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. “The Loneliness Of Not Knowing Ourselves” — D.C. McAllister, The Federalist
One thing about us liberals: we love our social media. So here’s D.C. McAllister in The Federalist making an argument to be wary of the more baleful effects of human interaction mediated by the internet. It’s not a critique of liberalism per se, but it does draw on classic conservative concerns with localism and the importance of immediate and practical experience, while back against the general progressive enthusiasm for technology:
When you interact with people face to face, you can’t avoid conflict. You don’t have time. But when you’re online or texting, you can avoid that immediacy and “walk away.” You can make adjustments to how you’re perceived. You can, in a sense, recreate yourself over and over again. This ties back to the point about being known. If we’re always creating an image for others to see or hiding from them, we can’t be truly known. We’re not real. We’re, as Turkle said, a simulation. We isolate ourselves from the very thing we need to grow as fully actualized human beings. It’s when we are known — when we’re, in a sense, exposed — that we mature as we’re challenged to change how we think, how we interact with other people, and how we view ourselves. This growth happens in the context of relationships — in the context of sympathy, compassion, and love.
Knowing others — truly knowing them — can only come when we connect with them on a physical, spiritual, and immediate level. But something else is necessary too. We have to be present. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which most people are not present; they’re not open in an honest and real way. They are not sharing their real selves — only information or an image of themselves that they want to project. They are wearing masks. This is true not only in social media, but in the real world.
This probably functions best in raising awareness of one particular ideal we can approach, rather than a practical critique of our immediate situation. The kind of vulnerableness McAllister calls for is hard, and sometimes doing the hard thing ultimately brings us to better places than we were before. But sometimes it can be just hard with no greater return: a person with disabilities who feels they can be more “fully human” in an online world is a case worth considering.
That said, for the majority of us who are fortunate enough to live able-bodied lives, we can and should ask how far we want to let this particular pendulum swing.
2. “The Coming Showdown Between Philanthrolocalism And Effective Altruism” — William Schambra, Philanthropy Daily
This piece by William Schambra documents a fascinating split that’s arisen in the world of philanthropy. On one side is an approach that prioritizes local giving and the emotional as well as utilitarian purposes of the giver, and on the other is an approach that prizes data-driven giving along with a global search for the causes that can deliver the most bang for the buck. Drawing on much of the same conservative thinking as McAllister did, Schambra throws down decisively in defense of the first philosophy. He also brings up statistics on giving to make the point that the vast majority of Americans instinctively rely on the localist approach, and that by threatening those instincts, the data-driven model also threatens the broader social fabric:
This is a function of what Tocqueville described as the American principle of “self-interest rightly understood.” We don’t explain our charitable acts in grand or cosmic terms, he observed. We don’t say that we stopped to help that stranded traveller alongside the road out of love of humanity or universal altruism. Rather, we maintain that we stopped because we knew — or at least hoped — that someone would do the same for us or our loved ones in the same situation.
Not particularly inspiring, perhaps, but far more reliable, accessible, and available than any abstract intellectual concept of humanitarianism. Small wonder, then, that Americans, as Hope Consulting found, give to groups from which they have themselves benefited, that they encounter in their daily lives, on the advice of friends and neighbors, producing practical results that they can see and touch, motivated by religious and moral convictions.
But Tocqueville would have added that this is not only the way Americans are. It’s also precisely the way they must be, for freedom to survive in the new world of democracy.
Americans, he argued, are all too likely in this modern, materialistic age to become completely absorbed in the pursuit of immediate, private commercial gain.
That’s why we need a vital local civil society, right in front of our faces, to draw us out of that individualistic isolation, to engage us in the affairs of our own immediate communities, wherein we learn through direct, daily interaction with others to become responsible, self-governing citizens.
Our vast, bewildering, and ever growing profusion of nonprofits — in all their naïve, amateurish, bumbling, redundant glory — may appall those who want to see social services delivered in a neat, orderly, rationalized and centralized way. But Tocqueville would have said that this is a small price to pay for the education in democratic self-government provided by our thick, organic, local network of civic associations.
What’s particularly biting is how Schambra hones in on the way the data-driven approach can comfort the giver, allowing them to avoid the messy, fraught, and often uncomfortable business of dealing with actual individuals and their specific problems.
One response to Schambra that immediately comes to mind is that his preferences would be greatly aided if we reconfigured or society’s institutions so that income was more equitably distributed prior to the decision to give. The problem he describes largely boils down to the rise of patrimonial capitalism’s technocratic elite, enabled by rampant inequality.
Also, Schambra’s critique functions as a kind of platonic ideal of localist philanthropy on one end of the spectrum, versus the platonic ideal of data-driven philanthropy on the other. But that too is helpful: we cannot meet in the middle — or know how to meet in the middle — if we don’t know where the poles are.
3. “The Cloud in the Machine” — Kevin D. Williamson, National Review Online
Kevin Williamson is a writer at National Review Online who has made it into this space before. His style usually tends towards an erudite brutalism, and this week’s selection is noteworthy for the (relatively) gentle and almost lyrical tone Williamson chooses.
Keying off the recent scandal of negligence at the hospitals run by the office of Veterans Affairs, he launches into a long discussion on the nature of complex systems and the challenges they present for modern bureaucratic states when they attempt to run them. “How confident should we be that our policies will produce the desired outcomes?” is Williamson’s central question. He pulls on a quilt of analogies — from the workings of the weather to the history of quantum physics — to arrive at his ultimate critique of large and expansive government:
Not every regulation or government program is doomed to fail. But we might consider the slightly terrifying possibility that when government does get something right, it does so by accident, temporarily, and for reasons that it cannot understand or replicate. This may be why the sheer volume of law and regulation has been climbing so rapidly: Intuiting its own inefficacy, Washington is throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. The Entity with Whom politicians sometimes confuse themselves needed only ten commandments, not the ten thousand a year that Washington produces. Some of those coming down in the near future will be intended to reform the VA. The rational thing to do would be to abolish it. We’d be far better off paying veterans’ medical bills out of the Treasury than trying to operate a network of hospitals and clinics. And no matter what Washington promises to do to solve this problem, it is a good bet that the policy enacted will not produce the result intended. Reform is a random walk.
Another feature of complex systems is that some of them are very sensitive to initial conditions, as expressed by the butterfly effect. It may be the case that things have gone as well as they have for us in the United States not because of any current policy or because of the unique genius and saintliness of our national leadership as currently constituted, but simply because the right people with the right prejudices did the right things for a relatively short period of time in the 18th century, and what we have now is very little more than the compounded returns on that cultural windfall. That seems to me a more likely explanation for our relatively happy and secure place in the world than that we were led to this point by the kind of thinking, and the kind of men, who brought us the VA hospitals and those dead veterans.
To return to the same note as the other selections, Williamson’s argument works better as an evergreen and prudential caution for liberalism — the proverbial Roman assigned to remind every triumphant general that “thou art mortal” — than as an argument against the left. When 93 percent of veterans were happy with the VA as of 2013, and the problem has been identified as one of access rather than care, it’s worth asking if big government’s problems are all that existentially dire. But as a particularly creative and compelling rendering of conservatism’s perpetual discomfort with the current sweep and scale of government, it’s worth reading.