Political Philosophy

The Creation Of A Conservative

David Mamet has a frank and amazing essay in The Village Voice about how he ended up going from being a “brain-dead liberal” to a conservative:

I wrote a play about politics (November, Barrymore Theater, Broadway, some seats still available). And as part of the “writing process,” as I believe it’s called, I started thinking about politics. This comment is not actually as jejune as it might seem. Porgy and Bess is a buncha good songs but has nothing to do with race relations, which is the flag of convenience under which it sailed.

But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.

The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it’s at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.

I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.

Mamet’s piece is well worth reading, especially for those who are “brain-dead liberals” as it explains some of the reasons why Mamet drifted away from liberal orthodoxy. He ended up re-examining many of his old assumptions and prejudices and finding them lacking: his distrust of the military, his dislike of corporations, his view of government. He asks one of the most important questions that a person can ask about political philosophy:

And I began to question my distrust of the “Bad, Bad Military” of my youth, which, I saw, was then and is now made up of those men and women who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world. Is the military always right? No. Neither is government, nor are the corporations—they are just different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups, if you will. Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not “Is everything perfect?” but “How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?” Put into which form, things appeared to me to be unfolding pretty well.

Mamet hits on the fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism as political philosophies in 21st Century America. Liberalism is an ideology that seeks perfection: we have to give everyone healthcare, we have to end poverty, we have to make everyone in the world “respect” us, we have to stop all semblances of racism. Those are the imperatives of liberalism. On their own, and as abstract goals, there’s nothing wrong with them at all. Who wouldn’t want to end poverty? Who wouldn’t want to see a world without racism, war, oppression or dominance?

Where liberals fail to understand conservatism is that they seem to think that conservatism stands for the proposition that war, racism and poverty are all fine and we shouldn’t care about them. That facile misunderstanding is why liberals never really seem to be able to engage with conservatives on a fundamentally deep level, and why liberals tend to ascribe all sorts of sinister motivations to conservatives.

Mamet, however, hints at the real basis for conservatism. We can’t cure war. We can’t end all poverty. We can’t make people into angels when they are not. The fundamental principle of conservatism can be roughly summed up into this: “sometimes life just sucks.” Even if we could fix the problems that create war, poverty, racism and injustice to do so would be to have a society robbed of free will—because the root of all these problems are found in human nature itself. That’s why Mamet rightly describes conservatism as the “tragic” view of human nature and liberalism as the “perfectionist” view of human nature. Conservatives recognize that there is no permanent solution for the ills of mankind—there are only advances which can ameliorate our conditions. We can’t create heaven on earth, we can only fumble around as best we can.

That is why liberals and conservatives don’t get along, and politically may never will. (Personally, of course, it’s a different matter. I’ve known many ardent socialists who are far more engaging than many of the people on my political side of the aisle. Sometimes one must simply agree to disagree.) A liberal sees a problem like health care and understands that the only viable solution is to make sure that everyone gets health care for free. It doesn’t matter whether or not that particular goal is attainable. It’s why liberals don’t tend to discuss things like cost/benefit analyses or economic concerns or questions of feasibility. The goal is to give everyone health care, and if that goal is not reached then the whole liberal world order breaks down. If we can’t give everyone health care for free than liberals have to tacitly acknowledge the central conceit of conservatism: that human nature doesn’t allow us to reshape society to our Platonic ideal. Then all liberalism becomes is a pale shade of conservatism. Without liberalism’s central conceit that collective action can radically transform the world, liberalism becomes rather hollow.

That doesn’t at all mean that liberals have bad motives—quite the contrary liberals almost always are idealistic in some fashion. The problem is that liberalism can never really mesh itself with reality: liberal means can never achieve liberal ends. The welfare state perpetuates a cycle of dependence. A foreign policy of naïvete emboldens dictators who subsequently move to slaughter more innocents. A government that takes it as its mission to help people ends up restricting the freedom of all.

My biggest criticism of liberalism is that it is too idealistic. If you’re absolutely convinced of the righteousness of your cause, why bother to examine your beliefs? At that point, an ideology becomes stagnant and inflexible. (It should be noted that Andrew Sullivan argues in his book A Conservatism of Doubt that conservatism is stagnating itself. His criticism aren’t always on the mark, but are worth examining.)

Liberalism today is a stagnant ideology. Liberals may win election (although usually be masquerading as moderates), but liberalism lacks any real understanding of itself. Most liberals these days begin and end their political understanding with their dislike of President Bush (who is not only not the living symbol of conservatism, but not particularly conservative at all in many respects). For one, Bush is a lame duck President. More importantly, any ideology that defines itself by what it is not is barely an ideology at all.

Mamet’s conversion from “brain-dead liberal” to conservative happened because he started to think more deeply about why he believed what he believed. This country would be much better off if more people—liberal or conservative—did the same.