Fallen Angels

Notwithstanding the encouraging rise of the Christian Left,the general slant of religious leaders and their followers across the modern world is often a deep shade of conservatism in relation to the progressive elements in their societies. As Hindu nationalists coalesce around an election victory in the world’s largest democracy and other semi-theocratic governments fester elsewhere, I think now would be a good time to give my take on how we should view religious conservatives and their views.

The fundamental (and ironic) aspect of all religious conservatism is that it is paradoxically based on progressive foundations.

At least relative to the time that the religion was created in.

The sacred texts of most world religions actively promote peace, love and kindness. The golden rule of most world religions is basically to ‘love thy neighbour’. Relative to their time and environment Mohammed, Jesus and Buddha cannot be seen as anything but revolutionary ‘liberals’ so to speak. Religious organisations from their earliest days usually served charitable, civic or social ends for their members.

Our early religious brothers and sisters are therefore actually our intellectual ancestors in many respects. Certainly if I was to travel back in time to the labyrinths of Rome in the earliest days of Roman Christianity I have no doubt that I would have had more in common with an early Christian than the average Roman citizen of the era philisophically.

With such profoundly morally uplifting ideals the appetite for religion became insatiable. The morally ambiguous roman gods were replaced with a loving, caring god of the New Testament. People flocked to this new liberal order. The process repeated itself around the world in relation to the other major religions as well as old atavistic natural and ancestral religions were cast aside for gods with expressly moral foundations.

And then the conservatives took over.

Through a process of what I call religious ossification, religious teachings failed to evolve with the times. Whether by inertia or belligerence religious leaders clung to ancient texts written hundreds and thousands of years ago; completely unwilling to update the religion to deal with new technologies, social developments and science. This has certainly made them look foolish of course (The major historical example being that of Galileo), but fundamentally even the enlightened moral teachings of hundreds of years ago in their times now seem quaint in today’s world.

This ossification presented the major world religions with a quandary – either attempt to use the philosophical foundations (limitations) of their religions to reinterpret the rules or stick to literal interpretations of texts and the political pronouncements from their leaders. Obviously they mostly chose the latter – often explicitly attempting to marry religion with politics (The psychological yearning of conservatives for ‘strongmen’ who can direct society is a topic I will return to in a later post).

The question then arises as to why major world religions unified around themes of peace and civility in the first place. Wouldn’t the conservative elites at the time have wanted to stop their foot soldiers from having moral compunctions about carrying out their orders of violence? Don’t they hate peace?

The answer, from a political economy perspective is that religion was a glue that held the peace within and not without. As the psychologist Kevin Rounding explains the purpose of religion for a human being may be seen as a mechanism for self control. Now what Kevin Rounding doesn’t say is why this mechanism is so delightful to elites.

If you can imagine an unenlightened thuggish populace without the restraints of religion, you can see how the costs of maintaining social order and deflecting internal threats against ones power becomes prohibitive, particularly once you scale up your realm of control. It becomes messy to extract rents in this scenario. It is no coincidence that expansion of centralised governments/empires also symbiotically developed with the institutional establishment of religion. Indeed the greatest example of this can be seen with the expansion of the Spanish empire in the late 16th and 17th centuries and its profound desire to convert its new subjects to Christian religion by sending missionaries all over the world.

While new religions may initially start out as a threat to the established order, the conservative establishment usually finds some way to co-opt the religion and prune it of its ‘liberal’ values (of taking care of the poor, the sick, the old etc.) and emphasising the ‘law and order’ side of it. In this way we can now see why the institutions of world religions often acted hand in hand with the political elites of their day, even siding with elites of other sects against their own followers. Religion was thus a useful tool of controlling people to milk them without actually expending resources to control them overtly or as Marx would say – it was used a kind of ‘opiate of the masses’. Basic game theory shows the stationary or roving bandit takes on a cost to extracting rents. With religion, this was minimised.

And this brings us to the present day. How should we view our religious conservative brothers and sisters?

Lets us answer the question first with more questions. How should one view concentration camp prison guards? The ‘useful idiots’ of the Stalinist USSR? How should one view the foot soldiers that work for the machines in the Matrix saga? Or the mutilated elves known as orcs that serve Sauron?

With shades of pity. Sadness. And as political opponents – with extreme prejudice.

Libertarian Loco

The rise of libertarianism has been one of the major political stories of this generation. A poll last year found 22% ‘lean’ libertarian in the United States, up from about 9-12% in 1992.  Socially liberal and economically conservative, libertarians seem to be in vogue, particularly among younger male voters in America.

Libertarianism has always been an interesting ideology for me in the sense it is a political philosophy that makes an inherent assumption of the ‘goodness’ in human beings – perhaps even more so than liberalism in fact.

If only we didn’t have government they claim, then everyone would just hold hands and get along. Everything would be fine. We wouldn’t need laws, standards or regulations for food, pharmaceuticals, cars etc. Charities would take care of the poor, the disabled and the sick. People wouldn’t discriminate because everyone knows the blacks/hispanics/asians are a great bunch of lads. Profit seeking businesses would never hurt people, cut corners or harm the environment in the noble course of making money.  Why, the rivers would run brown with chocolate!

The problem with libertarianism isn’t so much its utopian assertions, more so the fact that its almost like most libertarians have never met actual conservatives.

‘Con-servatism’: A reactionary jack-boot on the throat of humanity for the benefit of a tiny privileged minority that has only eased off in the face of violence, protest and revolution over the past 300 years with the advent of the left wing.

How do you marry a basic faith in the civility and co-operation of human beings with the observed actions and beliefs of those driven by greed and hatred?

If theoretically we didn’t have a privileged elite that wouldn’t use the limitation (or abolition) of government as an pretext to establish their own cartels and syndicates in its place that would be one thing. But the other major glaring elephant in the room is that fundamentally, we don’t know whether human beings are capable of adhering to a system of voluntaryism – its never been tried.

An even deeper criticism would not just arise from issues of pragmatism but also of philosophy. Do you, dear reader, believe human beings as a species are inherently evil? What if laws, regulations and government were the only things holding us back from the void? Certainly the imposition of laws and even centuries of centralised social conditioning through education and religion has not eliminated crime. Even then, strong rational incentives will always remain for this human behaviour, as the economist Gary Becker has shown.

In any case, as Bill Maher pointed out in an editorial on one of his shows last year, libertarians and their variants seem to be becoming more and more extreme in their positions to the point that they are cartoonish and can’t be taken seriously even by their conservative brethren to which they usually affiliate themselves with. This may explain why Ron Paul always tanked in the presidential primary season once people had a chance to hear his ramblings about the gold standard.

Many openly now even advocate the position of complete anarchy. An ironic passing of the torch from European left leaning anarchist movements of the 60s and 70s who would probably come to blows with their modern American cousins.

Libertarianism is not without any justified criticisms however. I like many other people, find a lot of things distasteful about government: Extravagant military adventurism, bloated subsidies for corporations and farmers, frivolous regulations that serve to protect insiders, government spying and intrusion into one’s civil liberties, the idiotic war on drugs etc. But this is certainly not the right period in human history to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and implementing radical social experiments on people’s lives.