Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Conservatism

Trying to put a finger in the meaning of 'Conservatism' is a truly daunting project so first I'd like to narrow the piece we're talking about, the god stuff is out. I know all about the influence of the religious right - I just don't want to talk about it. Generally speaking conservatism is about small unintrusive government. The idea is that the free market and unencumbered citizens will make the best decisions for the country's interests. The rhetoric is uplifting, larded with references to the goodness of Americans and the rational powers of the market - sorry to say - utter nonsense.

This isn't to imply that Americans are not generally a compassionate and generous people, they are, but their generosity and compassion tend to be somewhat narrowly focused. Their enthusiasm is for those who are connected to them, either by community, interests, or social orientation. This leads to disassociation from large broad interests and those outside societal "norms." Large pieces of society are left out of the mix with no one to pick up the pieces. Without government's wide reach those outside the general American's interest are not served and to a great extent those are in their circumstances due to the construction of the government and economic system. This leads to the crux of the issue - the economic, governmental, and social construct we call America.

The free market is the lodestone of this idea of limited government and one that is never explained or analyzed completely by its proponents. Their greatest difficulty is that no such thing has ever existed within historical governments, for a simple reason - it cannot. It is a contradiction in terms, free means unfettered and market implies a system of exchange and systems are NOT unfettered. In the United States there exists a complex system of exchange and such has existed since Alexander Hamilton. The "capitalist" economic system of the US at its most laissez faire was set up to function well in certain circumstances for those utilizing certain methods and means. Such a system is not unfettered and was not so considered at its founding - witness the bitter feud between Jefferson and Hamilton over who benefitted. The main definition of their argument falls on it's merits, but it is scarcely the largest problem with it.

An unfettered economy as a benefit presumes that the interests of the nation and those of companies are somehow congruent. They may actually be congruent in the long term and concern for such congruence may bode well for a company's long term health but it is not actual practice. Actual practice is that quarterly and annual profit statements rule and within a corporation it is the responsibility of the corporation to maximize shareholder return. There is a further assumption, which is that the market holds companies responsible. Within a personal unfettered exchange there is considerable opportunity for responsibility - if I am real unpleased with the chicken you gave me in exchange for the shelter I put up for you I may kick your ass and you won't like the prospect. The reality is that I must have the resources and strength of case to sue your company, probably in the face of much more extensive resourses and influence.

An unfettered labor market means that wages are paid on the basis of desperation and labor supply, the market will pay what is required to get workers and if there is a large supply of workers avoidance of starvation or eviction becomes the base. Taxation based on influence rather than share of benefits derived from the system gets called supply side economics, the reality involves huge tax breaks for the ultra-rich (the ultimate beneficiaries of this system) with no return to the tax base on the disproven supposition that the income gains are passed down market. Small government does not mean services are curtailed or eliminated, it simply means they are patronage prizes for business. [ the ultimate example is Haliburton, driven near to bankruptsy by Cheney's asbestos liability laden acquisitions ]

It is supposed that the elimination or reduction of business regulations leads to consumer gains through the magic of markets, those supposed free markets. There are several very real problems in this scenario, the first being that companies requiring business regulation by the government tend to be large enough that absence of regulation does not lead to downward market forces, these companies tend to operate in either near or monopolistic markets, or the regulations are driven by very real consumer safety needs. The political reality of deregulation is that it occurs in favored industries and frequently in means that are favorable only to influential or dominant segments of that industry. What gets lost in the rhetoric is that all this operates within a political system, a system rife with opportunities to game the means for ends unfavorable to the country at large.

Greed, dominance, and blind ambition are the far end points of the character aspects that make competition work and they are a natural outcome of lack of restraint. One would hope that natural inhibitions would restrain behavior but it is simply silly to expect that to happen particularly often. The results of the philosophy of conservatism in economics are darn near inevitible, greed and corruption will rule the day.

Non-interference in private lives is sometimes bruited as a goal of conservatism, this is in fact nonsense. The meaning if non-interference is limited to their chosen areas, you will have great difficulty finding a conservative who advocates the decriminalization of methamphetamines, it is a drug with serious risks for users and bystanders, they in fact do not mean what they say. Even in the area of Constitutionally guaranteed rights they set limits and choose how and for whom the guarantees are applicable. One of the most obnoxious infringements prior to the "War on Terror," is RICO, the conservatives have made not one move against this act, not even at rhetorical level.

Property rights are a frequent lament of conservatives, what is lost is the idea that zoning and land use regulations are not instituted to harm the public but rather to protect its interests. The diffuculty that arises is common to most regulations, their application is broad and individuals have narrow and specific needs and wants. The answer from conservatives is the horror story of the little old lady who has owned a property for many years and regulation changes now prevent her from putting a second home for family on property originally zoned for it, the land use goal being the preservation of farm land from urban sprawl. In Oregon the story has played out such that either state and local governments pay the difference between developable value and undeveloped or developement takes place. The little old lady gets to build her house, and timber companies can build hundreds. The original land use law may not have been as well crafted as possible, but its whole sale undoing bodes ill. The owners may well not be anywhere near to suffer the consequences. Market forces are allowed free reign and greed wins.

The ludicrous aspect is that most proponents of conservatism have the least to gain and the most to lose when their agenda takes effect. The mythologized Ronnie Reagan is only a giant if you're real pleased with the state of the nation today.

4 comments:

KISS said...

Capitalism, free enterprise, conservatism,etc. etc. are nothing more than figments of imagination, fantasy...lies of corporate Amerika.
Than we have socialism, communism, liberalism, etc.etc. more fantasy and lies. Was Reagan worse than Clinton? The record shows that both had their agendas for their corporate feeders.
Idealists keep searching for the Holy Grail...in vain, of course. During the course of politics fear sometimes allows the common man a morsel of relief. Land use has yet to be proven as the god send of good management, e.g. cost of housing for younger generation. Like New York city you learn to rent forever.
So the liberal bent is the catch phrase " Urban Sprawl" The conservatives haven't found a sound byte that describes "Cooker Density". Again both are agenda driven and has nothing to do with the plain everyday folk.

KISS said...

Chuck, as a builder with materials all ready made and new materials so easily installed, such as plastic pipe, plywood cut to stud or 10' and 2x6es stud cut and roofing delivered to roof top, and nail guns etc.. Why is cost of building going up per sq. foot? Is it just the price of materials? It seems that installation is so fast the cut in Sq. Ft. would be stabilized.

Steve Culley said...

Chuck,
you really have to quit going to Portland and rubbing shoulders with Oregon's planners and zoners. Let's take a little trip around Baker Valley and I'll explain some down sides to Oregon's land use laws. This old x democrat has had enough. Third parties or revolution.

Anonymous said...

"Not all conservatives are stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives." -- John Stuart Mill