Sometimes We’re Wrong

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing on conservatism:

But if you are the slave, that essentially conservative approach will always privilege your master over you. Conservatism, with its belief in institutions, traditions, and the past, will seemingly always privilege (perhaps inadvertently) the powerful over the powerless. Institutions, traditions and the past belong to those with power. Privileging them, privileges their agents.

I suppose this is true, but that’s rather like saying that modern liberalism, with its faith in scientific management, progress, and the future will always privilege forward-looking ideas that, in retrospect, frequently seem silly and counter-productive. Does the American Left’s transitory infatuation with the Soviet Union disprove every subsequent argument put forward by progressive leaders? I think not, which is also why I believe it’s OK to admit that your assumptions – whatever they may be – are going to be wrong sometimes.

I think it’s quite possible to argue that there were no good conservative answers to slavery or Jim Crow. But I don’t think this invalidates every conservative insight into the nature of our politics and culture. If anything, it’s a simple acknowledgment that some problems really do transcend rote ideological responses, and that no interpretive framework can provide a universal set of predictive guidelines for dealing with every possible eventuality.

All of which is to say that you should read William Brafford on political traditions, which remains one of my favorite posts from the League to this day:

I use “ideology” as a pejorative. We all need some kind of framework for interpreting the world around us and for guessing at the consequences of our actions, and we need to acquire these frameworks from those who came before, even if we modify them in the process of application. Such a framework I prefer to call a tradition. The key feature of a vibrant tradition is its continued grappling with its own internal problems and contradictions. Traditions always change and grow over time. A tradition that ceases to do this is a dead tradition, and a tradition that is dead or near death I will call an ideology.

Undue confidence is one of the vices that can be found on either side of the virtue of proper confidence. On the other side, there’s indecision. The politically indecisive person is the one who is paralyzed by a complete inability to make decisions in light of limited knowledge of consequences. The virtue is proper confidence, which, when coupled with political courage, is the disposition to take stances on what one believes to be right while watching for signs that one may in truth be wrong.

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26 thoughts on “Sometimes We’re Wrong

  1. I agree. I am a liberal but I have no delusion that my beliefs have the answer to every problem. In fact I am sure they don’t. We need multiple competing ideas/ideologies. And this is why I think the repub party, and many conservatives, are intellectually dead. They start with their solutions(values) , insist they are completely correct and that every problem bend to their fixes.

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  2. This is an approach we’ve tried to establish since the beginning, not always perfectly but I think on the whole we are doing well. Among all us writers and I think it’s also really come through in the comments too, which has been a real validation of what we tried to set out to do.

    I think the key point William B. makes is that this kind of humility and transparency around one’s own tradition is absolutely necessary for any civility in discourse. If a person has that view then someone from a different tradition is necessarily an enemy to be squashed but you can come to appreciate what attracts them to their tradition even if you still disagree.

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  3. I think it’s quite possible to argue that there were no good conservative answers to slavery or Jim Crow. But I don’t think this invalidates every conservative insight into the nature of our politics and culture.

    True to a degree – but then again, some of the more institutionally conservative bodies (like the Catholic Church) have often opposed wars, slavery, etc. I think it depends on what exactly one means by “conservative” which is so often what it all boils down to.

    And it’s quite debatable whether classically liberal policies and economics are truly better than “tradition” for the weak. Certainly things like the Bill of Rights are, but that leaves the question of whether rampant capitalism has really improved thing for the vast majority of people on this planet or weather it has just led to a shift in who controls the wealth.

    In other words, I’m not convinced yet. I think one problem with progress is it leads many people to jump to conclusions, even after only a few decades or a couple centuries have passed, which really isn’t that much time in the scheme of things. (centuries, I might add, in which tradition has often be eschewed in favor of progress, and in which wars have erupted that dwarf all the world’s previous wars combined…)

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  4. TNC does a good job of providing a summary view of Burkean conservatism, at least as I understand it. The Burkean view is that change will occur but it should be slow and organic, in Jaybirds’ view bottom up, not top down. That is my main problem with conservatism. Coates, read his entire post, clearly and succinctly articulates that argument. Should evils such as slavery, segregation, denying voting rights be allowed to continue until society reaches a slowly evolving enlightened position? I think not. Further, conservatives with their supposed devotion to states right would put the break on change even supported by the majority of Americans but not yet acceptable in particular regions. A conservative stance I find damnable.

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  5. Your overall point holds true, but I think you’re kind of misunderstanding Coates. It’s not that conservatives happened to make a mistake once. It’s that support for existing institutions represent an ongoing tool of the powerful against the powerless, here, today.

    All the standard conservative retorts to this still hold up (sometimes new institutions give us nothing but new mistakes and new oppressors, sometimes the poor are better at dealing with traditional institutions than with bureaucratic institutions, etc.)

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  6. Consumatopia –

    My point isn’t that conservatives were mistaken “just this once.” The larger point is that, yes, conservatives tend to favor certain things – decentralization, tradition, deference to established authority etc. – that may have adverse consequences in all sorts of circumstances. I don’t think that invalidates conservatism per se.

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    • My question, and I asks it sincerely, what do you see as conservatism’s most successful policies or programs? Yes, sometimes we get it wrong, we all get things wrong, but your admission implies sometimes you get it right. Hence my question.

