Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?

Steven Hayward recently wrote in the Washington Post an article titledIs Conservatism Brain-Dead?“.

I found it interesting because it both sought to understand some of the superficiality of the conservative movement and also why such a movement is counterproductive to evolved human development. The legitimate question to me is about how flaws in both extremes of contemporary ideological thinking are leading to irreconcilable differences in terms of how we see reality. I would argue that at the foundational level of each polarity the differences are not as great as some people play them up to be. These groups and individuals are the ones who have the most to gain in terms of playing up the difference for political, economic and social gain.

Glenn Beck is a figure that many might see as going into this category as well. However according to Hayward, his work although appearing flaky in many respects does have at its roots some understanding of contemporary conservative philosophy. Even in seeing his tweets Beck appears to be seeking some sort of new middle ground between liberals and conservatives.

I explore further in my response to Hayward’s essay the idea of not only redefining and questioning existing assumptions about contemporary ideology. but also expanding on it. I explore the issue of how the built environment we create, based on various historical and cultural factors, reinforces certain assumptions about reality that we have based on our socioeconomic and cultural background.  Also pivotal to this process is the design of the built environment and the social architecture in terms of how it supports real market interactions at the community level. So therefore to say Taiwan has strong government support of industrial development and also social programs such as government supported health care does not necessarily imply it is less market friendly. Thus the difference often overlooked in the mainstream media between pro market and pro capitalism is emphasized in this paper.

To create a human scale social architecture that is ecologically and socially responsible, we need to invest in green technologies and sustainable development that promote conscious living and the wise use of land and natural resources (which may include high density development to minimize sprawl and auto use). Thus we may have something to learn in terms of the success in Asian societies in terms of how they have adapted to the modern world, conserving valuable farm lands while creating a dynamic and thriving urban environment.

We can conclude from this the idea that any ideology or worldview should be based on its actual success in ensuring the development of a sustainable society. How we measure this is the challenge.

As I ponder your article on the Post I consider what some say are its so called Liberal Media roots. While I understand why some may arrive at this conclusion, I have heard the argument from the other side as well. Even consider why this is the case? Are both sides delusional in their own convoluted ways, is one side wrong and the other right as each claims from diametrically opposed views, or is there a truth that each side is saying that represents the way in which our societies operates?

Maybe this seems like a simplistic question to you, but I wonder how one can question liberalism at its roots without questioning Liberal Democracy and the interconnected technology, growth and progress that is associated with liberalism or liberalization of societies over the last say 100-300 years?

The key question is can we overcome our biases and consider flaws in both the prevailing ideologies of out time and to see that neither is without problems?

I don’t completely disagree with the critique of liberalism, but rather I question really the whole foundation of Modern political ideology. Of course, I am coming from an liberal arts education in which I was exposed to Leftists like Adorno, Fromm and Marcuse and the inherit bias that conservatives often complain of those institutions as having. I commonly distinguished those thinkers from liberals though seeing that the difference between liberal and Left was that the Left sought to challenge many assumptions of liberalism. Probably similar assumptions could be made on the Right as well.

From both the contemporary Left and Right, what I see are fundamental problems with how they see reality and particular how each moves away from a position of being able to dialog each other and to learn from each other. I don’t see this really as a natural and conscious tendency, but rather an unnatural one based on the artificiality of modern existence. In any dialectic of society – if you believe that a society can not sustainably or meaningfully exist without a dialectic – there is a precondition for these two main political or ideological tilts. Of course, this is a simplification of the larger diversity of what we are, but the point being is that between the two fundamental polarities there exist many opportunities to learn and to dialog in the process of creating a balanced, healthy and sustainable society.

Hence what to many of us on the Left or who have been influenced primarily by the conventional academic Left, there is a growing realization that to create a sustainable society, you need both aspects of what are typically called liberalism and conservatism. So now it is not crazy to refer to the “libertarian left.” For one thing, to consider the cultural and social grounding of a society is important. Multiculturalism is important, to give us a respect for other cultures and points of view in the context of our own. At the same time, we must consider the influx of millions of Mexicans into our society now, just as an indigenous society needs to consider the implications of modernization on their culture.

When we consider markets we must see that they are the linchpin of our consciousness as human beings. So to say you are anti or pro market to me is kind of saying I am pro sun or anti sun. Regardless of course people who are sympathetic to leftist considerations and concerns about wealth distribution and market externalities has to often reassure the mainstream that they are not anti-market, because of the tendency of reactionaries and opportunists to label them as anti-market. But there is a difference between saying you are pro-market and pro-capitalism.

When I went to Taiwan one month ago I had realized the uniqueness of the place. Juxtaposed between two worldviews. the Chinese and American, it is easy to overlook tiny Taiwan; a country the size of New Jersey with the population of Florida (about 23 million). I remember talking to a woman I met there and she spoke of the conservatism of the society in terms of the social rigidity and conformity and I definitely can see where she is coming from. Yet this is a place where the leading university has a bookstore with cats lying on the couch and books talking about deviant sexuality on the bookshelf. Its a society where the women are on the move and the men don’t know what to do about it. Its a society where there are street markets where you can buy any kind of food and see people making it. Its a society where people are cared for – even the disabled (I toured a disability facility and was amazed). I later asked the same woman about Taipei…”are there any bad areas of Taipei,” I asked and she thought about it for a moment (like she had to actually think about the different parts of the city before answering to consider each) and answered “no”. I was raised in a America where the term city or more precisely the Inner City was seen to be the same or similar to the term Slum. Is there any larger American city with no slum or bad part? Its sort of inconceivable to imagine an American city that is completely safe and yet this is the reality I experienced in Taipei.

