Why I’m Conservative

Last week, Mr Dreher noted an essay by Mr Coates a progressive blogger for the New Atlantic. Mr Coates offers his reasons “why I’m a liberal,” which Mr Dreher disputes. This weekend this came up in conversation and a friend offered “why he’s a conservative”, and offered a point on which I agree. In brief:

I’m a conservative because our civilization is fragile.

Liberal/progressives don’t believe that to be the case. Unlike Mr Dreher, who says:

I am not a liberal because I do not share the same view of human nature that most liberals do, and because I think that in my culture and country, our traditions and institutions, broadly speaking, are a wise guide to our life in common. And I believe liberals have such an unrealistic view of human nature that they typically run off to tear down fences without any regard for why the fences were erected, so to speak.

Not that I disagree strongly with that viewpoint, but that the more important thing is the fragility of the order in which we live. They believe they can whack away, merging politics and science strongly regarding climate, futz with marriage, redefine sexual mores and roles, bludgeon our healthcare establishment, and so on. That the structures that drive and which serve as the foundation of our civilization is fundamentally fragile. Our very progressive President has grand plans to restructure society. Progressives forget the disasters they reap. For example it was the progressive movement which brought us Prohibition and the twin progressive reforms of the 60s easing divorce and of welfare which annihilated the inner city family structure so effectively. And don’t examine Europe … the 20th century history is a wrecking yard of progressive ideas which foundered on reality.

How is that they don’t realize that their progressive failures are disappointing failures and disasters most of the time? They use a few mechanisms and repeat as needed. The primary mechanism is to forget that the failures were progressive innovations … they pretend that they were innovations pressed on society by the conservative faction … even though that very idea should resound with cognitive dissonance. The other mechanism is ignorance. For example, Black slavery in the New World was a progressive innovation introduced by a Spanish nobleman in order to allay and ease maltreatment of native central American peoples by the conquering Spanish peoples. And yes, it wasn’t his plan that the evils of the triangle trade might arise … but that’s always how it goes … and this is the third mechanism. Because the “plan didn’t work out” … the massive suffering that entails the enterprise is exonerated. Throughout the 20th century, Western European and American liberal establishment was enthralled with Marxism and the communist bloc. They ignored the suffering and pain because that wasn’t in the plan. It wasn’t intended.

Take science for example, Mr Polanyi notes in Personal Knowledge that the transmission from master to apprentice is the primary way in which our scientific methodologies are transmitted. He notes that University culture has been transplanted into a variety of cultures and settings and the results by and large have not been as successful as would be expected, in many places it hasn’t worked at all to this point. The key here is that the culture on which our scientific progress depends is fragile. It is hard to construct. It took centuries to arise and … didn’t arise in many other places which were more literate, wealthier, and had more time. Likewise our social customs and practices fit together to form our society … are very fragile. They took centuries, millenia to build up in a way in which they fit. It is a progressive conceit that they have “new ways” of social arrangement untried and unconsidered by anyone in the previous 5000 years. They believe that their scientific knowledge will protect them from error at the same time at which is retreating rapidly from the notions that it has anything to offer in moral and social arenas. Odd that. 

I’m conservative because I’m aware our track record at intentional innovations in engineering and fixing our society is very very poor. I’m conservative because the effort to make decent human society was bought at great price. 500 years ago the “Emily Post” etiquette manuals of behavior had to instruct individuals to eschew public defecation in dining areas at mealtime. Our manners, our culture, and the institutions which bind us together took great effort to erect. They are fragile. The first impulse should not be to whack them indiscriminately as they are planning and doing right now.

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40 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    Our very progressive President has grand plans to restructure society

    Exactly what is his radical program to restructure society? And contrast with your own program of having every town and village doing its own thing on marriage, divorce, abortion etc?

    For example, Black slavery in the New World was a progressive innovation introduced by a Spanish nobleman in order to allay and ease maltreatment of native central American peoples by the conquering Spanish peoples.

    My impression was that black slavery was introduced because S. American slavery had such a high death rate that the Spanish had labor shortages. This is evidenced by the fact that US slaves have so many living descendants today versus S. America. Sugar and gold mining were much worse for mortality than tobacco

    Black slavery wasn’t intentional social engineering, it was the result of industrialism meeting tribal society. Whether or not a particular nobleman it was a consequence not of an intentional act of social engineer but social evolution. The attempt to abolish slavery, then was not a conservative movement but a progressive one.

  2. Boonton says:

    I know you don’t like Brad de Long but I suggest you take a peek at his proto-book Slouching Towards Utopia. Take a peek at chapter 6 which is only 31 pages but gives us a very good background.

    If you have time to read it, I would suggest addressing a key discussion point. Conservatism seeks to preserve civilization against radical change but the nature of civilization in the modern post 1870 age is radical change. At a certain point trying to resist change in itself becomes a program for radical change. Consider the divorce and sexual mores of 1960. Not even 50 years ago. To return to that time would require policies more far reaching and radical than any universial health program and would likely fail and yield unwanted consquences… Yet conservatives rarely confront this fact, instead choosing to pretend simple, easy policies or stunts can do the trick.

  3. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    What you don’t think Mr Obama and the progressives in general think to restructure the things I noted?

    My suggestions of increasing local control of things is the result of my thinking about structural problems I see developing in increased federal concentration of power and dependency on the same. It is also solves a second problem of how to finesse the membership and community engagement that small unified communities enjoy in a highly pluralistic society. I am also not in power, I’m a lone writer on a micro-blog.

    Your defence of the Spanish grandee oddly enough follows the pattern I outlined. It wasn’t intentional … so it wasn’t at fault. It began as a intentional act of social engineering. It mushroomed into something much larger because economic and social environment were ripe for it.

    On your second post, I fail to see how that engages my point about the fragility of our institutions. How is that an argument that we should also embrace and seek to institute other large changes, especially given their high failure rate and the high costs of the same?

  4. Boonton says:

    Regarding slavery, I would contend that it was driven by economics and population dynamics. African slavery might have been introduced with the line that it would be more ‘humane’…if it was, though, that was only a sales pitch or rationalization. The Spanish didn’t turn to Africa for slaves because they felt bad for the Indians and wanted to give them a break. The Spanish turned to them because the Crown was drowning in debt, needed gold and the Indians were dropping like flies in the mines. Later on producing sugar was likewise almost as good as producing gold but the death toll was only a bit better. Put that together with the fact that Europeans were establishing trading posts around Africa for the spice trade with Asia and encountered slave trading tribes who were willing to be employed capturing slaves on an industrial scale. It seems pretty hard to buy that if only some supposedly well-intentioned nobleman hadn’t come up with the idea it wouldn’t have happened.

    My suggestions of increasing local control of things is the result of my thinking about structural problems I….

    That’s fine and another day we can return to the merits of your idea but note this is not conservatism. The idea behind conservatism is that you (and any other mortal) are a very stupid creature. Your ability to project the future of complex systems os woefully bad. As a result you should show deference to long term institutions that have evolved over multiple generations that have imbedded in them a wisdom that is more organic than a designed system. And at least as far as Obama is concerned your vision would be much more radical than anything he has proposed.

    Speaking of which:
    What you don’t think Mr Obama and the progressives in general think to restructure the things I noted?

