Conservatives & The Eich Affair

Wednesday, April 9, AD 2014

Joseph Shaw over at LMS Chairman has posted a four part-critique of the conservative response to the Eich affair (and related incidents) titled “Why Conservatives Are Wrong.” Whereas Jeffery Tucker attacked conservative libertarians from the left, complaining about their “brutalism” in their assertion of their rights to live according to traditional and natural values, Shaw attacks from the right, following the general outline of the illiberal critique of the foundations of American political thought. A serious critique deserves a serious response, which is what I hope to provide here from a classical liberal perspective.

At the outset it is worth highlighting that Shaw, myself, and I imagine many of us on both sides of the “America is good/America sucks” divide share many common concerns and basic moral values. This is not a battle between left-wing “liberal” Catholics and orthodox “conservative” Catholics; it is a strategic and perhaps philosophical dispute between two groups that share a set of values and commitments to authentic Church doctrine and the natural moral law. Our most important point of agreement is that neither of us are “progressives”; we do not view history as a linear ascent to some utopian future in which fallen man has been redeemed by his own self-righteous awakening. We, political traditionalists and classical liberals both, ground ourselves in “self-evident truths” that do not change with the direction of the winds and in our belief in the superiority of reason to the irrational and fickle demands of the mob.

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7 Responses to Conservatives & The Eich Affair

  • The contradiction at the heart of liberalism lies in its simultaneous assertion of popular sovereignty and universal human rights. In the brief interlude between the absolutist state of the Ancien Régime and modern social democracies, this was achieved by the separation of the public sphere of state activity and the private sphere of civil society. The state provided a legally codified order within which social customs, economic competition, religious beliefs, and so on, could be pursued without interference.

    But, when the social consensus on which the distinction rested breaks down, liberalism has no way of defining or defending the boundaries of this sphere; everything becomes potentially political.

    As a matter of history, the first challenge to the consensus of the bourgeois parliamentary parties came from socialism, which denied the autonomy of the economic sphere. The Conservatives had never accepted it: they hankered for the dirigisme of the Ancien Régime.

    Rousseau saw this very well. “Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign is sole judge of what is important,” for “ if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.” His solution is well known: “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; [ce qui ne signifie autre chose sinon qu’on le forcera d’être libre]”

  • One way you can look at these disputes is as a competition over ‘positional goods’, which competition is generally zero-sum. So, you have the competition between the word-merchant sector and the business sectors (which re-capitulates the competition between the socially adept and the rest on the playground), the disdain of the haut bourgeois for everyone else, conflicts between blacks and everyone else, conflicts between men and women, conflicts between sexual deviants and the remainder, conflicts between immigrants and the remainder. It does not map very well to questions of liberty and tolerance because the goal is not to be free of anything but to place oneself and one’s fellows in a superordinate position. (With regard to the issue at hand, one might also note the prevalence of homosexuals in the theatre; it’s a social segment which hankers after applause).

    Consider that in a society where freedom of contract and freedom to publish within a state of tolerable public order, recognition is not distributed at random. The position of a landed gentry will gradually erode, the position of the clergy and the military will be circumstantially contingent, no special recognition will be accorded salaried employees public or private, and wage earning populations are definitely subordinate and generally poor. Also, the influence of dynastic fealty on the political order will gradually erode in favor of lateral bonds between participants in society. The word merchant element is proportionately smaller and less autonomous.

    Note also, that family relations are the principal means by which people are indemnified against the vicissitudes of life, most particularly so in societies with small public sectors. However, family relations remain vigorous only when law and custom stress durability, legitimacy, and stereotyped responsibilities. Domestic division of labor and coping with the inevitable friction of domestic life suits some people better than others.

    When you ask what is congruent with a system of natural liberty (equal liberty and careers-open-to-talents) you see that recognition will tend to flow to people with certain talents and virtues: a talent for competition and leadership qualities. Not every free society will precisely replicate the United States of 1928, but the distribution of recognition would certainly be very different than what it is today, where the capacity to manipulate people in various setting (through verbiage, through symbolism, through mind games) is the order of the day.

  • “The contradiction at the heart of liberalism lies in its simultaneous assertion of popular sovereignty and universal human rights.”

    Liberalism does not necessarily advocate popular sovereignty. As a Jeffersonian, however, I can defend the marriage of liberalism and popular sovereignty by way of freedom of association and political pluralism. The essential right becomes the freedom to leave a popular sovereign territory with values one does not share and relocate elsewhere.

  • Art Deco wrote, “recognition will tend to flow to people with certain talents and virtues: a talent for competition and leadership qualities…”
    Under popular government in antiquity, the most honourable, as well as the most lucrative professions, were those of the statesman, the soldier and the jurist.

  • I agree with the fact that what we are witnessing is not longer just progressive liberalism per se but outright Communism at the very worst or Socialism in the best. Either way it is un American. Even the well known Andrew Sullivan said he thought this was a mistake on the part of Mozilla because somebody was fired simply for an action he took on Prop 8. I am sorry but we no longer live in the Land of the Free. Instead we are starting to become like another police state were people are losing their civil and religious and constitutional rights due to some kind of Special Interests group. BTW Political Correctness is not the proper term being used it was and still is CULTURAL COMMUNISM. PC sounds harmless enough

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  • They were jealous and used Eich’s donation as an excuse to pirate Mozilla

A False Anthropological Dichotomy

Monday, March 10, AD 2014

Not long ago I examined an article by Patrick J. Deneen concerning the intellectual divide between American Catholics. If you will recall, Deenen divides American Catholics into a pro-America/liberal camp and an anti-America/illiberal or “radical” camp. At the heart of this divide, so they say (I will challenge this below) is an alleged conflict of “anthropologies”; it appears to be common currency on the illiberal side of the debate. Liberals – and to be clear, we’re talking about classical liberals for the most part – supposedly hold to an anthropological view that is self-centered and individualistic. Worse yet, in this view, human beings are allegedly driven primarily by fear and greed (when they aren’t gratifying their basest urges). All of this contemporary classical liberals are alleged to hold as demonstrated irrevocably by the laws of microeconomics and the sophisticated and often indecipherable mathematical models of neoclassical economists. Dig a bit deeper and the whole rotten anti-Christian edifice can be traced back to John Locke, whose “possessive individualism” birthed the demon-spawns of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson and gave us the American commercial republic.

