Monday, March 24, 2008

The Contradictions of Conservatives

Andrew Sullivan notes a trend in response to Obama's speech:

This controversy really is separating the thoughtful and hopeful conservatives from the others. I can't believe I'm writing this, but it seems to me to be helping conservatism reform itself as well.

I am not surprised. As with every ideology, conservatism has its contradictions, and I think we are witnessing the breakdown of conservative ideology along one of its fault lines. I don't think it's entirely coincidental that this breakdown among political commentators is happening at the same time that we are witnessing radical failure on Wall Street - I think there's a strong parallel.

Liberalism went through its own version of this split years ago. Classic liberalism encourages individuals to place as much, if not more, importance on the community as on the individual. There are good things about this, obviously - we work together to solve our problems. But too much of a good thing is a problem: if there is not enough incentive for individuals to take responsibility for themselves, or if there is no reward for individual initiative, the community is not renewed and enriched. Thus communism died in 1989.

The conservative version of this is the mirror opposite: conservatives sometimes place more importance on individual initiative than on collective responsibility. Thus they reward individuals for success, while bemoaning government intervention. The contradiction here is that collective action is required for individual achievement. Bill Gates is wildly successful in part because he is an American, working within the American system of the rule of law. Many conservatives understand and appreciate the fact that the community is ultimately more important than the individual - no man is an island.

But some conservatives resist this, and what we are witnessing now is a split between those who accept the responsibility of individuals to advance the larger cause of democracy, and those who place their own interests first, unless they have little or no choice in a particular matter. Bear Stearns is a classic example of the latter. It did not participate in the communal effort to save Long-Term Capital Management, despite pressure from the Fed to do so, and despite the fact that other investment banks were doing so. It marched to the beat of its own drummer.

Of course, Bear was also part of a crowd that has pushed for greater deregulation for years. Part of the rationale is based on hubris, the belief that the market collectively knows how to police itself better than the government. Bear believed that it understood the rules of the game better than the bureaucrats. Unfortunately, it didn't. Most other investment banks and financial institutions understood this better. Which is why JPMorgan is buying Bear - they understood that the rules are there because the community is ultimately smarter than any single individual or even company. The rules we live by are a product of the collective wisdom of the community.

We are witnessing the same split in reactions to Obama's speech. Some conservatives have recognized that this is a call to embrace our collective responsibility to each other. Some, on the other hand, see it as a demand to put the interests of one group - African Americans - over another - whites. They put their own interests ahead of the community, so they see Obama as doing the same. Thus Pat Buchanan is bitter that blacks are not grateful to white people. To him, it's a zero-sum game - either white people get jobs and scholarships, or black people do. One wins, the other loses. Bear Stearns believed that it could win consistently enough that it did not have to participate in maintaining the standards of the community as other banks did. This is called hubris. When it turned out to be wrong, few people had sympathy for it. They gambled and lost. The irony is that Bear now does not want to take responsibility for losing its gamble.

But Obama believes, and many conservatives fortunately agree with him, that this is not a zero-sum game. White people do not have to lose for blacks to gain. On Wall Street, this is called adding value. A bank loans a homeowner money to buy a house. The homeowner pays it back, with interest. The interest represents added value for the bank. But the price of the house eventually exceeds the price the homeowner paid for it, so they sell it and make money. This is their added value. Everybody wins. For this system to function properly, however, the rules of the game have to be clear and fair. Which is only possible with a properly regulated market.

In politics, this is called the progress of democracy. Everyone benefits from being part of a democracy. But everone also beneifts differently. Some benefit greatly and become fabulously wealthy. Some only benefit marginally. But we have a collective benefit from all people having opportunity to benefit. And therefore each of us has a responsibility to ensure that everyone has as much opporunity as possible, and is treated as fairly as possible. Many conservatives understand this, and they recognize Obama as someone who understands it as well. Each of us has a responsibility to make sure that the system works. Those of us who have benefited the most from the system have a greater responsibility to ensure that it works properly. Barack Obams himself is a great example of this: he has benefited from the system to a great degree, and has accepted responsibility to ensure that it works properly.

The conservative coalition is splitting between those who acknowledge the importance of advancing the cause of collective responsibility, and those who want to act according to their own best self-interests. Thus Chris Wallace gets into an argument with his colleagues at Fox News. And Pat Buchanan makes absurd arguments about the need for black people to express their gratitude towards white people.

This contradiction will not be resolved in this election. But it will make for a fascinating debate.

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