Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | June 26, 2010

The Epistemic Corridor: Prophylactic Government in Alternate Conservative Universes

Daniel Foster, in a most worthwhile post at NRO, gets at something we have circled around often in sundry discussions at Hot Air, of the conservative right, epistemic closure, Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg, Progressivism/progressivism/”progressivism,” Woodrow Wilson, and other related topics.  We have circled, but never really focused on it, and I believe it’s central.  In a sense, it’s like the interface between alternate (or parallel) right-wing universes:  in one universe, you see everything one way, and on the other side you see them the opposite way.

Here is what Daniel Foster said that cued this meditation:

[Matthew] Continetti finds much else to admire and respect in Beck. Where he parts ways is on the question of the affinities Beck sees between totalitarianism and progressivism.

Foster then goes on to quote Continetti at length; key passages here:

When he refers to progressivism, Beck is not only highlighting the liberals’ latest name for liberalism. He is referring to the ideas of John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann…

Beck believes progressive ideas infect both parties and threaten to destroy America as it was originally conceived…

… the difference between communism and progressivism, Beck argued at CPAC, is “revolution” or “evolution.” In other words, the difference between communism and progressivism is one of means not ends. “There is no difference,” he said, “except one requires a gun and the other does it slowly.”

As Foster concludes, Continetti’s point is that “Beck’s likening of progressivism to totalitarianism is paranoid.”  Foster himself doesn’t go that far; he avowedly finds himself between Beck and Continetti.  But it’s this concept – this one right here – that has become, to invoke a Star Trek image, the corridor between alternate universes in which the conservative soul is locked in an eternal battle.

Is prophylactic government inevitably and uncontrollably a road to serfdom?  Glenn Beck would say yes.  (So would Hayek, if with more precision and analytical care.)  Buy into the concept of government needing to intervene to prevent or foster (or guarantee) outcomes, and you have bought the totalitarian premise hook, line, and sinker.  There is no moral or logical brake on the government’s charter to order the people around, if you agree that it should behave prophylactically, in everything from averting the formation of monopolies to averting the formation of cholesterol in your arteries.

Beck’s opponents would say, by contrast, that it’s not inherently inevitable that ceding government one prophylactic power will encourage it to assume others.  Their argument would point out that commercial monopolies aren’t the same problem as high cholesterol, and quite obviously don’t entail the exact same implications about individual liberty when government proposes to do something about them.  Whether they can be analogized to each other is another question, of course, but one Beck’s philosophical opponents would answer, by and large, in the negative.

Each side of the argument regards its conclusion as settled.  Progressivism does envision using government the same way totalitarianism does – say those who agree with Beck.  His opponents say that’s not the case, basically making the argument that prophylactic uses of government can be managed without sliding down a slippery slope into comprehensive totalitarianism.

Discussion of this disparity in analysis and expectations is rarely illuminating.  It is, frankly, unhelpfully tautological to say, as Continetti does, “Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin.”  Well, of course not.  Naturally, Continetti implies more here than merely that these men’s DNA did not exactly overlap – but he assumes and does not address what is not self-evident:  that the political philosophies of the men in question were meaningfully different, in the context in which Beck and others have compared them.  He elides the whole topic.  Just saying, “Duh, dude, Wilson wasn’t Stalin” isn’t an argument, it’s the statement of a conclusion after avoiding the argument.

Beck, for his part, muddies the waters with his off-putting “I hate Wilson” mantra and his often overheated language.  He elides topics too, making analytical leaps that sometimes could have rational connections – if he’d go ahead and make them – but that furrow the brow and evoke a dismissibly conspiracist outlook when sprinkled about at random.  (Since, as Foster and Continetti point out, Beck does have more than a passing association with some Bircher-type conspiracy theorists, this can’t help denting his credibility.)

But how you see all of these things hinges on where you come down on the prophylactic government question.  Both sides of it assume their opposite conclusions as axiomatic, and instead of discussing it in terms of premises and substance, tend to just show distaste for and impatience with each other.

Yet this is exactly the question on which conservatism will stand or fall.  American leftists know where they stand on it.  They can generally be grouped as follows:  those who think you can indeed have prophylactic government without endangering liberty and control of government’s power (mainstream Democratic voters), and those who think some level of totalitarianism is what we need anyway, so the more prophylaxis, the better (“Sixties radicals”).

The conservative side is where the question still lives, whether government can be entrusted with prophylaxis in the people’s lives.  It’s worth noting that over the last century, every prediction of those who say it can’t has come true. But that’s an opening salvo in the argument we badly need to have; in good faith, with explanations about our assumptions, and – please, please – without reflexive vilification and accusations of bad faith.

So, conservatives, which universe do we belong in?

Cross-posted at Hot Air.