The reality, of course, is quite different. The fundamental value of classical liberalism is not “individualism”, but liberty. But the nature of liberty is such that only individuals can exercise it, for the human race is not a hive mind; each human being possesses his or her own intellect and will and is, barring some defect, responsible for the decisions they make. Metaphysical libertarianism, which is the position that human beings have free will, is a foundational assumption of Christianity (and indeed of any ethical system that presupposes human beings can make moral choices). It is also the foundational moral and methodological assumption of classical liberal sociology, political theory and economics. People are free by nature, and cannot be studied as if they were not free. And because we are free by nature, we are gravely harmed if we are unnecessarily restricted in our liberty by other men, including and especially governments.

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28 Responses to A False Anthropological Dichotomy

  • For some reason I cannot share this on Facebook . . . no button.

  • “But the nature of liberty is such that only individuals can exercise it…”

    That is just what Lord Acton denied. Of the liberal parliamentary democracy of his own day, he argues that “It condemns, as a State within the State, every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. It recognises liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of a limited command.” Thus, “Under its sway, therefore, every man may profess his own religion more or less freely; but his religion is not free to administer its own laws. In other words, religious profession is free, but Church government is controlled. And where ecclesiastical authority is restricted, religious liberty is virtually denied.”

    In the temporal sphere, too, the Tudor despotism was made possible by the destruction of the old territorial nobility in the Wars of the Roses; Henry VIII could send More and Fisher to the scaffold. Charles V could not send John of Saxony or the Margrave of Hesse or the burghers of the Free Cities to the scaffold. Their “conditional obedience” was secured by “a limited command,” the authority they exercised in their own domains and in the loyalty of their dependants. A state that can neither protect nor punish cannot oppress.

  • This is the reason so-called social sciences are not sciences.

    In a real science, the hypothesis is defined. Experiments and/or tests are run to prove or disprove the hypothesis. If the tests fail, scientists recognize it. They don’t resort to hysterics.

    Quoted at Cafe Hayek: From page 168 of the 5th edition (1966) of Karl Popper’s 1945 study, “The Open Society and Its Enemies”:

    “Aestheticism and radicalism must lead us to jettison reason, and to replace it by a desperate hope for political miracles. This irrational attitude which springs from intoxication with dreams of a beautiful world is what I call Romanticism. It may seek its heavenly city in the past or in the future; it may preach ‘back to nature’ or ‘forward to a world of love and beauty’; but its appeal is always to our emotions rather than to reason. Even with the best intentions of making heaven on earth it only succeeds in making it a hell – that hell which man alone prepares for his fellow-men.”

    Liberals/progressives substitute emotions for data, facts, meaning, truth. They have no decency and will viciously attack you. The lying dung beetles lack the smallest iota of moral or intellectual authority. Just tell it to them. Then, ask, “What evidence do you have?” “Compared to what?” And ask ”How much will it cost? They find it all highly traumatic.

    Central planning by credentialed geniuses who know better than we the people.

    Collectivists

    Command economy

    Group think

    Hive mentality

    The Borg

    Resistance is futile!

  • We did not invent the Federal Reserve System, which is directly responsible for the reckless behavior of the large banks and corporations.

    [rolls eyes]

    All of the talk about “false anthropology” is really a smokescreen for an alternative economic system that, when taken to its logical implications, is authoritarian, irrational and undesirable.

    Shuffling through his bibliography, I will wager that Deneen’s mind shuffles through verbiage derived from intellectual history and philosophy and ‘social theory’ and the man would not know an ‘alternative economic system’ from tiddlywinks. A great deal of this sort of talk (on the part of practitioners august and scruffy) seems to default either to efforts to distinguish the speaker from people he fancies vulgar or to distinguish the speaker from agents (e.g. insurance companies) he has elected to scapegoat.

  • Bonchamps,

    While I am broadly sympathetic to your position, I don’t think you are being fair or treating Dennen’s concerns carefully. For example, you say:

    “Classical liberals on the other hand do not desire to let people alone out of sheer indifference, but rather because it is in our view, and in the light of free will, an affront to human dignity to force someone to become something that they don’t wish to be no matter how good it might be for them objectively. Persuasion is as far as we are willing to go, and only for so long as we will be heard. As a slightly secondary matter, force rarely works in the manner intended. People do not fall into line like so many rows of virtuous toy soldiers; instead they turn to black markets run by criminal elements or simply leave for greener, freer pastures.”

    The problem with this is that there are certain goods and services that are not ethically and morally neutral — it is positively evil for society to allow pornography and prostitution (to use two classic examples) to flourish because providing these good and services are evil acts in and of themselves. Yes, I know I’m now bringing in the dreaded “anti-capitalist deontology” — but as Catholics we have to — we cannot do evil so that good may come of it, period. We must oppose evil whenever and wherever we find it. So the State should never be ‘neutral’ about the selling of certain goods and services and therefore some market regulation will always be necessary.

    I think pointing to liberty as a guide can be helpful, but the Church’s notion of the common good is probably better — this makes our work more difficult because we are then left with case by case prudential decisions and for some communities it might serve the common good to ban Walmart (e.g. a place that wants to retain a certain ‘small-town character’ including little shops that can’t compete with a big Walmart), in others it will only limit consumer options and economic growth and people value those goods more than the small-town character. But ignoring the common good for individual liberty is not always wise and doesn’t always give us a government that knows how to govern well.

  • The problem with this is that there are certain goods and services that are not ethically and morally neutral — it is positively evil for society to allow pornography and prostitution

    So, Deneen is arguing with the Libertarian Party and the Reason Foundation. What’s that got to do with the rest of us?

  • Jeffrey S.,

    No one told St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas that legal prostitution was a positive evil that cannot be done for some greater good. Both men advocated exactly that, for exactly that reason.

    “We must oppose evil whenever and wherever we find it.”

    If by “we” you mean us, as individuals, choosing to oppose evil with virtue, yes, I agree. If by “we” you mean the state, then you are arguing for totalitarian government, because men are fallen and evil is everywhere. I prefer the classical approach, which ironically enough developed in the pre-capitalist world. Men will always seek out illicit sex, and there is nothing we can do about it.

    “But ignoring the common good for individual liberty is not always wise and doesn’t always give us a government that knows how to govern well.”

    We can govern ourselves, by and large, because we are free beings with the use of reason. I’m not an anarchist, but I would shrink government down to Grover Norquist levels.