    Exactly what ‘restructuring’ are you talking about? “Merge politics and science”? Politics was entwined with science centuries ago when Jefferson authorized the Lewis and Clarke expedition. It was entwined even more a half century ago when a crash program allowed the US to end WWII by making a quantum leap in explosive power. Perhaps you mean the environmental movement? Opps, Silent Spring is already nearly a half century old. The EPA is about 40 years old.

    “Futz with marriage”? If JA was given 30 days to rewrite all marriage law in the US 99.99% of all married couples would not be able to detect any change. “Redefne sexual mores” – hmmmm, which party was it that celebrated the nomination of a woman who raised her first daughter to be an unwed teenage mother? Was it perhaps the same party who a generation ago denied the nomination to Nelson Rockerfeller on the grounds that he was once divorced?

    My point of brining up De Long’s chapter (BTW, you can find it at http://delong.typepad.com/slouching/) is that the default state of things since about 1870 has been radical change. From the nature of things, to really call any proposal a radical change would require it to have…well quite a bit of change.

    To a child with a hammer, all the world looks like a nail. To someone thinking about politics, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking all social change derives from gov’t policy. You think way too much of liberals and progressives. You seem to think we have been secretly controlling society since maybe 1962 or so. In reality we don’t and if we did Bush wouldn’t have had 8 years to run amock.

    Take your beef with ‘easy divorce’ and welfare. First of all, easy divorce was a bottom up social change as individual states write divorce law. There have been plenty of states where trying to get them to elect a liberal is like pulling teeth….but they too pass the divorce laws you blame easily. Likewise, no one seems to bat an eye when Conservatives happily accepted the divorced as their leaders (Reagan, Newt, Hyde, and so on). The reality is that it isn’t the laws that made divorce happen, society wanted to get divorced more easily so they made the laws happen. There is no honest way to read the causation any other way. And why? Probably for a lot of reasons that have to do with the massive and accelerating changes that have been happening in the modern age.

    Likewise for welfare. While welfare did increase in the 60’s the destruction of the inner city family began before that and was accelerated not by welfare but by the destruction of the city. The age of the blue collar city came to an end after WWII. The model of the industrial revolution of thousands of factory workers all living close to each other is gone. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this, why isn’t the rest of America ‘destroyed’? You are aware, are you not, that nearly one out of nine? And must we continue making a show that Medicare is not welfare but has been ‘paid for’ by those receiving it? Unless you are living in a very high end and exclusive community (and you don’t count the help), you are living in a community awash in as much welfare as many ‘inner cities’.

    This is not to say that policies with bad incentives weren’t enacted but I notice the right likes to read way too much into this. The WHOLE housing bubble was supposedly caused by the Community Reinvestment Act (which oddly was on the books decades without causing any bonanza of free houses for poor people). The ENTIRE change in the nuclear family was caused by a few states opting for no-fault divorce.

    I think reality is much more clear. The reason 1950 ended was because 1950 had to end. Economic growth has created such rapid change that only a fool would think the world of 1950 would have stayed the same if only a few liberal laws weren’t passed. (And what was that older world anyway? The ‘nuclear family’ was a creation of the industrial revolution when work was moved outside of the home and large numbers of single men could live in ‘factory towns’ making an independent living. Perhaps conservatives of the day picked up on some trivial policies that seemed important at the time (perhaps the debate between the gold standard or the bi-metallic standard or Andrew Jackson’s decision to let the First National Bank die…stuff that drove a lot of passions of the day but today doesn’t even spring to mind when people think about US history) and try to pin the blame on that).

    Anyway, let’s get to the krux of the problem. Conservatives have a paradox to struggle with (and that’s not to say liberals don’t have their own contradictions and paradoxes to wrestle with either). They are ideologically committed to defending a system of rapid change against change. This is a battle that might very well be worthy of being fought but it is not worthy of being won. William F Buckley once said the job of conservatives was to stand in front of history and yell ‘stop’. But even he recognized that history does not stop and probably shouldn’t.

  5. Boonton says:

    On your second post, I fail to see how that engages my point about the fragility of our institutions. How is that an argument that we should also embrace and seek to institute other large changes, especially given their high failure rate and the high costs of the same?

    If you ever been to the top of a high skyscrapper (I was to the top of the WTC twice), you probably heard that the building sways something like 20-30 feet. As you almost certainly know, a rigid structure would crack under the pressure of even a light wind.

    Structures that must operate in a fluid medium often need to have an amount of flexibility built into them. Bridges, planes, ships etc. need a certain amount of ability to ‘go with the flow’ or else they will snap. Marx accurately observed that the modern age is one of the most fluid, most radically changing environments human history has ever seen. The wind against a skyscrapper is nothing in terms of energy when compared to, say, the adoption of cell phones by just about everyone between 9 and 99.

    As a result, institutions that are highly rigid have failed. Many institutions that probably seemed rock solid generations ago are long forgotten today (I can think of, off hand, aristrocratic prilivages, orphanages, work houses, debtors prisons, the highly refined customs of ‘high society’ as seen in, say, The Age of Innocence, arranged marriages and probably dozens of others that I’d know better if I were a better student of history). Others though seem to remain because they are able to adjust.

    Marriage is a good example. Despite the hysterical cries of those obsessed with gay marriages that would like to pretend marriage has more or less been the same from -100,000 to 2006 AD, it hasn’t. Marriage 100 or even 50 years ago looked very different from marriage today but the institution has remained and I think it has because it meets a very organic need of humans. Likewise capitalism, a driver of very radical change, also seems to remain because, IMO, it fits a organic need of humans.

    Your view seems to be the opposite. These things hang by a thread, like the last leaf on a tree during a windy December. Even slight policy changes that seem totally unrelated to them could kill them off therefore not only is caution needed, not only is extreme caution required but absolutely insane paranoid caution is demanded! This is very ironic because you’re essentially saying your a conservative who doesn’t like a powerful gov’t but believes gov’t is all powerful! I would say if our surviving institutions depended on such good policies for existence they wouldn’t have made it past the bronze age.

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Regarding slavery, I would contend that it was driven by economics and population dynamics. African slavery might have been introduced with the line that it would be more ‘humane’…if it was, though, that was only a sales pitch or rationalization.

    Hmm. You’re forgetting this was in a time in which sans “sales pitch” to the decision makers in the nobility large enterprises didn’t get started. The point was this was in fact started by a humanitarian/progressive sales pitch which got it off the ground. And yes, I agree that it in the absence of other factors it wouldn’t have become large … but isn’t that the point? That the unanticipated other factors are the rule not the exception.

    That’s fine and another day we can return to the merits of your idea but note this is not conservatism.

    Hmmm. I’d disagree … or at least it is neutral. I happen to think my notion is by and large one which allows communities (if they choose) to keep to their older ways and not have to jump through every “newfangled” idea the beltway comes up with. Ask yourself if this would make it easier or harder to allow an Amish community to keep to its old ways before you conclude it’s anti-conservative in nature.

    A lot of your commentary hinges on this assumption and is polemic against this

    To someone thinking about politics, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking all social change derives from gov’t policy.

    I didn’t and I don’t … end of story. I’m not a “conservative” regarding politics alone. While I advocate (my brand) of political conservatism I also advocate here for personal conservatism, i.e., in individual mores and habits. I don’t think the government needs to enforce wearing button down collars to work, speaking respectfully to others, that families should have two parents and one bread-winner, or marrying once (carefully) for life. I think it would be best if we all did that, but why do you jump to the conclusion that I think it’s a governmental role?

