Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Holbo on Frum

John Holbo's enormous rant about conservatism a la David Frum is not without merit. Holbo starts from Frum's remark that many conservatives disapprove of a safety net because it leads to risky and irresponsible behavior, like not saving up to send your kids to college because the government will pay for them. This belief is definitely central to the economic views of many social conservatives; I imagine it's true as a matter of fact, but I'd tend to think of it as a feature not a bug. Holbo takes this logic to its (seemingly absurd) conclusion, which is that government should actively create hardships so that people can develop skills to overcome them.

Holbo notes that this is what aestheticism tends to imply for politics. As an aesthete, I'm not sure the conclusion is absurd, though I disagree with it. You can't scrub your ethics clean of some notion of the content and shape of a good life. Obviously there are a lot of other things that have a higher priority -- I might support meritocracy, for instance, not because I think smart people deserve pleasanter lives, but because it leads to technological progress -- but I don't think aesthetic considerations are dispensable. For instance, I think of alienation and rootlessness as fundamentally good things; I approve of big leaps, long journeys, and intense, solitary work; I tend to locate human worth at the tails rather than the middle of a distribution -- all of this drives me in the opposite direction from Frum, toward policies that are friendly to the isolated or exceptional individual; but it's aesthetics nonetheless, and I don't see any way around being informed by one's personal version of it.

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