The Death of CONVPOL (An Apology, in One Sense or the Other)

Edit: Due to an email I received expressing concern over his future career and certain other things, I have removed all named references to my debate opponent.  Hopefully no damage has been done – take this as a general anti-liberal screed, I suppose, really posted just to make me feel better and achieve closure.  We all know I post enough of those anyway.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a – now defunct – political debate blog going by the moniker CONVPOL, which I forget what it stood for and as it's been shut down I can't look up.  []Its ostensible purpose was to provide a forum to compare, contrast, and debate liberal and conservative views.  I replaced the original conservative writer; [a] shut-down followed as [the moderator] was unable (I assume) to find a second replacement.

The discussion terminated mainly over differences concerning what was appropriate: as those who know me are aware, I sometimes employ a more direct approach than might strictly be considered necessary, to say nothing of politic.  My last submission's premise was, in fact, little more than a more or less polite accusation that [my arguments had not yet been answered], which I followed by a restatement of my position.  I personally would have responded to that sort of a challenge – assuming it was actually answerable – with a detailed point-by-point analysis of how it was in fact a false charge.  I still think that I had made an accurate assessment: what I never meant it as was any sort of personal attack, though others I consulted on the fallout thought I was out of line.  My rational side (such as it is) suspects there may be a point there: on the other hand, I also consider that, by making the charge, I offered to the opportunity to hammer me flat if I were wrong – an opportunity most debaters I know would not turn down.

However the debate in fact came apart, I suspect it might not have lasted much longer due to [] my "anti-intellectualism".  Practically speaking, this seemed to mean two things: that I was not precise enough in citing sources, and that I showed little respect either for the (progressive) liberal mythos or for the [supposed] paragons of academia [].  Anyway, the first lack on my part is perhaps a fault; the second is my only real way to approach the question, practically speaking.  I am a politico neither by training nor profession: the interest I take in political questions is as a citizen first, and an amateur student of history second.  As bases for arguments, the general facts of history are well-enough known enough to go without citation – unless one is referencing a new theory or interpretation, or research on some little-known princedom in the Himalayas three thousand years ago.  I feel no need to take an academic who says something which appears to be refutable nonsense seriously, no matter how many doctorates he has, though I will try to refute the argument if it's actually presented as anything more than an appeal to The Grand Doctor Suchandsuch's authority.  (What is this, the Middle Ages?  Actually yes – but that's a whole different post.  Or book.)

Which brings me to Adam Smith.  While I read at least some of Smith's Wealth of Nations back in high school, and excerpts in college, I recently got it out of the library because I wanted to read the whole thing.  What I was immediately struck by – in light of this ongoing snarl, mainly – was that Smith's methods seem reasonably close to my own.  This is not in any way surprising: the modern researcher, with his citations and footnotes, is in fact very modern.  It's therefore not really a defense of my methods to say that older methods, likely more prone to inaccuracy, agree with me.  What I want to stress is that Smith used the same sort of argumentation I tend to employ: logical argument and practical – by which I mean relatively small-scale – examples to demonstrate his point.  For an instance, we can take the famous pin-maker scenario which details the benefits of division of labor.

Having taken this example, and said that it resonates with me, I want to come back to the subject of the nature of a political argument.  [] I believe if you follow politics nationally, you will notice the following distinction: the liberal is constantly pursuing a general utopia: an ideal pattern for a whole country or world.  The conservative generally is concerned more with specifics: I would say the practical specifics, but some might not agree.  The liberal case, for instance, for Obamacare, has been that it will cover everybody, or at least more or everybody than the current situation.  The conservative objections, while occasionally targeting the absurdity of trying to prescribe a solution that works for 300 million people, have mainly focused either on specific provisions, or specific results.  This section is too vague, too bureaucratic, or unenforceable; this requirement will put so many businesses out of business, or reduce available coverage under these conditions.  True to form, I will not cite either of those allegations, beyond linking to a thing I wrote two years ago that dealt with the various ridiculous things included in the two thousand pages nobody's actually read.

