The Ship and the State

 

Imagine a ship in port, hooked up to a heavy industrial crane. As morning breaks, everyone notices that the ship and crane are heavily listing to one side. Though it’s obvious there’s a problem, it’s cause is unclear: Either something internal is causing the ship to take on water (pulling the crane with it), or the crane is off-balance and pushing the ship down. If the former is correct, disconnecting the the ship from the crane will likely exacerbate the problem and may cause the ship to sink. If the latter is right, the solution is to carefully separate the ship from the crane.

Let’s stipulate — as I think we can — that that our culture is similarly in peril, particularly regarding matters such as illegitimacy, massive incarceration, failing communities, and the loss of private and civic virtue. That’s what Rachel Lu suggested in a post earlier this week and pretty much everyone agreed we have some serious problems. From her piece for the Witherspoon Institute that her post is based on:

Small-state minimalism also promises a neat solution to the still-raging culture wars. By unlinking cultural conflict from the aggressive arm of the state, minimalists think we can dissociate ourselves from politically damaging conflicts that they mostly regard as lost. Religious conservatives are free to continue their efforts to convert the heathen at a grassroots level, but in the meanwhile, shrinking the state may open a space for conservatives to live their lives more peacefully (while also winning some elections).

There is a serious problem with this plan: It won’t work. […] Small-state minimalism may win a few battles, but it will lose the war. That’s because it misunderstands the relationship between our militant secular culture and its political counterpart, the modern administrative state. We cannot unlink them; they are the same foe. Conservative minimalists imagine that they have devised a principled and practical way of escaping the quagmire in which we find ourselves. In reality, they are laying down their arms even as the enemy’s most fearsome titans take the field.

In other words, the ship is listing because the ship itself is busted.

This analysis is premised on two mistaken assumptions and, therefore, comes to a mistaken conclusion. First, it presumes that minimalists are motivated by a desire to avoid cultural conflict. I think this is easily countered by the universal acclaim and discussion that followed Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, including from those who don’t identify with social conservatism. Second, Rachel’s argument assumes that minimalists don’t appreciate how the pernicious parts of our culture and the welfare state are linked, rather than that we come to different conclusions about the problem’s causes and the remedies necessary to fix it.

For illustration, let’s consider the matter of illegitimacy, something I think everyone on the Right — and even a handful of people on the Left — agrees is a major problem. If the source of the problem is internal to the communities where it’s most rampant, then the best solution may to provide some outside support, possibly from the government in the form of expanded child tax credits and other measures intended to strengthen families by providing better incentives.

Alternately, if the problems stem from the perverse incentives of the modern administrative state — as this minimalist alleges — these communities will largely right themselves once freed from its influence, in much the same way that a ship will right itself after being disconnected from a broken crane. This isn’t magical thinking anymore than is the belief that gravity and water displacement will do their work without prompting.

The sad fact of the matter is that our government’s interventions have so removed or ameliorated the natural consequences of bad behavior that many people cannot find their equilibrium. The reason marriage and legitimacy have persisted is that they are self-recommending and self-sustaining institutions. In contrast, broken families inevitably lead to personal and social suffering and cannot last absent help from outside. (To be clear, I’m not blaming social conservatives for this; this is clearly something the Left caused and that many SoCons have a long record of opposing.)

If that analysis is correct, society will rush in to fill the void as we remove the enabling influence of the state, just as water will flow around a ship, keeping it upright. Pro-family policies aren’t necessary so much as the removal of anti-family ones that enable bad decisions and prevent natural balance.

This, I think, is where Rachel’s argument misses the mark: minimalists don’t think removing the state is the end of the problem, just the beginning of the solution. With government out of the way, society will largely right itself as people better realize the consequences of their behavior and adjust accordingly, and as churches, mutual aid organizations, and all the other little platoons begin the work of making her seaworthy again.

Published in Domestic Policy
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  1. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Well said.

    • #1
  2. 2klbofun Member
    2klbofun
    @2klbofun

    Your ship may very well right itself, but it may be sitting on the ocean floor when it does.

    • #2
  3. thayes Inactive
    thayes
    @thayes

    I agree with your analysis.  Thanks for writing the post.

