21st Century Conservatism

I increasingly believe that true conservatism is essentially an acknowledgement of reality, which actually entails numerous implications. Looking as the arc of philosophical history, it has moved in three phases: (1) the religious phase; (2) the scientific phase; and (3) the complexity phase. The verge between religion and scientific has a long and rich history, which essentially defines modernity starting with Machiavelli (it can be argued) and them moving forward from there. Marxism and socialism have made pretenses to science, though in my opinion they’ve achieved only scientism — that is, the use of science-esque language to gain credibility.

The problem is that reality is complex, which philosophically i ground my arguments in Spinoza, Hegel, and Tocqueville. But the point is, with intelligence and study, the causality and consequences of social systems can be figured out pretty well. Moreover, modern, high-performance computing can be used as a cognitive prosthetic to better understand these consequences.

Returning to scientism, traditional science in terms of physics et al. is somewhat limited in terms of its causal complexity, especially insofar as the outcomes are predictable, which was part of the appeal for Marxist scientific pretensions. The problem is that real-world social systems are more complex than can be addressed by traditional physics style science. The causal chains and the temporal scales are just too long — which is to say complex — which introduces the messiness of statistics and heuristics.

Nevertheless, workable assumptions and conclusions can be made that allow for a reasonably accurate analysis of consequences and outcomes, which has traditionally been the role of religion. After all, Jesus himself said that a tree is known by its fruits (Matt 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45), which states that conclusions can usefully be drawn regarding the outcome of social processes.

Gordon Fee, in his How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth uses philosophical techniques to examine the Bible. Fee makes a distinction between philosophy and religion, essentially arguing that philosophy concerns the creation of simple models while religion aspires to a cognitive and social framework that is more encompassing.

More operationally, which is to say less philosophically, I’ve spent lots of time thinking about the workability of proposed policies, which is what conservatives do. Contemplating consequences is the heart and soul of conservatism. if you’re going to commit time, money, and lives to a policy project, it just makes sense that one should think carefully about the likely success of the policy.

Here’s where complexity starts to come into play. All policies have both winners and losers, and its tough to tell who they might be before a policy is implemented. Moreover, the implementors of a policy might be incentivized to portray a policy differently than the way it is likely to work out. Performing an honest policy analysis in such circumstances might actually provoke a reaction from those selling the policy.

The most politically significant example of this is socialism.  Hayek did a nice study of its likely consequences, which provoked a highly emotional response from Fabian socialist Herman Finer, which was little more than affect and accusation. My professor Charlie tried to camouflage socialism as democracy with the argument that instead of having a committee or Soviet make decisions, instead have the people vote on important issues. This seemed problematic to me because the potency of centralized modern media would just move the decision-making from committee to committees once-removed through voting. As you might imagine, this resulted again in affect and accusation.

To conclude, modern technology, in the form of high-powered computation, can help us better understand the causality and consequences of complex social systems. However, that same technology in the form of radio, movies, TV, and social media, can so shape and distort  people’s understanding of the world that traditional, “realistic” notions of cause and effect no longer obtain. This cognitive distortion has limits however because of reality, which does not go away even when people stop believing in it.


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