry acts as if he were duped along with everyone else, even though he had access to similar intelligence. He acts shocked that Bush would go to war without Germany or France (why did he trust Bush in the first place? and what would he have done that Bush didn't do to pass yet another resolution explicitly authorizing war?). I find him equivocating and muddy on these issues, and his answers deeply unsatisfying, to the point where I'm honestly not sure what Kerry's foriegn policy would look like were he elected. Do you?

Posted by: Derek James at August 19, 2004 04:06 PM

I also note Kerry wriggling a little on the "should we -shouldnt we have gone" thing.

Did they really have access to the same intelligence? It seems to me that even with Congress, the President historically has a lot of leeway to say "for reasons we can't disclose, this is a good idea".

It also seems to me that Kerry, in authorizing Bush to go to war, could reasonably have expected Bush to enlist our important allies -- as he did in Afghanistan, and as G.H.W. Bush did in Iraq, etc. The first Gulf war even had massive Arab support.

Kerry might well have thought that Congress must authorize Bush to act, as a necessary show of confidence freeing him up to enter into negotiations with allies -- rather than ignoring them.

One can believe that we needed stiff resolve to face Sadaam, and still be appalled at the way Bush trashed our alliances, seemingly going way out of his way to alienate and antagonize our allies (in rhetoric as much as action) and to strengthen our enemies arguments' that we are interested in absolute domination and empire-building.

I don't know much about Kerry's foreign policy, though, I'll admit. He seems to be leaving it pretty open -- though he certainly seems to be of the "we have to stay and get the job done" school, not the "agh! flee!" school. He's clearly hoping for an "I'm not Bush" dividend whereby France, Germany etc can help out more and save face in the process if he's elected. I have no idea whether that will happen.

I do think, though, that he'll be a lot stronger than Bush on civil liberties, which I think is critical.

It's interesting -- the discussion about logic and reason and so on. Agre's assertion is that politics should be governed by reason -- this is the core of his argument against conservatism.

I'm not so sure. Politics should obviously be *informed* by reason. But in practical cases -- since who knows what a given politician will do, once in office? -- intuition may be just as important.

It's easy to fool yourself with reason. You construct careful arguments, link them logically, amass data. I think Agre is right that no merely access to data, but the willingness to reconsider and reassess, is critical to deomcracy -- and that regarding all facts as mere grist for bolstering an already established message is inimical to it. This is hard to measure, though. We all tend to marshall arguments logically after-the-fact to support what we already feel.

And intuition, as a fundamental human trait, should not be undervalued. In many if not most real-life situations, it's probably more important and useful than reason and intelligence.

I don't trust Bush. There are many overt, identifiable reasons (the Patriot Act, the agressive pursuit of "enemy combatant" status as a loophole from constitutional protections, the WMD thing), but a lot of these are arguable. And really, it's more a thousand subtle hints and associations.

Is there any connection between Bush's aggressive pursuit of the ability to detain captives, his adminstration's arguments that the President has essentially untrammelled powers in wartime that override civil liberties, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib? Maybe not. I can't prove it. Maybe you're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Is there a connection between the unwillingness to wait for our allies to decide to move against Iraq, the doctrine of preemptive force, and the failure to find WMDs? Maybe not. Maybe the WMDs misassessment was purely an innocent mistake.

Is there any connection between Bush's connections to the oil companies, his tax cuts for the wealthy, his lack of support for Kyoto, and the war? Perhaps only a principled one -- he believes in economic growth by resource exploitation and is not to concerned about environmental risk, etc.

But it's the way these things add up emotionally that gives me my personal sense -- a taste -- of who Bush is. It's my hindbrain which tells me not to trust him. Is this wrong? Should I not vote with my hindbrain?

I don't know. This instinctive ferreting out of who to trust is a highly adaptive, critical feature for primates, one with millions of years of evolutionary advantage behind it. Reason is a relative latecomer on the stage.

So what my hindbrain says is... I don't know if I trust Kerry. I know for sure I don't trust Bush.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 19, 2004 07:15 PM

Did they really have access to the same intelligence?

My understanding is that the amount and level of intelligence is a virtual overlap. Kerry served on the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1993 to 2001, so presumably he would have had access to the highest levels of intelligence regarding Iraq's weapons capabilities. Although, as has been recently pointed out by the Bush campaign, Kerry attended less than 25% of the committee's meetings.

It also seems to me that Kerry, in authorizing Bush to go to war, could reasonably have expected Bush to enlist our important allies -- as he did in Afghanistan, and as G.H.W. Bush did in Iraq, etc. The first Gulf war even had massive Arab support.

Well, I'd consider Britain, Japan, Spain, Australia, and Poland "important" allies...would you not? But if what Kerry and others in Congress really wanted was the U.N. stamp of approval, then why not make it a precondition for authorizing war?

It would be interesting to see what Kerry would do if elected, and what his policies would actually be. He does seem to essentially be saying he would carry on most of Bush's foreign policy stances, though listening to him, I just don't have much confidence I know what he would do. He seems very much like Clinton, in terms of governing by poll results (which has the ironic quality of being somewhat more democratic, but not exemplifying good leadership).

We all tend to marshall arguments logically after-the-fact to support what we already feel.

Well, that's a good point. One could construct reasonably sound arguments for all sorts of inhumane policies (and many have). Still, I'm a pretty big believer in reason, and I do believe that open debate in the market of ideas is the best way to promote good policy.

As for whom to vote for, in my case I guess it's the uncertainty around Kerry that I really don't like. It's more of a case of voting for the devil you know. I feel like I know where he's coming from and that he's fairly predictable. He pisses off a lot of people in the world, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. The fact that people like Kim Jong Il don't want Bush in office, is, I think, a positive.

Posted by: Derek James at August 23, 2004 03:23 PM
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