Y Kant Lefti Read?

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Some interesting back-and-forth between Jonah Goldberg at The Corner and Kevin Drum (the artist formerly known as Calpundit) over at Washington Monthly on the question of why liberals seem less interested than conservatives in their intellectual lineage.

Kevin offers the obvious riposte: Conservatism tends to be backward-looking and traditionalist, progressives are, well, progressive. Doubtless something to that, but there remain then some anomalous things to explain. For instance, as Jonah notes, "Postrellians" (I guess that's us) are at least as neophilic as the average liberal. Yet I know that my co-bloggers (and, I'd bet, most of our readers) are as steeped in Hayek, Smith, Locke, Mill, Spooner, etc. as any conservative. Left anarchists (perhaps because there are few enough first-class contemporary anarchist theorists), in my experience, tend to know their Goldman, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta. And genuine socialists tend to be similarly familiar with Marx and his forebears and contemporaries. None of these viewpoints are what one would ordinarily regard as "traditionalist."

My own speculation is that contemporary liberalism is much more likely to be associated with an engineering or problem-solving mindset. What I mean is that I think libertarians and (maybe) conservatives are more prone to start with fairly abstract questions (what's the proper scope of government? how are we required to treat each other, in general? what are the preconditions of stable civil society?) and then tweak whatever broad conclusions they come up with to accomodate practical problems. It seems as though liberals more often form their views in a more bottom-up, pragmatic way, as a series of responses to practical problems. That is: People are poor and going without healthcare, how do we fix this? Our schools are in bad shape; how do we fix this? If you start out that way, you're going to care in the first instance about the empirical particulars of contemporary problems, about which historical liberal authors will have less to say, especially if they were more likely to have that same focus. The divide between theoretical and engineering dispositions is probably more likely than any general attitude toward change to explain the difference Goldberg's talking about. Academic liberals in, say, philsophy departments (which is to say, the most theoretically inclined) clearly do have their history down—Richard Rorty cites Dewey and Pierce at every opportunity.

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  1. I find it hard to believe liberals are steeped in Marx. Marx was no Marxist. He believed that capitalism, though exceedingly harsh, was the only way forward. He thought premature Marxists were living a fantasy ideology.

    Premature being before profits were reduced to zero by the effects of capitalism on production.

  2. I should have specified that the “spirit” of the Constitution is its recognition of individual rights, not group (special interest) “rights.” That political parties have chosen to cater to whichever gang will help to put them in power (or keep them in power) is unquestionably true.

  3. I think the engineering metaphor works best if you consider it as how engineers might approach problems outside their own area of expertise. Which is to say, they will tend more than most to think that there is one mathematical solution to problems that aren’t mathematical at all, and that furthermore, any man of brains should be able to figure it out. Growing up in the shadow of McDonnell-Douglas, where everyone’s dad (including mine) was an aerospace engineer, us kids used to call this mindset “Engineer’s Disease,” or ED for short. Just because these guys were building space shuttles, they thought they could solve the school-bussing debate.

    My father pulled a classic ED boner in 1999-2000, when he decided to get in late on the dot-com stock bubble, and told me confidently that “everyone knows” that it’s mathematically impossible *not* to earn 20 percent on the equities market every year. My stepdad, also an engineer (and a libertarian!) applies an ED litmus test to politics, suggesting that elected officials should have some high minimum of scientific education.

    But this is all just an extended metaphor; I’d guess a majority of engineers actually vote Republican.

  4. Kevin offers the obvious riposte: He and most liberals are talking out of their arse, mindlessly repeating talking points, feel-good platitudes and “common sense” mass-nonsense. They have never once even bothered to question their premises or think outside the box.

    Liberals are not thinkers, they a regurgatators and yes-men. But as long as they “feel good” about themselves for “helping the poor, minorities, fill in the blank” they will smugly hold their own ignorence as yet another merit badge.

  5. Kevin offers the obvious riposte: He and most liberals are talking out of their arse, mindlessly repeating talking points, feel-good platitudes and “common sense” mass-nonsense. They have never once even bothered to question their premises or think outside the box.

    Liberals are not thinkers, they a regurgatators and yes-men. But as long as they “feel good” about themselves for “helping the poor, minorities, fill in the blank” they will smugly hold their own ignorence as yet another merit badge.

  6. Perhaps I’d be less of a regurgitator yes man if I chanted “The Market will solve it” whenever I’m confused.

    Mark, not all efforts to improve the condition of society are of the utopian variety.