  • here’s a reminder: Pope John Paull II on the US Constitution and Freedom

    http://the-american-catholic.com/2013/09/17/pope-john-paull-ii-on-the-us-constitution-and-freedom/

    freedom gives us the opportunity to do good–

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  • Thank you, Anzlyne: “freedom gives us the opportunity to do good–”
    .
    Need I say more?

  • The notion that Conservatives have been traditionally hostile to state interference is not borne out by history, as Tocqueville notes in his speech of 12 September 1848 to the National Assembly: “And finally, gentlemen, liberty. There is one thing which strikes me above all. It is that the Ancien Régime, which doubtless differed in many respects from that system of government which the socialists call for (and we must realize this) was, in its political philosophy, far less distant from socialism than we had believed. It is far closer to that system than we. The The notion that Conservatives have been traditionally hostile to state interference is not borne out by history, as Tocqueville notes in his speech of 12 September 1848 to the National Assembly: “And finally, gentlemen, liberty. There is one thing which strikes me above all. It is that the Ancien Régime, which doubtless differed in many respects from that system of government which the socialists call for (and we must realize this) was, in its political philosophy, far less distant from socialism than we had believed. It is far closer to that system than we. The Ancien Régime, in fact, held that wisdom lay only in the State and that the citizens were weak and feeble beings who must forever be guided by the hand, for fear they harm themselves. It held that it was necessary to obstruct, thwart, restrain individual freedom, that to secure an abundance of material goods it was imperative to regiment industry and impede free competition. The Ancien Régime believed, on this point, exactly as the socialists of today do. It was the French Revolution which denied this.”
    In France, in Austria, In Russia, in Prussia, in Spain, the “Throne and Altar” Conservatives were all notably dirigiste in their economic views.

  • MPS,

    1. Concision is a virtue.

    2. Early modern economic regulations in France were what they were. What precise bearing does that have on latter-day conflicts over political economy in the United States?

  • The notion that Conservatives have been traditionally hostile to state interference is not borne out by history[.]
    That would be why Bonchamps used the term “classical liberal.”

  • Bonchamps,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. While it might seem the height of folly to disagree with two of the finest minds in all of Western thought, with all due respect, Saints Augustine and Aquinas are just wrong about legal prostitution. Utilitarian ethics are always going to lead you to hell (e.g. abortion — “but the woman isn’t ready to have a baby at 18 and her life will be so much better if she can just abort”). But putting that argument aside, I notice you ignored my comment about pornography, which is a tendency of defenders of “liberty”, tout court. Obviously, even in wild and crazy free-market America it is possible to envision state regulations that govern restrictions on the market that support a more virtuous culture (think back on the 50s).

    Perhaps, like “Art Deco” you would support certain state regulations of the market. As I said before, I’m actually sympathetic to small, limited government of the Grover Norquist style — I just think that philosophically we need to be careful when we defend small, limited government using the concept of “liberty”. The older American (Puritan) tradition was “ordered liberty”, which had the sense that liberty always entailed social responsibilities (and limits) because “man is not an island” and we are part of families and communities and owe duties to each. This is all part and parcel of Catholic social thought, so I’m sure you agree — just as the idea of subsidiarity (I think) can support a robust federalism and limited, small government in the U.S.

  • “What precise bearing does that have on latter-day conflicts over political economy in the United States?”

    Conservatives, starting with Plautus in 195 BC have always recognised the maxim, “Homo homini lupus” – Man is a wolf to his fellow man. The mass of the people may, indeed, be “weak and feeble beings,” but some few are not and they will form packs to prey on the rest.

    As Turgot saw, “If the supreme power is needlessly limited, the secondary powers will run riot and oppress. Its supremacy will bear no check.” Moreover, “Men who seek only the general good must wound every distinct and separate interest of class,” so no effective government can be the creature of the many. “The problem is to enlighten the ruler, not to restrain him; and one man is more easily enlightened than many.”

    I fancy “Illiberal Catholics,” like their Continental Throne & Altar counterparts, recognise this.

  • Jeffrey S. wrote, “Saints Augustine and Aquinas are just wrong about legal prostitution”
    They may have been wrong on the particular issue, but they recognised an important distinction.
    Similarly, Portalis, one of the commissioners that drew up the Code Napoléon and a Catholic, who had suffered for his faith during the Revolution says, “Christianity, which speaks only to the conscience, guides by grace the little number of the elect to salvation; the law restrains by force the unruly passions of wicked men, in the interests of l’ordre public [public order/public policy]” By way of illustration, he points out that Christianity forbids divorce, whilst the Mosaic law (which was the civil law of the Jewish commonwealth) permitted it.
    Likewise, the new Penal Code, proposed by Louis Michel le Peletier, Marquis de Saint-Fargeau (promulgated September 26 – October 6, 1791) abolished, without a debate, the crimes of blasphemy, sodomy and witchcraft [le blasphème, la sodomie et la sorcellerie] along with other “offences against religion.” They had a good precedent in the Roman jurisprudence: “deorum injuriae diis curae” – Injuries against the gods are the gods’ concern.

  • “The problem is to enlighten the ruler, not to restrain him; and one man is more easily enlightened than many.”
    I fancy “Illiberal Catholics,” like their Continental Throne & Altar counterparts, recognise this.

    Can any earthly prince be so enlightened as to command and control the market?

  • Ernst Schreiber asks, “Can any earthly prince be so enlightened as to command and control the market?”

    No, but he can intervene in it, as he deems appropriate.

  • ” [H]e can intervene in it, as he deems appropriate.”

    That’s the rub now, is it not? Deeming when it’s appropriate to intervene, and when it’s best to stay hands-off?

    And I’m not speaking about easy distinctions, like prostitution, I mean hard ones, like minimum wage laws.

  • Conservatives, starting with Plautus in 195 BC have always recognised the maxim,

    You’re already off the rails here.

    Perhaps, like “Art Deco” you would support certain state regulations of the market.

    I do not think you can carry on economic activity more sophisticated than what you see at a farmers’ market without a body of corporation law, debtor and creditor law, commercial law, and contract law. You need to delineate property ownership and adjudicate disputes concerning ownership and tenure, hence a body of estate law, real property law, and personal property law. Any society needs answers to the question of the degree to which and the circumstances under which a magistrate can coerce a person; answers to those questions inform both the penal code and labor law.

