Free Markets vs Capitalism

The other day, I friend of mine tweeted something about Rage Against the Machine that tripped my political-philosophy sensors:

real talk, the Rage Against the Machine ticket pricing is unfortunate for many of their fans (esp fans in demographics their songs are about). but they’ve been on a Sony imprint since the early 90s. their per-show guarantee is easily in the six figures. they’re capitalists.

It’s that last part that bothered me. RATM are well-known advocates of socialism; are they really so hypocritical as to be capitalists?

After thinking things over for a while, I don’t believe they are. Wealthy, perhaps. Well-paid, certainly. But capitalists? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to call my friend out here. But his tweet made me realize there’s a lot of misconceptions in the US about the differences between socialism, capitalism, and free markets. And the case of RATM makes a good jumping-off point to discuss the real relationships between those three concepts.

Because wanting to make money from their music, and specifically from their performance of music, does not make RATM capitalists.

F– the G Ride, I Want the Machines That are Making’ ‘Em

First let’s clarify something: Socialism doesn’t mean the end of money, of private property, or getting compensated for work.

Socialism, strictly construed, only requires one thing: the common ownership of the means of production.

What does this mean? Let’s break it down, going from back to front.

The means of production is just a fancy way of saying how things are made. It can be a factory churning out cars, or a recording studio putting out records.

Common ownership means there’s no one person (or CEO-controlled corporation) that controls a thing. Sometimes this can mean government control — like our public schools — and sometimes this can be a co-op or community organization, like the urban gardens that have sprung up in some cities.

Putting these two together, it means in a socialist economy, no one person controls how things are made. Meaning they can’t force you to pay for access to how things are made.

In other words: Socialists can’t make money by being gatekeepers of some valuable resource, like time in the studio or the use of a 3-D printer.

But they can — and must, since it’s the only way to make money in a socialist economy — make money from their labor, and from the fruits of their labor.

Going back to RATM, when they perform, they are generating value — entertainment value — via their labor. And they own the end result of that labor (the music itself, and any recordings that are produced), which they then sell to people.

To a socialist, this is how things should be, everywhere. People work to create something, they own that thing, and then can sell that thing to others and make a living off of it.

Now I’m Rolling Down Rodeo With a Shotgun

So if charging money for their work doesn’t make RATM capitalists, what would?

Capitalists, in contrast to socialists, believe the means of production should be privately owned. This control over the means of production is what allows capitalists to exploit the labor of others. Because if you can own a factory, and claim ownership over every car produced there, then the only thing its workers can own is their labor, which they have to sell to you.

Do you see the difference? Capitalists don’t make money by creating things. They make money by owning things.

So the investor that funds construction of a new building, and then claims ownership over it, so they can start charging people rent, is a capitalist. They didn’t design it, they didn’t build it, they didn’t paint it or make any of the furniture that goes inside. But they still claim they have the sole right to make money off of it.

In Rage Against the Machine’s case, in order to become capitalists, they’d have to go from being music makers to record label execs. People that don’t make music themselves, but instead profit from the music that others create.

And more importantly, profiting because they claim ownership of the music (or at least, the recordings) that are wholly created by other people.

The Sisters are In, So Check the Front Lines

To make a more fully-fledged analogy: What would a music industry organized along socialist lines look like?

Well, the means of production would have to be held in common. So recording studios could not be owned by individuals or corporations. They could be government-run, they could be owned by a community association, or a co-op.

More likely, they’d be owned by artist collectives, who would rent space from a builder’s association that constructed a suitable building. The artists would pool their funds and procure the recording equipment, and any instruments they’d like to keep in the studio. They’d each then have access to the studio, without having to pay someone else.

Individual recordings would be owned by the artists who performed on them, and any sound engineers or producers that helped make the recording. Again, if you put your labor into something, you own a part of it.

Distribution would be handled either by the artists’ collective themselves, or by a co-op that specializes in distributing music (either online or via physical copies).

At no point would anyone that helped the album come into being be cut out of their partial ownership of said album. At no point would control over the album or the music be held by an entity that’s beholden to remote shareholders.