  7. Boonton says:

    Hmm. You’re forgetting this was in a time in which sans “sales pitch” to the decision makers in the nobility large enterprises didn’t get started. The point was this was in fact started by a humanitarian/progressive sales pitch which got it off the ground.

    Since you didn’t reference a link do you care to explain exactly how this was an honest attempt to be more humanitarian? If Indians were dropping like flies in Spain’s mines and plantations why would blacks imported from 3,000 miles away in a time where even first class sea travel was rather dangerous would be more humane?

    Ask yourself if this would make it easier or harder to allow an Amish community to keep to its old ways before you conclude it’s anti-conservative in nature.

    Errr no your proposal is essentially anarchist in nature. That’s fine but it isn’t conservatism which recognizes the central as well as local gov’t.

    I think it would be best if we all did that, but why do you jump to the conclusion that I think it’s a governmental role?

    Hmmmm,

    progressives forget the disasters they reap. For example it was the progressive movement which brought us Prohibition and the twin progressive reforms of the 60s easing divorce and of welfare which annihilated the inner city family structure so effectively. And don’t examine Europe….

    Sounds like you’re attributing large scale societal change to rather minor policy adjustments to me. You say ‘its not a gov’t role’ but you’re eager to find a gov’t policy at the root of every and any change you don’t like. You fail to recognize the more obvious truth that in a world of rapid and constant change institutions must either be strong on their own or will simply not survive. Your fretting about ‘fragile institutions’ is not about protecting institutions but trying to make them so rigid that they will crack at the slightest amount of pressure. You’re like an amateur architect who decides the skyscraper cannot be allowed to sway so keeps adding more and more steel reinforcement to the blueprints.

  8. Boonton says:

    You might be talking about Nicolás de Ovando who was governor of the Indies from 1502 to 1509 who ordered the first importation of Spanish speaking African slaves (Ladinos). Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like he was very progressive minded. Upon ariving in Hispaniola his administration had a rep. of great cruelty towards Indians. According to our friend wikipedia the native populationw as estiamted at 500,000 in 1492 but a 1507 census put it at only 60,000.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicol%C3%A1s_de_Ovando

    The Ladinos weren’t well treated either. Being originally brought to Spain they had converted to Christianity. The true progressives of the day disputed their enslavement on the grounds of their conversion. But the arguments for:

    “Proponents declared that the rapid diminution of the Native American population required a consistent supply of reliable low-cost workers. Free Spaniards were reluctant to do manual labor or to remain settled (especially after the discovery of gold on the mainland), and only slave labor assured the economic viability of the colonies.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Ladino

    Long story short you’re key example is crap. Black slavery wasn’t some misguided progressive reform to make labor in S. America more humane. It was from the beginning about forcing other people to do deadly work to reap the benefits. Ovando accomplished exactly what he set out to do.

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Bartolomé de las Casas was the Spanish grandee influential in bringing African slaves to the Americas (an act he later regretted). For myself I read of him first in a history book on the The Reformation which was quite readable, btw.

    Bringing important moral decisions to a local level is not anarchist. I’ve not proposed doing away with law, or state and federal governments. It’s not a priori non-conservative to prevent very liberal (say coastal) areas to liberalize while allowing more conservative regions to remain unchanged.

    Yes, I did say that. But I also noted the “Emily Post” etiquette changes. It took 500 years of pushing from educational institutions, church, and government to “civilize” the common man. It wouldn’t take much to lose it. This wasn’t “government policy” at the root of the change. If anything it was the church and educational reformers.

    I’m noting that many minor policy adjustments have had large changes. Some large changes have had no effect.

    You’re like an amateur architect who decides the skyscraper cannot be allowed to sway so keeps adding more and more steel reinforcement to the blueprints.

    You keep saying that. But it’s not true. It’s not what I (or other conservatives) are saying. Look at Mr Dreher’s statements

    And I believe liberals have such an unrealistic view of human nature that they typically run off to tear down fences without any regard for why the fences were erected, so to speak.

    Caution is not “fragile” or “adding steel to prevent motion”. Recognition that unintended consequences are likely to be larger than the intended ones. So … if you’re the government (and spending other peoples money anyhow) caution and non-action should be the first response.

    It’s interesting that liberal/progressives in today’s world conveniently forget the New York Blackout the New Orleans flooding and decide that the institutions which cement civility and order are not fragile. Whatever.

  10. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    You want more examples!? Off the cuff, try Prohibition.

  11. Boonton says:

    Mark,

    1. You remain wrong on slavery. Per the very article you cited Bartolome was a colonist under Ovando’s governorship. The decision to bring blacks to S. America was Ovando’s and it wasn’t made with progressive intentions. Even if Bartolome did originally support black importation with a mind for making conditions more humane, you’ve presented no evidence that such a view was anything other than wishful thinking on the part of a man who had no real say in the matter anyway. If Bartolome’s opposition to slavery and Indian abuse had come 20 years earlier Ovando almost certainly would have still proceeded with his plans.

    1.1 This is not the origins of slavery in the New World but only an early episode. The Portoguese had already started taking black slaves in their trades with Africa and the Ladinos existence indicated Spain was following suit. None of this was done with charitable intent. It was done, as I said, to force other people to do dangerous work while they reaped the benefits. In this there were no ‘unintended bad consquences’. Orlando & co. accomplished exactly what they wanted too.

    2. Since you don’t really provide specifics very often its hard to evaluate your claim that your ‘localism’ is not a style of anarchy. Allowing each town to micromanage abortion, sex and marriage does seem like a radical shift to me…esp. since it is a well established institution in America that Americans are only loosely tied to their towns. We don’t have serfs that are ‘tied to the land’. Here you have to tell us what you’re talking about. You claim your plans are more conservative than Obamas yet you refuse to go into much detail about either your plans or Obama’s.

    3. “And I believe liberals have such an unrealistic view of human nature that they typically run off to tear down fences without any regard for why the fences were erected,”

    And I ask again what fences have been torn down or are being torn down? The attempt to pin divorce on liberals was unable to accomodate the evidence that it was an organic in our society. what you guys tend to do is pretend that rather trivial policy changes represent the END OF THE WORLD(tm) and are therefore quite radical. It seems these fences are nothing more than the ability of conservatives to throw a hissy fit over some things but not others.

    In terms of radical changes, the fences you talk about are usually pretty trivial compared say with the rise of the two income family, the inability for a blue collar bread winner to easily support a single income family, the ability to control fertility with birth control and increasing lifespans allowing people to both live longer and remain in better health in old age. All of these have caused a radical shift in family life over the past, say, 100 years yet they are not caused by any particular gov’t policy or any particular ‘progressive’ having an idea to change things (although there are gov’t policies that supported these things so a sub-industry exists that revolves around finding a seemingly small policy and then declaring that it ’caused’ everything else to follow suit. A nice algorithm to get a grant every year or two from a right wing think tank)

    Which brings me again to the issue you keep dancing around. Radical change is the current modern system we have had since maybe 1870 or earlier. Conservatism faces a paradox in that they are essentially trying to ‘conserve’ something that is inherently unstable. Modern day US Conservatism, especially after the bubblization of it post Bush, Rush and Fox News, does not seem to have come to grips with this truth.