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      • First, how are we defining conservatism for purposes of this post? Modern movement conservatism or Burkean conservatism. If it’s movement conservatism (which has several distinct sub-elements), then deregulation of the airline industry (and please let us not forget deregulation of the beer industry!) would qualify. Much as I hate to admit it, I think you have to give Reagan’s foreign policy at least some credit for ending the Cold War without a shot – it can’t get sole credit by any stretch, but I’ve heard and/or talked to enough people who were there on the Soviet side (by which I mean “two”) to know that much of what Reagan did wrt the Soviets had its desired effect – this despite my current predisposition against a number of those policies.

        If you’re talking classic Burkean conservatism, though, I suspect that the answer is harder to give. Not because it’s wrong, but because its nature is such that its successes are measured by what doesn’t happen more than what does. Since you never know what didn’t happen, there’s often no way of saying for certain that the worldview proved successful.

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        • Mark –

          A quick note: While movement conservatism isn’t the same as philosophical conservatism, the two are related (however tangentially), and conservative insights often influence conservative policy. Which is why I think it’s fair to attribute at least a few political successes to conservative ideas.

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        • This is the sort of answer, non-answer, I thought would be offered, “If you’re talking classic Burkean conservatism, though, I suspect that the answer is harder to give. Not because it’s wrong, but because its nature is such that its successes are measured by what doesn’t happen more than what does. Since you never know what didn’t happen, there’s often no way of saying for certain that the worldview proved successful.”

          The problem with such a response, as I see it, is:

          1. Not a practicle political platform.

          2. Rebublicans and conseratives don’t even try to convince
          the public of the wisdom of the above proposition.

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  7. Bob –

    A difficult question to answer, largely because I don’t identify all that closely with the conservative political movement. Having said that, I can think of a few beneficial trends/policies that are grounded in conservative insights.

    1.) The shift towards de-regulation and decentralization in the late 1970s/1980s. Incidentally, this involved a lot of Democratic input from guys like Jimmy Carter and George McGovern. Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about:

    http://www.heritage.org/research/regulation/bg1173.cfm

    2.) The reduction of high marginal tax rates in the 1980s, as well as the simplification of the tax code in 1986 (another bipartisan achievement).

    3.) Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union, particularly in his second term, when he eschewed confrontation for diplomacy.

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    • I do appreciate:

      1. your answer, thanks.
      2. your reluctance to identify as conservative, libertarian is closer. Right?

      As a life-long big government liberal type I would have no trouble identifying liberal triumphs. I know full-well that my menu of delicious victories you would find largely unpalatable. But so it goes.

      So, as you say, a “difficult” question.

      I can only say that your list is a very thin gruel? (But again, thanks for effort.)

      Regarding Reagan accepting a diplomatic approach to the USSR in his second term, I doubt Walter Mondale would have adopted some sort of bellicose approach had he won the 1984 election (LOL). And I would say that internal problems in the Soviet Union, economic, was the necessary ingredient in allowing Reagan to be viewed as THE winner of the Cold War. Administrations from Truman on opposed the Soviet Union. Ascribing THE victory to Reagan is unhistorical. Reagan, and his sycophants, benefit from some extremely good timing.

      Deregulation, as Dr. Phil often asks, “How’s that working out fur’ya?” (As far as airlines, I have no idea, but I do know that fliers, I’m not one, bitch, bitch, bitch, about service.)

      Perhaps some Rock-Ribbed Conservative Republican has an answer to my question. But Will, I say sincerely again, thanks. I continue to wonder what conservatives have to offer the electorate.

      Oh yeah, lower taxes, small gov’mt, a la W.G. Bush.

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  8. Well…..I think it is possible that conservatism has lost it’s resilience, and has become dated and antique, and will just die. Like the Whigs.
    People are not shaped by culture as much as people shape culture according to their needs. We have laws, so we don’t need religion/superstition anymore to ameliorate the behavior of the ‘slines.
    Perhaps we just don’t need the stubborn backwards looking and loyalty to outdated ideology anymore.
    For example, this is the age of the flattening of information.
    Anyone can be a sage.

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  9. There’s a thought…perhaps the buffers of law and society and science and technology and government have simply made coservatism obsolete?
    What if what we are seeing is the natural decline of an outdated philosophy?

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  10. We seem to be having a really difficult time recovering the broken symbols, MC’s comments being illustrative.
    “Truth experienced can be excluded from the horizon of reality but not from reality itself. When it is excluded from the universe of intellectual discourse, its presence in reality makes itself felt in the disturbance of mental operations.”

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  11. Srsly…what does conservatism provide that we actually need anymore?
    No one can even tell me what conservatism is.
    Small government for the markets and big government for uteruses and fallopian tubes and penises?
    That is sure what it looks like from here.

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  12. But that doesn’t seem to part of conservatism at all.
    Conservatism seems to be totally about growing government of uteruses and penises.
    Call meh skeptical.

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    • I suppose it depends upon which strain of conservatism you happen to be speaking. I wouldn’t disagree with you whole heartedly, but neither would I agree with you entirely.

      Conservatism, like any relatively robust ideology, is not a monolith, it has parts, veins, conflicting thinkers, and competing interests. That people have trouble telling you exactly what conservatism is right now is a good thing in my mind. It points to a real consternation afoot at the present, which is wholly warranted and needed.

      It always bears pointing out that successive conservative administrations have grown government, the last being the most stark. But there is a difference between shrinking government and limiting government, in this commenter’s opinion, and it is the former to which I am referring as a helpful element of conservatism that seems to lie at the heart of the perspective.

      That this needs to be applied in a more consistent fashion is, I think, a fair point to make to conservatives, so I’m inclined to tell you to continue making it. But it doesn’t render the underlying helpfulness of the predilection moot.

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