Back in December I began what has been a long and fruitful conversation with Matt Bruenig. I reached out to ask him a few questions in order to do justice to his assertion that the economy is a government program so that I might criticize it. Matt was kind enough to review my drafts to make sure I didn’t mischaracterize him and thus beat up on a strawman. Good thing, too—my first draft was way off the mark. I wrote about how he was a blank slate style rationalist, who just wanted to sweep away everything merely historical and build up society anew from a purely rational blueprint. Matt looked it over and said, essentially, “I have never said that and I don’t believe it.”
So I scrapped the entire piece (well, some of it was jettisoned to turn into this post) and I’m glad that I did. The resulting piece accurately represented Matt’s views, and the challenge of criticizing his actual views instead of the cartoon version I had assumed he believed was very rewarding.
Sadly, it is a cartoon version of my arguments that Matt criticizes in this post responding to my piece I have up at the Ümlaut today.
A phrase that Matt uses repeatedly in his piece to characterize my position is “I support deferring to status quo norms.” I’m afraid I’m going to have to paraphrase what Matt said to me back in December—I never have said that people should “defer to status quo norms” and that is not what I believe in.
The very framing of it is incoherent, in precisely the ways that Matt explores in his piece. As he puts it:
If everyone formed their views by deferring to the views of others (who were also in this example forming their views by deferring to the views of others), nobody could ever form any substantive views.
How true. Good thing that isn’t my position!
My position is in fact entirely consistent with self-conscious criticism of existing norms and institutions. I detail this at length here.
There are roughly three facets of my position that could be characterized as “traditionalist”. First, none of us arrive at ideas, beliefs, or habits of behavior from nowhere. All of us are brought up by parents, among family and peers, in a particular community (or communities, if you traveled in your childhood). This upbringing and the cultural artifacts (novels, poetry, movies, philosophy, whatever) we interface with form the foundation of our beliefs, habits, and articulated arguments. Given that this was Aristotle’s position with regard to moral philosophy in the Nicomachean Ethics, it’s hardly an irrationalist idea.
Second: stable, reliable practices and institutions are hard to come by. It can seem all too easy to find fault with what exists, but if it has sufficient provenance it has usually survived for a reason. That doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize. It does mean that we should be cautious about what we do away with and what we change in any drastic way. When criticizing a trio of neoreactionary thinkers, I made the point that the US has never really worried about a military coup. It seemed to me that the parts of America’s culture they wanted to do away with had a lot to do with just why we’re able to take it for granted that our military will remain comfortably under the control of a civilian government, and not the other way around.
In short, institutions and norms and culture are intertwined in ways that are not crystal clear. Going in there and trying to fix it as though it were a car and we mechanics seems, to me, to be asking for trouble. This is precisely what I accused Matt of doing to a big, dramatic extent in the first draft of my criticism of him. It’s also, incidentally, why I don’t think that things like food stamps are quite so huge a deal as some libertarians might. In fact, from what I gathered they have actually been quite effective at helping people who could use it and also quite cheap in terms of tax funding, and (importantly) they’ve been around for a while (though not by historic standards). Cutting them was thus unconscionable—if I haven’t spoken out against it, it is because there are plenty of things coming out from the capitol building that I find unconscionable.
Finally, there is a thick layer of ground level knowhow that is largely inaccessible to the theorist, and which is what really keeps human social systems going. Sam tried to give an example of this but Matt didn’t seem to really get it:
I don’t think that Sam was trying to say that divining this sort of thing is how we should determine policy, necessarily. What I think he meant, and what I believe, is that this sort of thing actually allows a lot of people to get along on their own most of the time, without the use or threat or implication of force in the background. And I think that where that is true, we should let it happen, rather than attempt to impose a theoretically designed structure upon it. I know that Matt believes this happens sometimes because he describes it eloquently here. It’s clear that he believes it is a far more limited thing than I do, and that’s OK. That’s a disagreement I’m happy to continue to have discussions around in our ongoing conversation moving forward.
If I didn’t sufficiently engage with Matt’s specific criticisms here, I apologize. It just seems to me that he has so misunderstood my position that his specific points were, for the most part, entirely irrelevant.