    The ‘fragile institutions’ you are talking about are only frangile becuase you look at them from the wrong perspective…..like the student who thinks the building is about to come down because it sways in the wind. These institutions are actually remarkably non-fragile becuase they have been able to withstand a hurrican of rapid change that has been going on for over century. Other institutions were not so lucky. Looking from, say, 1700 who would have predicted that monarchy would soon either disappear or turn into an irrelevant institution? After all, it was an institution that was thousands of years old!

  12. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    I didn’t get the information on de las Casas from the Wiki article. I didn’t get it from a “conservative” journal or anything like that. I cited the source I first heard it, and Mr Schraub (progressive law student blogging at the Debate Link) in prior conversations confirmed at one time de las Casas influential role in the beginning of the slave trade.

    You’re ignoring my point on the fragility of our structures. Examine the New York riots and New Orleans flooding responses. I got an email from the gentleman whose conversation spurred this. He writes

    My point was much narrower and simpler than yours. I was trying to say that I view basic civil society as fragile — in particular I had watched the movie Blood Diamond, which shows Sierra Leone during a time of troubles, with jeeps full of thugs zooming into a peaceful village without warning and shooting men, women, and children for no immediate reason (not even pillage and rape, it seemed). See also Dr. Zhivago. …

    See the remarks I made on the struggle to instill civil society. Observe how often and how easy that veneer is stripped. There are other more frangible aspects to our society (I suggested perhaps the apprentice/master relationships that drive scientific progress today might be one such).

    See the point is you think our state is not fragile and there feel free to slap things about. I think they are … and would be cautious. It is a defining point of our difference in point of view. I don’t expect to convert you. And I don’t expect you to convert you. However, understanding the other side would be a start.

  13. Boonton says:

    1. Again I think at this point it is beyond question your assertion that black slavery was a progressive do-gooder idea that went horribly wrong is itself wrong.

    2. You are rephrasing the fragility argument to be more aligned with a Lord of the Flies situation. However I would point out that these are usually rather brief affairs unless there’s some more extensive diaster going on such as an extended civil war. But what does this have to do with your original beef with progressives who implement ideas willy nilly and tear down fences. Riots in cities or civil wars are not typical policies but usually either flash events or highly complex ones that are not usually linked to any particular policy. As I pointed out with black slavery, Spain was going to get its gold one way or the other and when the Indians were all but wiped out they were going to turn to the next cheapest place to get human life.

    See the point is you think our state is not fragile and there feel free to slap things about. I think they are … and would be cautious. I

    Actually no. I think the worthwhile institutions we have are not fragile and are actually quite difficult to ‘slap about’. As paradoxical as it sounds their ability to change is what gives them great stability. If marriage could not, for example, have broken its earlier style of arrangements between family clans it could not have survived.

  14. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    That’s because you are enraptured with an economic account of history. I’m not. I’m more inclined to a history of ideas and cultures with economics as a background or less significant driving force.

    Rome fell. It’s fall was a failure of economic and social structures thought robust. They weren’t. It’s fall is more akin to a larger scale breakdown of order … a slow motion Lord of the Flies if you will. Our civilization too is more fragile than you think.

    Right now our civilization is fueled by cheap petro-chemicals and energy. When that goes … we’ll see how much fragile our house of cards really is.

    I think the worthwhile institutions we have are not fragile and are actually quite difficult to ’slap about’.

    It almost sounds as you would define as “worthwhile” those institutions which are not fragile, yet that would name slavery and prostitution as the most robust -> worthwhile … so let’s not go there.

    But what does this have to do with your original beef with progressives who implement ideas willy nilly and tear down fences.

    You didn’t comment on my discussions and summaries of Chantal Delsol’s book/essay. It has to do with the notion that progressives believe, to borrow her words, we are demiurges. The progressive notion that we have the ability to shape man and society in a way which will radically improve things. I am not progressive. I don’t think we can intentionally recast and reshape our institutions in a “better” way. Prohibition thought it could “fix” our drinking. It is the defining characteristic of the progressive that they believe they possess ideas which will “fix” various defects in people and their institutions. Those institutions are more fragile than they know and their ability to “fix” things is far less successful and prone to unanticipated disasters than they realize … hence I’m a conservative.

  15. Boonton says:

    That’s because you are enraptured with an economic account of history. I’m not. I’m more inclined to a history of ideas and cultures with economics as a background or less significant driving force.

    I would say I’m enraptured with an economic+ account of history. The + is not just looking at money but going towards a bigger picture of examining costs and benefits of ideas.

    People have lots of ideas and to the degree they stay in our heads only they carry almost no cost. Putting them on paper is a higher cost but that’s about it. The ones that are interesting, though, have to be tested in the real world and then we really get to see some action.

    Your failure on the black slavery issue, for example, stems IMO from failing to see the difference between ideas that only exist as momentary thoughts (or fancies) versus ideas that actually test themselves in the real world. The idea that black slavery could have made labor in S. America more humane was a fancy almost certainly devised as an after-the-fact stance to accomodate the actual policy that had won out in what brief debate there was. To his credit your Nobleman did later regret this idea and tried to implement real world solutions to treat the Indians more fairly. These included both lobbying and preaching the gov’t for better treatment and attempting to set up his own community where Indians were treated fairly. That was the real progressive stance and while his efforts probably didn’t produce much in his lifetime he did help set the ball rolling over the long run.

    Rome fell. It’s fall was a failure of economic and social structures thought robust. They weren’t. It’s fall is more akin to a larger scale breakdown of order … a slow motion Lord of the Flies if you will. Our civilization too is more fragile than you think.

    Or was it that robust? From what I understand Rome’s general model was invade, defeat, plunder, make the conquered citizens, move onto next region and repeat. This leads to a real instability in that at some point you’re going to run out of people to invade and plunder. Additionally, I’m not sure this example helps us much. Rome’s fall was not, I don’t think, a result of to many ‘progressives’ and too few ‘conservatives’. What policies could Rome have implemented not to have fallen? The answer to that question is a) not very obvious and b) not very obvious if you were looking at Rome from the POV of a Roman before the Fall rather than as a person with nearly 2000 years of scholarship and post facto history to fall back on.

    Again I think De Long’s point about 1870 being an inflection point is important. Ancient history is important but ancient history suffers from that fact that humanity was essentially in stasis from year 0 until about 1870. History is now a moving target which means learning from it requires a lot more creativity.

    Right now our civilization is fueled by cheap petro-chemicals and energy. When that goes … we’ll see how much fragile our house of cards really is.

    Maybe, but I don’t see what this now has to do with your claim of being interested in ‘ideas’ and not economics. Also I’m not quite seeing the connection here with liberal versus conservatives.

    It almost sounds as you would define as “worthwhile” those institutions which are not fragile, yet that would name slavery and prostitution as the most robust -> worthwhile … so let’s not go there.

    Perhaps we can say that some institutions are like weeds. They are undesirable yet are very strong. Slavery, though, does not appear to be one of them. Since the ‘inflection point’ of 1870 slavery does not appear to be viable in non-backward societies.

    Some other institutions that no longer seem viable but you wouldn’t have guessed that from looking at the span of the the last 4,000 years of history rather than giving the last 150 or so more focus:

    Monarcy
    Mercantilism
    War for the sake of plunder
    Classism
    Children should follow their father’s career path

    I am not progressive. I don’t think we can intentionally recast and reshape our institutions in a “better” way. Prohibition thought it could “fix” our drinking. It is the defining characteristic of the progressive that they believe they possess ideas which will “fix” various defects in people and their institutions.