  • Jeffrey,
    .
    “with all due respect, Saints Augustine and Aquinas are just wrong about legal prostitution.”
    .
    I’m not one of these rad-trads who thinks that Aquinas is infallible. I do think that their view on the matter demonstrates that we are not morally obliged to outlaw every immoral act. I think their view was realistic and rational. Look at the way it played out historically; prostitution was more or less legal in certain medieval cities but confined to designated areas of town. I don’t mind the interference of local zoning laws for the sake of public order. Families and children have rights too.
    .
    “Utilitarian ethics are always going to lead you to hell (e.g. abortion — “but the woman isn’t ready to have a baby at 18 and her life will be so much better if she can just abort”).”
    .
    I don’t advocate utilitarian ethics. I think utilitarian considerations have an important place in moral calculations, though. In the case of abortion, we are dealing with the fundamental natural right to life. Utilitarian considerations should not enter the picture; rights are fundamental, personal utility is not. Utility is something properly considered within the broad parameters of fundamental rights, not something that ought to override them.
    .
    “But putting that argument aside, I notice you ignored my comment about pornography, which is a tendency of defenders of “liberty”, tout court. Obviously, even in wild and crazy free-market America it is possible to envision state regulations that govern restrictions on the market that support a more virtuous culture (think back on the 50s).”
    .
    Even our amoral Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutionally acceptable to censor hardcore pornography. It’s an issue I would be happy to leave to the 10th amendment, just like prostitution, and advocate for its ban within my state. The problem we face now is the Internet. It’s barely worth discussing; there is next to nothing we can do about it. You can get all of the magazines off the store shelves, you can close down strip clubs, adult shops and disreputable theaters, but there’s a massive world of filth and degeneracy just a few clicks away. This means we have to confront vice the old fashioned way – by converting people.
    .
    “Perhaps, like “Art Deco” you would support certain state regulations of the market.”
    .
    I do agree with his last post. Corporate law, contract law, etc. are all necessary, there have to be ways to settle disputes, etc. I don’t really consider these “regulations”, though. They don’t impose burdens on the free market for the sake of some do-gooder’s subjective idea of what is best for other people; they help the market function.
    .
    “As I said before, I’m actually sympathetic to small, limited government of the Grover Norquist style — I just think that philosophically we need to be careful when we defend small, limited government using the concept of “liberty”. The older American (Puritan) tradition was “ordered liberty”, which had the sense that liberty always entailed social responsibilities (and limits) because “man is not an island” and we are part of families and communities and owe duties to each. This is all part and parcel of Catholic social thought, so I’m sure you agree — just as the idea of subsidiarity (I think) can support a robust federalism and limited, small government in the U.S.”
    .
    Sure, nothing disagreeable there. I just don’t believe that people can be saved from themselves, or that it is moral to even attempt such a thing.

  • Any society needs answers to the question of the degree to which and the circumstances under which a magistrate can coerce a person; answers to those questions inform both the penal code and labor law.

    Quite right — which is why invoking “liberty” to settle such questions isn’t good enough. We need to look to other sources of wisdom, including Catholic morality/social teaching and/or the natural moral law to help us guide decisions about how best to serve the common good. We must weigh competing claims on the body politic (personal property rights versus other moral goods, like defending the weak or protecting public morals). As I’ve said before (this makes three times), I often think many of these goals can be achieved via local, private civic institutions and when the government needs to step in I prefer local, smaller units of government as outlined in our original Constitution. I’m a State’s rights, 10th Amendment guy who generally favors small government — but again, the question is always how we defend these institutions.

  • They don’t impose burdens on the free market for the sake of some do-gooder’s subjective idea of what is best for other people; they help the market function.

    I will let the lawyers’ here offer their piece. I suspect you can find moral and ethical notions incorporated within commercial law, bankruptcy law, and contract law.

  • I agree that prostitution should be illegal, but do regard the decision as requiring a prudential analysis even though prostitution is intrinsically evil always. It is folly to place in the hands of the state the putative ideal that all evils should be criminalized. The evil accomplished by any attempted execution of such a principle would be appalling. Indeed, this is the only rational defense of the pro-choice position — that the wrong of abortion is compounded by state intrusions upon personal privacy — a view that simply cannot withstand honest scrutiny. That said, I am of the view that all laws are essentially prudential in nature, meaning that it requires judgment and discernment to determine which evils should be criminalized and implicate state enforcement. Some are easy calls, such as abortion and other murders; others are more difficult such as pornography; and still others are easy for different reasons, such as remarriage after divorce. Of course, laws reflect culture and vice versa, and sometimes laws can be prescriptive for a culture rather than just describing its embedded norms. Presumably the healthier the culture the greater its ability enact and enforce laws in complete alignment with natural law, but we will always be assessing degrees given man’s fallen nature. I do think prostitution should be illegal, but that does not mean Aquinas and Augustine were wrong. Much depends on the era and its culture, and that even includes enforcement ability and tactics. Those who advocate a system of laws that is coextensive with morality, as opposed to being simply informed by morality, will lead us to a Hell on earth.

  • AD,

    I’m not suggesting that business law is devoid of ethics. A system that protects against force and fraud is an ethical system. A system designed to save people from themselves at the expense of others – what Sumner decried as A and B taking from C to give to X – claims to be ethical but is really a tyranny.

  • “Utility is something properly considered within the broad parameters of fundamental rights, not something that ought to override them.”

    Well said.

    “The problem we face now is the Internet. It’s barely worth discussing; there is next to nothing we can do about it.”

    I’m going to agree to disagree. Technology provides problems and solutions. Take filtering software — seems reasonable to install in public places like libraries. But libraries object because of ‘First Amendment’ worries. Nonsense — public morality should take precedence.

    “It is folly to place in the hands of the state the putative ideal that all evils should be criminalized.” [this was Mike’s comment]

    I agree — I suspect that ultimately I only disagree with Bonchamps (and maybe others on this comment thread) over the use of some rhetoric and over some prudential considerations about where to draw the line over state action. Unlike Bonchamps, I do believe that at times the state can help people “save them from themselves”, or at least make it easier for parents and communities to create an environment in which the human person can flourish. I’m basically talking about a return to the public morality of the 1950s — not the Middle-Ages.

