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. “Can Prop 103 Handle Driverless Cars?” — Ian Adams, R Street
One theme that has been rising to the surface more and more in conservative arguments is the potential threat state occupational licensing and regulations pose to innovation and economic growth. Paul Ryan’s poverty plan included a section on reforming licensing and regulation, and multiple studies have tried to lay bare the often capricious thicket faced by many entrepreneurs and self-employed Americans in the working class.
This week, R Street’s Ian Adams called attention to the latest manifestation of the problem: how Prop 103 — an auto insurance law passed in California in 1988 — mandates that insurers take certain risk factors into account, with possible perverse consequences for the rise of driverless car technology:
What is significant about Prop 103′s mandatory rating factors is that they have very little relationship to the risk of loss presented by the operator of an autonomous vehicle. Consider, in decreasing order of importance, what the three rating factors are now:
- The insured’s driving safety record.
- The number of miles he or she drives annually.
- The number of years of driving experience the insured has had.
As operator influence over the course and speed of a vehicle wanes, so too will the importance of an operator’s driving record and the number of years of experience they have sitting in their vehicle. Of Prop 103′s three mandatory rating factors, only the number of miles annually driven will bear directly on the risk presented by autonomous vehicle operation.
Because of Prop 103′s rigid control of rating practices, absurd scenarios involving autonomous vehicle insurance policies are not hard to imagine. For instance, an autonomous vehicle operator with a poor conventional driving history who operates her Google car very little could pay more for her insurance than another adopter with a better history who operates his autonomous vehicle a great deal. Both drivers would present the same risk, but old rules would make one pay more, unnecessarily.
This specific instance has relevance for liberals because driverless technology could play a key role in the organized transportation system of the future, cutting down on the need for car ownership — especially in urban areas — and thus reducing carbon emissions. And regulations in New Jersey and other states have already hampered the ease with which Tesla’s electric cars can expand their market. So this also serves as an example of the broader phenomenon conservatives are trying to call attention to, in which regulations that seemed like a good idea at the time they were passed wind up doing unforeseen damage down the road when new business models and technologies arise.
2. “Ferguson Falls Apart” — Brian Kaller, The American Conservative
For liberals, the story out of Ferguson is a relatively straightforward one, dealing with the intersection of runaway police power, white privilege, and the legacy of segregation and slavery. But in the American Conservative this week, Brian Kaller took a different tack. What’s especially interesting is that Kaller has lived for a long time in Ireland, and compares the Irish situation — poorer in GDP-per-capita, but with tighter communities, more purposes, fewer guns, and less fear — to modern American society.
Without contradicting the legacy of race, he brings in an alternative story of an ongoing atomization and loss of trust in American communities over the last few decades, and how that laid the groundwork for the violence in Ferguson:
Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors. Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs. Their economic relationships — the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter — are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.
Low incomes carry a social stigma, yet traditional means of saving money or being more self-sufficient are often socially discouraged or even legally prohibited. Many Americans feel their main emotional connections to and through electronic media, and they are the most heavily medicated people in history. Perhaps these things seem irrelevant to police vs. rioters in Ferguson, but that’s the point. When something like this happens, the left and right argue about how to change institutions’ top-down policies toward handling people, not to give people less cause to be handled.
This weak social infrastructure makes most Americans highly vulnerable to crime, and they know it. In working class neighborhoods like Ferguson, neighbors look with dread at the violence and social breakdown of places like East St. Louis, and fear it coming to where they live. Liberal commentators often dismiss such fears as simple racism, and sometimes that plays a role. I know many people, however — black and white — who reach across color lines and who still fear violent gangs.
Fearful and mistrusting people respond in all kinds of counter-productive ways. They move further and further away from urban centers, to places where they are even more isolated. They absorb themselves in specialized media that appeals to their fears, and their preparations for emergencies tend to involve guns. They demand more and more from governments they trust less and less, and surrender legal rights to police that are a) heavily armed, b) frequently attacked, and c) human. All of which could work out just fine, as long as nothing ever goes wrong.
