A Philosopher's Blog

Two Conservatives

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2012

Karl Marx 1882 (edited)

Back in my undergraduate days, one of my political science professors semi-jokingly explained the difference between our  (the United States) political system and the Soviet system: “they have one political part, we have one more than that.” While this was obviously a oversimplification, he did make a very good point. After all, while we do get a choice, it is a rather limited choice between the Republican or the Democrat.

Because we just have two truly viable parties, this tends to create a political compression in which people are often forced to pick a party that does not, in fact, reflect their full range of beliefs. While this is true of the Democrats, it has really stood out for the Republicans as that party has gone through the process of selecting their 2012 candidate. To be specific, this process has made it rather clear that there are at least two distinct types of conservatives.

The first type is the fiscal conservative. Being a fiscal conservative is generally taken to involve being conservative about taxation and  government spending. To be more specific, fiscal conservatives favor keeping both of these at a minimum.

While I typically get branded as a liberal, I am actually a fiscal conservative: I favor lowering taxes and government expenditures to a minimal level consistent with the government fulfilling its legal and moral duties (such as defense). I am also against wasteful spending, corruption, and pork. As might be imagined, the disputes tend to get started when it comes to the matter of defining the legal and moral duties of the state.

The second type is the social conservative. Being a social conservative is generally taken to involve the idea that one should conserve (or preserve) “the way things were” and thus avoid change in social areas.  The social areas include things such as religion, morals, race-relations, gender roles and so on. As might be imagined, there are degrees of conservatism in this area. Some folks tend to regard almost any change in the social areas as suspicious and would prefer to keep everything as it was. Others are considerably more flexible and focus on conserving what they regard as good, but are willing to accept certain changes. Of course, a “conservative” who is too willing to accept change (even good change) runs the obvious risk of becoming a liberal or even a progressive.

In a limited sense, I am a conservative: I am quite willing to conserve what is good and I am against changing things without justification. This is, of course, a reasonable position: to infer that past idea, morals and values are incorrect simply because they are old is just as fallacious as assuming that they are correct just because they are old. The age of such things, at least by itself, has no bearing on their goodness or badness. As might be imagined, being a conservative in this sense is not what people usually think of when they think of what it is to be a conservative. After all, someone who thinks that something should be conserved on the basis of rational arguments for its goodness just seems to be, well, rational. As such, a mere willingness to conserve what is both old and good does not seem to be enough to count as a social conservative. The question is, of course, what more is needed.

While some might take the easy path and try to define conservatives against a straw man version of the liberal, that would be rather unfair and not exactly reasonable. It would, of course, be equally unfair to present a straw man version of the conservative. That said, given that the political vocabulary is so limited in this regard, it might be rather hard to avoid creating straw men.

The easy and obvious approach is to regard social conservatives as  people who regard the way things have been in the social areas as being correct. Naturally, if they claim that such things are good because they are old or traditional, they are committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. If they prefer such things because of their psychology, then this says why they believe what they do, but does nothing to support the correctness of said beliefs. After all, if they just like the old and dislike the new, this does nothing to show that the old is good and the new is bad. It just says something about their mental states. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that I have some preference for music from my college days does not entail that the music of today is inferior or bad. Likewise, the fact that some folks prefer the music of today to the music of that time does not prove that the music of the 1980s is inferior.

To avoid falling into fallacies, a conservative would need to argue that the traditional value are better than the liberal alternatives based on grounds other than mere tradition. That is, they need to show that the traditional values (as they see them) are good, rather than saying that they are good because they are traditional. Of course, this would make such people contingent conservatives. After all, their commitment would be to what is good rather than what is merely traditional and this would leave open the possibility that they could accept “liberal” values as good. Unless, of course, it is a matter of necessity that traditional values are always better than the liberal values. The challenge then, obviously enough, is to account for the initial goodness of today’s conservative values-after all, there are various much older values that they replaced.

It is, of course, somewhat tempting to take “liberal” and “conservative” as being marketing and rhetorical terms rather than having much value in categorizing political views. After all, people who identify as liberals take being a liberal to involve the virtues of tolerance, acceptance and so on while regarding conservatives as clinging to an unjust past out of fear of change. In response, those who identify as conservatives often see themselves as defending what is good and holy from the depravity of the godless liberals and their agenda.

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Government & Talk Radio

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2009

In 1949 the FFC introduced the Fairness Doctrine that required those with broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a way that was fair and balanced. This doctrine came to an end during the presidency of Ronald Reagen. Not surprisingly, there have been attempts to revive it.