  1. Have read Hayeks’ The Road To Serfdom. Now reading Hayek’ The Fatal Conceit, so my money quote is still from The Road.”As soon as the state takes upon itself the task of planning the whole economic life, the problem of the due station of the different individuals and groups must indeed inevitably become the central political problem. As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”( The Road , chapter 8, Who,Whom?) Most people I know wouldn’t want to attempt to control the lives of others. There is no hubris among the “left”. The Optimist has in the past described left wing leaders as eternal adolescents. Only childish humans would not recognize the dangers inherent in trying to dominate others. I also guess the left doesn’t read much history. All peoples the world over grow to hate tyrants. All the left has to do is to read the history of Asia let alone the West. The failure of our American system comes from a power grab by big money from corporations tied to a university system that rewarded perpetual adolescents. Victor Davis Hansen has seen this up close and personal. As he said in one of his essays the universities are now run by fifth rate thinkers. The big problem for the rest of us is how we get our country back because the children in charge don’t know that real chaos can occur in countries, even ours. As I’ve said before as a Roman Catholic who has lived her entire life in San Francisco Ca. , it has always been easy to talk to immigrants whose own family members were murdered in front of them. These surviving family members came here to the US because the US used to have government leaders who realized that murderous tyranny can occur any where. Countries don’t just get too big or too rich to avoid the temptation to have leaders who live to dominate others.

  2. I read that article in the Weekly Standard and was glad to see someone offer some clarity to the different elements of the Tea Party movement.

    My conservatism leans towards the libertarian side. Given the nature of govt to heap ever more regulations upon us as time passes and that the act of repealing laws/regulations is more difficult than passing them, I tend to think that we’re better off with way fewer govt prophylactics. Even if that means there will be instances where more people fall through the proverbial cracks here and there. The overall benefits to our country will be much greater than the minuses.

    A co-worker of mine bought an old house that he intends to tear down and re-build. The town that he lives in requires that he gets the ok from some board to do this because houses might have historical significance and need to be protected by the city. He had to go in front of this board to plead his case and luckily he breezed through. However, presenting before him in front of the board was the electric company NStar. The city was telling them that they had to use some of their parking lot to “beautify” the property (I think NStar leases the parking lot from the city). NStar didn’t want to do this and said it would cost $60,000. The board said that a company like NStar should be able to easily afford the $60,000. My blood started to boil when I heard this. What nerve these (unelected) city employees have telling a private entity what it must do.

    Another friend of mine is an architect. A govt employee contacted him and requested that my friend do some sort of design for something so that the govt could have it on file (I forget the specifics). My buddy called that govt employee (who had no experience as an architect) to get to the bottom of this peculiar request. My buddy asked if the city was going to pay him for his time to do the project. The city would not. He then asked who he should bill his time to. The govt employee said to just bill it to one of his clients. The nerve. It’s infuriating.

    While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this tyranny, I imagine this is the sort of overbearing govt intrusion that our Founders wanted this country to avoid.

    I still almost feel like some medical test could determine why liberals wish to have a high degree of social control over the citizenry while conservatives wish for much less of it. Something like liberals have high doses of chemical X in their brain and conservatives have low doses of chemical X. A great indicator of the liberal desire for social control was when the climategate emails came out. I don’t recall a single liberal being pleased about it. Why shouldn’t they be happy?? It looks as though global warming ISN’T the problem that was feared! They’re weren’t at all happy because they knew that the political climate was going to shift and it would become much more difficult to enact draconian regulations on companies and people to “save the earth.” That being said, it’s still possible that this country is going to be subject to economically murderous “carbon” regulations that will have the added benefit of vastly reducing our liberty.

    Anyway, it’s because the nature of govt is to constantly expand into ever more facets of our life that I prefer that there be extreme limitations on what govt is permitted to do.

    By the way, that Star Trek episode was very intriguing I thought. However, it should have been (at least) a double episode. There were so many interesting facets that a single one hour episode wasn’t sufficient to satisfy all the compelling questions and potential scenarios that presented themselves.

  3. Not to go all religious, but ANY discussion of the topic without recognition of Original Sin is going to be fruitless.

    In contrast, ANY discussion which recognizes the nature of man as fallen and prone to evil will be helpful.

    In that light, it is significant that Wisconsin was home to some of the early Progressives, and strong ones indeed–who, at the time, were largely Republicans (early 1900’s.)

    Inter alia, those folks advocated sterilization of ‘mental defectives,’ which caused the Catholic Bishops of the State to metaphorically go on a tear about the eeeeeevil Republicans.

    Since Catholicism was much stronger than Progressivism, the worst Progressive dreams were forestalled in Wisconsin until (arguably) the 1970’s.