    • #3
  4. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    I did not really follow the whole ship thing. But I agree that SoCons tend to think that those of us who want less government do not really appreciate that we agree there is a cultural problem – we just don’t think the government is the way to address it.

    • #4
  5. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    iWe: I did not really follow the whole ship thing. But I agree that SoCons tend to think that those of us who want less government do not really appreciate that we agree there is a cultural problem – we just don’t think the government is the way to address it.

    A corollary is that we don’t place as much emphasis on specific issues as SoCons.

    • #5
  6. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    I agree with your conclusion.

    The more resources I have that the state doesn’t confiscate the more I can be His instrument to help others and right the ship.

    • #6
  7. John Hendrix Thatcher
    John Hendrix
    @JohnHendrix

    Excellent post.  Thank you

    • #7
  8. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Thanks, Tom. I appreciate the critique. A few responses.

    First of all, do you really not think there are many small-state minimalists who are motivated, at least in part, by the desire to slide cultural conflicts out of the political sphere for electoral reasons? I see this kind of argument a lot. The appeal for a “truce” on social issues gets repeated again and again, and for some the issue is pretty clearly that they don’t think they can assert conservative social positions in a world where those stances run counter to the elite culture. I’m not going to say that all small-state minimalists are motivated by that concern, but I think many definitely are.

    Second, the different forms of causality that you weigh are in no sense mutually exclusive. In fact, it would be quite strange if the problems of our failing sub-cultures could be attributed near-exclusively to “internal” or “external” problems. They’re complex problems and the causality is likewise complicated, and even the desire to strictly separate these different causal elements is to me a little suspicious.

    That leads me to my third point, which is that I think small governmental minimalists just tend to see all complex policy questions through small-government glasses, and this often leads them to miss or under appreciate causal connections between things. Whatever problem we’re considering, they think, “Which government program is causing it?” For any policy solution that involves government action, they think, “What will be the negative ramifications?” As an exercise this has certain benefits, and I have certainly gained valuable perspective on particular issues from my discussions with small state minimalists. But over-commitment to a particular “size of government” view can be a pretty serious handicap to understanding the world, regardless of whether you love government or hate it. What I want, in a larger sense, is not small government but rather a flourishing, just, strong and vibrant society. I do think that minimizing the role of the state is a part of that. But it has to be done prudently and with a proper understanding of how things are related. And that starts with understanding the real nature of the war that’s going on, in which size of government issues should be seen as just one component of a broader conflict.

    • #8
  9. Pelayo Inactive
    Pelayo
    @Pelayo

    Great analysis and I agree with this conclusion:

    “This, I think, is where Rachel’s argument misses the mark: minimalists don’t think removing the state is the end of the problem, just the beginning of the solution. With government out of the way, society will largely right itself as people better realize the consequences of their behavior and adjust accordingly, and as churches, mutual aid organizations, and all the other little platoons begin the work of making her seaworthy again.”

    I believe that the “government” or “state” in any Marxist regime attempts to replace organized religion with the almighty state itself.  There are people who believe this process of undermining religion started with the New Deal and accelerated with the War on Poverty. There is certainly enough evidence to show that the Black community has seen a sharp erosion of the traditional family and increasing illegitimacy starting in the 1960’s.  If we agree that Statism caused the decline in things like Church attendance and religious values, then it makes sense that the first step in reversing the decline is to shrink the influence of the state.  People will once again turn to Churches and other Charities to meet their needs in difficult times.

    • #9
  10. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    One further thought: I myself think that small state minimalism derives much of its popularity from the loss of cultural confidence that inflicts our society more generally. Whenever this topic comes up, the same criticisms arise (or me and my arguments): it’s self-righteous to identify myself as a lover of virtue, and why should my values matter more than anyone else’s, and I’m not claiming to be in possession of absolute truth, am I?

    I find it very telling that this is a pervasive theme of all of these conversations. I don’t claim to be any oracle of wisdom; I merely think that we should fight the battles that are actually in front of us, with whatever truths we think we have. This is true in moral matters just as in economic ones, or scientific, or any other kind; persuading us that we should give up because we don’t really understand anything is one of progressivism’s favorite tricks. But small state minimalism appeals to a certain kind of person because it offers a façade of strength and principle. Because the underlying political structure (the naked public square, no social commitments to right or wrong) is itself is basically the creation of secularism, we can be loud, brash advocates for it without making any scary/unseemly/unfashionable metaphysical commitments. Kind of a win-win to a certain sort of person who enjoys the apparent clarity and the show of bravado, but who has really been persuaded by the mainstream culture that serious truth claims are antiquated or déclassé.

