Friday, July 26, 2013

The Snowball of Progress

That aspect of conservatism which is simply a disposition toward preservation gives rise to much consternation for both progressives and conservatives. On the one hand, conservatives in simply preserving the status quo must preserve what they do not actually approve. On the other hand, progressives must concede they too need a conservative disposition if they are to preserve progress. Ideology naturally determines just what each person wishes in particular to preserve, but testifying that disposition often trumps ideology is the fact that both sides wish to preserve nearly every political policy.

It is thus the position in 21st century America that we find ourselves in a state of legislative torpor, not due to a natural democratic deadlock, but the fact that we can't both infinitely preserve and progress everything. Everything which has been added to policy at the national level is sacrosanct. What was once added as an experiment or a measure for the moment is now eternal policy. Moreover, it no longer satisfies conservatives or progressives enough to conserve, for even reductions in the rate of increase are viewed as regress.

Of military matters, we went from debating the prudence of a standing army to mainstream politicians regarding as "dangerous" any upset to the surveillance state. Regarding economics we have failed WWII era planning still gumming up commerce and a near-century of the Federal Reserve presiding over the dollar's decline. If you want to End the Fed, though, then you're some crazy old cook. In education, academic perfection was attained for mankind back in the hoary antiquity of 1979. If you admit to skepticism of The Department of Education you might as well confess you want to grind up the Parthenon friezes.

The irrational origins of the social services are as forgotten as the debates which surrounded their passage. They passed so they're permanent. Conserve progress. There's a telling line in the BBC television program Yes, Prime Minister in which the naive private secretary to the PM, Bernard, asks Civil Service chieftain Humphrey Applebee about the progressive schools:

Bernard: Surely progressive education was an experiment which ought to be validated?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, Bernard, but not in-validated!
Never mind whether they were needed at the time or now, never mind whether they worked at the time or now: we have the programs. They're permanent. Resistance is futile. The states as bastions of experimentation? Pfft! Every program's a winner! Between the people who believe they are necessary and those who actually use them, the programs are popular enough to prove invulnerable to protest. One can no more propose change to Social Security than one can propose to chip away at the Washington Monument. History has been written.

Without the creative destruction of a free market constantly reallocating scarce resources to where they are needed most at the moment, leviathan stomps along, following its antiquated map. The conservatives and progressives have succeeded, contra both conservatism and progressivism, in enslaving the present to the greatest fools of yesteryear, a mind-boggling fact which prompted the following summation from Chesterton:

The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
The result of programs accruing at such a rate and being administered on such a scale has had a twofold effect. The first is that the government has ceased to become a guarantor against aggression but a dispensary of rights with the Commander in Chief doubling as apothecary. The second result is clamor for the uses and services of the government even as its inefficiencies reduce the quality and availability of the product. The government has effectively crowded out both a marketplace of trade and the virtues of civil society. A fragment of Ennius describes the pernicious effect:

Cum debere carnufex cuiquam quicquam quemquam, quemque quisque conveniat, neget.
Since the rascal denies that anyone owes anything to anyone, let each one sue the other. 
To arrest the downward trajectory of commerce, politics, and civility, conservatives and progressives need to realize that neither disposition implies linear activity. Instead, both require prudent cultivation, a process always slow, often oblique, and varied with respect to person, place, technique, time, and tool. Not every good must find expression in government policy, and not every policy, even the good, need be permanent. The alternative is a Sisyphean punishment for both the foolishness of thinking politics permits the solution to all problems, and the hubris of believing you've found it.

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