Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


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Our Neighbors’ Keepers

“We look at clouds. We dream of machines.” –Kevin Williamson

xkcd honest_1146

“How about we go back to that ‘madder than hell‘ line? That work?”

Back in college, I used to spend a few evenings a week with a set of philosophically or politically inclined peers in the constituent parties of the Yale Political Union. With wooden gavels, pedantic snark, and occasionally insightful wit, we would debate questions big and small about the nature of rights, duties, citizenship, morality, education, faith, reason, and an innumerable host of ideas about the world, its foundations, and our place in it all. While those bright college nights are long behind me, I had the recent pleasure of attending a facsimile of the old debates, when a number of my friends in the D.C. area opted to borrow from that format to explore our ongoing disagreements out in the “real world” for the edification of all involved.

The debate topic, “Every dollar spent on dog food is taken directly from the mouths of the poor,” allowed for vigorous dispute and concurrence on, among other things, the nature of ethics, duty, charity, and love, wherein even those on the same “side” of the resolution found many thoughtful occasions for profound disagreement on underlying principles. By the end, we even had some attendees rethinking their outlook on life and resources, as one should expect from a good conversation.

One particularly resounding strain of thought dealt with how profoundly difficult it is to sincerely help people. Many who fall upon hardship have not fully grasped how they stumbled into their peculiar circumstances, nor are they always aware how to identify or resolve the weight of their own affliction. Indeed, the best means to support those in need—whether the economically destitute or damaged souls in the bodies of the well-to-do—are often realized through an ongoing engagement built on persistent humility through trial and error.

Providing the love or innovation that rebuilds broken lives is, in short, an intensely personal and organic engagement, rather than a bureaucratic and mechanical one.

The value of such constructive familiarity is the ability to deliberately understand and influence the individuals and communities affected by your actions and be deliberately understood and influenced in turn. It is this dynamic rapport that allows for, as my friend (and debate attendee) Leah Libresco puts it, neighbors (in the metaphorical sense) who understand what to offer each other beyond whatever initial attempts at charity may awe or falter. Likewise, it is the inevitable lack of such rapport that consigns distant, centralized administration to its trademark unresponsiveness—i.e., the inability to adequately identify, learn from, and remedy mistakes before they become disastrous.

We can see the gangrenous limbs of this truth rotting throughout the impermeable labyrinth of ambitious public policy. The old liberal conception of the welfare state, a degraded simulacrum of communal investment in the most vulnerable of us, ravages communities unabated and still facilitates entrenched social dysfunction. The ongoing scandal with the Department of Veterans Affairs has shown that, despite the best laid schemes of donkeys and elephants, the federal government of the United States cannot even, as Kevin Williamson notes in National Review, “ensure that its own employees and contractors do not negligently kill its other employees and former employees.” This dark realization about the VA’s grotesque inadequacy is all the more unsettling against the backdrop of state governments’ inability to manage even the presumably simpler task of operating Obamacare’s online exchanges.

And lest we forget, liberals once held up the VA as an exemplar of “actually socialized medicine” to be instructive for Obamacare In the words of Vox founder and progressive “wunderkind” Ezra Klein:

“If you crudely ordered America’s different health-care systems from least government control to most, it would look something like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration (Medicare is single-payer, but VA is actually socialized medicine, where the government owns the hospitals and employs the doctors).

If you ordered America’s different health systems worst-functioning to best, it would look like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration.

That symmetry should get more attention in the health-care discussion than it does.”

Given the kinship of government control between “the healthcare discussion” that produced Obamacare and the “socialized medicine” of the VA, we should certainly have that discussion Klein wants. To start, let’s glance at the federal-run healthcare exchanges in my native Florida, where Obamacare-compliant plans are facing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services for discriminating against customers with HIV. In Klein’s triumphant ranking of “America’s different health systems [from] worst-functioning to best,” where do these results fall?

Not that along ago, the critics of Obamacare pithily expressed their Big-Government skepticism by asking, “Do you want to put the folks who run the DMV in charge of your health care?” Now, in Florida and elsewhere, the more sobering realization is that the folks at the DMV may be among the best of a system that, at its worst-functioning, enables fecklessly homicidal bureaucracy in a Cabinet-level department.

(Sadly and predictably enough, the homicidal healthcare bureaucracies of “actually socialized medicine” are not unique to the United States).

Whatever your opinion of President Obama—and it is hardly a secret that I’m not a fan—the problems plaguing the VA are less about his failings (which are legion) than the flaws inherent to so vast and impersonal a would-be “neighbor” as the federal government. It is inestimably difficult to help people, especially in ways that will meaningfully better the trajectory of their lives and ennoble the good neighbors in their interdependent networks. While the recent failings of government “beneficence” naturally call to mind one of President Reagan’s more famous lines, I will instead note another insightful observation from the aforementioned (and –quoted) Kevin Williamson (emphasis his):

“It will not occur to very many of the people with a strong emotional stake in that debate that it does not matter whether we choose x or y if that is the beginning and end of the conversation. There is a prior conversation that must take precedence, one in which we answer a more fundamental question: How confident should we be that our policies will produce the desired outcomes?

[…]

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… 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.”

As much as we might like to believe otherwise, the government cannot and will not respond to us as one with a stake in our well-being. Whatever the dreams and competence of its necessarily ephemeral leaders, the Leviathan is simply too distant, labyrinthine, and self-involved to evolve with the self-interested rapidity of a private business, or the soulful agape of a longsuffering neighbor.

Thus is the eternal life of government programs.