    I’m not really accusing people of bad faith (or, well, certainly not all of them), but more just saying that small state minimalists are too much a product of their time, and have conceded much more ground to their enemies than most of them realize. They’re fighting very very hard for a less-advanced stop along the Trail of Tears, and we all know how that kind of rearguard action tends to end.

    • #10
  11. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    To over-extend the metaphor, what happens if, after 60 years of the crane pushing the ship over, the water has already started flowing through the portholes?

    The proximate cause of the Vasa’s capsize was a shift in her ballast, but if the ship hadn’t dipped so far her gunports were underwater, she could have been righted very quickly.

    • #11
  12. Frozen Chosen Inactive
    Frozen Chosen
    @FrozenChosen

    I agree with Rachael that we need a flourishing, vibrant, strong and vital society. However, this would require a vibrant, strong and intelligent populace.  The support given to Donald Trump shows that the problem of LIVs who are unable to differentiate between a fraud and a genuine reformer is not just a problem of the Left.

    Critical thinking is no longer an attribute of vast swaths of our society, Right and Left. People are driven by emotion and story telling much more than logic.  I suppose it’s always been this way but it’s gotten much worse in the 21st century.  With such a vacuum it’s easy for disingenuous power seekers (Progressives) to take control via the levers of government.

    Without a discerning populace – which we no longer have – there is no way you will take back the levers of power from these people, let alone shrink government.

    • #12
  13. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Rachel Lu: First of all, do you really not think there are many small-state minimalists who are motivated, at least in part, by the desire to slide cultural conflicts out of the political sphere for electoral reasons? I see this kind of argument a lot. The appeal for a “truce” on social issues gets repeated again and again, and for some is pretty clearly that they don’t think they can assert conservative social positions in a world where those stances run counter to the elite culture. I’m not going to say that all small-state minimalists are motivated by that concern, but I think many definitely are.

    Point taken, and partially conceded. Depending on what particular issue we’re speaking about, though, there may also be disagreement over whether particular hills are worth the casualties.

    Rachel Lu: Second, the different forms of causality that you weigh are in no sense mutually exclusive. In fact, it would be quite strange if the problems of our failing sub-cultures could be attributed near-exclusively to “internal” or “external” problems. They’re complex problems and the causality is likewise complicated, and even the desire to strictly separate these different causal elements is to me a little suspicious.

    Also partially conceded. The crane can damage the sounds ship; and the leaking vessel might pull the crane off its base. Still, it’s likely one or the other is the dominant cause.

    Rachel Lu: Whatever problem we’re considering, they think, “Which government program is causing it?” For any policy solution that involves government action, they think, “What will be the negative ramifications?” As an exercise this has certain benefits, and I have certainly gained valuable perspective on particular issues from my discussions with small state minimalists.

    I agree this can be done to excess.

    Rachel Lu: I do think that minimizing the role of the state is a part of that. But it has to be done prudently and with a proper understanding of how things are related. And that starts with understanding the real nature of the war that’s going on, in which size of government issues should be seen as just one component of a broader conflict.

    I appreciate that, as (I think) you appreciate that folks on our side care deeply about values and virtue. Our disagreement basically stems from my feeling that almost any use of the state outside of protecting negative rights and preventing demonstrable harms inevitably causes more problems than its worth. There are exceptions, but they’re very few and far between.

    • #13
  14. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    For illustration, let’s consider the matter of illegitimacy, something I think everyone on the Right — and even a handful of people on the Left — agrees is a major problem. If the source of the problem is internal to the communities where it’s most rampant, then the best solution may to provide some outside support, possibly from the government in the form of expanded child tax credits and other measures intended to strengthen families by providing better incentives.

    Alternately, if the problems stem from the perverse incentives of the modern administrative state — as this minimalist alleges — these communities will largely right themselves once freed from its influence, in much the same way that a ship will right itself after being disconnected from a broken crane. This isn’t magical thinking anymore than is the belief that gravity and water displacement will do their work without prompting.