    But you do realize our drinking is ‘fixed’? Do you know how much people drank in the old days? In 1830, for example, people consumed about 5 gallons of ‘distilled spirits’ per year, 5x what they do today.(
    http://www.dui.com/dui-library/studies/research/colonial-america) And I suspect whiskey back then tended to be more potent than it is today. Being drunk was not an exceptional circumstance for many people but a regular thing. The temperance movement started as a result of this and while Prohibition was an overshot it has largely worked. Drinking outside of moderation is frowned upon almost everywhere in America. Except maybe for frat parties, being drunk is no longer a norm. Doing your job all day with a buzz going is by itself grounds for termination these days. Yes yes we still deal with drunk driving but hey if we gave our forefathers in 1830 cars they’d end up dead pretty quickly.

    Looking at the trend line, prohibition was a blip in a larger trend of temperence. Like a summer day that’s 105 degrees instead of 80, it’s more of an outlier than proof of any larger point in particular.

    Those institutions are more fragile than they know and their ability to “fix” things is far less successful and prone to unanticipated disasters than they realize … hence I’m a conservative.

    Return again to the analogy of the student who is distrubed at the building swaying in the wind and decides that it must be reinforced with extra regidity in order to stop the sway. The result will be to actually weaken the building by reducing its ability to exist in a medium that changes rapidly. Failing to account for the fact that we live in changing times can actually end up making our institutions more fragile. The fraglity idea may sound prudent and I agree it is useful but it is a kind of arrogance. It is essentially saying that an institution that has stood for centuries against all types of social change is weak and fragile compared to you, who hasn’t even made it 4 decades in this world, and you will ‘protect it’ and without your efforts it will fail.

  16. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Return again to the analogy of the student who is distrubed at the building swaying in the wind and decides that it must be reinforced with extra regidity in order to stop the sway.

    You know your analogy has it exactly backwards. I and other conservatives like me aren’t advocating “reinforcement” but non-action. This XKCD strip is apropos. Progressives think their new rules will work better. They don’t.

    On the slavery issue, I was thinking about that and I think you have it wrong. You are arguing from a 21st century progressive standpoint and not the general progressive view. De las Casas and his boss were both progressive. It doesn’t matter that Ladinos (as you argue motivated by profit) and las Casas by humanitarian concerns. Both of them shared the progressive conceit that large social engineering could be controlled and would not entail unanticipated deleterious effects. Actually one might argue that Ladinos was as much motivated by profit as by specific Spanish humanitarian concerns, i.e., beneficial to Spaniards and not sub-human aboriginal races like the Indian or the African.

    And yes, temperance is a general educational reform like the civility etiquette concerns I listed above which enlists church, state, and other institutions to effect is reform. Yet prohibition is a direct example of a political progressive reform movement which did not work out as planned (as was the slavery example above). My claim is that most ambitions social experiments don’t work out as planned.

  17. Boonton says:

    On slavery I think your error is assuming Ovando was engaged in some attempt to remake society. He wanted the gold out of the hills and onto the Spanish ships. The easiest way to do what was to use the natives and when something like 80-90% of them were gone to start importing black slaves. Yes large scale social change followed in the wake of this (how could it not?). Large scale social change also happened in the American West but you can’t attribute that to a progressive who implemented a particular policy in an attempt to play social engineer. While there were policies that were implemented, the change was driven by the westward expansion of European immigrants seeking their individual ends.

    “most ambitions social experiments don’t work out as planned.”

    Well what does ever work out exactly as planned? Contemplate this was you peruse classmates.com or your next HS reunion. To be honest with you, I’m unaware of any serious ‘social experiments’ by either conservatives or progressives. For example, I don’t know anyone who proposes gay marriage as an ‘experiment’. Most people I’m aware of advocate it mostly from the standpoint of justice and fairness. A few advocate it from a less passionate stance of it being a sensible policy. I can’t think of anyone who advocates it as an experiment. Ditto for most other major progressive causes of today and the past. Unionization, unemployment insurance, civil rights, social security etc. I don’t see those advocates favoring them as an ‘experiment’ but as the right things to do.

    Even if you’re correct about your Spanish chap, he too wasn’t seeking experiments but something he viewed as right and moral. If that was the case his policy backfired and ended up producing more of what he was trying to check, but still we aren’t talking about an experiment but what someone thinks is the right thing to do.

    This leaves little space for conservatism then since few people are really experimenters on the social scale. Everyone is going to want to do what they think is right so where does conservatism come in unless you make a rule that the status quo will be upheld whenever possible.

    Which brings us back to my original point. The status quo, in the modern age, is one of rapid and radical change. Trying to ‘hold it in place’ is itself a pretty radical experiment in this context. Hundreds of years ago this was a viable proposal. Hundreds of years ago, for example, guilds could set the price of goods and wages and keep them there for decades. Today a gov’t cannot do that for more than a month before black markets and other distortions break the control apart.

    Conservatives then must address the question of what it is exactly they are trying to accomplish.

  18. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Before I forget, your economic assessment of the Roman post Augustan situation is not right. No significant territories were subsumed after Julius Caesar (if you grant him the part of the British Isles … which didn’t really get assimilated for some time). The point is that the Roman empire was more like a modern economy, highly specialized and using the road system was wide ranging. Pottery crafted in Southern France was sold for use in Egypt, the British Isles, Spain and so on.

    Ovando differs from the Western expansion in that the social change and movement he effected was deliberate and done in a top-down policy driven manner.

    To be honest with you, I’m unaware of any serious ’social experiments’ by either conservatives or progressives.

    Prohibition.

    Obama’s nationalization of health care is a social ‘experiment’.

    Even if you’re correct about your Spanish chap, he too wasn’t seeking experiments but something he viewed as right and moral.

    You’re banking too much on the semantic usage of experiment. He was enacting social change as policy for purpose. That’s essentially the definition what constitutes a progressive.

    Conservatives then must address the question of what it is exactly they are trying to accomplish.

    Uhm, not enacting social change via policy.

  19. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    undreds of years ago this was a viable proposal. Hundreds of years ago, for example, guilds could set the price of goods and wages and keep them there for decades. Today a gov’t cannot do that for more than a month before black markets and other distortions break the control apart.

    The Great Wave, by Fisher. Get it. Read it.

  20. Boonton says:

    No significant territories were subsumed after Julius Caesar (if you grant him the part of the British Isles … which didn’t really get assimilated for some time). The point is that the Roman empire was more like a modern economy, highly specialized and using the road system was wide ranging. Pottery crafted in Southern France was sold for use in Egypt, the British Isles, Spain and so on.

    And 1870 is still the inflection point. Yea Rome looked quite a bit like 1500 but nothing looks like 1900. Up until 1870 Rome was useful history, then it became more of an ancedote until now it is closing in on metaphor. Or to use a different analysis….a puddle will tell you something about bodies of water. So will a pond. The Great Lakes are something very different and while you don’t have to toss out your pond studies to examine the Great Lakes….you have to understand you’re playing in a different park. If you’re looking at a water-covered planet orbiting another star its an even different league.

    Prohibition.

    Proposed as an experiment? Hardly. It was proposed as the right thing to do.

    Obama’s nationalization of health care is a social ‘experiment’.

    Here’s the game now, anything you don’t like is an ‘experiment’. Was the Iraq invasion an experiment? Bush’s social security privitization idea? His tax cuts? Reagan’s tax cuts? Or is simply doing anything to break with the status quo an experiment?