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Community Conservatism

“Power, Liberalism still has beyond doubt; but power has only tile next to the last word in the affairs of men-not the last word. Power is wielded by men, controlled by men, divided by men, limited by men, as they are guided and inspired by their intellectual and spiritual understanding.” –Frank S. Meyer

We’re all this excited to vote Republican in 2016!

A narrative is steadily ossifying that holds the GOP as the atrophic Party of bitterly contemptuous and self-absorbed plutocrats whose increasingly fringe rhetoric alienates the majority of American voters who care about other people. That unsavory image is not exactly ameliorated by curmudgeonly talk of “moochers” and “gifts” for Obama-voting blue-collar and professional workers who do, in fact, pay all their taxes. Yet for all their alleged hatred for—or, more charitably, indifference to—the poor, elderly, and otherwise disadvantaged, Republicans still give more to charity and community than the gentry voters of the Blue States.

Why does it seem that liberals care so much less about providing for others when it comes to committing their own resources?

You could say I’m kidding on the square with that quip, but it introduces a key element about the core dynamics of the right side of our two-party coalitions. Conservatism, at its core, is as much about free enterprise, private industry, and individual liberty as it is about community and the transcendent power of relationships to ground atomized persons into coherent tapestries of purpose and vision. We are citizens before we are businessmen, patriots before we are laborers or collared professionals. In defending the well-being of every citizen qua citizen, conservatives are properly skeptical of organized power and its insidious tendency to foment entrenched narcissism and lethargic mediocrity. Thus, a conservative is no more properly a partisan of Big Business (not that business is monolithic) as of Big Government.

Yet this message has been somewhat lost in the weeds of the 47%. Of the panoply of major players in the Republican primary, it was primarily Rick Santorum who acknowledged, however imperfectly, the all too human question of how to care for the least among us without sacrificing the long-term prosperity that allows us to do so—and makes the task worthwhile. In truth, many people drown in a rising tide, and the invisible hand will not save everybody. The liberal answer to this frostbiting reality has been to outsource the worry of such things to the gangrenous pity of alienating bureaucracy and pretend all costs can be met with more taxes.

We know this does not work. The expansive welfare state exacerbates the costs of poverty while weakening the overall social and economic health of the nation. But when the Left can successfully caricature the Right, for all the community activism of conservative families, as a privileged world of people devoid of empathy or understanding—and the electorate votes more on whether a candidate “cares” than whether he or she “has vision”, is a “strong leader” or “shares  my values”—necessary reforms become that much harder.

But even as the Democratic Party clings with reactionary zeal to the progressivism of yesteryear, some liberals have grown innovative in seeking independence from Big Institutions. When the famously trusted Red Cross and infamously inept FEMA could not satisfy the escalating needs faced in wake of Superstorm Sandy, the scions of Occupy Wall Street—now styled, Occupy Sandy—stepped in to do what smaller, more nimble communities do best when unshackled from overhead and invasive regulation. They helped people:

“Maligned for months for its purported ineffectiveness, Occupy Wall Street has managed through its storm-related efforts not only to renew the impromptu passions of Zuccotti, but also to tap into an unfulfilled desire among the residents of the city to assist in the recovery. This altruistic urge was initially unmet by larger, more established charity groups, which seemed slow to deliver aid and turned away potential volunteers in droves during the early days of the disaster.

In the past two weeks, Occupy Sandy has set up distribution sites at a pair of Brooklyn churches where hundreds of New Yorkers muster daily to cook hot meals for the afflicted and to sort through a medieval marketplace of donated blankets, clothes and food. There is an Occupy motor pool of borrowed cars and pickup trucks that ferries volunteers to ravaged areas. An Occupy weatherman sits at his computer and issues regular forecasts. Occupy construction teams and medical committees have been formed.” (Emphasis added)

If a movement borne of self-aggrandized loiterers, bargain-basement philosophizers, and scatological revolutionaries can instantiate such a robustly human argument for the conservative will to limited, community-oriented governance—to the benefit of people over institutions—imagine how much stronger this message could resound through the broad and deep resources of political movement committed to such a project. After all, Americans still believe government does too much, and the Occupy movement is hardly any kind of model for the future.

Skepticism of the welfare state, like Occupy Sandy’s skepticism of FEMA and the Red Cross, is not tantamount to apathy for the least of us. But we have work to do to demonstrate why and how a new approach will mitigate the failures of current policy for ordinary people. An improved approach might include copyright reform to aid young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, more efficient local-federal disaster relief partnership that cuts down on bureaucratic red tape, revisions to ObamaCare that minimize the damage to small businesses, revisions to NCLB (put bluntly: neither this nor ObamaCare are getting repealed) that encourage more local innovation and less federal invasion, immigration policy that rewards capital investment and job creation in the U.S, means-testing and other reforms for Medicare so relatively wealthy retirees don’t strangle their poorer descendants, etc.

None of these proposals are particularly easy to caricature as “for the rich” (although I trust Alan Grayson will manage something) but are markedly accessible, in various ways, to an increasingly diverse American electorate. Further, these conservative solutions all have the benefit of encourage a community-focused message that speaks across such boundaries as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, and national origin. There is no guarantee that Democrats will cooperate, but while he control the House, we need to use that leverage to promote much-needed political growth for the nation. Nobody is interested in our whining. They want our solutions.

There are certainly conservatives who disdain the poor, just as there are progressives who disdain the economically successful. But whatever the prior and remaining flaws of the GOP, Republicans are by no means the Party of the Rich; we are and should be the Party of the People, and we have the principles to back that up.

The 2012 election was in many ways a major setback, but it’s also an opportunity, however costly, for growth. It’s up to us to show all Americans our thoughtful and enduring solutions, with conviction and longsuffering, that they may yet see and believe.