I had a long discussion yesterday with an individual who has been reading me since 2003. We talked about lots of things. One issue which perhaps I need to reiterate because it’s implicit is that I dissent to a great extent from the premises which underlay both American conservatism and liberalism. Like American liberals I think the life outcomes of many Americans are not due to their choices simply understood. Rather they are the outcome of chance events, whether it be through social background, or, simple happenstance. Years ago I recall Nassim Taleb complaining that people would read The Millionaire Next Door, and believe that by doing everything those individuals did they too could become millionaires, as if there was no random component to such outcomes. The reality is that some people are in the right place and right time. And, some people are born in the right social positions.
Where I dissent from American liberals is the idea that all of the outcomes in our society, in particular inequality, are due to chance or inherited social position (e.g., race or class privilege). In The Son Also Rises Greg Clark reports on intriguing results which indicate that social competence in heritable. To some extent this is common sense. Personal dispositions are heritable, and some dispositions are more congenial to remunerative activities than others. Though many on the Left (though not all) are willing to acknowledge the arguments in Steve Pinker’s The Blank Slate in the abstract, in the concrete they get very little weight when it comes to social policy. To give an example, for many on the Left we can talk about differences between groups (whether it be cultural or biological) only when all social inequality is abolished. The catch in this though is that any persistent differences may also result in persistent social inequality or difference in outcome.
When it comes to the American Right there are two distinct strands. The first is the child of classical liberalism, to some extent in a more thorough fashion than the American Left. For this element the pidea that capitalism is efficient in allocating resources, and that people receive their just desserts due to hard work, becomes such an all-encompassing narrative that other variables are neglected. This was clearly evident in 2008 when some conservative libertarians kept harping on the “free market” mantra because they literally had no other playbook. I recall specifically someone from the American Enterprise Institute on the radio arguing that bankers should keep their bonuses because that’s how capitalism works, even after the bailouts. When confronted by this he really had no response. He was literally dumbfounded. It is as if the market was the ends of the American political system, and all wealth is the product of the market. Though not as constitutionally hostile to the idea of heritable differences this sort of free market conservatism is not comfortable with the idea that not everyone is born with the same opportunities. The reality is that the liberal Left critique of the nature of the outcomes of a free market is correct in some deep sense, even deeper than American liberals may wish to acknowledge. Some people are born with the genetic deck stacked against them, not just the social one (and of course, as noted above there is a lot of random noise). That undermines some of the moral case for the virtue of the market, since it is not blindly arbitrating the outcomes of our choices, as opposed as sifting based on the accumulated weight of inherited history, some of which is due to the genetic lottery.
The second strand in American conservatism is that of the Religious Right. The problem that it has is most clearly illustrated by the issue of gay rights. Though logically toleration of homosexual behavior and its innate or non-innate nature are not related, the Religious Right prefers that homosexuality be a choice for the purposes of moral censure. That is because though these Christians believe in original sin, they seem to espouse a sort of moral perfectionism where all men are equally endowed with the same sentiments and preferences (those sentiments being debased by Satan or the Satanic influence of culture). As opposed to Homo economicus, these Christians believe in Homo christianus. Though I personally espouse the bourgeois virtues of the Religious Right, their neglect of human diversity in disposition and sentiment leads us down the path of great disappointment, as many will miss the mark. A Religious Right which focused more on social cohesion in a general and collective sense, rather than personal and individual moral perfectionism, probably could produce better results (yes, it does take a village!). But the American radical Protestant model is fundamentally individualistic, and treats each human as equal and similar before Christ. And there I believe is the folly with moral crusades which attempt to turn every American family into the same American family. Such a world never was, and such a world will never be.
The Left looks to the perfect future which could be. The Right looks to the perfect past which was, and could be.