After Reagan, such considerations of balance in development and design within the context of a social safety net in America were considered a waste of time and more precisely an evil of Big Government Liberalism. Now, we are playing catch up with the rest of the world in designing cities that are more sustainable and reduce ecological impacts such as carbon emissions which are linked to Global Climate Change. Because this idea of ecological and social sustainability is not just about technologies, but how technologies are adapted, evolved modified and deployed to address human needs and to do so without disrupt the balance of the ecology, which we rely on (although economic conservatives would like to pretend otherwise) for our continued existence. So what’s the point? The point is that our political leaders are missing the point. It does not matter whether they are left, right or center, they are out of touch with reality, because they are reacting to the polarization of the other side and not finding solutions to create a sustainable and prosperous America. The greatest contradiction is that in the desire to distinguish themselves from the Left, the Right has embraced an pro-growth ideology that goes against its very bedrock values of preserving the cultural and social integrity of the society.

My perspective on market is where the market works let it thrive and where we need the government to regulate markets, well that is of course no easy thing…. We know regulators have a tendency to over-regulate and yet we look at the current economic crisis we see that we have not yet figured out how to completely dispose of the government in terms of making sure people have clean water, healthy food and markets which operate along the “fair deal” premise with regards to consumers who are of course also citizens. Hopefully there is some understanding that while the causes of this crisis are complex. The bottom line though is much of the problem is that people in leadership positions were are still not being responsible with how the nation’s money was and continues to be spent.

So look at tiny Taiwan, they have their political problems, social and ecological, but I think what is remarkable about Taiwan is how things work and seem to work quite well. Maybe we need a new pragmatism in America that is focused on finding solutions, but the question is solutions for what? To enable the wealthiest of society to live even better at the expense of the rest, or to create a new social balance by which we all can find some kind of success and meaning in our lives through a culture based on sharing, compassion, honor, cooperation and integrity. To me that is a valid goal to pursue and is how I define progress, because human suffering to me is not something I can sweep under the rug of my own selfish needs and desires to be successful. And for social conservatives too surely many of them, can see the validity of such thinking in terms of balancing the need to make money with the need to care for and respect family, community and the nature.

To get back to the core theme of why Taipei works, I think that is the primary wisdom of the Chinese people there – I am not of course an expert but it seems like it would have resulted from an understanding or a consensus that emerged across the political spectrum in terms of not tolerating any parts of Taipei or Taiwan to decline and to become what we call a slum or depressed urban area. I think that in a nutshell that is what makes me consider moving to Taiwan. Its not so much because I love Chinese culture, but rather it is their embracing of a way of making policy for their development and planning of the cities, which is to me just common sense. I feel it is that common sense in policy-making that my country’s leaders have abandoned due to a lack of courage, innovation, creativity and general thoughtfulness about how explore and approach reality. Its connected with the transportation and development choices we all make as well as Americans. In Taiwan, Europe and much of Asia, there is a commitment to mass transit that’s unheard of in the US. In Taiwan they just completed a High Speed Rail that cuts across the populations centers on the west side of the island and are rapidly developing their mass transit systems as well. This was a major risk and investment for a small country (10 billion dollars over a ten year construction time frame) and yet of course they while being a very small country in relation to us, outspent us on high speed rail by about 10 to 1 (do we even spend that much?). Possibly much of this is only the case, because they live on a island that mandates the careful use of land in which high density is not an option but the law. In the US, we have the illusion of plenty. Its the open road and the notion of endless resources and opportunities for physical growth still prevails in the national consciousness. Yet I make the case that it is inevitable that what will evolve over the years is a stronger regional identity and a weaker nation state. Political elites in Washington are paid off by national and international economic elite. The question we should be asking is should these have power over us and our local and regional existences?

I think what many conventional thinking conservatives conveniently overlook is that there is now a vacuum in America due to the weakening of the nation state and the rise of multi-national corporation. Corporate power has grown exponentially at the local, national and international levels, but who is there to regulate it? Do we trust them and hope that despite example after example of corporate abuse that these are just few a bad fish in a very large sea of corporate global capitalism? The real issue if not about ideology and whether or not we like big government or big corporations or main street better. Its about designing systems that work for people in delivering them a good an prosperous existence – for isn’t that what a society is supposed to do? Well of course that question is itself raising a can of worms, because historically civilizations have existed to fulfill the needs of the power elite. Regardless, we can look at Europe, Asia and until recently America and see compelling successes in creating prosperous societies that considered the bulk of the people in formulating public policies. The question though is the size at which public policies should be best implemented and how they can support markets in areas where those markets can actually serve the public interest and not be counterproductive to those interests.

My sense is the smaller the better and that we need to really be focusing on the how a stimulus plan for the economy can empower local communities to design and guide market solutions to problems much along the lines of what made Japan and then Taiwan and Korea the successful markets they are. Taiwan is unique as a market because it has such a high proportion of SMEs (small to medium enterprises) while Japan and Korea focused on larger scale conglomerates. To me that is an inspirational story, because it shows how you can have a competitive and globally oriented market economy that is also main street oriented (big box stores were no where to be seen).

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