That’s not to say that everything would be free, or that any old album someone wanted to make would have to be recorded or distributed. Because the people behind and around the musicians — the engineers, the mixers, the producers, etc — wouldn’t want to contribute their labor (in other words, take partial ownership of) something they thought wouldn’t sell. Their ability to make a living would depend on the end product selling, after all; more sales means more for them via their cut, and fewer sales means less.

So people would be free to say no to projects, just as they’d be free to say yes. The knowledge that whatever they invest their time, their labor, their talent in, becomes theirs, makes them more responsible, not less. And that responsibility would itself become a market signal, as people flock together to make and distribute music that’s popular locally, and still work to make music that’s popular globally.

So a socialist music industry would actually be a freer market than a capitalist one. Free of the constraints of work-for-hire, of laboring on something and then seeing it enrich someone else. And free of the power wielded by single individuals at the top of corporate hierarchies.

Who Controls the Past Now, Controls the Future

By now, I’m sure you’ve guessed which side of the capitalist/socialist divide I’m on 🙂

But even if you think our capitalist system is better, my central point stands: Making money from the things you create doesn’t make you a capitalist. In fact, doing so is more compatible with socialism than the alternative.

So RATM aren’t capitalists. Just musicians looking to claim their just piece of the value they create.

I Voted! Spring 2020 Edition

We’re mail-in voters, but between the move and everything else, I ended up heading to polling station yesterday anyway.

I wanted to be sure I got in, because San Diego holds its local elections on the same day as the primary. So I got to vote for mayor, some state reps, judges, etc, as well as some voter-sponsored initiatives that got on the ballot.

Oh, and I got to vote in the Democratic Presidential Primary 🙂

Confession time: I really, really, seriously enjoy voting in California.

They send us a little booklet before the election, where every candidate who agrees to accept spending limits can issue a statement, laying out their case. (Naturally, I only vote for candidates who issue such a statement). It’s also got the full text of the ballot initiatives, plus pro and con arguments, and a fiscal impact analysis for each measure.

It’s homework, but it also means I feel much more informed going into the election than I would otherwise. Not only from reading the booklet, but using it as a jumping-off point for further research.

The last election we spent in Arkansas, I felt so disconnected and lost. No booklet. No easy-to-navigate state-gov-run website to look everything up. Nothing.

What does your state (or country!) do, to make sure its voters are as informed as possible before heading to the polls?

Goliath, by Matt Stoller

We don’t really talk about the dangers of monopoly in the United States anymore.

We praise it, if we’re VCs investing in start-ups.

We acknowledge a history of it, safely confined to a long-gone Gilded Age.

But we don’t discuss how much it dominates our current economy, or how much damage it does.

Which is strange, because fighting monopoly should be one thing the Right and the Left can agree on.

The Right should fight monopoly because it leads to giant corporations that centralize control of the economy. And centralized control — whether in the form of an unelected Politburo, or an unelected Board of Directors — should be one of the Right’s worst fears.

The Left should fight monopoly because it concentrates power in the hands of owners and financial gamblers at the expense of workers. When the company you’re trying to unionize against doesn’t have any competitors, and controls billions of dollars of assets, it can afford to wait out any strike, or hire enough scabs to stay in business. And it’s harder to organize across not just multiple states, but multiple countries, to ensure a strike even gets off the ground.

Notice I didn’t say anything about consumers. It turns out our obsession with consumer rights (and low prices) has crippled our ability to talk about the rights of producers, of the workers and small-businesspeople that should rightfully be the backbone of our economy. It’s left us defenseless against the new monopolies in our midst, that charge less not because of some “economy of scale” but because they have access to enough capital to underbid everyone else.

Think of Amazon, and how it spent decades without turning any kind of profit, all while its stock rose and rose. Would any normal business have been allowed to do that? Any sane business? No. Amazon was allowed to pursue its monopoly, and won it.

But I didn’t see any of this until after reading Matt Stoller’s book.

I felt some of it, sure. In the way Silicon Valley companies chased advertising dollars instead of solving real problems. In how Uber and Amazon set their prices artificially low, specifically to drive their competitors out of the market, and got praised for it.

And in the way I’ve come to look at running my own business as some kind of crazy dream, instead of the normal out-growth of a career spent in engineering.

Stoller’s given me a framework, and a history, to understand all of this. How we used to enforce anti-trust laws that would have stopped Facebook from buying out all of its competition, or Amazon from driving local bookstores out of business. How the financial markets used to exist to enable small businesses to get off the ground, not pour money into multinational behemoths that crushed them.