  • “Likewise, the new Penal Code, proposed by Louis Michel le Peletier, Marquis de Saint-Fargeau (promulgated September 26 – October 6, 1791) abolished, without a debate, the crimes of blasphemy, sodomy and witchcraft [le blasphème, la sodomie et la sorcellerie] along with other “offences against religion.” They had a good precedent in the Roman jurisprudence: “deorum injuriae diis curae” – Injuries against the gods are the gods’ concern.” Injuries against the gods are the gods’ concern.”
    .
    “Injuries against the gods are scandals and seduction of infant, un-emancipated and minor citizens, and contrary to the general welfare and the common good; public policy. If the children learn to blaspheme God, what will they do to their parents? If the children learn to cast evil spells or deny the human soul through sodomy, how will they come to recognize their immortal soul? How will they come to see beauty and know the truth when all they have seen is ugly? How will they come to realize their innocence and Justice after it has been erased from their memory? It is contrary to human nature and human rights.
    .
    Is that why there are so many zombie films on TV?

  • Art Deco wrote, “I will let the lawyers’ here offer their piece. I suspect you can find moral and ethical notions incorporated within commercial law, bankruptcy law, and contract law…”

    Iuris praecepta sunt haec: honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, suum cuique tribuere, says Ulpian in the Digest { Dig.1.1.10.1 Ulpianus 1 reg] – These are the precepts of the law: to live uprightly, not to harm another, to give to each his own.

    Contract law is replete with the notion of good faith and there are remedies aplenty for fraud, accident, mistake and breach of confidence. Bankruptcy is all about a fair sharing of limited resources between creditors and, in Europe at least, protection of the vulnerable, by giving priority for arrears of wages.

    The law of delict is based on the obligation of the wrongdoer to make reparation. Property law, too, often has to adjudicate between the owner deprived of possession by some rogue and the bona fide possessor.

The Contradiction of Religious Freedom

Wednesday, January 20, AD 2010

Perhaps one of the most cherished freedoms of liberal democracy (in the sense of classical liberalism, not modern progressivism) is the freedom of religion. Much though I admire many elements of Western Civilization prior to the modern era, I cannot help thinking that the end of the formal confessional state has generally been a good thing not only for the state, but even more so for the Church. It has given the Church, no longer tied down by the need to support explicitly Catholic regimes, the freedom to speak more openly and forcefully on the demands that Christ’s message puts upon us in the public and economic realms.

That said, it seems to me that there is a built in contradiction in the place of religious freedom in classical liberalism: While religious freedom is a central element of classical liberalism, the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview. Thus, while religious freedom is a foundational element of classical liberalism, only a certain degree of religious conformity makes it possible.

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30 Responses to The Contradiction of Religious Freedom

  • If, however, there is fundamental disagreement among the populace about basic issues of right and wrong and what the purpose of the human person is, the victory of the other side will increasingly look to the defeated like an unacceptable tyranny, and the state will risk coming apart at the seams.

    I think this an interesting point. As people’s views change as permitted in an environment of religious liberty, it’s possible that they will diverge to the extent that the commitment to religious liberty and other unifying ideals will erode. Hobbes, for instance, thought this threat was an excellent reason for the state to abolish religious freedom altogether. In this scenario, religion would be yet another tool of good governance.

    Another possibility, of course, is that views will diverge to the extent that there are competing views of what religious freedom should mean and how it should be embodied in law, but that the underlying commitment to religious freedom will remain intact. I would say in broad terms that this is where we are today, and actually also where we were at the time of the Founding. There have been developments since then, of course (most notably the dramatic expansion of the state, which creates many more potential areas for conflict), but I think this tension will probably appear in any pluralistic democracy.

  • this tension will probably appear in any pluralistic democracy.

    Agreed. Which leads to the question, can a pluralistic democracy survive itself? Or is the non-confessional state doomed to eventually fracture in the face of worldviews within the citizenry which overly diverge?

  • Which leads to the question, can a pluralistic democracy survive itself? Or is the non-confessional state doomed to eventually fracture in the face of worldviews within the citizenry which overly diverge?

    I would answer in the affirmative. However, I think it essentially applies to confessional states too. it’s not like being a confessional state automatically excludes critical differences. In fact, if we look at the Protestant rebellion (“Reformation”) you can see how the idea of a confessional state actually facilitated such factors. No state has ever lasted forever in form or appearance and I don’t expect it to ever happen.

  • Interesting commentary. One would think that the post-modern cult of relativism, which is on the rise in western society, would even further complicate things. No longer is the issue simply what is right and what is wrong, but whether or not right or wrong even exist objectively.

  • No inherent contradiction is presented if “freedom” is rightly understood. Freedom does not correspond with the absolute individual authority to will as one pleases. “Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values” (Par. 3, VERITATIS SPLENDOR, 1993). The very basis for “religious freedom” is grounded in the protection of conscience, thereby preserving the integrity and dignity of the human person, i.e., his very nature (see, e.g., Par. 2, DIGNITATIS HUMANAE, 1965). Freedom, in this sense, might be better understood in terms of freedom from coercion, a type of negative right. Consequently, we lawyers sometimes refer to such negative rights and the rules for preserving such rights as “prophylactic” remedies, something to protect against an evil. It would be improper to invoke “religious freedom” as a means to usurp the very good it is intended to achieve in the first place. Therefore, it would not be the legitimate exercise of freedom to achieve some of the results suggested, e.g., to modify the meaning of the human person is such manner as to remove the protection afforded in the first place – that of sanctity of conscience. Such an exercise of will would be an abuse of freedom, and not the legitimate use of freedom. Do such abuses occur in American politics? Yes, but I would argue it is grounded in an erroneous understanding of “freedom.”

  • Jon, I agree with your central point (the proper meaning of freedom), but the problem remains, in that the meaning of freedom as it is used in the First Amendment is not self-evidently the proper one. In fact, it seems likely that it is rather the *improper* one.

  • I think the extent of the requisite religious conformity is the sticking point. I do not think that people need to have the same religion, nor does it need to be eastern or western, but simply that they be in some sense a spiritual people, i.e. concerned with spiritual things. Morality is more or less the same in all religions.

    I think our problem is that we are not a moral or a spiritual people. We are hedonist, apathetic and lazy. I don’t think the problem is necessarily with liberal democracy (except for how it may have facilitated this growth). The problem is that no society, however organized, can survive a people so devoid of a sense of purpose, morality and passion.

  • Chris, perhaps there are some contemporaries who argue the “improper” grounding of freedom based on the omission of certain language; however, I believe an honest examination of the historical context and the debate surrounding the inclusion of the Bill Rights (incl. 1st Amd) bear out that the understanding of the founders regarding “religious freedom” is at least the one grounded in natural law principles, e.g., as expressed in the Decl. of Indep. (Archbishop Chaput advances a similar position in his “Render unto Ceasar.”)

