Humpty Dumpty Defines Conservatism

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll 

For whatever reason, adults on the internet often fall into relabelling each others politics with all the glee that second graders find in saying, “Am not!”, “Are too!”, “Am not!” 

Sometimes, it gets downright silly, as in this comment:

Hah! Nobody has yet addressed my basic point – American arch-liberals, direct offsprings of the Enlightenment, are under some illusion that they are “conservative”. Couldn’t be more wrong. As for me, I’m an old-style Christian Democrat with not much time for rights-based individualism, the so-called separation of church and state, lassez-faire liberalism, or muscular nationalism. I’m a corporatist, I’m fully on baord with Bendict’s world political authority, and I’ll take Catholic social teaching over American Calvinist economics any day, thank you very much.
 
Who is supposed to be the conservative again? 

Now, let’s think for a moment on what “conservative” means, if you’re not Humpty Dumpty. A conservative is one who seeks to retain an older order of things, to “conserve” it. Conservatives lean towards stasis rather than towards radical change; they accept human nature and society as relative constants, rather than endorsing a progressivism which holds that society and human nature are tabula rasas which can be inscribed with whatever order one desires this week. 

Now the speaker here may very well lean towards a politics in the European tradition of Christian Democrat parties, and he may well indeed support a world political authority, oppose individual rights, oppose nationalism, etc. However, looking at the basic history of the Christian Democrat movement, it’s quite clearly a significantly newer political movement than American (or to a great extent British) conservatism is. 

American conservatives trace their intellectual ancestry with credibility to European thinkers such as Adam Smith and Edmund Burke in the late 1700s, and of course to the American leaders of the revolutionary generation, such as Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton. American conservatism draws further intellectual and rhetorical heritage from both Lincoln and some of his states-rights focused adversaries in the 1860s. 

By contract, Europe’s Christian Democrat parties sprang up in the wake of Rerum Novarum, which was written in 1891. Christian Democracy (in its European form) is generally a combination of social conservatism and some acknowledgement of existing social orders with the “liberal” economics of the turn of the century, which were much more socialistic than the “liberal” Whigs a hundred years earlier who formed the background for the American political tradition (now American conservatism). 

The American conservative movement has its intellectual roots in a period in which thinkers sought to form a coherent defense of individual liberties against absolutist monarchy (and soon, with the French Revolution and First Empire, against nationalism) without descending into the “mob rule” of democracy. 

The Christian Democratic movement has its intellectual roots in an attempt to find a “third way” between unfettered laissez-faire industrialism (in a period in which the old obligations and structures of European society were under serious assault and seemed nearly unsalvagable) and secularist/anti-clerical socialism. And it rose to dominance in the post-war period, when it represented a form of conservatism untainted by the fascism and nationalism which had led to war, while offering enough collectivism to reign in those who might otherwise be drawn to communist or socialist parties. 

One may certainly prefer the European Christian Democratic tradition to the American conservative one, but one can hardly claim it is more conservative, being a significantly younger political movement, responding to significantly more modern problems. Further, to insist this in America is to ignore context. In the American political tradition, the intelectual tradition represented by conservatism goes back a respectable 250 years, while transplanting a European Christian Democrat party here would be introducing a new and in some ways alien political creature to the American political ecosystem. There is nothing “conservative” about such a move, however desireable one may find it to be.

47 Responses to Humpty Dumpty Defines Conservatism

  • This is a hilarious post. Apparently conservatives are not about the conservation of traditional understandings of conservatism, and instead want to redefine it all the while trying to say it is those who are conserving the tradition who are the ones redefining it.

    Sorry, the yoke’s on you.

  • DC, while there is an intellectual ancestry of contemporary conservatism which stretches back a couple centuries, the commenter is still correct that American operates with the boundaries set by the Enlightenment, and that in the context of those debates, contemporary conservatives *are* liberals in the broader sense (I’m thinking of MacIntyre’s taxonomy of radical liberals [Marxists], liberal liberals [contemporary progressives], and conservative liberals [contemporary conservatives]).

    Second, wouldn’t it be the case that a political position which sought to re-establish “pre-Enlightenment” conservatism would in justly be deemed conservative, even if it rejected aspects of the intervening 200+ years?