    It was only when the Catholic Bishops in Wisconsin began to ignore the moral questions that Wisconsin’s progressive institutions started to get out of control.

    I think someone can make the case for unemployment comp, and/or some forms of welfare (etc.) Hayek allowed for it. IF such things are controlled by morally-informed groups (and those groups are subject to rigorous audit), they need not degenerate into ‘command-and-control’ prophylactics. It is particularly necessary to utilize the law of subsidiarity, keeping all decisions at the lowest possible level of society.

    The danger rests in overshooting the goal–i.e., “saving the Earth,” or some such thing. Immanentizing the Eschaton is beyond our abilities and should be reflexively avoided.

    • Regarding subsidiarity and Hayek: In The Fatal Conceit right in chapter one “Or as an acute economic thinker of the nineteenth century put it, economic enterprise requires ‘minute knowledge of a thousand particulars which will be learnt by nobody but him who has an interest in knowing them'(Bailey,1840:3).” Subsidiarity ( in my pop art theological interprets) means to Catholic theo. an activity in which God’s spirit interacts with the individual so keeping the decision process at the most local level would correspond to the Catholic conviction that the individual is the person most likely to realize in the world those actions which are in line with what God would wish for that person as a positive good. In economic terms I think Hayek would say that a lot of self interested actions on the part of the individual are actually not selfish but rational for human continuance. The conceit that I think Hayek will develop in his book is that socialists think that their one way or the highway will produce a greater good than an individual’s free choice. I don’t think you can avoid getting into discussions of what constitutes a good for a human being. Even if the people in control of the Democratic party were correct that their superior status to the rest of society makes them able to recognize the good better than the individual person, taking away a person’s free choice will always lead to resentment of the ruling class. Better to live with problems produced by free choice in a society than the festering resentment which slavery in any form will produce.

  4. Which universe? The totalitarian one.

    However, as one astute conservative pundit said, is the totalitarianism we are creating like 1984 or Brave New World? Paraphrased, even though We the People have no power under a totalitarian regime, it is not true that citizens have no power ONLY under a totalitarian regime.

    Eg, see the EU. No Western or Central European country’s gov’t is totalitarian, yet the typical citizen in those countries has a smidgen of the power the typical US citizen has to change gov’t policies.

    Ergo, the sum of “mainstream Democratic voters” and “Sixties radicals” is not the universe. We need at least a 3rd category where a de facto totalitarian gov’t does not maintain concentration camps but cradle-to-grave entitlements.

    Once this is factored in, the scintillating threads in this outstanding article would again be worth pursuing.

  5. Stick to Startrek, guys.

    This prolix trawl through the dictionary could, with some advantage in coherence, have been reduced to about three simple sentences.

    “A Fish Called Wanda” rather than Startrek comes to mind: Ms. Curtiss to Mr. Klein: “Lots of people read Nietzsche, it’s understanding it that’s the question……”

    BTW, Hayek is a bit more subtle than some people around here give him credit for. Hayek, readily conceded that there were certain things that government was best placed to do. Expressly, he considered healthcare was one. Margaret Thatcher, a Hayek admirer, when confronted by free-market radicals who questioned her committment to retaining the British NHS, referred them to Hayek.

  6. Some great points raised here. Welcome to dad29 and George Mikos (for George Mikos, my apologies that it took so long for your first comment to post. Your comments will post automatically from now on).

    dad29 gets at the reason I referred specifically to “prophylactic” government: because government can have some reasonable functions for public relief, but the real issue is whether they are undertaken with a prophylactic motive or not.

    I would NOT agree that the following propositions are the same thing:

    1. A local government providing emergency relief, orphanages, county hospitals, and other forms of charity that arise from the common understanding that bad things happen to people, and it’s in the public interest to provide a recourse for the suffering in extremis.

    2. A national government aspiring to set up a system of monetary transfer from producing citizens to non-producing citizens, in order to secure an outcome on paper of particular “incomes” or means for everyone.

    The first proposition is situational and remedial. The second is statistical and prophylactic. The first approaches citizens as if they are responsible human actors, the second as if they are part of a system or organism, behaving according to discernible predetermined rules or reacting to stimuli, like a liver, a pack of wolves, or a gas turbine.

    This naturally renders dad29’s observation particularly important: that how we approach this depends on how we see God, man, and original sin. I agree. That’s something I’ve thought and written about a lot, in fact, and it IS a central issue.

    The Christian proposition that God and Caesar are separate, and Caesar is not here to use force to make us righteous according to God’s law, was one well understood by America’s Founders. People get very poor educations today, and don’t realize that it wasn’t until Christian Europe had gone through the Reformation that the world’s peoples in general gained any experience of living under government that was not theocratic. Most human governments in recorded history HAVE been theocratic; the uniqueness of America’s is that it was the first that was avowedly not so.