And how it all funnels money and power up the food chain, leading to today’s rampant inequality and distorted economy.

If you have any interest in economic justice, whether as a devoted capitalist or a socialist or just a plain liberal, I’d recommend reading Goliath. Stoller’s book restores the lost history of American anti-trust, placing us back in a historical context of the long fight between centralized control and distributed power.

It’s the one book I’ve read about recent events that’s given me hope.

Because we cut down the Goliaths once. We can do so again.

Learning to Listen About Race

I was raised by racists.

Not cross-burners and Klan members, but racists all the same.

My mother sat my sister and I down when we were in middle-school, telling us not to date anyone outside our race. She posed it as a problem of us being “accepted as a couple,” but the message was clear.

My older cousins would crack one-liners about the noise a chainsaw makes when you start it up being “Run n—–, n—–, run.” They thought it was hilarious.

The joke books my parents bought me when I showed an interest in comedy never mentioned Latinos, only “Mexicans,” and only when they were the butt of the joke, sometimes being thrown from airplanes by virtuous (read “white”) Texans.

When I grew older, I rejected this casual racism, just as I rejected my family’s religion and their politics. I thought I was free of prejudice. I thought my generation would grow up and replace the older racists in charge. That it was only a matter of time before racism was over.

Then Barack Obama was elected President. My wife and I watched the returns come in together, excited to see it happen. A Democrat back in office. And a black man. We’d done it!

Only we hadn’t. My family’s racism went from casual to angry. Their party turned, too, going from dog-whistling Dixie to embracing white nationalists.

Taking a knee at a ball game became an act of utmost disrespect, because a black man did it. A Republican Governor’s plan for decreasing health care costs became “death panels,” because a black man embraced it.

It blindsided me, this vitriol. I wasn’t prepared for it, didn’t know how to handle it.

Of course, minorities had always known it was there. They’d been living it, their whole lives.

So I’ve been trying to listen more. Both in person, and by seeking out books that will teach me.

Here’s three I’ve read recently that have shaken me out of my complacency, and showed me some of the structure of American racism. A structure I hadn’t been able to see before, because it was never meant to hold me in.

Just millions of my fellow citizens.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The book that first opened my eyes to the constraints and the artificiality of “white” and “black.” Powerfully, movingly written, it showed me how the American conception of race has been used to divide and oppress.

It also pushed me to question my own whiteness, and to look back to a time when I would not have been considered “white.” My family’s Irish and Blackfoot; for most of American history I would have been excluded from “white” society.

That doesn’t mean I have any special insight into what African-Americans have been through and continue to experience. Rather, it taught me that whiteness or blackness has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with power and hierarchy. It is, fundamentally, about perpetuating injustice.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve written about this one before, and the effect it had on me.

Before reading it, I had no idea just how lucky I was to have gone through life without ending up in jail. That I didn’t, even though I was raised poor, is not a testament to my behavior, but an indicator of my acceptance as “white” by American society.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

A hard book to read, but a necessary one. Breaks down the reasons why even well-meaning “white” people like me get defensive and lash out if their racism is called out.

It’s hard to write that sentence, to own the fact that though I consider all people to be equal, and don’t consiously hold any prejudice, there are things I will do and say that will hurt and offend people. And that while I cannot prevent the fact that I will make mistakes, I must be open to having those mistakes called out, and be willing to be better.

It’s the hardest lesson for me to learn. Because it’s one thing to have your eyes opened to the bad behavior of others. Another to realize that you’re part of the problem, and if you don’t become more aware, and less defensive, it’s not going to get better.

Political Tribes, by Amy Chua

A frustrating and ultimately disappointing book, with some flashes of insight.

Let’s start with the good things.

Chua’s argument that US foreign policy often operates blind to ethnic tensions in other countries, which leads to horrible mistakes, is spot-on. The chapters looking back at past conflicts through that lens are informative; I never realized there was a racial element in the Vietnam war, for example (most of the wealth of the country was controlled by an ethnic-Chinese minority, before the war). And I didn’t realize how much the Taliban are an ethnic group (majority come from one tribe) rather than purely a religious movement.

She also has some good points to make about how tribalism operates in the US, with each group feeling attacked on a daily basis.