  • Chris,

    Agreed that all viable political movements at this point represent some form of liberalism. What I was attempting to highlight here is that we have someone comparing the two following:

    American conservatism: [social conservatism] + [18th century political and economic liberalism]
    European Christian Democrats: [social conservatism] (at least, by European standards) + [19th century political and economic liberalism]

    I’m very much unclear how one compares these two and concludes that American conservatism is more liberal than the Christian Democrat tradition.

    If the commenter’s contention was simply, “I may be liberal, but so are you, because we both draw our ideas from post-Enlightenment thought” I would have no issue. It’s claiming that American conservatism is liberal while Christian Democrats are not that I don’t think will fly.

  • Henry,

    This is a hilarious post. Apparently conservatives are not about the conservation of traditional understandings of conservatism, and instead want to redefine it all the while trying to say it is those who are conserving the tradition who are the ones redefining it.

    Perhaps it’s because you were laughing so hard when you wrote your comment, but it’s a little hard to understand what you’re actually attempting to say here. What I pointed out is that:

    1) American conservatism represents a significantly older political movement than the Christian Democratic parties do.
    2) American conservatism draws on the oldest political philosophy still surviving in America (there are no loyalist/royalist parties that I’m aware of at this time) and as such is clearly “conservative” within the American political context. Trying to transplant in a movement which evolved later in Europe for very different reasons would in no sense be “conservative”.

    In what sense can Christian Democrats be considered to be “conserving the tradition” when they represent a much more recent (and more liberal) compromise with liberalism than American conservatism (which might also be termed “classical liberalism”)?

  • I, for one, am interested in hearing more about “Bendict’s [sic] world political authority.”

  • Actually, I should ammend: The commenter’s point would make sense if one were able to tenably hold the view that Christian Democrats are entirely bypassing Liberalism and the intellectual heritage of the Englightenment (French and Scottish) and represent some sort of a revival of a pre-Englightenment political ideal.

    I’m just very unclear how one could hold this view. Christian Democracy does take some elements of traditional, pre-Enlightenment society and culture, but then, so does American conservatism, which consciously adopted ideas dating back to Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero as well as traditions of English common law. But it is also, clearly, the result of an attempt to draw together those elements from conservative, free market, progressive and socialist lines of political thought which seemed most compatible with Christianity and develop a hybrid political programme. As such, Christian Democracy draws on a great deal of progressivism and socialism, as well as classical liberalism and traditional European culture. One can hardly see it as being a return to pre-Enlightenment thought.

  • And there he goes against with the indiscriminate use of “Calvinist.” What exactly about free-market economics corresponds to the Calvinist belief in human depravity and God’s predestination? And why does MM always suppose that when he writes on the Internet, his words are being read by people who hate Protestants with such an irrational passion that merely using the label “Calvinist” — no matter how absurdly inapt — will make them recoil and become social democrats?

  • DC, your replies make sense… thanks for offering the clarification.

  • The direct ancestors of American conservatism were Whigs that advocated a cautious, rooted social and economic progress against the perceived (correctly, it turns out) radicalism of abstracted universalism.

    The argument, in other words, was within the large umbrella of liberalism. This is different from the European (non-British) conservative tradition. Yet, even though the Australians have it more right (Liberal v. Labour), there is an American conservative tradition that can properly lay claim to the word. What is awkward is that it is a defense of a revolution (actually two: 1688 and 1776). The reason this claim is proper is because it is, by comparison, not radical, and because different cultures and nations will necessarily have differing labels for similiar notions.

  • Darwin,

    My issue with this is that Christian Democracy clearly evolved beyond 19th century “liberal” economics, especially after Pius XI declared that whole edifice to be gravely immoral in Quadragesimo Anno. The development of Christian Democracy after WWII saw it turn more towards welfare-statism.

    As for this view that Benedict wants something akin to a global government, it is false. And I have to say, given what I see coming out of the UN these days, especially when it comes to population control and “family planning”, I find it hard to believe that Benedict would be on board with any of that.

    Right now the forces of globalism are almost entirely dominated by pro-abortion, pro-eugenics fanatics who believe the world is “overpopulated.” In theory I believe greater international cooperation and even, one day in the future, a planetary government would be great. In reality, I want absolutely nothing to do with a “world order” dominated by people who are so hostile to life and liberty.