    But that’s not because the Founders disliked religion, it’s because they did not see the state as having a proper role in making the people righteous or trying to enforce “moral” outcomes in their lives. They saw law most fundamentally as a punitive deterrent, not as a form of prophylaxis. That’s why John Adams said our form of government was suited only to a moral and religious people: because we were to come to the project of government already in a good moral condition. We were not to be made so BY government.

    This perspective sees individuals as moral actors before God FIRST, and secondly before the state. It also accepts that moral outcomes and a good society can be achieved without corporate coercion, e.g., without using the force of the state. Most precisely, it sees the individual moral condition as the necessary condition for moral outcomes, a good society, and good government — and it rejects the inverse premise.

    Thinkers since the Founders have gone on to the proposition that moral outcomes and a good society are best achieved, or even ONLY achieved, without prophylactic state coercion of the people. We’ve had a good century and half now of various forms of governmental prophylaxis in the West, and it has not produced improvements in any of the societal patterns it was supposed to.

    For George Mikos, I understand what you’re saying about the condition of the EU, but in the terms I’ve outlined, it clearly fits the first category, I think: that of people who think it’s possible to cede prophylactic functions to the state without loss of liberty ensuing. I think most of the West operates from that premise. The question isn’t whether or how much they have lost liberty, but whether they THINK they can let the state order their lives prophylactically without losing liberty. I’d say Europeans are the poster children for thinking that.

    But we should certainly learn from the condition they are actually in today, and consider it in treating this question.

    I also note that seeing hope for man’s condition outside the closed-loop parameters of state coercion — that is, of ordering around the people who exist right now and the “stuff” they have and produce — depends in most cases on having faith in a God who is good, merciful, and provident. I think that’s a good part of what dad29 was getting at. If you believe in nothing but what’s before us in the material world, you do tend to think that it’s some form of “justice” to “redistribute” it. (Regular readers know that I reject the term “redistribute” as it is used in politics, because it implies a prior “distribution” that never took place. Material goods, including money, have never been “distributed”; they are only produced and earned.)

    RE — I sympathize with your friends. City agencies can be ridiculous. When I lived in Tampa, a local-access channel used to air hearings on zoning and property improvement proposals, and the weeds they’d get down into were excruciating. I remember watching one poor homeowner trying to get an exception to a heritage-tree ordinance so he could put in a driveway — because the city had preempted his on-street parking. I am always sympathetic to the desire to preserve trees, but in this case, the tree (a garden-variety ash) wasn’t anything interesting or unique: it had just been grandfathered in as a heritage tree when all the trees in that neighborhood were given a blanket designation because it was an old tract. The guy had his neighbors there to state that they had no problem if the tree were removed. He had a complete estimate from a tree-removal company for getting it out properly and ensuring that the sidewalk was restored to full integrity. The homeowners’ association and the historic neighborhoods organization were there to support his request. Everybody was on board with it, and still the city bureaucrats had to sit there and dither for hours.

    That business with the city employee telling your friend to bill his hours to some other client was perfect.

    • Thanks for replying.

      Hey. My post appeared quickly. No apologetic bowing, please.

      Notwithstanding that I may have stated my point poorly, you missed my point. Then again, it doesn’t much matter because my point was weak.

      Back to your post. It fails. Not to worry. You’re in fine company; eg, Jonah Goldberg’s substance-rich article “What Kind of Socialist Is Barack Obama?” in the May Commentary magazine.–15421. (Jonah is getting better, isn’t he?) Not that my subjective experience is of any note except to me but, in fact, I haven’t read one article since Obama emerged in mid-2008 which clearly describes what Obama’s Progressivism is. Every article failed.

      Weird. What at 1st glance appears simple is actually quite difficult.

      Still, Obama is a radical. Considering that, for Obama, gov’t is the be-all and end-all, calling him a Marxist or a socialist is close enough for gov’t work.

  7. The current progressivism of which you speak has a tradition older than Woodrow Wilson and is but one branch of many on the statist tree. The originator of the theory of the modern pre-eminent state is Hegel, and his ideas have been incorporated by all statists, including Marx, Engels, Bismarck, Dewey, Wilson and even New York Times writer J.M. Bernstein in a piece written on June 13:

    Hegel and his followers maintain that individuality as envisioned by Americans with a “frontier” mentality of self-reliance and independence is a myth and illusion, that the state indeed defines and enables individuality. There is more analysis of this subject here:

    The Hegelian world-view, so popular among 19th century academic statists even while being rebutted by thinkers like Spencer, went into hibernation when those who used it to justify massive state coercion lost their popularity, Heidegger for instance Yet it awakens once more as a rationalization for ever greater government power.

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