Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Why Gay-Marriage Opponents Should Not Be Treated Like Racists” — Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
Conor Friedersdorf, a libertarian and one of The Atlantic’s premiere writers, has been on a tear recently defending opponents of same-sex marriage from the charge that they’re on the same moral level as white supremacists or supporters of segregation. (Friedersdorf himself is a same-sex marriage supporter.) Keying off a Slate piece by Will Oremus, which argued in favor of Brendan Eich’s ouster from Mozilla on the grounds that “opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan.” Instead, “it bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.” Cue Friedersdorf:
Proponents of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen believe “that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.” Advocates of deporting illegal immigrants believe “that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.” Advocates of spying on Muslim Americans believe “that some people do not deserve the same rights as others.” Indefinite-detention apologists believe “that some people do not deserve the same rights as others.” On a weekly basis, I write about all sorts of civil-libertarian causes, foreign and domestic. Let me assure everyone that there is no end to policies implicitly or explicitly premised on the notion “that some people do not deserve the same rights as others.” If that’s the standard, why are gay-marriage opponents the only ones being stigmatized? How many members of the Mozilla community could I get on record calling Barack Obama or Michael Bloomberg a hateful bigot for doing orders of magnitude more to perpetrate rights violations than a CEO making a donation?
There is something amiss here, and while I don’t think it’s as simple and uncomplicated as the right-wing charge of willful leftist hypocrisy, I do think it’s problematic. Stigma doesn’t flow to rights violations according to its usefulness or their severity.
The Brendan Eich case is interesting because it’s upended some of the supposed principles of both sides. Liberals, usually opposed to social stigma and ostracism, suddenly find themselves defending them as legitimate tools of change. Conservatives, who usually prefer using social and civic influence to drive change rather than law and state power, find themselves denouncing just such a use of those social tools. The value of Friedersdorf’s piece is it forces a systematic consideration of just when we think those social tools of stigma, ostracism, etc are justified, and whether the norms we supposedly adhere to in using them are actually coherent and consistent.
2. “Confirmation Bias and Its Limits” — Yuval Levin, National Review
Yuval Levin is a former Bush White House staffer, the founding editor of National Affairs, and probably one of the most substantive “big think” writers currently working on the right. Here, he takes Ezra Klein’s big Vox piece on confirmation bias and notes that it raises something of a paradox: the problem of confirmation bias is only solvable if the methods we use to overcome the limits on humanity’s cognitive abilities are themselves not subject to the limits on humanity’s cognitive abilities.
From that observation, Levin builds a critique of the left’s definition of human and social well-being, and a mirroring defense of the conservative preference for small, decentralized and limited government as the proper response to that paradox:
Many serious people on the left don’t believe this disagreement about the proper way to obtain and act on social knowledge is a legitimate difference, or rather they treat the technocratic attitude of the modern Left as common sense and therefore as not requiring justification. The Left is concerned with ends, they say — the betterment of the poor, the improvement of living conditions — and is purely pragmatic about means. I’m sure they believe this quite genuinely, but the means of politics and policy can only be separated from the ends (which is to say, the means can only be left unlimited) this way if you take for granted the worldview of the modern Left and its understanding of how people thrive and how societies work. It is also no coincidence, therefore, that people who claim that progressivism is pragmatism strongly incline to centralized technocratic approaches to policy — which leave little room for experimentation, make it difficult to evaluate success and failure, and create programs that are very hard to change or discard when they fail, and therefore aren’t very pragmatic at all.
That progressive preference for centralized expertise and authority ultimately assumes the possibility of a vantage point outside society from which the social scientist and social manager can view the whole and not just parts.
It’s a long and dense piece, and this mention here can’t really do it justice. There’s much in it for progressives and liberals to disagree with, but it would take a few thousand words to do any justice in turn to those objections. Which is as an indication that there’s something to be learned from Levin here. At the very least, it’s a rich defense of conservative’s skepticism of big technocratic government, and of Levin’s own preference for the divided structure of the American constitution versus, say, European parliamentary systems.
3. “What Everyone’s Missing In the ‘Equal Pay’ Debate” — Mollie Hemingway, The Federalist
So this is a fun one. Mollie Hemingway, a conservative journalist, took to the pages of The Federalist this week to critique the debate over equal pay for women, inspired by a series of tweets from none other than Judd Legum, ThinkProgress’ own editor-in-chief. It seemed an unlikely candidate for this week’s cut at first. But on further reflection, there’s a worthwhile point contained in it, albeit wrapped up in a good deal of anger and dubious economic arguments. To wit:
Legum is right that women are getting “blamed” for things in this debate. What we’re getting blamed for, though, is choosing to have lives with meaning derived outside of a corporate environment.
Women are being blamed for thinking that there is more to life — far more to life — than work for pay. We’re being mocked and ridiculed — from the highest political offices and from major media outlets — for valuing work that pays in non-monetary fashion. We’re being made to feel bad for making career decisions that enable us to “be home with children after school,” as 82 percent of Millennial mothers said was a good idea for a parent in a poll released yesterday. And we’re being blamed for questioning the assumption riddled throughout our media and much of our political rhetoric that humanity’s best and most important work has nothing to do with bringing forth life in loving homes and raising and caring for these children. That work continues to be highly valued by women even as it is given second-class status by elites through the semi-literate labor market analysis from men at Think Progress.
But I do think it’s hard to get around the fact that the mainstream liberal push around women’s equality is largely focused on giving women more access to the workplace and to professional careers, and garnering them more respect and power within those arenas. Furthermore, let’s be honest: most of the reporting and advocacy done on these issues also comes from what you could call the socially liberal, upwardly mobile creative class. So there’s an inevitable risk that certain assumptions about meaning and what constitutes a life well-lived, taken from a pretty specific cultural and socioeconomic slice of the population, will get unintentionally smuggled in and shape the debate. Viewed from a certain angle — such as Hemingway’s — the liberal push can look less like an attempt to empower all women on all paths, but rather one to use government and social structures to nudge women towards very particular paths, based on the assumption that they’re objectively more meaningful, fulfilling, or worthy.