But her prescription for fixing things boils down to “talk to each other,” because she’s also missed some fundamental things in her analysis.

Over and over again, she talks about the “historically homogeneous” countries of Europe and East Asia, contrasting them with the “unique” experience of the United States as “the world’s only supergroup.”

Never mind that no country is, or has ever been, ethnically homogeneous. Never mind that ethnicity itself is, like race, an invented concept, something we pulled out of a hat and pretended was real.

And never mind that the US is not unique in being a society made up of immigrants plus an oppressed aboriginal population.

So she can’t say more than “we should talk to each other,” because she has no sense of how every “ethnic state” was created by violence and death. That Germany (!) was not ripe for post-war democracy through some accident of ethnic purity, but was purged of other groups deliberately by the country’s government and people. That even the concept of being “German” or “French” or “Chinese” is an invented thing, something hammered into people by a government that wanted them to stop being Provençal or Bavarians or Hmong.

And that the United States has never been a peaceful supergroup, but a vehicle for a group of people that call themselves “white” to ethnically cleanse and oppress all others. The “good old days” of “group blindness” she pines for in the final chapters never existed.

So she can’t see ethnicity itself as the problem, because she takes it as a given, a fixed construct. A solution where we break down the concepts of “white” and “black” into their components, or ditch them altogether to adopt identities built around our cities and states, can’t even be conceived in her framework.

Which is too bad, because her book is otherwise well-argued. We need her type of analysis, to be sure, but we also need more awareness of history, of how the divisions we take to be absolute today were invented, and can be remade.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

It’s difficult to think of myself as privileged.

Growing up, our family car was one donated to us by the local church, because we couldn’t afford one.

The only house we could afford was one at the very end of a dirt road so badly cut out of the weeds that the school bus wouldn’t go down it, so I had to walk a mile or so to where the dirt track met a farm road.

I always started the school year with sore feet, because we couldn’t buy new clothes for me, and last year’s sneakers, once so roomy, were now so tight that I couldn’t run in them, lest my arches feel like they were breaking.

But I was privileged, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

When I was 16, and walking home from work after midnight, the cops didn’t stop and frisk me. They didn’t arrest me for breaking curfew. They didn’t demand proof of the job that kept me out, proof I could not have provided right then, in the dark, on the street.

Instead, they drove me home.

When I was in college, smoking weed in a parked car, the police didn’t come up on me in the night, rip me from the vehicle, and put me away for possession and intention to distribute.

And as an adult now, if I change lanes without signaling, or do a California Roll through a stop sign, I don’t have to worry about the police doing anything more than giving me a ticket, if they even decide to pull me over.

If any of these things had happened to me, my life would have been derailed. My job working for the federal government could not have happened. I would not have been able to finish college. I would have been branded a criminal, and locked out of the upward mobility I’ve experienced.

I have been privileged, then, because I have been allowed to succeed.

But millions of Americans with a skin color different from mine are not allowed. And it’s something that was invisible to me, until very recently.

I didn’t know that the police have the power to stop and frisk anyone they even suspect of being engaged in illegal drug activity. That they can give the most implausible of reasons to search someone, or their car, or their luggage, without a warrant. And that given this immense power, they choose to use it not on the majority of criminals who are of European descent, but on African- and Hispanic-Americans.

It frightens me, to think of how lucky I was not to be caught up in the Drug War. And it worries me, to see the same excuses that have been used for thirty years to lock up millions of African-Americans now turned onto those trying to enter this country in search of a better life for their families: They’re branded criminals, stripped of rights because they supposedly came in “the wrong way,” told they’re “jumping the line” and have only themselves to blame for the hardships they face once they’re here.

It’s lies, all of it, and it breaks my heart that my own family, who in a different century would have been the subject of the same lies, swallows them whole.

If this conception of privilege surprises you, if you know that most criminals are dark-skinned but think poverty is to blame, or if you think justice in the United States is in any way color-blind, then I urge you to read this book.

The New Jim Crow is not a polemic. It is not a screed. It is a well-research, well-written account of how we’ve given the police enormous powers in the name of winning the Drug War, and they’ve turned them on the most vulnerable and most oppressed segment of our society. It’s essential reading, especially as we enter a new election cycle and debate what sort of government we want.