Kaller’s ultimate conclusion is that the social problems that plague Ferguson are actually much more widely spread than people assume, and that many other American communities could collapse in the way Ferguson has if given the right push. “Don’t make the mistake of pitying Ferguson from a distance,” as Kaller puts it.
Though this doesn’t refute the story liberals have seen in Ferguson, it does modify it. But it modifies it in ways liberals could find instructive and useful: it stands to reason that the lower inequality and greater distributive justice of a European country like Ireland has ecological relevance to the virtues Kaller sees, and is bound up with the ways the country is poorer in technical terms of GDP, but remains healthier, happier, and more trusting in many ways than the comparatively wealthier United States.
3. “Marriage And Mating Rites” — Karen Swallow Prior, First Things
The National Marriage Project recently released a new study on dating habits and marriage quality, which teased out several result that back up what conservatives have long suspected about many modern norms: that cohabitation and higher numbers of partners prior to marriages correlate with lower-quality marriages, for example.
This week at First Things, Karen Swallow Prior took those results and combined them with some other work on culture, to lay out a theory of dating practices as analogous to “liturgies” — the repeated practices and behaviors by which religious believers construct their understanding of the divine and build their relationship with it. As Prior sees it, the “liturgies” of modern mating carry much of the same weight for how Americans build their marital relationships:
The study’s findings bear out James K. A. Smith’s insights about cultural liturgies outlined in his two books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. Practices, Smith explains, form habits. Practices can be “thin” or “thick,” or, in other words, they can be routines we undertake, not as ends in themselves, but as means to some end (“thin”); or routines which, as ends in themselves, are infused with personal meaning and are thus tied to our identity (“thick”). Over time, Smith explains, thick, formative practices “embed desires in us for a particular version of the good life.” Thin habits can become thick practices, Smith says, when they reflect, or even cultivate, our larger commitments and thereby connect, even if only implicitly, to our vision of human flourishing. For example, the “thin practice” of hooking up becomes a “thick practice” when it comes to shape one’s identity and form one’s vision of how flourishing might be achieved. Thus, Smith argues, “no habit or practice is neutral,” for such actions cultivate our desires even as they serve as perceived means of fulfilling our desires for the good. Practices embody our ultimate beliefs, Smith explains, drawing upon the work of the twentieth century sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, who says, “Practice has a logic which is not that of the logician — a logic that is performed directly in bodily gymnastics.”
This recognition that the power of ritual is made manifest in material forms illuminates how the bodily practices that underlie the behaviors in the study — premarital sex and cohabitation, deliberation over relationship decisions, and the gathering of supporters and witnesses in the marriage ceremony — shape marital quality. It makes sense that those who have a history of practices involving fewer lost commitments report higher quality marriages. Serial relationships and co-habitation transform commitment into trial runs. Drifting into stages of a relationship can become a ritualized way of living no less than the opposite, intentional approach. The correlation about the formality and size of the wedding is less intuitive, but the study’s authors surmise that these factors “may foster support for the new marriage from within a couple’s network of friends and family” or reflect the existence of already existing strong networks of support. “This is undoubtedly why all cultures have rituals that add force to major decisions about the pathway ahead,” the study states. “We tend to ritualize experiences that are important.”
But for our purposes, the value of Prior’s article is more anthropological; as a window into conservative thought. The notion of ritual, of repeated behaviors and practices that, while seemingly innocuous, inevitably shape our moral character and self-understanding, underly much of conservatives’ concern with culture and with the necessity of moral norms that require sacrificing certain indulgences or pleasures. Prior’s description helps clarify the difference with the more technocratic approach to moral character taken by liberals, in which moral intent and capacity leads to habitual behaviors and accepted practices, without the ensuing feedback loop where the latter then shapes the former as well.