    There is a third possibility, which I think is correct.  The primary original cause of the illegitimacy problem was the perverse incentives of the welfare state.  But there have now been significant cultural changes, so merely removing the perverse incentives will not be enough to fix the problem.

    To use your ship-and-crane analogy: The crane (the welfare state) pushed over the ship (the community).  But the ship is now internally flooded, and will not right itself even if the crane is removed.  We need to both disconnect it from the crane, and pump out the water.  Carefully.

    • #14
  15. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Afternoon Tom,

    If you are suggesting that the number one political problem we face is the size of the government and that a libertarian approach and libertarian tenacity is the best approach to reducing the size of the government, I agree totally.

    However there are cultural problems which have lasting and dangerous outcomes and I have not seen that the libertarian analysis understands human behavior and the role of culture.  In “Coming Apart”  Murray describes behaviors in the lower class which do not correlate with the footprint of government.  The adults in the lower classes are engaging is civic activities, PTA, little league or soccer coaching, bowling leagues at an increasingly lower rate.  The participation in adult group activities has fallen also been noted in “Bowling Alone”.  The problem of the different behaviors between the upper class and lower class where the marriage rates of the upper class have remained nearly as high as they were in the 60’s where as in the lower class marriage rate have fallen sharply is not explained.  Murray can only wish that the upper class would preach what they practice.

    One of the more serious cultural changes concerns courtship and marriage.  Falling marriage rates, falling birth rates, SSM, single parenting lead to a society that can not sustain itself even numerically, let alone maintaining a moral society. Concerning the changes in human behavior as a function of cultural change, I think the size of government is not the crucial component, and that the libertarian viewpoint seems to minimize nongovernmental aspects.  There is research into how people make choices individually and within the group that suggests how change ripples through a society, however I have not seen a libertarian analysis which takes account of the information provided by psychologists, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, etc.

    • #15
  16. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel,

    I think your basic misunderstanding of minimalists is that they value minimalism for its own sake. This is in error – we value minimalism precisely because it allows society to flourish and because it allows emergent order to structure our society in the best and most efficient way possible. As Tom said in his piece, once perverse incentives are removed society and culture rush in to fill the gaps, the best best culture usually wins. (See: Western Civilization)

    • #16
  17. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Some small state minimalists care about values and virtue. There are also some out and out libertines, and some people who just don’t think that much about the cultural issues. Whole mix.

    • #17
  18. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: Some small state minimalists care about values and virtue. There are also some out and out libertines, and some people who just don’t think that much about the cultural issues. Whole mix.

    Just as there are some social conservatives who care about small government and non-govermental solutions to cultural problems. There are also some who are out and out theocrats.

    • #18
  19. Mate De Inactive
    Mate De
    @MateDe

    Jamie Lockett:As Tom said in his piece, once perverse incentives are removed society and culture rush in to fill the gaps, the best best culture usually wins. (See: Western Civilization)

    It might not be the best culture that does rush in. We cannot presume that in taking away the perverse incentives that a culture that has been demonized and demeaned for a few generations will be the one that will prevail. .

    • #19
  20. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Sabrdance: To over-extend the metaphor, what happens if, after 60 years of the crane pushing the ship over, the water has already started flowing through the portholes? The proximate cause of the Vasa’s capsize was a shift in her ballast, but if the ship hadn’t dipped so far her gunports were underwater, she could have been righted very quickly.

    Arizona Patriot: To use your ship-and-crane analogy: The crane (the welfare state) pushed over the ship (the community).  But the ship is now internally flooded, and will not right itself even if the crane is removed.  We need to both disconnect it from the crane, and pump out the water.  Carefully.

    Valid criticisms and, yes, even if external forces are the ultimate cause of the problems, they can cause internal damage. Point taken.

    To push the analogy even further, the crew may well have a lot of work to do to make those repairs and some of them may need to take place before the crane is fully removed. Still, not only is the crane still the main problem, some of those repairs may be impossible to make until it’s gone.

    • #20
  21. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Jamie Lockett: I think your basic misunderstanding of minimalists is that they value minimalism for its own sake. This is in error – we value minimalism precisely because it allows society to flourish and because it allows emergent order to structure our society in the best and most efficient way possible

    Seconded.