    I move closer to “nationalism” because and only because America as a sovereign state has a political process through which abortion and other threats to life can be defeated – a process that we see has been increasingly abrogated in Europe, Canada, and other countries. And Pope Benedict has remarked on other occasions that he too prefers the American system when it comes to the ability Christians have to influence public policy, something sorely lacking in Europe.

  • Despite the joke, this is a deadly serious topic, and I’ll treat it as much.

    Somebody once pointed out that the Church still has not made its peace with liberalism. Perhaps not, but Christian democracy is the best attempt yet. Is Christian democracy influenced to some extent by liberalism? Without question. But it is also based on Catholic social teaching, which is the Church’s “official” answer to liberalism and modernism, at least so far.

    Remember, CST challenges and condemns both individualism and collectivism, because they are based on flawed anthropologies. American liberalism is underpinned first and foremost by the autonomy of the individual – it is this that gives rise to a strong laissez-faire ethic and the denigration of any role for government in economic life (but not in broader social life).

    But CST is not based on this underlying premise. It sees a properly defined role for govermment within the social order, geared toward the common good. It is for this reason that I believe modern Christian democracy is far more “conservative” than is American liberalism. Rememeber, the founders of CST were deeply conservative (think of Leo XIII and Pius XI). They saw a correct role for government in both economic and social affairs, and indeed – drawing subsidiarity to its logical conclusion – saw that some responsibilities should be assigned to the supra-national entity. So in this sense, I believe it does flow from what you call “pre-Enlightenment” thought.

  • But CST is not based on this underlying premise. It sees a properly defined role for govermment within the social order, geared toward the common good. It is for this reason that I believe modern Christian democracy is far more “conservative” than is American liberalism.

    I largely concur with your comment, but this aspect of your characterization would need the qualifiers of locality when in characterization of governmental organization. This is why it is so difficult, especially as one highly concerned with social issues, to make common cause with leftist politicans (and there is a lot of room for commonality with “traditionalist conservatives,” especially in areas of foreign policy and “free trade”) within the context of a liberal democracy. The tendency toward statism in that socio-political context produces terribly toxic social policy enforced at levels far beyond the local – abortion out of the democratic process through Roe, homosexual activists using the courts to bypass the democratic process, the imposition of “no fault divorce”…the list goes on.

    Now granted much of this flows from the elevation of “rights” and “autonomy,” but that does not mean that leftist/social democrat types should be such strong advocates. And I’m afraid that Christian democrat types can’t or won’t do much, in practical terms, for the cause of locality and social traditionalism.

  • S.B. Says:
    “I, for one, am interested in hearing more about “Bendict’s [sic] world political authority.”

    Here is the paragraph they are probably pointing to:

    67. In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth. One also senses the urgent need to find innovative ways of implementing the principle of the responsibility to protect[146] and of giving poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making. This seems necessary in order to arrive at a political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity. To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago. Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good[147], and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth. Furthermore, such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights[148]. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums. Without this, despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations. The integral development of peoples and international cooperation require the establishment of a greater degree of international ordering, marked by subsidiarity, for the management of globalization[149]. They also require the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order, to the interconnection between moral and social spheres, and to the link between politics and the economic and civil spheres, as envisaged by the Charter of the United Nations.

    But if you go to the footnotes (citing to the Compendium of Social Doctrine), you’ll see a global super state is not the intent:

    441. Concern for an ordered and peaceful coexistence within the human family prompts the Magisterium to insist on the need to establish ?some universal public authority acknowledged as such by all and endowed with effective power to safeguard, on the behalf of all, security, regard for justice, and respect for rights?.[913] In the course of history, despite the changing viewpoints of the different eras, there has been a constant awareness of the need for a similar authority to respond to worldwide problems arising from the quest for the common good: it is essential that such an authority arise from mutual agreement and that it not be imposed, nor must it be understood as a kind of ?global super-State?

  • I don’t quite get the (widespread) view that Christian Democratic parties are socially conservative but economically liberal.* It’s true that CD parties (at least in Europe) tend to be more economically liberal than the Republican party, but they also tend to be more socially liberal. It’s also true that CD parties are more socially conservative than other major parties in Europe, but they also tend to be more economically conservative than those parties. CD parties basically occupy the same political space in Europe that the Republican party does in the U.S.; it’s just that because European countries tend to have more left leaning populations the center-right parties in those countries are more left leaning (both socially and economically) than is the center-right party in America.

