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Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Wrong Tool 

I'm occasionally asked why I seem to side more with conservatives than progressives.

Well, I'm absolutely not conservative. I acknowledge that there is some inexplicit knowledge embedded within traditions, and I'm hesitant to change things very radically when the likely consequences of these changes are uncertain. But, I resist revering things that appear stupid, just because they have a long history. I want to do what makes sense. I want people to be free to challenge orthodoxy. I want people to be able to be weird. I don't have to understand and appreciate what they're doing. I think progress is made by people who go against traditions. And, even though people will often be mistaken, I think it's more respectful to let them make their (peaceful) mistakes than to force them to conform to traditions they disagree with.

So, I share many values with progressives. I value individual liberty. I care about human welfare, and justice. I'm against the state getting involved in private aspects of our lives (like religion, expression, sex, etc.).

Where I differ with progressives is that I don't share their romantic notion of the state. The two major party candidates do seem to share it, unfortunately.

I think the state, being an agency of force, should be limited as much as logically possible. It should only do those things that are appropriate to do with force (i.e. defend people from force and fraud, establish and enforce a legal framework that enables private trade and cooperation, etc.). It shouldn't go beyond these things, because it will cause more problems than it solves, and may lead to tyranny.

There's a joke about everything looking like a nail when your only tool is a hammer. It seems that many on the left think that the state is the only appropriate tool for the big problems that they see.

But, it's usually the wrong tool.

I think that many people are confused between the collective action of civil society and that of government. They're two very different things.

I can understand how the predisposition to use the power of the coercive leadership of the collective to address major problems may have evolved during times when tools for communication and cooperation among individuals were extremely limited. But, we don't live in that time now. We have lots of predispositions that most of us have chosen to overcome (like rape, assault, murder...) . This should be one of them.

Now, people can solve all sorts of problems via voluntary cooperation; both via private for-profit companies and markets, and private non-profit organizations that marshal the resources of people who agree with the cause.

The primary "advantage" gained by doing things through government is that the government can force the unwilling to contribute to causes they wouldn't otherwise support (or support as much as the proponents demand). This is a very dangerous path. Not only is it unfair and disrespectful to unwilling individuals, but this power created with good intentions will inevitably become controlled by those with the most political skill and influence, not those with the most noble intentions. The incentives are all wrong, and reducing existing government power is very difficult.

So, while I agree with many of the ends, I think that progressives have chosen the wrong means. I think they revere collective action over individual action too much, and state action over private action too much, and I think they are sabotaging the institutions that are likely to actually improve our condition and solve our problems.

So, at present, while both major parties are a threat to individuals and the positive institutions of civil society, I think that Democrats' agenda will do more harm more quickly and we're better off if they're slowed down by a vibrant Republican opposition and conservative judges.

So, when Democrats are ascendant, I'll probably spend most of my time criticizing them. When Republicans gain power and fail to act on their limited-government rhetoric, I criticize them as well.

I hope we can get enough gridlock to allow private civil society to progress quickly enough to make the government's destructive initiatives relatively harmless.

It's a race, and I'm rooting for technology to beat politics.