Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Compassionate Conservativism

w w w . p r o s p e c t - m a g a z i n e . c o . u k: "How old is political liberalism? Here is a surprising answer: it is not a few hundred years old, but 10,000 years old. And this answer matters because it affects our ability to see liberalism as capable of addressing some of the deepest anxieties of modern society. Can we live together with those of different cultures? Can we argue instead of fight?"

The core of liberalism on this account is the establishment of arrangements that facilitate mutually beneficial transactions between people who are not bound together by sentimental ties of kinship, culture or personal affiliation.

What a good idea! It means that I go where I like without being careful to avoid alien tribal territory, that I can deposit money in the bank without worrying that the teller will simply pocket it, that I can live a reasonably comfortable life without depending on the good will, and caprice, of others and that I do not need to count on surviving sons to support me in old age. It means that I can rely on formal regulations and impersonal enforcement mechanisms to insure my personal safety, well-being and fair treatment.

Compassionate conservatives thing that we would be better off with fewer regulations and enforcement mechanisms. They imagine we would do better in a world where there was less state interference--where families took care of their own, neighbors were neighborly, and faith-based initiatives, supported by voluntary contributions rather than coercive taxation, took care of misfits who fell through the cracks.

Clearly they have never spent much time in New Jersey or taken the lesson of the Sopranos to heart. Where taking care of our own is the modus operandi no one recognizes any obligation to strangers, sojourners or members of other tribes:
competing warlords support and protect their kinsmen, gumuhs and sycophants, everyone observes a thousand unwritten rules concerning personal loyalties and tribal territories, women breed, men fight, everyone is chronically on the make or insecure or both and preoccupied with maintaining territory or sucking up to those who do.

That of course is the limiting case but the further we go toward dismantling coercive state mechanisms and formal, impersonal arrangements and the more we depend on personal relationships, the family, the community and grassroots efforts, the closer we will get to the Sopranos world and the worse off we will be.

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