    You’re banking too much on the semantic usage of experiment. He was enacting social change as policy for purpose. That’s essentially the definition what constitutes a progressive.

    Errr no he enacted a policy for a purpose and social change resulted. In fact, you can say he was maintaining the status quo: Extract wealth from the colonies through forced labor. The importation of blacks was simply a tactical shift required by the offing of so many Indians. But the status quo itself generated a huge social change that would eventually result in Spain becomming a second rate power and independence movements accross S. America (but Spain’s culture and language replacing the original culture and language of the region).

    The Great Wave, by Fisher. Get it. Read it.

    will try to get to it. Keep this in mind, hundreds of years ago you were expected to normally follow your father’s career path (with some exceptions of course). Today you are normally expected to NOT follow your father’s career. Social change is endogenerous to the current system whereas before it might be thought of as more exogeneous. This has consquences.

  21. Boonton says:

    Question for Mark: The prohibition on drugs like opiates, cocain and pot: ‘Social experiment’? Are those who advocate for decriminalization progressives pushing an experiment or conservatives seeking to return the status quo of say, 1910?

  22. Boonton says:

    Also speaking of fragility:

    The point is that the Roman empire was more like a modern economy, highly specialized and using the road system was wide ranging. Pottery crafted in Southern France was sold for use in Egypt, the British Isles, Spain and so on.

    The dark ages is a relatively brief period of history in a single area. I would suggest you look at the span of Chinese civilization, Indian civilization, post-Roman European civilization and even pre-Spanish civilization in the Americas. If your metric here is pottery, roads, trade etc. it seems that while individual civilizations may be fragile it is more often the rule than the exception when large human populations are concerned (and speaking of population, the plague has not been ruled out as a primary cause of civilizations decline in the post Roman era)

  23. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    On drugs, so it seems Mr Buckley was not a conservative?

    On Rome, no I don’t think Roman economy was analogous to Europe of the 14th century. It was however highly specialized, like ours … and we share some of the fragility (and advantages) of extreme specialization. (another book: Bryan Ward-Perkins The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization). The dark ages is a relatively brief period of history in a single area., …. it was a fall which brought a region from 18th-19th century level prosperity to pre-historic levels. It took 1000 years to really recover.

    he enacted a policy for a purpose and social change resulted.

    Exactly. Progressives do the same. His purpose was the improvement of Spanish society. Your purpose on the programs you advocate are the improvement of American society. There is no difference.

  24. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Actually another point on Rome. You claim with some degree of certainty that there is no commonality with current economic conditions, citing a 1870 “inflection point” … yet seem completely ignorant of the nature of actual Roman economy, i.e, based on conquest, plunder and slavery. Isn’t that unwise to assert that a thing is unlike something which you know so little?

  25. Boonton says:

    On drugs, so it seems Mr Buckley was not a conservative?

    Doesn’t answer the question Mark. And the reason you don’t is because your framework doesn’t provide a clear answer.

    it was a fall which brought a region from 18th-19th century level prosperity to pre-historic levels. It took 1000 years to really recover.

    Except it appears that pre-1870 human existence is roughly constant compared to post-1870.

    Exactly. Progressives do the same. His purpose was the improvement of Spanish society.

    YAWN, every policy is enacted for a purpose. His purpose was to aquire gold from S. America and send it to the crown. That was his purpose because it was his job. No doubt he thought such a policy was good for Spanish society. Your framework is so out of whack now that it’s almost impossible to imagine any policy that wouldn’t be ‘progressive’. Did Reagan think his tax cuts were good for US society? Bush Jr. the Iraq War? Nixon’s War on Drugs?

    yet seem completely ignorant of the nature of actual Roman economy, i.e, based on conquest, plunder and slavery.
    Rome’s economy:

    From wikipedia

    The economy of the early Republic was largely based on smallholding and paid labor. However, foreign wars and conquests made slaves increasingly cheap and plentiful, and by the late Republic, the economy was largely dependent on slave labor for both skilled and unskilled work. Slaves are estimated to have constituted around 20% of the Roman Empire’s population at this time and 40% in the city of Rome. Only in the Roman Empire, when the conquests stopped and the prices of slaves increased, did hired labor become more economical than slave ownership.

    or
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decline_of_the_Roman_Empire

    In contrast with the “declining empire” theories, historians such as Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke argue that the Roman Empire itself was a rotten system from its inception, and that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in Republican times. In their view, the Empire could never have lasted without radical reforms that no Emperor could implement. The Romans had no budgetary system and thus wasted whatever resources they had available. The economy of the Empire was basically a Raubwirtschaft or plunder economy based on looting existing resources rather than producing anything new. The Empire relied on booty from conquered territories (this source of revenue ending, of course, with the end of Roman territorial expansion) or on a pattern of tax collection that drove small-scale farmers into destitution (and onto a dole that required even more exactions upon those who could not escape taxation), or into dependency upon a landed élite exempt from taxation. With the cessation of tribute from conquered territories, the full cost of their military machine had to be borne by the citizenry.

    More to the point why is Rome the measure of civilization’s fragility rather than one particular civilization’s fragility? (BTW, the same page notes that around 165AD plague swept the empire decreasing the population by 50% in 20 years. I’m not so sure Rome was all that fragile if it could stand losing half its population and still remain standing for another one to two hundred years. This certainly doesn’t contribute much to your fragility idea. Losing half your population is not like an experiment with prohibition or some minor change in divorce law).

    it was a fall which brought a region from 18th-19th century level prosperity to pre-historic levels. It took 1000 years to really recover.

    Are you going to tell me any random location in the Roman empire circia, say, 60AD was equilivant to London in, say, 1776? I think you’re overhyping Rome a bit too much here.

  26. Boonton says:

    But let’s go back to the basics here with these historical examples. What was Spain doing in S. America? It was acting quite conservative. Conquest, taking slaves, mining gold. These were hardly new ideas but very old ones and as we see their precedents go back thousands of years to Rome and before. If Rome had stumbled upon a land with plenty of gold and an easily defeated civilization, it almost certainly would have behaved quite like the Spanish.

    But despite emptying a whole quarter hemisphere of gold and silver, Spain did not manage to stay on top very long. It was soon bested by the Dutch, a tiny breakway entity that barely qualifies as a nation but who developed new ideas in finance and whose gov’t had minimal role for a monarch or even a military. Later England took its place as the lead Empire builder in Europe basing its economy not on slaves and agriculture but industrial trade, also reducing its monarch’s power….again something quite new and different.

    Here is the problem conservatives face. In an age of change the wrong policy is just as likely to be doing the ‘tried and true’ as it is doing something new and different. A great bias in favor of tradition probably did keep you out of trouble in the long decades of stagnation. In the post inflection point its just as likely to get you into trouble.

  27. Boonton says:

    Of course in focusing on Rome, Mark forgot about the Byzantine Empire that lasted a thousand years into 1453 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Empire#Economy). Which was subsumed by the Ottoman Empire which lasted until 1923 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_Empire)

    So where’s the fragility? It seems like individual civilizations maybe fragile (and I’m not sure how entities that have lifespans of centuries or more can really be described as ‘fragile’) but civilization itself is not. Barring massive diasters like losing 50% of the population to plague, civilization has a lot of staying power and a lot of resiliance even to rule by very stupid people.

  28. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    “my framework supply a clear answer”. Uhm, says who? You? Thanks for that.