    “Political liberalism in the United States is less an ideology than a collection of responses to the demands of specific interest groups.” The fact that conservatives have only one big interest group to obey – non-poor, non-urban white males without too much education or experience with diversity, and their wives – instead of the multiplicity of interest groups that identify with liberals does not strike me as evidence of conservative virtue. In fact, the need of liberals (under this interst group model) to balance competing groups would seem to militate against extremism, provide opportunities for self-criticism, and promote a healthy respect for the opinions and interests of those across the aisle on any particular issue.

    Conservatism was once defined as the anti-ideology. This is clearly no longer true. That mantle has been taken up by liberals, who are much more motivated by specific problems and interests than by a vision of a radically different world that they’re working toward.

  7. “..the need of liberals (under this interst group model) to balance competing groups would seem to militate against extremism, provide opportunities for self-criticism…”

    But it doesn’t!

  8. Nope joe, but assuming that understanding market behavior is the same as chanting “The Market will solve it” is exactly what I mean by liberal regurgatation.

    And thank you for providing a fine example of typical liberal vomit.

    PS: Thinking conservatives don’t obey groups. They obey themselves, God, the truth, tradition, etc. Just because liberals are herd-slaves to whatever group is percieved as “hip” doesn’t mean everyone is.

  9. It’s always easy to say “Our side has reasonable motives, those other guys are just plain weird.”

    What constitutes a reasonable motive varies. Sometimes people will say “We’re motivated by principle, those other guys are motivated by greed/special interest politics/spoils/etc.” Other times people will claim that they’re motivated by a deep understanding of the real world, and those other guys are just rigidly adhering to ideology instead of reality. (Indeed, some libertarians claim to be interested in the real world while insisting that the left is motivated by ideology, but later these libertarians trumpet their committment to principle while insisting that the left is a bunch of whiners out for spoils.)

    I’m not terribly interested in doing a vulcan mind meld to prove that anybody who disagrees with me has some really weird motives.

  10. nobody,

    Thus, you are implicitly arguing that Madison was a liar, and that the many discussions he and others had on the question of how best to check and regulated factions by mechanisms in the constitution were not necessary.

  11. tomcat – er…traditions are generally created by groups.

    though, i, personally, am a tradition of one. 🙂

    i would boil the problem down to, roughly, being one of using politics as identity. (not identity politics, though that’s another kettle of rotten fish) it makes everything even more personal and territorial than it already is.

    identity politics is more like some fucked circle of hell where 3 or more defining characteristics determine who you are, what you should think and how you should feel.

  12. Matt: I’m an engineer for a large semiconductor firm in the Pacific Northwest. I haven’t done a formal poll, but I would guess well over 50% of the HW and SW engineers are (and vote) “liberal”. Perhaps it’s just aeronautical engineers that are conservative?
    It’s probably an age thing. 🙂

    Tomcat: and “ditto-heads” are not “mindlessly repeating talking points”? These sorts of political stereotype strawman arguments are a silly waste of time.

    Julian’s original H&R posting threatened to become one of those strawman arguments, but the “libertarian = engineering mindset” comment is interesting. Libertarianism may well stem from a more scientific outlook on life, in that it seems more in tune with what works and what doesn’t, sociologically speaking.

    But political science is a “soft” science, with confounding variables everywhere.

    As an example, capitalism seems to be hands down the best scheme so far for promoting output and innovation in a society. Not too suprising really, as it could be viewed as a proxy model for evolution. Constant adaptations amongst species (business’s) all across the land. Great, huh?

    But evolution, also known as “survival of the fittest” is really survival of the nominally adapted. Not “nominally adapted”? Sorry, you’re an “external cost”. You’re not my responsibility. Feel free to go extinct.

    Now, when this happens to a “business” it’s one thing, but when it happens to individuals, well, that bothers some people. Liberals, perhaps.

  13. joe makes the rather credible argument that many if not most conservatives and at least some libertarians have probably not clearly thought through their premises. Indeed Tomcat’s notion that liberals are “yes-men” is a typical conservative mantra used to disguise any sort of real thinking on the subject. To be blunt I’d rather have a discussion with a Marxist who has a clear sense of why he believes what he does, than a libertarian who has adopted that position because it “feels right.”

  14. tomcat – er…traditions are generally created by groups.

    though, i, personally, am a tradition of one. 🙂

    i would boil the problem down to, roughly, being one of using politics as identity. (not identity politics, though that’s another kettle of rotten fish) it makes everything even more personal and territorial than it already is.

    identity politics is more like some fucked circle of hell where 3 or more defining characteristics determine who you are, what you should think and how you should feel.

