A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

More on Conservatism and Liberalism

Preamble: Focus on the details of current events without some general principles to organize our thinking leads only to greater confusion and less clarity.  Assad, ISIS (ISIL), Sunni, Shia, rebels, insurgents: even when honestly attempted, these are still descriptions of a stirred ant-nest.  The same can be said for fracking, carbon tax, sequestration, climate deniers… or for any other of the contentious concerns that profligate humans have stirred up.  We are certainly complex, but we are still only an animal born of the evolutionary processes by which every other organism has come to the world; and we are understandable when we can see our actions from an appropriate perspective. 

Broadly, there are two forms of what is conflated together as politically conservative.  It is no accident that such a conflation has occurred; one form is parasitizing the other.  Historically, political conservatism may be understood from its dictionary definition: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

This form of conservatism has a long and essential history in the human social process. The tension between traditional attitudes and values (implying those values that have been adaptively efficacious) and new attitudes and values (implying those values that are in the process of adapting to changing environmental and social conditions) is the primary means by which effective human action is arrived at.  Those people who are constitutionally conservative, in principled opposition with those people are constitutionally liberal [1], serve the body of the community by keeping the focus on what has worked well in the past (a good, but imperfect, predictor of what will work in the future) while novel solutions to new situations and problems are being presented and tested – solutions that may lead to success or to failure. 

Obviously, this only works in a community structure where these two ways of generating responses are realized as equally valuable by the community as a whole, a generally conservative position in itself.  Novel approaches are allowed their opportunities within the framework of established principles.  Long working designs are not discarded easily; new designs for actions (beliefs, attitudes and values) must prove themselves and are given the chance to do so.

However, such a benign presentation should not hide the fact there can be considerable tension between these quite different ways of looking at the world. New attitudes challenge tradition; new forms of action advantage new constituencies and often disadvantage established ones.  The leveling force is the main body of the community and its “conservative” position that all factions have a say, that new situations sometimes call for novel solutions and that proof of new options be given a chance, but in the context of established “reality.”

This has worked very well over much of human history to both allow for adaptive change and to keep the pace and variety of change within the comprehensions of the community.  Seen with perspective, neither the conservative or the liberal position is correct, nor should they be; the function of such a design is to keep the human community well adapted to the surrounding world as that world changes.

There are two elements that have come to torture this design, essentially, beyond recognition, and are presaged in the above: the advantage shifting of change and the effect of the rate of change on the comprehensions of the community.  The leveling force of the community depends on change not disrupting too dramatically established hierarchies of influence and not occurring so rapidly that efficacious adaptive responses cannot form.  And so, because human populations and technical development have been increasing exponentially, the leveling force of native community conservatism has been lost from the adaptive process. [2]

We have certainly not stopped adapting, but have, for a few thousand years, been changing faster and faster with greater and greater disruption of hierarchical structures and community comprehensions of our place in the world. This leads to a distortion of the natural conservative position and the natural liberal position; both of them entrenching into their own sub-communities.

When people with no real dedication to either the principled conservative position or the principled liberal position, but with only advantage seeking as a goal, pursue their interests in an environment largely free of a comprehending community, they are free to pick and choose those aspects of the adaptive process from which they can gain.  And while both conservatism and liberalism offer advantage seekers opportunities, it is the natural conservatism of the community (even in its lack of real comprehension – especially in its lack of comprehension) to which advantage seekers most often appeal.

Remember, conservatism is about continuity, maintaining hierarchy and seemingly successful adaptive designs.  Liberalism is about novel and almost always untried solutions to real problems that, many times, the community has not yet clearly identified.  And when changes in physical and social environments are coming faster than can be incorporated into the community’s adaptive processes, advantage seekers can offer the community simplified “think-tank comprehensions” about which the community can become “conservative,” thereby favoring those who present themselves as like-minded.

These advantage seekers are the second form of what has, today, been conflated with the principled conservative position.  This has gone so far as to redefine conservative in such a way that the principled conservative position (which would reject raw advantage seeking) is increasingly denied as a worthy value.  Imagine, as in a sci-fi film, a human body being invaded by an alien form and taken over while continuing to have the appearance of the original person. [3]

Of course, the advantage seekers have not avoided liberalism, leaving it to remain in its original principled form.  Novelty creation has been co-opted, offering the ordinary as “new, bigger and better.” The “individual” effort of novel solution-seeking has been perverted as the “freedom to seek personal advantage,” free of biophysical and social restraints: the Libertarian infantilization of community values.  But, these are only local co-optations, liberalism’s evidence based problem recognition and solution seeking may meet the advantage seekers goals in technical pursuits, but not in social and political realms.  “Liberal” education and devotion to evidence based, scientific process, understanding do not serve well the advantage seeker; too many questions are created for which the “new” conservatism has only, fairly obviously, self-serving answers. (see Conservatism’s Yellow Brick Road for more on this issue,)

[1] Of course, these broad habits of process don’t exist in a pure form within a person; each person contains elements of both, and could not live in the world successfully otherwise. The difference is that, on balance, one person will generally approach daily events by calling on socially agreed behaviors and attitudes while another person will see each event as potentially unique, calling for specially discovered behaviors and values.  Intelligence in the first case is used to justify the existing models even as they fit less well and intelligence in the second case is used to fit new solutions to events.

[2] Once community is effectively removed as a central principle of design, only advantage seeking is left as an ordering principle.  It must be clear in attempting to use advantage seeking as a way to defeat advantage seeking, it is this model that has been used to replace the force of the community, that it will always be turned against any resurgence of community principles.  Community values and advantage seeking are antithetical.

[3] If we follow this analogy more fully, it is clear that for such a total takeover the very DNA of the original person would have to be selectively denied expression or rewritten along with existing learned motivational designs.  Similarly, the basic biological designs of human community must be crippled for advantage seeking to replace human communion.