    * For purposes of this comment I’m using ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in their American sense.

  • Also, when MM says that he’s a Christian Democrat, it’s important to remember that he’s not talking about the existing Christian Democratic parties (just the other day he was revelling in the fact that the head of Italy’s CD party was physically assaulted).

  • “American conservatism: [social conservatism] + [18th century political and economic liberalism]”.

    Throw in support for a strong national defense and that pretty well defines me politically, along, I think, with a plurality of Republicans. To understand American conservatism, a good starting point is to compare and contrast the American and French Revolutions, and why Edmund Burke looked kindly upon the Americans and urged a war to the end against the French Revolution.

  • Is American Liberalism really “underpinned first and foremost by the autonomy of the individual?”

  • Christian Democrat? Sounds nice, but just how Christian are European Christian Democrats in 2009? Since the early post-war years the CD has become increasingly secular. MM can admire some ideal of Christian Democracy that exists solely in his head, but his version is not the one which exists in Europe today. It’s like me saying I am a member of the Whig Party. Here’s Catholic Belgian Paul Belien, writing about new EU president Herman Van Rompuy

    “In the mid-1980s, Van Rompuy, a conservative Catholic, born in 1947, was active in the youth section of the Flemish Christian-Democrat Party. He wrote books and articles about the importance of traditional values, the role of religion, the protection of the unborn life, the Christian roots of Europe and the need to preserve them,…,

    In April 1990, the King did in fact abdicate over the abortion issue, and the Christian-Democrat Party, led by Herman Van Rompuy, who had always prided himself on being a good Catholic, had one of Europe’s most liberal abortion bills signed by the college of ministers, a procedure provided by the Belgian Constitution for situations when there is no King. Then they had the King voted back on the throne the following day.;…,

    Now, Herman has moved on to lead Europe. Like Belgium, the European Union is an undemocratic institution, which needs shrewd leaders who are capable of renouncing everything they once believed in and who know how to impose decisions on the people against the will of the people. Never mind democracy, morality or the rule of law, our betters know what is good for us more than we do. And Herman is now one of our betters. He has come a long way since the days when he was disgusted with Belgian-style politics.
    Herman is like Saruman, the wise wizard in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who went over to the other side. He used to care about the things we cared about. But no longer. He has built himself a high tower from where he rules over all of us.”

    No, none of that cursed individualism there! Also, not very much in the way of Christianity.

    http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/4181

  • Zach: I’ve recently begin rereading Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which I first read as an undergrad. Tocqueville understood that that, just as checks and balances were built into the American political system, religion and community life served as a check on individualism run riot. He wasn’t just talking about Protestants either:

    “In the United States there is no single religious doctrine which is hostile to democratic and republican institutions. All the clergy there speak the same language. Thus American Catholics are both the most obedient believers and the most independent citizens.”

  • In any event, conservatism in America is intended to conserve certain things which are here now, and to restore certain things where were here at the founding of the republic and are no longer because they were changed by “progressives.”

    Self-described conservatives vary according to which items from the founding of the republic they think need restoring, and how important they are. And, they vary according to which things currently present need conserving.

    However, inasmuch as they intend either to prevent change from the status quo — to “stand athwart history yelling stop!” in the famous (and slightly ironical) formulation — or to restore that which was lost during the 20th century, they uniformly represent a looking-back approach to social progress.

    And that instinct, to look back, makes the label “conservative” a reasonable one to apply. I suppose one could distinguish between the items where they want to keep the status quo, and those where they want to reverse 20th century changes to the status quo, by calling them “conservatism” and “restorationism” respectively. But the latter isn’t really in-use except with respect to restoring monarchies, so using it here would cause confusion.

    So I expect “conservative” is a reasonable selection of moniker, so long as the audience…

    (a.) …understands that conservatism means something different in the U.S., where it’s related to strict-constructionist Constitutional Republicanism, than in other countries, where because their history differs, it may refer to communism (Russia) or theocratism (Iran) or even monarchism (restorationism again).

    (b.) …is willing to exercise the modicum of care needed to understand how a particular speaker is using the word “conservatism,” and adapt to it without submitting overmuch to the nerdy-student’s urge to constantly correct his usage with niggling historical details that aren’t relevant to the speaker communicating his meaning.