From my perspective, the biggest problem with the debate theoretically happening on CONVPOL was that [my opponent] kept saying, "We have to get here," and I kept saying, "But the way you're trying to get there doesn't actually work!"  A prime example was our discussion of 1984.  [He] alleged that Big Brother was conservative, essentially on the basis that Orwell was a socialist himself.  By analogy, he suggested that it has been the conservatives pushing for that kind of control.  In response, I pointed out the huge difference between conservative and totalitarian, and mentioned that the regimes coming closest to BB – the defunct USSR and the not-so-defunct modern Chinese government – were not conservative but, at best (for the liberal) corrupted socialists.  To say nothing (as I did say nothing) about the police surveillance state that, say, the United Kingdom has become under decidedly non-Conservative governments (for the most part).  Such actual examples – as opposed to the theoretical utopias of liberal visions – [were] brushed off.  This is not unique to our relatively private debate.  Liberal politicians regularly ignore such actual examples in favor of theory, some of it truly wonky when not actively refuted.  President Obama, for example. is campaigning for yet another "jobs bill", despite the fact that none of the measures passed and money spent by the Feds seems to have dented unemployment numbers at all over the last three or four years (and yes, that includes Bush's stimulus).

In a sense, I understand this.  After all, the fact of the Crusades has done little to nothing to make me question my Christian faith.  Assumptions are assumptions, and are hard to shake, let alone change.  But what infuriated me – and ultimately in large part drove my challenge which resulted in the blog's disbandment – is that [many liberals] seemed to be unable to admit that the ideal of a world where everybody has stuff and is free is not just a modern progressive liberal ideal.  I spent the majority of the two argumentative posts I was allowed to make trying to hammer that point home: the goal isn't really the question, but rather the methods.  Yes, there are differences, for example that liberals tend to consider the murder that is abortion to be "freedom", but in the most general terms – people being happy, free, and having stuff – we are agreed on the goal.  Once we accept this fact, the most distinctive mark of actual modern liberal policy is its employment of centralized government power to attempt to achieve this goal, which stands in severe contrast to the conservative ideal of minimizing state power and regulation, or localizing such power as much as possible.  (Not that the conservatives are always good at sticking to their ideals, but the number of liberals willing to admit that any given government regulation (except of the web, oddly enough) might not be a good thing you can probably count on one hand in any given town or college.)

[Adding a note here: my partner in the CONVPOL debate has expressed that one of the things he was dissatisfied with was my "continuing to push a false definition of democratic liberalism" and "false, possibly unintentional, misrepresentation of modern conservatism".  As for the latter, I said repeatedly while a participant on that blog that I was not interested in defending the reigning modern so-called conservative ideals (which are in fact mainly neoconservative, or "Big Government Conservative" as opposed to the more traditional model I support): the 'Tea Party' and its small-government goals is the best "mainstream" (as it were) representation of my sort of conservatism.  For the first, I am really not sure how I have a "false definition" of democratic liberalism (which I think is to be understood as what the Europeans call democratic socialism).  The best definition I got during the debate was the sort of generic utopianist thinking I've referred to above: peace and love and stuff for everybody, with government regulating things to keep people safe.  That's so vague as to be meaningless, and I do not think that – in the absence of tighter definition – I was completely unjustified in taking the liberal Euro-style superregulatory tendency as indicative of the desired direction.  If I missed better explanations in our debate, I apologize.]

This is the contrast: not between final goals – as though one side wanted everyone to be miserable – but between the methods championed to achieve these goals.  Between a theory of benevolent statism on one hand, and that of a free citizenry left mainly to its own devices on the other.  Neither side is actively promoting either extreme of total control or total anarchy, but at the same time the role and extent of government differs greatly between the ideals.  The political argument, at least on a theoretical level, can't be about which politician is a worse money-grubber  (the ad hominems possible if we fall into political score-counting would prevent anything ever getting done), but about which idea works better.  Any practical political argument has to assume at least some commonality of purpose, but I'm not sure that this is still recognized.  I'm not sure that the liberal recognizes that conservatives actually want a free society as much as they do.  I'm absolutely sure [most liberals I know mean] well and [aren't] actively trying to concentrate power in the hands of a tyrant, or even a Brazilian evil bureaucracy (even though I'm very much afraid that's what his championed policies would result in).  I'm not so sure [many of them are] willing to impute a similar benevolence of motives to conservatives in general – [even the ones] at least willing in some sense to debate issues, unlike those Washington types who thought it was reasonable to tell us to pass a bill to find out what was in it.  Only a government that's okay with authoritarianism thinks that sort of thing is okay, and which party was it that pulled that one?


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