Conservatives and trade-offs

Lately, one of the conservative public intellectuals I follow and respect, Jonah Goldberg, has been talking a lot about tradeoffs, and how conservatives seem to him to be more willing to accept them, in contrast to progressives seem unable to accept tradeoffs.

I see some truth in this, but I don’t think it is true enough. I’d put it this way:

Conservatives are conscious that tradeoffs are inevitable and always to some degree necessary, and, consequently are more likely to see present tradeoffs as being necessary ones, or at least preferable to tradeoffs that might be made under alternative arrangements.

Progressives are conscious that, while trade-offs are inevitable and always to some degree necessary, that degree can differ, and are therefore more inclined to ask whether present tradeoffs are optimal, and if an alternative arrangement might require fewer tradeoffs – especially from those who have little control over these arrangements and who often end up bearing much of the burden of the off-trading.

This doesn’t mean progressives cannot make tradeoffs, or that they see every tradeoff as abhorrent, it only means they are always aware something else might be better. And conservatives are there to remind progressives that while an alternative might be better, it might be a lot worse, in ways impossible to anticipate until it is too late.

Illiberals are the ones who abhor tradeoffs. They have undue faith in their own convictions and logic, and cannot imagine how they might be wrong. They fail to ask themselves if incapacity isn’t a defect of their imagination, rather than evidence. They believe with all their hearts that if they could impose their wills on reality that reality would conform to their expectations, and everyone would see that they were right all along– that they are on the right side of history. Of course, the conviction one is on the right side of history is the furthest thing from evidence that this is actually so. But illiberalism is, at bottom, a conviction-actuality confusion, unlearned only through the hardest life-lessons, and often unlearned too late.

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