  • You all have inspired me to write :)

    I’m gonna have a lot to say about all this very soon.

  • MM,

    I appreciate the serious engagement despite the humorous framing of the post.

    Somebody once pointed out that the Church still has not made its peace with liberalism. Perhaps not, but Christian democracy is the best attempt yet. Is Christian democracy influenced to some extent by liberalism? Without question. But it is also based on Catholic social teaching, which is the Church’s “official” answer to liberalism and modernism, at least so far.

    I must admit, I’m not always entirely sure what people mean when they talk about the Church not having made its peace with liberalism. Does the Church deny the ideal of providing all citizens with equal rights under the law? Does it deny the validity of representative government or the idea of legitimacy stemming from the consent of the governed in the secular realm?

    I think, at most, it can be taken to mean two things:

    1) The Church is itself not by any means a democracy, and so it does not rule itself through “liberal” means. This makes some people very angry, but it seems to me pretty much an irrelevance since the Church is clearly something wholly different in kind from secular governments. That the Church does not (indeed, cannot) rule itself via liberal forms of government is no more a statement for or against liberalism in the secular political realm than that fact that families are not ruled through liberal institutions.

    2) Arguably, in some senses our moral theology has not fully grappled with the implications of liberal political institutions. For instance, much of our moral understanding of political actions is centered around how rulers and subjects should behave, while the partly self determining, mostly subject state in which a single citizen of a representative democracy finds himself is rather less well explored.

    My impression is that you mean by saying that Christian Democracy is the best rapprochement between the Church and liberalism yet that Christian Democracy is less inimical to Christianity than socialism and communism, yet in the post-WW2 era has become strongly associated with the comprehensive welfare state, strong employment regulation, etc. That, in itself, is something Catholics can debate (and I’d rather not get sidetracked into it now) but for the present purposes, I’m not clear how that makes Christian Democracy “conservative” in that the welfare state is something which only sprang into existence post 1840 or so. And strong labor policy only began to appear several decades after that. I suppose one can argue that it was somehow in the spirit of the old Catholic monarchies, but since none of the old Catholic monarchies practices such policies (indeed, state coffers were very small by modern standards, taxes were often highly regressive, and spending was primarily military and construction) I just don’t see how the argument works.

    Remember, CST challenges and condemns both individualism and collectivism, because they are based on flawed anthropologies. American liberalism is underpinned first and foremost by the autonomy of the individual – it is this that gives rise to a strong laissez-faire ethic and the denigration of any role for government in economic life (but not in broader social life).

    I’m unclear how American liberalism is underpinned primarily by the autonomy of the individual in a way that European liberalism (and Christian Democracy in particular) is not. It’s true that the writing of the era of the founding places a strong emphases of individual liberty and due process — but that only makes sense as it was written against the backdrop of absolutism. The earliest forms of continental liberalism (circa the French Revolution) showed similar tendencies, indeed far more radical and dangerous ones which nearly all of the American founders reacted against.

    Perhaps one of the main differences here is that while the US has remained in existence and retained the same constitution for 200 years and change, the continental governments have all turned over many times during that period, with most of them now having constitutions or institutions established shortly after WW2. As such, their founding concerns have much more to do with labor relations and the problems of a mass society than do those of the US, which was overwhelmingly and agricultural society at the time of its founding and for some time after.

    Because of this political ancestry (and perhaps due to some more general social factor which seems to make European culture more subject to collective action — judging from movements good and ill over the last couple hundred years) there is a greater degree of collectivism in Christian Democracy than in American conservatism, but it seems to me far from sure that the tendency to vote oneself and one’s class greater assurance of economic security is necessarily less “individualistic” than supporting greater opportunity. What it reflects more than individualism vs. solidarity is a divergence in the degree to which people think it is possible to better themselves at all through their own effort.

  • Of course the Church has not “made its peace with liberalism”, and it never will–Catholicism and liberalism are two logically incompatible belief systems. Liberalism’s ideal is state neutrality towards competing “comprehensive” theories of the good. Practically, it means reducing society to a means for maximizing and equalizing the satisfaction of private desires. Conservatives and Christians think it inevitable and good that society should be held together and legitimated by a traditional way of life and a common, substantive vision of justice. The purpose of the state is to protect the common good (not private goods, or even their sum) and defend the moral consensus. Catholics in particular believe that God’s authority extends not only over each of us as individuals, but over corporate groups, including states.