On The Origins of Totalitarianism

Recently finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.

It’s hard for me to talk about, because the book is filled with such piercing, clear-eyed insight, that if I tried to summarize it properly, I’d end up reproducing it.

I could say that I think the book should be required reading for any citizen of any country, in any age, because I do. And not because of any simplistic need to show that “Nazis are bad,” which (while true) doesn’t need an entire book to demonstrate. The testimony of even one concentration camp survivor should be enough for that.

I think everyone should read The Origins of Totalitarianism because it shows how the logic of totalitarian governments grows out of capitalism itself. Not that capitalism must always lead to totalitarianism, but that it always can. Just as racism and nationalism don’t always lead to a Final Solution, but without racism and nationalism, without some ideology claiming to override our humanity, a Final Solution is not even conceivable.

And yes, I think there are passages of the book, describing the methods of the Nazis and the communists (for Stalin’s government was also a totalitarian one) that are too close to our current administration for my comfort. I can’t read about the Nazis contempt for reality, or the way people in totalitarian movements will both believe the lies told by their leaders and praise them for their cleverness when the lies are revealed, without thinking of how right-wing nationalists in my own country treat the current President. But even if these things were not happening in the United States, it would be a book worth reading.

It is, in short, rightly called a classic. A long one, and a hard one, if we take its insights to heart as readers (passages calling out the middle classes for abandoning their civic duties for isolated home life strike close to home for me; I feel I’ve worked hard for what I have, and want to cling to it, but how many others am I leaving behind, by doing so?).

And yet it is that wondrous thing: a book hailed as a classic work, that is worth all the time and study we can give it. If you haven’t read it, please do.

We’re counting on you.

Choosing the President: A Modest Proposal

The Problem

The way we choose Presidents in the United States is flawed.

It’s too easy for someone with little or no experience to be elected. Requiring just an age and citizenship worked fine when the job was just the implementer of Congress’ will, but the role has expanded, and the requirements should expand with it.

It’s also too easy for a President to win office with a minority of the vote. For a position that is supposed to represent the direct choice of the voters, this is unbearable.

Proposed Solution

I think a few small tweaks to the process of choosing the President would fix these two issues:

  1. Abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct election
  2. Require experience in Congress before being eligible to run for President

The Electoral College

The first is something that’s been called for before, and needs to happen soon. The role of the President has evolved over time to one that claims to speak for the country as a whole. That claim cannot be made (though it has been) if the President is not in fact elected by a majority of the population.

To go one step further, I think we should require a President to win more than 50% of the vote in order to take office. If, after the initial ballot, no one has more than 50% of the vote, the top-two vote-getters should participate in a run-off election.

Congressional Experience

Getting to the Presidency should be a multi-stage process. In order to serve as President, you have to have first served at least one full term as a Senator. In order to serve as a Senator, you have to have served at least one full term in the House of Representatives.

Notice that experience on the state level doesn’t count. And it shouldn’t: working at the federal level of government is a completely different thing. The responsibilities are greater. The choices are tougher. And the impact of the decisions made is wider.

In a parliamentary system, the kind of experience I’m advocating happens automatically. No one gets to be Prime Minister without first getting elected to the legislature, and then spending time writing national laws and seeing their impacts.

A presidential candidate with two terms of experience has a record, one that voters can use to evaluate how well they’d do the job. Did they compromise when they could in order to make progress? Did they object to everything and do nothing? Did they fulfill their promises? Did they promise too much?

And a President that’s worked in Congress knows its rules and methods. They’ll have allies (and enemies) in the legislature, people to work with in running the government. They’ll have seen laws they wrote interpreted by the courts. They’ll be more successful, in other words, because they’ll know how to get along with the other major branches.

Objections

“If we remove the Electoral College, it’ll deprive the smaller states of some of their power in presidential elections.”

True. But when we elect governors of states, we don’t worry about disenfranchising the smaller counties. It’s because the governor has to be in charge of the executive branch for the whole state, not just a portion of it.

Similarly, the President has to serve the country as a whole, not be tied to any one state or region. Thus giving any weight to the votes of one state versus another doesn’t make sense.

“Voters should decide if someone is qualified. Anything else is undemocratic.”