    I hadn’t “forgotten” about the Eastern Roman empire, which lasted to 1453 … and that the Rus took up the mantle subsequently. Well, if you define “civilizations” has human’s continuing to exist then, yes, so far “civilization” so described is not fragile.

    … even to rule by very stupid people.

    Ah, the intelligence meme returns … another common progressive conceit. You might examine Roman rulers or English Kings (or I suspect any long lasting regime) … and attempt to correlate perceptions of intelligence and how their tenure was perceived in history. I suspect you will be dismayed at how poorly intelligence and goodness of rule are correlated. It is, I suspect not an anti-correlation, just completely independent.

    I fear you’re still stabbing at the wrong target on the “tried and true” or your “stiffen the girders” tack. Sigh. Let me try again. Look there is a distinct difference between a ruler or ruling cadre effecting policy change because those few self-proclaimed “smart guys” have one or two “clever” ideas. Those ideas, as I’ve said more than once, more often than not give rise to unanticipated consequences which are far worse than the thing that those fellows aim to fix. The other more shall we say, uhm, conservative approach is to try to support and encourage those institutions and customs seem salutary and which have arisen not by design but instead via spontaneous ordering processes (ala Hayek/Polanyi). Progressives force their designs “for the good”. Conservatives recognize the good in the spontaneous order. To borrow a phrase from Ms Delsol … “we should be gardeners”.

    Look, at my science example. You think that your scientific establishment is safe. After all everything is written down and copied to multiple locations and media. Yet, you forget that the majority of our scientific and technological expertise is not written it is ineffable. It is held via culture, via the master/apprentice relationship. Given a cultural collapse … you, uhm, misunderestimate how much will be lost. 😉

  29. Boonton says:

    I hadn’t “forgotten” about the Eastern Roman empire, which lasted to 1453 … and that the Rus took up the mantle subsequently. Well, if you define “civilizations” has human’s continuing to exist then, yes, so far “civilization” so described is not fragile.

    Well actually first you described as something like developing ideas. Then you described it as networks of trade, pottery etc. Either way civilization does not appear very fragile although this does not simply mean ‘humans continuing to exist’. We do see collapses of civilization but they do not appear to be the normal course of events.

    Here is a test. If something is fragile then it breaks unexpectedly. A fragile piece of glass might break just from the vibrations of someone walking into a room. When the decline of Rome is talked about is the tone of the discussion “what could have happened? Everything was going so well” No. There’s something like half a dozen very reasonable and very viable sounding theories for why Rome fell. Why so many? Because Rome had a lot of problems.

    Ah, the intelligence meme returns … another common progressive conceit. You might examine Roman rulers or English Kings (or I suspect any long lasting regime) … and attempt to correlate perceptions of intelligence and how their tenure was perceived in history. I suspect you will be dismayed at how poorly intelligence and goodness of rule are correlated. It is, I suspect not an anti-correlation, just completely independent.

    Errr it seems like paying attention also has a poor correlation with the number of blog comments. I didn’t assert that long lasting regimes were ruled by intelligent people. In fact I said the opposite. Long lasting regimes were not fragile and could stand up to a lot of stress including being run by stupid people.

    The other more shall we say, uhm, conservative approach is to try to support and encourage those institutions and customs seem salutary and which have arisen not by design but instead via spontaneous ordering processes

    As I pointed out, slavery was a very conservative institution by the time Spain ended up on S. American soil. As was focusing on aquiring gold and precious metals as well as taking over resource rich areas that you could defeat in combat. I agree with you that attempts to design the social order are likewise tricky. In an environment of constant change trying to control the situation is like riding a wild bull. But the problem is no less for conservatives. Spontaneous ordering processes are just as likely to harm such salutary institutions.

    After all everything is written down and copied to multiple locations and media. Yet, you forget that the majority of our scientific and technological expertise is not written it is ineffable. It is held via culture, via the master/apprentice relationship. Given a cultural collapse … you, uhm, misunderestimate how much will be lost.

    Very good point although not one I dispute. When you have time you really should start consuming the Battlestar Galactica series. While you have a whole 5 seasons to get through plus webisodes and so on it is a good piece of fiction that can develop a lot of good conversations around this very topic.

  30. Boonton says:

    Speaking of intelligence and long lasting regimes. Long lasting regimes might actually end up having more idiots running them than short runs. A long lasting regime probably has many feedback systems that have developed that minimize the impact of foolish people running it. Being somewhat ‘idiot proof’, they can hold a lot of riff raff in the top levels.

    A short flash in the pan regime like, say, Napoleaon’s brief empire or Alexander the Greats conquest of Asia do not have this internal support. When the brillant leader passes from the picture there is nothing for the more ordinary men to fall back on.

  31. Boonton says:

    And, sorry to be such a nit pick, your examples leave alot to be desired. While slavery was immoral it certainly did not hamper European civilization. Rather it fed off of its cheap gold and silver and later its cheap cotton and sugar. Likewise, you keep brining up prohibition as though it was the civilization’s darkest hour.

    But was it? Consumption did fall during Prohibition and created a different culture in the post Prohibition era. The increase in crime was probably real but its impact is overblown by melodramatic movies and TV series.

    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1470475

    After Repeal, when tax data permit better-founded consumption estimates than we have for the Prohibition Era, per capita annual consumption stood at 1.2 US gallons (4.5 liters), less than half the level of the pre-Prohibition period

    Prohibition, ironically, probably did work and because it did it was able to be repealed. Back in 1830 remember consumption was around 5 gallons per year. It took teetotolers over 70 years to bring it down to 2.4 gallons. In just ten years prohibitionists cut that consumption in half again. Because of them we can enjoy the freedom to have a drink because most of us are able to do so in a responsible manner.

    So even acknowledging that abolishing prohibition was probably the right thing to do, the ‘unintended consquences’ do not make much of a horror story. There are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are alive today because consumption dropped in half, especially as the age of the automobile started to kick into full swing.

  32. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    We do see collapses of civilization but they do not appear to be the normal course of events.

    Yet every civilization has collapsed (excepting of course those which remain right now). Why do you think our civilization will uniquely remain intact?

    Speaking of intelligence and long lasting regimes. Long lasting regimes might actually end up having more idiots running them than short runs. A long lasting regime probably has many feedback systems that have developed that minimize the impact of foolish people running it.

    Yes, and I pointed out that intelligence/stupidity is uncorrelated with stress on a country. My claim is not that stupid rulers are stressful but that the stress on a country provided by a ruler is uncorrelated with the rulers intelligence.

    Napoleon was “smart?” Really? Academically speaking? In a traditional IQ way, the same way y’all argue that Obama is “smart”.

    When you have time you really should start consuming the Battlestar Galactica series.

    I plan to next “off-season” riding in inclement weather in the basement on the spinner (often I have to watch 2-3 episodes per night to get the distance/time on the bike in).

    But the problem is no less for conservatives. Spontaneous ordering processes are just as likely to harm such salutary institutions.

    Yes, which is why I suggested that the government support those which arise that seem salutary (which on the other hand is very different from trying to create order or processes in a top-down manner which I claim is exactly the defining characteristic of a progressive).