    A basic principle of legal interpretation involves, among other things, appealing to the records of debate that resulted in the enacted language along with attendant circumstances. How could the formation document (Constitution) of the federation be interpreted apart from the dissolution document (Decl. of Indep)? I submit that it can’t, at least honestly.

  • I think Zach makes a good point that the issue is in part “how pluralistic”. It’s tempting to argue that the US used to have a much more united vision of morality, the human person, and the state — though clearly slavery was a recognized problem from the beginning, which did indeed cause the country to break apart. But I think that some degree of diversity is certainly sustainable, so long as there is agreement on a sufficient number of base principles. I think you could certainly have a stable state with a mix of Protestants and Catholics and non-Christians and non-believers — so long as (whether out of habit or shared philosophy) the vast majority had sufficient agreement about basic moral and philosophical standards.

    I’d have to think about it more, but what I think I’d want to argue is that liberal democracy is generally the best (or least bad, if one wants to be Churchillian) form of government, but that in order to have any sort of stable state it’s necessary for the state to be of such a size and composition that there is already sufficient agreement for people to agree to be governed by the same laws. The problem is, of course, that societies change over time, and so a region which was at one point united can splinter over time. I’m not sure, however, that there’s much that the state itself can do to prevent this kind of splintering from happening — that’s the job of the wider culture, and an example of how the apparatus of the state is (or certainly should be, at any rate) subordinate to the culture, not the other way around.

  • Jon, I agree that the Constitution needs to be read with the Declaration in mind, but I don’t think it matters: I number myself among those who see the Founders as heirs of the Enlightenment more than as heirs of a robust Christian tradition with a strong natural law component. And as such, I think their conception of freedom is not as intrinsically ordered towards the good as is ours, but — as primarily a negative sense — tends towards an understanding of freedom as license. I see today’s emphasis on “choice” (whether it’s the NRA or Planned Parenthood) as in keeping with the underlying philosophy of our founding, not in opposition to it.

  • DC, I agree with your points in both ‘graphs… some diversity is sustainable, and societal cohesion can really only be maintained by the culture itself… the state seems powerless to do so while remaining a democracy.

  • Chris, I’m not sure the Founders’ view of liberty as “license” applies as strongly in the context of religious liberty, as it does for perhaps other liberties or rights (“license” in its ordinary sense of being free from all constraint). For example, I don’t believe the Founders’ would protect the right to practice a religion involving human sacrifice.

    Even if the Founders’ formulation of the “good” was hampered by their ideological perspective, given than the right of “religious liberty” is not absolute (as noted above), I’ll restate my thesis: that their approach vis-a-vis religious liberty would at a minimum fall short of redefining the human person so as to extinguish those very same rights. Note that I’m addressing the narrow case of religious liberty here as it corresponds to the original post.

    As I discussed above, negative rights under the law function as prophylactics, and I believe it achieves its purpose here. That freedom when improperly understood may foster a propensity to license is, as noted by other commentators, a cultural problem, and the gov’t is ill equipped to promote true virtue in a plural society, as recognized even by St. Augustine in his time, so I won’t conflate that issue in this discussion.

  • “It has given the Church, no longer tied down by the need to support explicitly Catholic regimes, the freedom to speak more openly and forcefully on the demands that Christ’s message puts upon us in the public and economic realms.”

    I’ve said something similar in the past, but now I question this. First, this kind of comment risks treating freedom as coming from the state or the social structure rather than the Gospel.

    Second, the Church hierarchy is now perhaps just as committed to defending non-confessional regimes and the liberal democratic order.

    Third, the Church hierarchy doesn’t seem very outspoken in an age of democratic freedoms. Except for the pro-life issue, the Church at present seems mostly incapable of leading. Her shepherds fear alienating the laity, the mainstream media, and the political parties.

    However, the general topic of the original post is sound.

    Boiled down, someone with political authority has to define “religion” and “freedom,” and in our state those definitions will be skewed and/or severely contested.

    I’ve long pondered Federalist 2’s comments about how Providence “has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion…”

    That “same religion” line probably meant Protestant Christianity, not the “Judeo-Christian” compromise preached in the US decades ago, and certainly not the diversity-celebrating ethos of contemporary elitism.

    When the composition of the people has changed, how can the constitution of the government (its best parts at least) remain unchanged?

  • Assuming you’re correct, perhaps the increase of pluralism in our society and around the globe will give rise to rethinking of the state itself. I wonder which of the two, in time, will prove the stronger. Will our pluralism fundamentally restructure our society or will the structure of the state put a halt to our pluralism? Or will we not reach that point, but remain in permanent tension?

  • In the piece you state that “the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview…” as though this idea is axiomatic. It is anything but axiomatic. Morality does not, as you suggest, derive from religion. Consider the recently exposed attempts, now well-documented, by the Catholic church to conceal the rampant sexual exploitation of children by its clergy. Insofar as the sexual exploitation of children might be considered as perhaps the one area in which moral condemnation might be considered as both universal and absolute among religious and non-religious alike, I think we can safely conclude that morality is separate from religion and can not be derived from it. Moreover, insofar as religion (in this case the Catholic church) has shown itself to be uniquely delinquent on this issue, we can further conclude that the Catholic church, if not necessarily religion generally, is not only amoral, but immoral. QED

  • Morality of course derives from religion as a historical fact. Without a religious sanction you do not have a binding morality but mere opinion about morality. As for people who are religious engaging in sin, that will only shock people who mistake men for angels. If men were sinless there would be no need for the ten commandments and other religion based codes of morality. That men violate such codes says nothing about the validity of the codes and everything about the capacity of humans to commit evil. As for your attempt to claim that sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy is “uniquely delinquent”, I assume you said that with tongue in cheek. Grave crimes against children are committed by adults in every calling known to man. Judging from media accounts, public school teachers seem to be especially culpable in this area.