    The contradiction between liberalism and Catholicism extends to virtually every point. Liberals are egalitarian; Catholics are corporatist and hierarchical. Catholics defend distinction of roles based on sex, age, familial relationship, and clerical status. Liberals are cosmopolitan; Catholics recognize the duty of piety towards ancestors and fatherland.

    Incidentally, the idea of “legitimacy stemming from the consent of the governed” is absurd in any realm. As real conservatives like de Maistre realized, the whole distinctive essence of authority is that you are morally obliged to obey even if you don’t want to. If I say “this person has authority over me, because I decide to grant it to him”, there is no real relationship of authority at all. As soon as I get an order I don’t like, I can just revoke my grant of consent.

  • DarwinCatholic,

    Rereading my response, I think it sounds too dismissive and disrespectful, and I apologize for that. I have enjoyed many of your postings, and I think you’re right that the Christian Democrats aren’t more conservative than American conservatives.
    I think we “Throne and Altar” types have both of you beaten in that department.

  • “As real conservatives like de Maistre realized, the whole distinctive essence of authority is that you are morally obliged to obey even if you don’t want to.”

    Hardly. Someone may have had a crown because some ancestor conquered a territory or was chosen by nobles after an old line died out, but that did not impose a moral obligation on those subject to them to obey their commands, as the multitudinous civil wars and rebellions that afflicted most monarchies attested. A monarch might well claim that a subject was morally obliged to obey him, but such a claim does not thereby create a moral obligation to obey. All government does in fact rest ultimately on the consent of the governed long term. When that consent is withheld long enough by a large enough segment of the population, any state, no matter its form of government, will ultimately totter and fall.

  • Bonald,

    I’ll certainly cede to you that Throne and Altar types are significantly more conservative that either Christian Democrats or American conservatives!

    Trying to answer major points concisely:

    – I’m not sure that Liberalism is indifferent to competing theories of the good, as it recognizes that we cannot be sure that people will correctly recognize the good. So for instance, I think there’s a very clear answer as to whether statist, universal health care is a good idea — but I’d be hesitant to be confident that, if the US had a king, the king would arrive at the correct conclusion in the matter. The virtue of Liberalism in this regard is that one can at least be sure that the majority will get what they deserve in regards to the rule of their country, even if they don’t get what’s right. Now, in that regard, I guess I’m conditionally liberal (in the classical liberal sense) in that I would, for one, make no move to demand more liberal institutions if I lived in a monarchy or aristocracy and didn’t think that the current rulers were ruling badly. But in a situation where one is forced to demand some sort of change because of bad rule, I would advocate liberal institutions over simply changing dynasties.

    – On legitimacy stemming from the consent of the governed: It strikes me as something which can only apply to the whole (or at any rate, majority) of the governed, not to individuals. The fact that I don’t like Obama does not allow me to disobey laws with impunity. I would mostly follow Socrates in Phaedo in regards to the claim that since I have so willingly lived in the US for so long, it would be immoral of me to suddenly claim that I am not governed by its laws now.

    However, even in a monarchy, there are points when victory in a dynastic war results in a different succession of rulers gaining power — essentially because the realm as a whole is willing to follow the one and not the other. And, for instance, it strikes me that by the 1860s, one could no longer really claim the the Bourbons were the “legitimate” rulers of France. They had simply lost their credibility by the time of the Second Empire. They were the descendants of kings, but they were no longer meaningfully kings.

  • When that consent is withheld long enough by a large enough segment of the population, any state, no matter its form of government, will ultimately totter and fall.

    So Stalin ruled by the consent of the governed? Who knew!

  • One might point out that deliberative institutions at all levels were prevalent in medieval Europe. They were not dependant for their operation on conceptions of legitimacy associated with John Locke being ambient in any part of the populace.

  • Well, in a sense, didn’t he?

    Sure, Stalin had a finger on a scale in the sense that anyone who expressed dissent was killed or sent to Siberia (along with a lot of people who hadn’t even expressed dissent), but didn’t it essentially amount to the fact that people were more willing to be ruled by him than to pay the price of getting rid of him?

