Action versus behavior

I'm a Hannah Arendt fan. She often took two words that were often used as synonyms, identified a difference, and then found meaning in that difference. For example, consider the words action and behavior:

  • His actions were inexplicable.
  • His behavior was inexplicable.

Most of us would read these as identical statements, but Arendt parsed the two words as having non-equivalent meanings: actions involve agency and acting implies starting something, inventing, or creating while behavior is narrower and more sonstrained, consisting of conforming, doing what is expected, or following the rules.

What happens if we extend the difference between acton and behavior to the concepts of bureaucracy and democracy. A Bureaucracy (rule by nobody) asks us to behave, to enforce the status quo, to protect our society as it exists today (or yesterday, before the current crisis).  In contrast, a Democracy (rule by us, the people) gives us agency and makes it possible for us to decide to act, to make things different, to replace old norms with new norms and thereby to improve our society.

This can be used to highlight the important relationship between conservatism and behavior. Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, and out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

(I know that this is not an accepted or academic definition of conservatism. However, I will use it for the purpose of this essay because it reliably and accurately describes all of what I have seen conservatism do in the last 5 decades.)

Conservatism is anchored in the belief that there exists a 'natural moral order' and that, absent human meddling, governments and societies will inevitably evolve to reflect this proposed natural moral order. Conservatism holds that human intervention, no matter how well intended, disturbs or distorts this natural process and inevitably does more harm than good. This is where the rejection of working towards social justice originates. Conservatism might be considered the 'original' political philosophy in that it is a natural outgrowth of the ancient tradition of an all powerful monarch who derives his legitimacy directly from God. The king, by definition, can do no wrong. The 'king' of a millenium ago generally included the monarch's circle of friends and allies - a fungible group. More recently, the 'king' for conservatives has become the faction or cohort that holds power.  Conservatism believes that those in power have earned their power, and strives to protect those already in power. It sees defending the status quo (often the status quo of lat year or last century) as defending the natural moral order against social justice warriors whose unnatural efforts always make things worse. (For whom they make things worse is a question they do not like to address.)

Following through on this, opposition to conservatism (anti-conservatism, liberalism or progressivism if you will) does not believe that there is a pre-ordained natural moral order toward which we inevitably evolve, Instead it believes that our culture and governance are the result of the choices we make. The society we have is the society we choose to have. We can choose to defend a very flawed past or choose to build a better future.

As a liberal or progressive, I believe that in a just and decent society the law cannot protect anyone unless it binds everyone, and may not bind anyone unless it protects everyone.