  15. Tomcat says:
    “Thinking conservatives …”

    So, I wonder where we might find such a creature around here? Where’s rst?

  16. I’m an engineer for a large semiconductor firm in the Pacific Northwest…well over 50% of the HW and SW engineers are (and vote) “liberal”.

    I’d say that’s more likely a Pacific Northwest thing…especially if you’re in Portland.

  17. “liberals, who are much more motivated by specific problems and interests than by a vision of a radically different world that they’re working toward.”

    I actually imagined Julian might be thinking of our pal Joe when making his original post, and then this passage from Joe’s own comment comes along to greatly support Julian’s hypothesis. Bingo! Now before you get mad Joe, note that I’m not saying (right now) that this makes state-liberalism bad, I’m just saying it’s a distinct approach and that your description of it matches Julian’s. Reminds me of my father (a civil engineer, BTW) backing Clinton by saying something like, “He’s not a perfect candidate, but at least he’ll get in there and WORK on things!”

    Mark Fox, your analogy with Newton reminds me of a liberal friend who told me she had taken a class on economics in college and what she took away from it was that it was not adequate for solving our problems! I was speechless!! (Naturally, there’s only so much I can say to a friend!!)

    Oh, of course libertarians say plenty of stupid things (as do conservatives!), so that’s not the point. I just think these particular comments are especially indicative and revealing of the state-liberal approach, for whatever that’s worth….

  18. As an engineer, I also take offense at your suggestion that Liberalism is somehow associated with “an engineering … mindset”. Here’s an alternative my brother (also an engineer) suggested not long ago: “Liberal ideas attract people who mean well, but are bad at solving problems, so they foul up without noticing it.” Libertarians can be just as compassionate, they just notice the wonderful unintended consequences of applying the state to their proposed problem/solution.

    The engineering mindset requires viewing a situation systemically and understand how resolved components of a system effect the others. This is very important in studying any complex system, including socio-economic ones, where missing “the forest for the trees” inevitably leads to incorrect conclusions.

    That said, I do know liberal, conservative, and non-political engineers. I know libertarian economists, photographers, as well as computer science, business, and even a government majors.

  19. Again with the throwing up metaphors, Tomcat. I’m beginning to see why to chose a feline handle.

    “Thinking conservatives don’t obey groups. They obey themselves, God, the truth, tradition, etc.”

    Or at least, they believe (or convince themselves) that their attitudes are utterly Platonic (look it up, Tomcat the thinking conservative) and untouched by the power interests of their “in group.” For example, the conservative commitment to low deficits, a core belief right up until the end of the mid-20th century Democratic majority, when the public purse became theirs to spend.

    Conservatism is about maintaining existing power relations – boss vs. worker, men vs. women, rich vs. poor, straight vs. gay, religious vs. secular. But because the power relations they’re supporting are the existing ones, and hard, coercive work that brought them about was done before the memories of anyone now alive, they get to pretend that their preferred power relations are “natural” or “God-given.”

    I saw an article in National Review last year that stated that capitalism is just natural, the natural outgrowth of letting people behave as they would in nature. Because, you know, hunter gatherer societies never shared their produce amond the tribe or anything.

    Everything must be this way. Welcome to the soft parade.

  20. I’m not mad, fyodor, I agree with Julian. Though, obviously, it’s not black and white – there are results-oriented conservatives, and liberal ideological zealots. But things do seem to be pretty polarized between righty zealots and lefty nuts and bolts guys these days. I attribute this to 1) liberalism being on the defensive in the 80s and 90s (conservatives were the nuts and bolts guys for decades, and when Goldwater got smooshed after his lofty crusade, it just demonstrated why) 2) liberals are answerable to so many different interest groups that they can’t go too far off on any tangents 3) liberals genuinely, honestly believe in ideas like “there are two sides to every story” and “people are not just means to an end,” and this acts as a break on callous or dismissive thinking or action.

  21. jb says:

    “you are implicitly arguing that Madison was a liar, and that the many discussions he and others had on the question of how best to check and regulated factions by mechanisms in the constitution were not necessary.”

    Feel free to cite some examples.

  22. Jesus Christ…

    Here is Party X. They are very stupid and childish and petty and not grounded in reality and do everything for very selfish reasons and are also ugly. I belong to Party Y. We are the opposite. Nanny nanny fucking poo.

    Rinse, Repeat.

    PS: This is also shit. “Thinking conservatives don’t obey groups. They obey themselves, God, the truth, tradition, etc.”