This one I struggle with. Certainly I don’t want to go back to the days of deals made in smoke-filled rooms, with the will of the populace a small consideration, if any. And I don’t want to give the individual political parties more control over who runs and who doesn’t.

But I think in terms of goals. What is the goal of representative democracy? Is it to reduce our reps to mere pass-through entities, automatically doing whatever the majority says to do?

I don’t think so. I think there’s no point in having representatives, if those representatives aren’t supposed to use their judgement. Think of the rep that constantly updates their opinions based on the latest poll, and how we view them with contempt. Rightly so, in my view; if they don’t stand for anything except the exercise of power, they don’t deserve to wield it.

And I think republics aren’t born in a vaccum; we didn’t all come together (all 350 million of us) and decide to create a federal system with elected representatives. Instead, a republic is a compromise between the powerful and the people. We give our consent to their use of power, so long as that power is constrained by both law and elections.

In that sense, the most democratic thing is for us to set constraints on who among the powerful can run for office. We, the people, want the best candidates, not just the best speakers or the richest or the ones with the most fervent supporters. Leaving the field wide open puts us at the mercy of demogogues. Narrowing the scope of possible candidates puts constraints on their power, not on ours. We still have the final say, on Election Day.

Conclusion

Will these changes fix our democracy? No. There’s too much that needs fixing, from gerrymandered districts to the Imperial Presidency to the outsize influence of money in elections.

But they will give us better candidates for the Presidency. And they will ensure no one holds that office that doesn’t command the consent of a majority of voters.

Those two changes will make other changes easier. Better candidates will mean better Presidents, and better Presidents will mean better government.

And that’s something we can all, right and left alike, agree we need.

Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

Ever read a book that makes you feel both better and worse about the times you live in?

That’s what Fantasyland did for me.

Better, because Andersen shows how the current fad for conspiracy theories and disregard for facts (on the conservative side of politics, this time) is just the latest iteration of a series of such fads, going all the way back to the first Northern European settlers of the Americas.

For example: the first colonists in Virginia were lured by rumors of gold that had been completely made up by speculators. They starved and died while hunting for gold and silver, until by chance they started cultivating America’s first addictive drug export, tobacco.

But I also feel worse, in that it makes me think there’s no real escape from the fanaticism and illusions that lie in the heart of the American experiment. They’ve allowed the burning of witches, the enslavement of entire nations, and the genocide of those who were here first. And now they’re pushing even my own family to condone the caging of immigrant children, the silencing of women, and the persecution of Muslims.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I take hope in the other side of the cycle that Andersen exposes. When reason pushes back against mysticism, and we re-fight the battles of the Enlightenment. We banned snake-oil and established the FDA. We drove quacks underground and wrote licensing laws. We won the Civil War. We passed Civil Rights legislation.

Granted, Andersen himself doesn’t seem to think there’s light at the end of our present tunnel. At the end of the book, he falls into what I think is a trap: believing the United States to be completely unique, and the current era to be uniquely terrible.

I think the first is countered with any glance at the news from the rest of the world. From Brexit to the rise of the populist right in Poland and Hungary, to Venezuala’s deluded leadership and China’s reality-scrubbed media, there’s plenty of other countries with their own fantasylands. While we in the U.S. often tell ourselves we’re not like anyone else, it turns out we are.

And I think his own book is a firm counter to the second trap. Every era thinks itself both the pinnacle of human achievement and the lowest depth to which humanity can fall. But pushing back against unreason — by refusing to give them a platform, by taking their threat seriously but not their claims, by not falling for the trap of treating every belief as equally valid — has worked in the past. It can work now.

Conservative Arguments

Among the many feelings I have about American politics recently, a recurring one is disappointment.

I’m disappointed that so many who call themselves conservatives have thrown their principles away for a tribal loyalty. Disappointed because when the people on the other side of the issue abandon their own logic, there’s no debate you can have with them anymore.

You can’t find common ground, if the other side doesn’t have any ground to stand on.

So I’ve been thinking about what a principled conservative would have to say about the issues of our day: health care, abortion, etc. What arguments would they make, if they chose ideals over loyalty?

The Roots of Conservatism

Modern European conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke led the charge in England, writing multiple essays against the both the goals and the methods of the Revolutionaries.