    By comparison, Hitler was not able to maintain rule over the parts of Russia which he conquered — primarily because the USSR was successful in getting millions of people to die in order to prevent him.

    Trying to think this through, I’m coming up with a couple of possibilities as to what “consent of the governed” might be taken to mean (if it means anything):

    1) Rulers ought to rule through the consent of their subjects, in a way which their subjects do not object to, and those who rule through force/oppression instead of through consent are “illegitimate”.

    2) A ruler derives his ability to rule through the willingness of others to listen to him, regardsless of whether he achieves this through ruling well or oppression. This may be very nearly a tautology, in that it basically amounts to saying: you’re a ruler if people follow you for some reason. On the other hand it does seem to provide a working definition which both ruler and subjects could consult: You are only the ruler if, for some reason, most of your subjects actually acknowledge you to be the ruler. (If not, you’re a pretender.)

  • So the Soviet Union still exists BA, who knew? Force can work short term, and Stalin’s reign of less than three decades was short term, but ultimately any regime cannot govern when a substantial portion of the population simply refuses to give their consent over the long term to the regime.

  • I might also note that even the Nazi regime was quite concerned about German public opinion. A good example is the successful Rosenstrasse protest of German women opposing the removal of their Jewish husbands from Berlin to concentration camps in 1943.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosenstrasse_protest

  • but ultimately any regime cannot govern when a substantial portion of the population simply refuses to give their consent over the long term to the regime.

    Not so sure about the relation between the political class and the populace. With regard to events in Soviet Russia during the years running from 1953 to 1957, I think you see evidence toward the proposition that a totalitarian order can be unsustainable because the will to sustain it hardly exists outside its author. By one account, while Stalin was on his deathbed, Laverenti Beria stood by him reviling him.

  • “By one account, while Stalin was on his deathbed, Laverenti Beria stood by him reviling him.”

    True. Then Stalin looked as if he was going to regain consciousness and Beria began kissing his hand. Little did Beria realize, although he soon found out, that Stalin’s support was the only thing keeping him alive.

    The massive bloodletting that Stalin and Mao engaged in domestically is simply unsustainable for any society. Short term they reigned supreme, long term they damaged the communist brand fatally among most of their populations.

  • A lot of Russians thought Stalin didn’t know about the oppression they suffered under – and that if he only did, he would stop it.

  • Fair point. For such an unlikeable figure, Stalin was surprisingly beloved.

  • Traditionally the Russian peasantry would say the same thing about the Tsars. “If only the little Father knew!” Stalin’s cult of personality was a knowing attempt to place himself in the Tsar’s place. When his aged mother asked Stalin just what his job was, he responded “Well mama, do you remember the Tsars? I’m sort of like a Tsar.”

  • Force can work short term, and Stalin’s reign of less than three decades was short term

    Three decades is the short term?

    So the Soviet Union still exists BA, who knew?

    The Soviet Union didn’t cease to exist because Stalin lacked the consent of the governed, but if you want an example of a still existing totalitarianism, there’s North Korea. No doubt your answer to that will be that the North Korean regime’s days are numbered, and that eventually it too will fall based on its lack of consent by the governed. Not only does this render the claim nonfalsifiable, but it renders it somewhat vacuous as well. If all the consent of the governed idea means is that a state can’t exist without popular support for thirty, er, sixty (ninety?) years then that isn’t saying much.

  • Stalin had a finger on a scale in the sense that anyone who expressed dissent was killed or sent to Siberia (along with a lot of people who hadn’t even expressed dissent), but didn’t it essentially amount to the fact that people were more willing to be ruled by him than to pay the price of getting rid of him?

    If I hand over my money to a mugger rather than be killed by him, does that mean I have consented to his having my money?

  • “No doubt your answer to that will be that the North Korean regime’s days are numbered, and that eventually it too will fall based on its lack of consent by the governed.”

    Of course it will, and you know it. North Korea isn’t a nation but rather a vast concentration camp as indicated by the starving defectors that escape from it. It is a prime example of the devastating consequences of leaders attempting to rule without the consent of the governed: a truly Orwellian nightmare of a “nation” of prisoners ruled by a few guards. Unlike Orwell’s dystopia however, North Korea is not an example of the trend of the future but rather an example of an extreme despotism doomed to die. Rather than aiding your case BA it strengthens my contention that the consent of the governed is necessary for any regime long term. A substantial portion of any population withholding that consent for long enough is going to doom any regime. Every state if it wishes to endure long term has to get consent and acceptance from most of its population.

