Saturday, February 27, 2010

Philosophical Foundation of Conservative & Progressive Thought (part II)

One element of progressive thought that I find most difficult to digest is it's underestimation of the dynamic nature of individuals, groups and societies. Implicit in this world view is a strong inclination to view individuals and groups as passive and largely helpless agents that need to be protected against predatory corporate and malign market forces.

In contrast, the conservative world view tends to emphasize the role of individuals and groups as active agents, with the power to adjust and evolve when they are allowed to face the positive and negative consequences of their choices, customs and cultures.

The natural outcome of progressive thought is that the primary engine of progress is a powerful state that mandates and micro-manages change from above. Whereas, conservative thought emphasizes the power of individual choice and free association in social and economic evolution. This does not mean that we should idly sit by and let individuals and groups suffer so that they'll understand the consequences of their actions. Rather, it means that most conservatives believe that when society and the state intervenes on behalf of individuals and groups it should do so with caution, so it does not undermine their power to adjust to changing circumstance, in the process disabling the dynamic mechanisms of social and economic evolution.

No where are these concepts better demonstrated than in the phenomena of fertility rates (child per woman). In premodern agricultural societies having large families was a viable strategy for maximizing economic output, to put it simply: each child equalled more farm hands. In the face of urbanization and economic development, the value of this strategy rapidly declined. Increasingly, more children meant less time and money to invest towards the educational, professional and cultural development of their children. This is especially true in a post-industrial economy that rewards skilled, specialized workers and increasingly punishes the unskilled and uneducated. So, those who did not take the necessary steps to avoid having larger families tended to be poorer and less economically mobile. Conversely, those who planned ahead and took steps to have fewer children and invest greater resources towards their education were far more likely to economically advance. So, naturally groups and even nations that have been quicker to adopt this strategy were far, far more likely to economically advance.

We see that in 1960 the average fertility rate in Mexico was 6.5 and in the United States it was approximately 3.5. Clearly this was one (of many) factors that explained the relative social and economic development in both countries. By 2007 the fertility rate in Mexico had fallen to 2.4, nearly equal to the rate of 2.1 in the United States. In other words, faced with the clear economic consequences of having too many children, as intelligent, active agents, Mexicans drastically altered their behavior and adopted more viable strategies and structures. And coupled with the conscious emphasis on family planning, an increased focus on the educational and professional development of their children occurred.

Interestingly, the fertility rate of Mexican immigrants to the United States has hovered at 3.5. In other words, a large number of Mexican immigrants have not adopted the viable social and economic strategies that their brethren back in Mexico have undertaken. I strongly believe that the nature of the American welfare state is a significant factor in this phenomena. As we are well aware, in the United State those who choose to have more children than they can economically support will enjoy generous housing, food and medical subsidies. In other words, people are largely shielded from the consequences of their choices and in a very real sense, we are subsidizing pathological social patterns. The end result is that well meaning state intervention has in this instance and many others impeded the social and economic development of individuals and groups. Whereas, the general indifference of the Mexican State towards the welfare of its citizenry, Mexicans have pursued wiser choices and evolved more sound familial structures.

A question that comes to mind is: how do most most people weather the economic insecurity and the near absence of a welfare state that perpetually plague Mexico? Family and friends of mine who grew up in Mexico speak prolifically of having aunts and uncles of limited means reside with them for long stretches. A wise mother was able to stretch and share limited space and resources to accommodate and assist them. It was understood that guests who were unable to contribute financially would assist their hosts by assisting them in child care and domestic tasks, a highly symbiotic arrangement because few families could afford day care. In this case and many others, family fills the role that food stamps, section-8 and head start do.

In no way am I idealizing Mexico's lack of a state sponsored safety net or elevating one culture over another, far too many Mexicans suffer from grinding poverty. Rather I am emphasizing the innate capacity of individuals and families to adjust to changing circumstances by evolving new social arrangements and structures. And more specifically, I am emphasizing the importance of family as an institution that can serve as a dynamic social and economic safety net. While many progressives would respond that we can have strong, caring, cohesive communities without a core of intact, two-parent families, evidence would indicate to the contrary.

The conclusion that we should draw from this is not that we should abolish the welfare state; rather we must be aware that an overly invasive state can diminish the capacity of individuals and groups to evolve more sustainable patterns of behavior. Some will respond that conservatives are promoting a far too individualist agenda. Quite the contrary, my concern is that the expanded state has allowed individuals and communities to outsource their social responsibility, accelerated the social atomization that progressives bemoan. And it has allowed individuals to pursue an atomized existence, rather than cultivate richer social ties to family, friends and neighbors. During times of economic prosperity, we may be able to subsidize these socially unsustainable choices via the welfare state, but as the United States plunge deeper into debt, we may have to cultivate older safety nets, such as families and friends. It may even be time to dust off our bowling shoes and say hello to our neighbors.

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