    Yeah, lame-o liberal’s just wanna be cool. Not me, I obey an invisible Sky Lord! Hooray for magic! What’s that Jesus, you hate gays? Me too! Say what, my Lord? Why, I also think that shellfish is evil! Pardon? Give away all of my possessions? Sorry, I’ve gotta go! I’m off to obey the truth now, whatever the fuck that means!

  23. liberals genuinely, honestly believe in ideas like “there are two sides to every story” and “people are not just means to an end,” and this acts as a break on callous or dismissive thinking or action.

    Haha, you’re funny. Will you be my friend?

  24. I wasn’t particularly thinking of Joe in the original post, but I’d hope he wouldn’t mind being identified with the generalization, since I tried to make both fairly neutral. Either approach can be described in a way that makes it sound especially reasonable and the alternative unattractive (“pragmatic” vs. “head-in-the-clouds abstraction” or, alternatively, “deep principles” vs. “ad-hoc tinkering”.)

  25. Believe it or not, I used to like Tori Amos. I actually get that reference. No, I never owned that CD (or even heard any songs off it) but I know what you’re referring to.

    So now we know something about Mr. Sanchez’s musical taste.

  26. You are more right on this than you realize. Thomas Sowell looks at (and devastates) this mindset in _Vision of the Annointed_. Part of the liberal’s problems is that they never bother to see if their latest and greatest solution actually solved anything.

  27. Political liberalism in the United States is less an ideology than a collection of responses to the demands of specific interest groups. The liberal view of education is what the National Education Association leadership says it is. The NAACP calls the shots on affirmative action and other issues defined as involving civil rights because they appear to affect African Americans. Liberal views on trade derive largely from unions (who tend to oppose trade liberalization) and sectors of the corporate world disposed to support Democrats, like the entertainment industry (who tend to favor trade liberalization), with the result that liberals do not speak with anything close to one voice on trade issues. The hesitancy of liberal politicians to endorse gay marriage will last only as long as homosexuals’ reluctance to form themselves into a voting bloc that normally votes Democratic.

    The root of Democrats’ credibility problem with the general public on national security issues, which is now into its fourth decade, is that no organized Democratic constituency group has a vested interest in a strong defense or foreign policy, or indeed in a specific defense or foreign policy of any kind. Liberals have not so much been for a weak America overseas as they have been uninterested in the whole subject. The exception that proves this rule is American support of Israel, championed more aggressively by many American liberals than by some Israelis; were it not for the Democrats’ articulate and well organized Jewish constituents, Israel would be no higher on the liberal political agenda than Fiji.

    There are liberal politicians — John Kerry is one, and so was Bill Clinton — who have considerable flexibility to move liberal opinion in one direction or another, even over the opposition of Democratic constituency groups. In Clinton’s case this was because he could present policy initiatives like welfare reform as needed to prevent Republicans from pushing through something even worse from the groups’ perspective; Kerry could get away with a lot right now just because liberals are so desperate to defeat Bush in November. But not all politicians granted this flexibility choose to use it, or even recognize that they have it. They may not have any ideas of their own, or they may crave the applause of predictable constituencies so much that they dread offending them. Or, they may simply be so used to taking direction from “the groups” that they have difficulty conceiving of operating in any other way.

    And liberal bloggers, journalists and academics? I think they reflect the outlook of most liberal politicians for the most part. To the extent they do not they are liable to be suspected of not being “on the team”; of being racists if they dissent from orthodoxy on civil rights issues, of being Republicans in sheep’s clothing if they favor any kind of tax cuts, of being anti-woman if they find abortion a distasteful practice. At any rate they are not an important source of liberal thought, unless they represent an organized constituency.

  28. When has Thomas Sowell devastated anything? As a writer of history he is a hack mining and distorting secondary sources.

  29. zathras,

    “Political liberalism in the United States is less an ideology than a collection of responses to the demands of specific interest groups.”

    This of course is also true of political conservatism as well; indeed, things political in general. See the Madison’s thoughts on this in the Federalist Papers. I find it humorous that both American liberals and conservatives decry “interest groups,” when your political system was specifically designed with them in mind.

  30. jb says:

    “I find it humorous that both American liberals and conservatives decry “interest groups,” when your political system was specifically designed with them in mind. ”

    True enough, but our constitution was not.

  31. “liberalism is much more likely to be associated with an engineering or problem-solving mindset…”

    No engineer would tackle any problem before having first studied Newtonian and modern physics and all the basic and detailed knowledge of engineering relevant.
    Social problems are far more complex and difficult than engineering problems.
    Trying to solve something without a very solid base of knowledge from past theorists and experimenters is very bad practice.