    • #21
  22. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    So, one question: how reliable is emergent order? Can we just trust that it will, umm, emerge if government is cut back?

    A second thing, though: even if your favored policy solutions call for much less government action than, say, Rick Santorum would like, a person who agrees with my central point is also going to agree that political and cultural efforts will need to be closely conjoined. Conservatives will need to talk like culture warriors even if our political actions mostly focus on paring things down. (Speak loudly and carry a small stick?) For the most part, that’s not what I see. Sure, there are some people who regard SoCon culture warriors as valuable allies (for more than just their votes)… but plenty more for whom the main subtext is, “We want your votes, but please stop talking because you’re embarrassing us.”

    As I say in the piece, the administrative state is the secular church; both feed into each other, and neither can really be beaten back while the other thrives. Perhaps we disagree about the appropriate extent of government action. Fine. We can keep talking. I’m more bothered at the moment about the number of people who fly off the handle whenever substantial moral claims are made (“save it for church!”) or when “virtue” is mentioned.

    • #22
  23. Pelayo Inactive
    Pelayo
    @Pelayo

    Rachel Lu:One further thought: I myself think that small state minimalism derives much of its popularity from the loss of cultural confidence that inflicts our society more generally. Whenever this topic comes up, the same criticisms arise (or me and my arguments): it’s self-righteous to identify myself as a lover of virtue, and why should my values matter more than anyone else’s, and I’m not claiming to be in possession of absolute truth, am I?

    You (or any American Conservative for that matter) should not apologize for thinking that the values our Nation was founded upon are better than someone else’s.  There is a Youtube video where Mark Steyn talks about Multi-culturalism and points out that former British colonies are the dominant nations in the various parts of the world where they exist.  That cannot be an accident.  Getting back to our Judeo-Christian roots and reinforcing values like individual liberty, the sanctity of life, free market economics, etc… would go a long way towards restoring our Nation’s health.

    • #23
  24. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    What gives you the right to tell anyone else how to live provided they aren’t harming anyone else?

    • #24
  25. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Jamie Lockett:What gives you the right to tell anyone else how to live provided they aren’t harming anyone else?

    QED. Small state minimalism and moral minimalism tend to be closely conjoined.

    • #25
  26. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: how reliable is emergent order? Can we just trust that it will, umm, emerge if government is cut back?

    What do you mean by reliable? If you mean “will it give me exactly the outcome I want” then no it is not reliable. If you mean “absent government distortions will individuals and society figure out the best way forward” then it is reliable as the sun rising in the east.

    • #26
  27. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Mate De: It might not be the best culture that does rush in. We cannot presume that in taking away the perverse incentives that a culture that has been demonized and demeaned for a few generations will be the one that will prevail.

    That might be true, but I still think our best hope is simply removing the state meddling that started the problem.  The alternative to that is trying to use the state to produce outcomes we want, and I think that’s much more likely to be pernicious in all kinds of ways.

    • #27
  28. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: QED. Small state minimalism and moral minimalism tend to be closely conjoined.

    Please answer my question – what right do you have to tell me how I should live my life?

    How do you know I will necessarily favor moral minimalism is left to my own?

    • #28
  29. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Rachel Lu: So, one question: how reliable is emergent order? Can we just trust that it will, umm, emerge if government is cut back?

    Hasn’t this already happened more than once (United States, Hong Kong, e.g.)?  Isn’t that enough reason to be confident?

    Plus, how confident can you be that state manipulation of the culture in a conservative direction won’t be harmful?  There are lots of examples and plenty of theory to support the idea that state meddling is bad.

    • #29
  30. Mate De Inactive
    Mate De
    @MateDe

    Owen Findy:

    Mate De: It might not be the best culture that does rush in. We cannot presume that in taking away the perverse incentives that a culture that has been demonized and demeaned for a few generations will be the one that will prevail.

    That might be true, but I still think our best hope is simply removing the state meddling that started the problem. The alternative to that is trying to use the state to produce outcomes we want, and I think that’s much more likely to be pernicious in all kinds of ways.

    I agree that those incentives need to be removed. My point was that as a society we need to reinforce those values that are needed in order for self government.

    • #30
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