  • I would not say that. I think you can say that in Occidental civilization, political systems with genuine durability tend to incorporate a modicum of pluralism and make ample use of deliberative institutions and political authority exercised face-to-face. The Hohenzollern and Romanov monarchies would be the notable exceptions. It also appears that the Occidental pattern is now global (more or less).

  • I’m happy that my remarks on legitimacy have stirred up so many interesting comments. I see that several people pointed out the best argument for the “legitimacy comes from consent” position–namely that if nobody recognizes a ruler as legitimate, he is not, in fact, legitimate. I would say that authority has the interesting property of being based on recognition, but not on consent. We all recognize a duty to obey the state, whether or not we consent to it (even implicitly). Where does this duty come from? Like all authority, it comes from God. I must obey the state because, strange as it may seem, for me the U.S. government symbolizes God in His role of judge and ruler. If the state only represented the will of the majority, and not God, than my obeying it would be nothing but herd-mentality servility.

    Haven’t I just pushed the problem back one more step? What gives the U.S. this symbolic value for me rather than, say, the king of Spain? I suppose its the fact that I’m part of a people, a collective consciousness, with its distinct culture, traditions, and ways of symbolizing the world. Every people must symbolize God’s authority over them, both individually and collectively, and they do that partly through the state. To withdraw allegiance from the state would be to sever myself from my ancestors and my countrymen by removing myself from their symbolic universe. Filial piety forbids me to do this.

    I hope this makes sense.

  • “If I hand over my money to a mugger rather than be killed by him, does that mean I have consented to his having my money?”

    Yes. To live instead of die is a choice.

    But, that isn’t why people follow and obey dictators, at least not in the long-term.

    Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro – none of them would have been able to come to or stay in power without the support of at least the majority. Heck, Hitler was elected. He didn’t win a majority but he did win more votes than any other candidate. Even Lenin wouldn’t make a move until election results showed that a majority of Russia’s urban workers supported the Bolsheviks (even though they were overwhelmingly opposed by the rest of Russia). While they were in the minority among the group they believed they needed to win, Lenin insisted on pacifism for purely pragmatic reasons. Castro and Mao and other third world dictators had legions of followers who supported their rise and maintained their power.

    Anti-imperialism was a popular and powerful force. The hearts and minds of the young were swiftly captured and turned against skeptical or resistant parents. People believed they were breathing the air of genuine freedom – from domination by Western powers. They saw measures we would consider totalitarian and unworthy of human dignity as necessities in the struggle against imperialism.

    Sure, these totalitarian regimes will eventually collapse – new leaders that don’t have the same charisma will replace the ones that did have it. The old problems that the leaders sought to address will vanish, or their successors will make things worse than they were. It only takes a few military units to sour on the regime for the whole thing to come tumbling down.

  • “If I hand over my money to a mugger rather than be killed by him, does that mean I have consented to his having my money?”

    Yes. To live instead of die is a choice.

    By this logic rape would be impossible. Rape is sex without consent. But when a man with a gun threatens to kill a woman unless she submits, she chooses to live instead of die, which is a choice. Hence the sex is consensual, and hence not rape.

    Of course the above argument is invalid, because it just isn’t the case that you consent to something when forced into it at the point of a gun.

  • Well, first of all, it wouldn’t be impossible – if you physically pin a person down, even their choice to resist wouldn’t matter.

    In your example, how is a choice NOT being made? To say there is no choice is to say that there is literally no other possibility. This is simply false.

    Perhaps there is a difference between simply making a choice, and “consenting” – I’ll grant that. But there is a choice.

  • Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro – none of them would have been able to come to or stay in power without the support of at least the majority.

    There is a distinction between organizational skills and popular support. Moqtada al-Sadr was able to establish himself as a power in Iraq even though his political party has clocked in with less than 5% of the vote in competitive elections. Columbia’s insurgent groups made a brief foray into electoral politics twenty years ago and their performance suggested a base of similar size; those characters have been making a mess of Columbian public life since 1964 or therabouts..

  • In your example, how is a choice NOT being made?

    Did I say there was no choice being made? I said there was no consent.

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