    Saying that liberalism is associated with an engineering mind set is slandering engineering.

  32. Political liberalism in the United States is less an ideology than a collection of responses to the demands of specific interest groups. The liberal view of education is what the National Education Association leadership says it is. The NAACP calls the shots on affirmative action and other issues defined as involving civil rights because they appear to affect African Americans.

    That describes the Democratic party, but not left-liberalism in general. There are people on “the left” in America who are willing to question the NEA and NAACP – there are great policy debates in The American Prospect, for example – but the danger is that the uneasy alliance the party has constructed between these groups will collapse.

  33. “True enough, but our constitution was not.”

    Federalist 10 is, arguably, a counterexample to that position: It defends the federal system established in the Constitution as, in effect, a way of mediating the power of interest groups (or “factions”).

  34. nobody,

    Actually it was; unless you are telling me that Madison was a liar. BTW, your political system’s base is your constitution.

  35. Liberals aren’t engineers, they are tinkerers. Engineers operate from a broad base of fundamental knowledge. Tinkerers just go with their whim.

    Ask an engineer to fix the broken wing of an airplane, and he’ll consult his vast knowledge of aerodynamics, structural stresses, and the fundamental purpose of the airplane, and come up with a fix. Often, the the fix will exactly mimic the original wing, because the engineer is smart enough to realize that an airplane is a system that works in close harmony, and you change the functioning of one part at your peril, and only after careful analysis.

    A tinker is more likely to decide to make it ‘better’ and slap something on that ‘improves’ the design – improvement defined as his semi-educated guess as to what would make the plane better.

    Airplanes designed by engineers tend to not stray too far from the designs of previous craft. But they also tend to not become smoking heaps of metal on the ground.

  36. Any representative government is beholden to interest groups. The politicians represent the groups which elect them.

    Jacob seems to say that social engineers have set themselves to a difficult task with little history and few physical-reality-inspired rules to guide them. I agree with Sanchez that the liberal thinkers see the world a a collection of problems to be solved, but the social engineers tend to ignore history because they believe they can improve on human nature. As if some combination of income redistribution, land-use planning and social tolerance regulation will end all suffering. If we disregard Newton and are shrewd enough, we can make apples fall upward.

  37. “Despite the above snipping, I think it is difficult to argue with the proposition that conservatives think with their heads and liberals think with their hearts.”

    um, i think that’s absolutely, positively crazy. rational conservatives and compassionate liberals are about as common as flying pigs.

    to be fair, maybe things are much different where you live. but from where i sit, politics are about revenge fantasies and getting the cash. it’s terribly similar to hip hop, really. (before the bling revolution, that is)

    i’m more or less taken with the notion that politics is just a form of external identity, and used like any facet of identity to decide who you’re mad at, who sucks and who should be smushed. to ascribe values beyond that are more a product of wishful thinking than anything else.

  38. The most basic trend is has not mentioned here:

    American-style libertarian/conservatives = men

    liberals = women

  39. libertarians are from Mars….?

  40. At this point, it’s probably a good idea to consider liberals and marxists to be two distinct groups.

    For that matter, it’s probably worthwhile to consider libertarians and conservatives two different groups.

  41. Social engineering, as practiced by regressives relies on fleeting theories. Since most, if not all of such philosophy is based on wishes of what should be, not what is, it fails. Every time.

    Clever euphamisms like “progressive”, “diversity” and “fairness” cloak impotence, insularity and greed.

    The four noble truths are quite ancient. Are they no longer meaningful? Completely unjustified arrogance and hubris loves a system that murders hundreds of millions. This is what to love and honor?

  42. Social engineering, as practiced by regressives relies on fleeting theories. Since most, if not all of such philosophy is based on wishes of what should be, not what is, it fails. Every time.

    Clever euphamisms like “progressive”, “diversity” and “fairness” cloak impotence, insularity and greed.

    The four noble truths are quite ancient. Are they no longer meaningful? Completely unjustified arrogance and hubris loves a system that murders hundreds of millions. This is what to love and honor now that newspeak tells us God is dead?

  43. Chiming in as yet another engineer, I agree with Brian 100% that TJ’s observations are based on an unrepresentative NW (Oregon) sample. In both AZ and TX, and overwhelming majority of engineers I worked with were conservative or libertarian. In fact, a majority of my major’s faculty were non-liberal.

    Despite the above snipping, I think it is difficult to argue with the proposition that conservatives think with their heads and liberals think with their hearts. “Show me a young conservative and I’ll show you a man without a heart. Show me an old liberal and I’ll show you a man without a brain.”

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