Arguing against the intellectual inheritors of the French Revolution – everything from the Independence movements of the Americas (North, South, and Central) to the Bolsheviks in Russia – is how the conservative movement defined itself over the next two hundred years.

At the center of their stance was a belief that people cannot be improved through government action. It was deliberately set against the utopias of socialism and communism, which held (among many other things) that you could get an inherently peaceful and conflict-free society if you but organized it differently.

You can see echoes of this in the Western science fiction writing of the mid–20th Century, which often portrayed dystopias as societies that regulated the thoughts and beliefs of their members “for the greater good”, whether through government fiat (1984, Farenheit 451) or chemistry (Brave New World).

Coupled with this was a conviction that the People did not have a right to revolution. Government had a responsibility to use its power in the pursuit of justice, but if a government was unjust, its citizens had no right to take up arms and overthrow it. They did not have to suffer in silence, but they did have to suffer.

American Conservatives found this second principle more problematic, since their own government was formed via revolution. The compromise they came up with was two-fold:

  1. People do not have the right to overthrow a democratically elected government
  2. Workers do not have the right to overthrow their employers

Thus American conservatives had no problem putting down rebellions in the former colonies (Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc). As corporations and business leaders grew more powerful, conservatives naturally sided with them against unions.

20th-Century American Conservatism

From those two principles, everything about 20th Century American conservatism flowed.

Anti-communist, because communists wanted to build better people via overthrowing business power and regulating personal beliefs.

Pro-nuclear-family, because socialists, anarchists, and others wanted to break the nuclear family as a social experiment (again in the pursuit of better people).

Anti-regulation, because government has no more business trying to make better corporations than it does better people.

Consequences

Unfortunately, the emphasis on the preservation of the “traditional” family (itself a product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and elsewhere) and the prerogatives of business put conservatives arguing on the side of injustice for many decades: against the liberation of women, against the emancipation of African-Americans from Jim Crow laws, against the call for corporations to become responsible citizens.

And they stand against similar liberation movements today. They pass laws regulating who can use which bathroom, or restricting a woman’s access to a safe abortion, or surpressing votes that might go to their opponents.

And they keep losing these fights. Fights they should lose. Fights they need to lose.

But instead of re-examining the choices that led them to take on these losing fights, American convervatives have instead double-down on them. Anyone on their side on these fights is an ally, and anyone not on their side is an enemy.

This tribal – not conservative – way of thinking it’s what’s led the Republican Party to choose a twice-divorced sexual predator as its standard bearer for a “moral” society.

They’ve forgotten their roots. You can’t make better people, remember?

A New Conservatism

If American conservatives did let go of their tribal ways and thought through these issues from their own principles, where would we be?

Gay marriage would be legal. Homosexual families means more nuclear families, which conservatives believe are the best way to raise children. Adoption by same-sex couples would be not only legal, it’d be encouraged.

Laws restricting abortion would be lifted. First, because banning it is wielding government power in an attempt to make people “better”, which is anathema to a conservative. Second, because women without access to safe abortions get unsafe ones, which can damage their chances of having children later, which means fewer families, which is bad for a conservative.

Gun ownership by private citizens would be highly regulated. The private ownership of anything more than a hunting rifle can only be meant for either a) murder, or b) overthrowing the lawfully elected government. Neither of those are things a conservative could endorse. For sporting enthusiasts, gun ranges might be legal, but licensed and monitored like any dangerous public service.

Maternity and paternity leave would be paid for by the government, and mandatory. Parents should be encouraged to have children, and to bond with them. That leads to stronger families, which conservatives want.

Health care would be universal and free. Making businesses pick up the tab is an unfair burden on them, and suppresses the ability of all businesses – large and small – to hire. Providing free pre- and post-natal care for mothers encourages having children, as does paying for a child’s health care. And covering health care for working men and women means a) they’re healthier, and so can work more, and b) reduces the financial strain on families in case of accidents, which will help them stay together.

Future Arguments

Even in a world where American conservatives embraced these positions, there’d still be a lot for us to argue about.

We’d argue over the proper way to regulate business, if at all.

We’d argue over military spending.

We’d argue over foreign policy (which I haven’t touched on here).

In short, we’d have a lot to talk about. Without tribal loyalities, we could actually debate these things, secure in the knowledge that we disagreed on principle, not on facts.