    On your last point, you point out that contrary to what I claim that slavery and prohibition did achieve their stated goals … and I’m not arguing against that particular point. The point being made is that the unintended consequences (the immorality of slavery and today’s continued legacy form the same) have more impact than the intended consequence and that impact is more often than not negative. Similarly on prohibitions providing a boost for organized crime, giving the same a foothold into teamsters unions and other industries, and additionally changing our general attitudes toward lawbreaking in general … was the prohibition worth that? Dropping alcoholic consumption was the goal. You can cite numerous unintended consequences … the social impact of which likely far outweigh the actual impact on consumption (which as you point out was dropping as a likely as a consequence of general raised income and education levels).

  33. Boonton says:

    Yet every civilization has collapsed (excepting of course those which remain right now). Why do you think our civilization will uniquely remain intact?

    You can never step into the same river twice. US-2009 is not the same civilization as US-1870 and I see no reason to assume US-2050 won’t be different as well. I don’t see any particular reason to assume:

    1. The US/Europe/Developed world as a whole is especially subject to ‘collapse’.

    2. To the degree that it is, it is not collapse caused by tiny and in the big scheme of things trivial policy changes.

    3. To the degree that it is, the likely causes will be catastrophic events which may or may not be preventable.

    Napoleon was “smart?” Really? Academically speaking? In a traditional IQ way, the same way y’all argue that Obama is “smart”.

    I don’t really know. My point is that a fragile entity requires everything to be perfect. That delicate piece of crystal must be kept in a china closet and the kids must be made to walk delicately in that room. For the fragile thing not to break, perfection must be maintained. A long lasting civilization, then, has two possible explanations:

    a. It is fragile and amazingly has had a centuries long run of good luck never to have any stress.

    b. Is not fragile and is able to handle the random stresses from the environment both exogenous (outside invaders/competition) and endogenous (stupid leaders, or even something mundane like lead poisening in the case of Rome).

    Yes, which is why I suggested that the government support those which arise that seem salutary (which on the other hand is very different from trying to create order or processes in a top-down manner which I claim is exactly the defining characteristic of a progressive).

    Interestingly that would fit black slavery in the Spanish colonies. The ‘spontaneous order’ was for Spain to exploit labor to ship gold off to the crown. Killing off nearly all the Indians left spain confronting the possibility of either having to pay decently for the hard work of mining or doing with less gold. The idea of picking up on African slaves was almost nearly spontaneous (while one governor was the first to approve it, Europeans had been toying with African slaves for a while already and it was almost certain that sooner or later someone would use them to alleivate labor shortages in the New World). From the point of view of a 1500’s conservative, this would have appeared to have been a salutary new order….

    Similarly on prohibitions providing a boost for organized crime, giving the same a foothold into teamsters unions and other industries, and additionally changing our general attitudes toward lawbreaking in general … was the prohibition worth that? Dropping alcoholic consumption was the goal….

    Dude, the mass consumption of alcohol yields huge health and social problems even today. Put it another way….would it be a good bargain to have our consumption return to 2 gallons or more in exchange for a clean teamsters union? I don’t think so. (And I don’t really buy the idea that organized crime in the teamsters originated with prohibition…ever hear of Tamney Hall? Ever hear of Street Gangs? Ever see Gangs of New York? To my knowledge, Italy never experimented with Prohibition, how did the Mafia originate there?).

    The world is dynamic, though. Prohibition did work it would seem but that doesn’t mean getting rid of it was not also a good idea. Even, though, if it didn’t, I just don’t see your argument that the experiment was some type of horrible event that outweighed whatever the ‘spontaneous order’ would have been if Prohibition had not been enacted. Speaking of which, what is the spontaneous order again? Prohibition was enacted from the bottom up with pressure on both the Republican and Democratic parties. Here is the issue where your framework doesn’t help much. If you were transported back to 1910 and had your knowledge of history wiped how would you apply your conservatism? On the one hand prohibition might have seemed like an experiment. On the other hand it was also a spontaneous order that developed and it would probably have seemed salutary (you’d most likely be skeptical of anyone who told you hard drinking in 1915 would keep truck drivers unions from 40 years into the future clean of corruption).

  34. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    My point is that a fragile entity requires everything to be perfect. That delicate piece of crystal must be kept in a china closet and the kids must be made to walk delicately in that room. For the fragile thing not to break, perfection must be maintained.

    That is not my definition of fragile, alas. And I don’t think that the failure of civilizations depended on catastrophic events, i.e., a particular identifiable catastrophe did not end Western Rome (or Eastern for that matter … unless the 4th crusade was that event … but I think the writing was on the wall long before that as well). Usually hindsight shows that some policy or practice which to their eyes was benign was not as benign as they pretended.

    Prohibition was enacted from the bottom up with pressure on both the Republican and Democratic parties.

    No it wasn’t. It was a top-down policy decision enacted by pressure from the elites of both parties. To be a bottom up change, that would mean prohibition was a custom followed voluntarily by a significant majority and the government recognizing its salutary benefits enshrined it in law.

    Ever see Gangs of New York?

    Actually no … have you seen Once Upon a Time In America? The claim is that prohibition strengthened organized crime because it created a large demand for an illegal product … which in turn required significant transportation/trucking to provide … which after prohibition repealed and organized crime having transportation hooks …. and so on.

    The ’spontaneous order’ was for Spain to exploit labor to ship gold off to the crown.

    You’re confusing the point that commerce was not separate from crown like today.

  35. Boonton says:

    1. History by the movies is somewhat dangerous but we do know organized crime existed pre-prohibition and existed strongly in countries that didn’t have prohibition (i.e. Italy, Japan etc.)

    2. The number of people saved by cutting consumption in half almost certainly numbers in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. Even with the most overblown estimates of the victims of organized crime and attributing all of it to prohibition, there’s no way you can even come close.

    3. “Usually hindsight shows that some policy or practice which to their eyes was benign was not as benign as they pretended. ”

    Backwards attribution. It’s easy to derive a story after the fact connecting some irrelevant policy to some grand fall. This is a great device for fiction (the trivial everyday incident like missing a bus or grabbing a coffee sets the character off on a dramatic story arch). But this isn’t very helpful for evaluating history.

    As we see with Spain, even continuing a policy that was tried and true for generations can seem to unleash unintended consquences. Basically you’re saying the cause and effect link is inscrutable and I don’t necessarily disagree but that doesn’t make an argument for doing nothing.

  36. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    “an argument for doing nothing” and “stiffen up girders”

    You keep repeating these ideas … why?

    And no, I can’t easily defend or discuss prohibition in any but the most general terms … as 20th century US history is not something I have delved into. But … I’m certainly willing to admit that the likelihood that the common teachings about it are exactly wrong. And I’d point that my notion was that the more pernicious effect was not giving organized crime a boost but was the reduction in our view of abiding by law.

  37. Boonton says:

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/01/a-bit-more-on-malthus/ reprints the graph from A Farewell to Alms. A picture that is worth 1,000 words IMO on the ‘inflection point’ hypothesis.

  38. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    The economy inflection/fragility/new-story matter I’ve offered a point for discussion in a new post.

  39. Boonton says:

    Very well, I picked up Gas, Sewer and Electric from the library on Thursday. Since I’m reading one of your recommendations you must sample one of mine. My recommendation is the film Gangs of New York. A hyper-realistic account of an era of history that is usually overlooked but very fascinating. One of many scenes that come to mind is a house fire where two competing fire depts show up. As they argue while the house burns, they settle on ransacking the next door homes for loot……

  40. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    OK, Gangs of the Big Apple is next on my Netflix queue. As for video, Foyle’s War (a BBC detective series) would be my recommendation in return.