  • @ D. McClarey – Respectfully, your statement that “[m]orality of course derives from religion as a historical fact” is merely a conclusory restatement of the original proposition and is patently absurd on its face for the same reasons I’ve stated. Of course, the is no “of course” about it…and that is my point. As for my characterization of the Catholic church’s response to the the sex abuse scandal as “uniquely delinquent”, I do not mean to say that no other entity as ever committed a similar offense against morality as that too would be absurd. I do, however, think that the Catholic church’s response has been and is “uniquely delinquent” as to the degree to which they permitted, and then by failing to adequately address the issue enabled, the abuse. By ignoring the problem and reassigning offending priests to other parishes rather than turning those priests over to authorities for prosecution or at least ensuring that those priests would be assigned to duties that would avoid contact with children transformed what were the individual transgressions of a few into a systemic transgression. Hence, by any measure, the Catholic church committed immoral acts or what you would no doubt term, “sins”. The church must accept responsibility for its actions and, by so doing, acknowledge that it has no direct moral authority. If it has any moral authority at all it is, at best, derivative. If moral authority is, arguendo, vested derivatively in the church then it is only one of many sources of such authority and therefore is subject to your criticism that such authority is subjective and relative.

  • Karl,

    You don’t even have to accept that religiously derived moral norms are correct to see the truth of my statement (though your illogic that follows is pretty impressive, and all the more ironic by your summing up with the scholastic QED.)

    If a society is made up of multiple factions with radically differing ideas of what is right and wrong, and each group tries (as is natural) to enforce their notions of right and wrong through the mechanism of the law, strife will inevitably result.

    We saw this in our own history with the issue of slavery. One section of the country believed that slavery was a profound moral evil — another believed it was natural and perhaps even beneficial to the enslaved. Prohibitionists saw it as evil not to outlaw slavery, slavery supporters saw it as an unacceptable abbridgement of their freedom to hold private property.

    The result was the bloodiest war in our history. For my point to hold, it’s not even necessary to rule on which side was right, or if there even is such a thing as right and wrong. So long as the two groups believed that there was such a thing as right and wrong, and had different beliefs about it, strife was the inevitable result.

  • Hence, by any measure, the Catholic church committed immoral acts or what you would no doubt term, “sins”. The church must accept responsibility for its actions and, by so doing, acknowledge that it has no direct moral authority. If it has any moral authority at all it is, at best, derivative.

    Huh?

    If it turns out that a drug enforcement unit has been trafficing in drugs illegally, does that mean that there are in fact no laws against narcotics? No.

    If you think that Catholics believe that things are right or wrong only to the extent that the Church practices morality, that the Church is the source of morality by examplar, that would at least explain your confusion. But otherwise this line of argument simply makes no sense.

    The Church claims that it has correctly relayed through its teachings the moral laws (both revealed and natural) which God created humanity to live in conformity to. Whether individual Catholics or even large groups of Catholics successfully live according to those laws would seem to have no relation to whether those laws are indeed true.

    The sins of priests and bishops are no more a disproof of Catholic theology than a physicist having a car accident is a disproof of the laws of motion. Failure to conform to a law does not disprove its existence.

  • No, my statement that all morality derives from religion is historical fact is not conclusory but simply a statement of fact. The morality of all civilizations derives from religious teaching. You can deny this, but it places you squarely in the category of people who deny that fire burns and water is wet. Your idea that sins committed by clerics deprives the Church of moral authority is risible. The moral authority of the Church comes from God. That authority remains if every pope going back to Peter were a vile fiend. The sinful clerics are condemned by the teachings of the Church that they failed to follow. Their sins no more undermined the authority of the Church than Peter’s denial of Christ before the crucifixion or the betrayal of Christ by Judas undermined the authority of the Church. 2000 years of sins and human folly have not undermined that authority.

  • @ DarwinCatholic – “If a society is made up of multiple factions with radically differing ideas of what is right and wrong, and each group tries (as is natural) to enforce their notions of right and wrong through the mechanism of the law, strife will inevitably result.”

    Naturally. Strife is the essence of democracy, and our laws are the product of compromise and adaptation which seeks a balance between individual freedom and the order that must prevail in a society in order to maximize the individual freedom of all.

    “Failure to conform to a law does not disprove its existence.”

    True, but the church failed to enforce the law within its own ranks, holding itself above the law. Do you not see the contradiction that impends here?

  • @ McClarrey –

    “No, my statement that all morality derives from religion is historical fact is not conclusory but simply a statement of fact.”

    This sir, is a conclusory statement. If the things explained as the numerator and the things needed to be assumed in order for the statement to be true as the denominator results in a value < 1, you have made a conclusory statement. If you're at all confused about this, you might want to consult a Jesuit (or a rabbi).

  • No it is a statement of historical fact. All civilizations have based their morality on religious teaching. Once again, you can deny this, but you are simply wrong as a factual matter.

  • Karl,

    I agree that discussion and compromise between opposing view points is the essence of democracy — however I think it’s pretty self evidence that the disagreements one can successfully compromise between have to be within a certain minimum range in order for the process to work. If disagreements are too extreme, the basis for democracy breaks down because any possible compromise will be seen as utterly unacceptable by some portion of the population.

    Imagine that 40% of our population demanded the right to stone women who got pregnant out of wedlock. Meanwhile, 55% believes this would be murder. Some 5% is for some reason able to hold themselves above teh debate.

    If the 40% is truly set on enforcing their beliefs about stoning, indeed believes it will destroy their way of life and make life not worth living if they’re not allowed to stone women who get pregnant out of wedlock, what you’re going to have is a breakdown in civil order and a lot of violence. There’s simply not a way to address that kind of disagreement via the sort of compromise and give-and-take which we use to settle disputes like whether we should subsidize corn production, or whether we should have government health care.

    That’s what I’m talking about here.

    True, but the church failed to enforce the law within its own ranks, holding itself above the law. Do you not see the contradiction that impends here?

    Um, no.

    You’re consistently missing two key points:

    1) The Church does not claim that it sets morality arbitrarily the way that a legislature passes regulations. Rather, it claims to have received from God and passed on to humanity a set of immutable laws formed by God. This isn’t a common law situation where one can claim that failure to enforce is a ceding of control.

    2) You’re also not clearly accounting for what happened here. If the Church had been going around preaching, “Bugging little boys is absolutely wrong. However, if a priest does it, it should not be treated as a crime and he should be allowed to continue,” you would at least have a point that Church teaching was incoherant. Rather, you had the Church clearing teaching that something was wrong, but in some dioceses the bishops were ignoring claims that some of their priests were committing acts which were both crimes and grave sins. It is, unfortunately, all too common that those who are in some form of authority misuse it to their advantage. For instance, I know several police officers who completely ignore speed limits in their personal driving, and then routinely get off when pulled over by flashing their badges. Nonetheless, the fact that cops rarely write other cops tickets does not mean that the speed limits don’t exist. It just means that people in authority often abuse it.

