Monday, January 19, 2015

Democracy: why we can't have nice things.

By way of Krugman is this slightly dated but nevertheless brilliant discussion by Cory Robin of the conservative mind.

I found this especially interesting because I had a reading of the second draft of my DARK MARKET play on Sunday, and the actors and I were discussing the mysteries of the conservative way of thinking. I suggested that one of the most important features of the conservative view of the world is hierarchy - and to my delight Krugman agreed in his column today:
And why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure. I’m partial to that story, partly because it helps explain why climate science and health economics inspire so much rage.
I followed Krugman's link to the Robin article and found more good stuff. 

No simple defense of one's own place and privileges, the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the capitalist, with his vision of the employer's untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father's rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth. Each in his way subscribes to this statement, from the 19th century, of the conservative creed: "To obey a real superior ... is one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting."
One thing he seems to be saying, although not explicitly is that this conservative view  -  a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull - is likely to be unpopular with many people and so they hide their real views behind a facade:
Playing the part of the dull-witted country squire, conservatives have embraced the position of the historian F.J.C. Hearnshaw that "it is commonly sufficient for practical purposes if conservatives, without saying anything, just sit and think, or even if they merely sit." While the aristocratic overtones of that discourse no longer resonate, the conservative still holds on to the label of the untutored and the unlettered; it's part of his populist charm and demotic appeal. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Conservatism is an idea-driven praxis, and no amount of preening from the right or polemic from the left can reduce or efface the catalog of mind one finds there.
One of the useful aspects of Ayn Rand is that she hid nothing of what she thought - thanks to her own inability to dissemble (which I suspect is the result of her undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome) combined with her publisher's disinclination to edit Atlas Shrugged for fear of a Rand tantrum resulting in the loss of income, we get a pure unfiltered hit of the belief that:
a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. 
Boy howdy, is that the essence of the Rand world-view. And because she was such a bad novelist, not only is the world of Atlas Shrugged ugly, brutish and dull, as the result of the tyranny of the worser men over the better, but the worser men themselves are ugly, brutish and dull.

And Rand knew exactly what to do with them - put them onto a train, list their thought crimes, send the train into a tunnel filled with carbon monoxide (thanks to the insistence of a politician wanting to make it to a voter rally in time) and then blow up the train.

You can see why the savvier conservatives of the National Review found her such an embarrassment, and wrote scathing reviews of Atlas Shrugged. While they may not have hated worser men enough to want to see them all dead, they certainly agreed that, fundamentally, it's thanks to democracy that we can't have nice things.

And if you consider a palace the ultimate in nice things, then this view of the world makes sense. Concentration of wealth allows for the gratuitous creation of beauty, and there are those who covet a Louis XVI chair and will never be able to appreciate the utilitarian elegance of an IKEA chair.