As mentioned in the previous blog, conservatives dominate talk radio and this has lead some folks to think that the government should step in using something like the Fairness Doctrine to force more balance on the airwaves.

If there was evidence that the conservative dominance was the result of questionable means, then it would make sense for the government to get involved. However, it seems likely that existing laws would serve this purpose well enough. Liberal paranoia aside, the mere fact that talk radio is dominated by conservatives is no evidence of misdeeds-no more than the liberal dominance of other media is a clear sign of misdeeds.  Rather, much of it seems to be a matter of consumer choice and this is not something that the state should interfere with, unless this choice is somehow being tampered with in illegal ways.

To use an analogy, if the iPod is outselling its competitors, the government has no obligation or right to step in and try to balance things out-as long as Apple is playing fair. However, if a company is coercing customers or abusing a near monopoly, then intervention would be appropriate.

So, if conservatives dominate the airwaves because that is what people want to hear, then the government should do nothing about that. Of course, if there are some sort of shady or illegal reasons behind this dominance, then action would be appropriate.

My guess is that much of the conservative dominance is due to the hosts giving people what they want and they are doing this in a legitimate way-by outdoing their almost nonexistent competition. But, people should not be punished for winning-just for cheating.

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Fox Fight

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2009
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While Fox News presents itself as “fair and balanced”, it has recently been the target of intense criticism from other media folks as well as the Obama administration. Naturally, it is important to put this into an historic perspective: administrations have had such tiffs with the media in the past and media organizations have had spats against each other as well. As such, there is really nothing new here other than the players in this particular fight.

The main criticism against Fox News is that it is suffers from a clearly biased perspective. Some critics go so far as to assert that Fox does not really report the news, but that it merely serves to present a political agenda under the guise of reporting. Naturally, folks point out that other media organizations are liberally biased and Fox’s supporters assert that Fox is merely being honest.

While perfect objectivity is impossible, there are clearly degrees of objectivity and fairness. Some journalists are true professionals in this regard. While they are honest about their own views, they are able to consider other viewpoints fairly and present relatively unbiased reports and analysis. Others are clearly true believers and make no attempt to consider alternative views, except to assert how wrong they are. The folks at Fox seem to largely fall towards the unprofessional end of the spectrum. Of course, the same can be said of some other news organizations. For example, MSNBC seems to have some rather significant liberal bias.

I have watched Fox and have tried to be objective in my assessment of their handling of the news. While I do expect the commentators to express opinions (that is their job), the bias is clear and evident. Of course, folks who agree with the Fox agenda will generally not see this bias-they will think that Fox is telling it like it is. This, of course, does provide grounds for dispute and it can be argued that Fox is not biased and is, in fact, the only news agency that is getting it right. Showing bias does, after all, require establishing a baseline of objectivity/neutrality and that point is contested territory.

However, even if a baseline for objectivity is in dispute, a relative baseline can be established. By comparing Fox to the other news agencies as well as independent sources, it is possible to get a picture of relative bias. On this measure, I suspect that Fox will still seem biased.

Also, even without using a baseline, a degree of bias can be discerned by the way the reporters report. To use an analogy, consider the paper I have my Intro to Philosophy students write. One part of the paper is a summary of the Apology and the goal is to clearly, concisely, accurately and in their own words convey the key points of that dialogue. The objective is not to comment, criticize, assess, speculate, or otherwise evaluate and it is rather easy to see when a student deviates from summarizing. The same sort of standard can be applied to reporting in order to check for when a reporter has ceased reporting and is now commenting and presenting a view. The second major part of the paper is an argument section and in this section the students present their position on the issue and argue for it. This, of course, corresponds to news commentary and editorials. However, this is quite distinct from summarizing or, by the analogy, reporting. While journalists do go beyond reporting, they do so in various degrees. The more this is done, the greater chance there is that bias is involved-especially if the commentary has a consistent ideological leaning. The folks at Fox seem to have a significant tendency to go from reporting to commenting without making it clear that they are doing so, thus suggesting the possibility of bias (or at least a failure to understand the distinction between a report and an editorial).

Now, in regards to the administrations fight with Fox, they are ironically helping Fox out. After all, Fox’s viewers will tend to be against Obama and the administration’s words and actions serve to reinforce the views of such people. While Obama and his people have the right to decide which news shows they visit, it does not seem appropriate for the administration to get into this sort of brawl with Fox, even if Fox is distorting facts.

A final remark I have, inspired by the wrestling episode of South Park, is that perhaps Fox is like the WWF of news: it puts on a morality play to entertain the viewers and merely pretends to be a real news agency, just as the pro-“wrestlers” pretend to really be fighters.

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