    Indeed, in the case of the scandals, one might actually take the opposite lesson: the fact that a coverup occurred underlines that the Church is correct in stating that the moral law against molestation is a “natural law”, one written in the hearts of man and understandable even without revelation.

  • I think Mr. Wulff is obviously confused about a number of things, but I am not sure you’re quite right, Donald, that all civilizations have based their morality on religious teaching. I’m trying to remember where I encountered the argument (C.S. Lewis, I think), but there are writers who believe that one of the crowning achievements of Judaism and Christianity is the integration of morality and the experience of the numinous.

    To cite one example, the gods of Ancient Greece or Rome were hardly moral exemplars, and the philosophers rather than the priests devoted themselves to exploring moral philosophy. Of course, I think in the end, that explorations of morality and experiences of the numinous eventually have to cross paths, but I’m not sure that’s always how it’s worked historically.

  • All civilizations John Henry base their morality on religious teaching. In regard to the Greeks for example I refer you to Hesiod’s Works and Days from circa 700 BC:

    “Muses of Pieria who give glory through song, come hither, tell of Zeus your father and chant his praise. Through him mortal men are famed or un-famed, sung or unsung alike, as great Zeus wills. For easily he makes strong, and easily he brings the strong man low; easily he humbles the proud and raises the obscure, and easily he straightens the crooked and blasts the proud, — Zeus who thunders aloft and has his dwelling most high.”

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

    Hesiod put into writing the religious traditions of the Greeks that attributed all morality as a gift from the Gods. It is certainly true that later philosophers were troubled by Gods in some of the Greek fables who acted in an immoral fashion, but that did not negate the Greek belief that the Gods had granted to man morality, and that the Gods punished mortals who failed to observe the laws of morality.

  • Religious freedom is inherent in revealed religion, especially the Catholic faith. God reveals and we respond. How we respond is what defines our life. All morality is religious – it can’t be anything else. A philosophical morality is devoid of the transcendent and will collapse because it becomes a human construct and this world is passing away.

    Sure, humans can discern the natural law; but, what inspires that desire? The natural human inclination is to dominate and destroy. Rare is the man who searched for truth before Truth entered space-time. Look at Confucius (Kung Fu Tze), Aristotle or Lao Tzu, they were on to something but like all human efforts it cannot be fulfilled.

    The state’s responsibility is to act negatively, as lucidly pointed out above. Government is not supposed to provide health care, housing, sex-change operations or even food. Government, properly designed, is to curtail the will to power of any group, faction or individual including the state itself. This effort will ultimately always fail because we cannot be perfected in this world.

    Religious freedom is the fundamental freedom – all others, including the right to life are based on the free choice of humans to respond to God. The real question isn’t should the state protect religious freedom – that is self-evident, it must. The real question is what is religion? Without the answer to what religion is, then we cannot expect the state to protect our free choice as regards ‘religion’.

    Religion, properly defined, is the justice we owe to God. Only the Catholic faith has a claim to the fullness of truth. Of course, as Catholics we are free to obey God or rebel. We just must be aware that there are consequences. Those consequences are ours to chose and not for the state to determine. Yet the state must provide the environment of choice, which requires adherence to the truth. Our freedom is not license it is the freedom from coercion save when we seek to coerce another. We are free to do what we ought, not what we want.

    The ultimate penalty for abuse of the freedom of religion is imprisonment for eternity – a dark self-imposed isolation. The good news is Jesus came to set the captives free.

    America has her Masonic/Jacobin/Enlightenment stain and a rich, vibrant Christian tradition. Does she need to be Catholic? No. But America must be Christian. She has to be Christian to be America even if no Christians live here. No other religion, no other philosophy or ethos can promote authentic human freedom.

    Our free, Christian nation has her best days ahead of her, we just have to overcome this relativist chaos right now and then again and again and again until we ultimately fail – and then we win.

    Our Lady of America, ora pro nobis.

  • Gentlemen,

    Thank you for an enjoyable debate. I think the comments and the tone have been respectful and important, valid points raised on all sides. This experience has reaffirmed my faith that people of different points of view, even on those subjects held most dear, can be exchanged in a civil, respectful manner.

    Be well.

Quote of the Day: Hayek on Individualism

Tuesday, January 12, AD 2010

From “Individualism: True and False” (1946)

…[T]he state, the embodiment of deliberately organized and consciously directly power, ought to be only a small part of the much richer organism which we call “society,” and that the former ought to provide merely a framework within which free (and therefore not “consciously directed”) collaboration of men has the maximum scope.

This entails certain corollaries on which true individualism once more stands in sharp opposition to the false individualism of the rationalistic type. The first is that the deliberately organized state on the one side, and the individual on the other, far from being regarded as the only realities, while all the intermediate formations and associations are to be deliberately suppressed, as was the aim of the French Revolution, the noncompulsory conventions of social intercourse are considered as essential factors in preserving the orderly working of human society. The second is that the individual, in participating in the social processes, must be ready and willing to adjust himself to changes and to submit to conventions which are not the result of intelligent design, whose justification in the particular instance may not be recognizable, and which to him often appear unintelligible and irrational.

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Difference and Equality

Thursday, December 3, AD 2009

Individualism is one of those terms which a great many people use in a great many different ways, so it has been with interest that I’ve been reading Individualism and Economic Order by F. A. Hayek. The book is a collection of essays dealing the individualism, its definition and its place in the economic order.

From the first essay, “Individualism: True and False” comes an interesting thought:

Here I may perhaps mention that only because men are in fact unequal can we treat them equally. If all men were completely equal in their gifts and inclinations, we should have to treat them differently in order to achieve any sort of social organization. Fortunately, they are not equal; and it is only owing to this that the differentiation of functions needs not be determined by the arbitrary decision of some organizing will but that, after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville described it, “a new form of servitude.”
(Individualism and the Economic Order p. 14-15)

This strikes me as touching on the sense in which classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith can still be considered “conservative” in the old sense of the term. Although Burke is commonly accepted by those who argue that classical liberalism is not “truly conservative” as being conservative in his outlook because of his reaction to the French Revolution, he was (like Smith) Whig, though they were Old Whigs, not True Whigs or Country Whigs. Prior to the French Revolution, Burke had been generally supportive of the cause of the colonists in the American Revolution.

Taking Hayek’s point, classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith do not reject the necessary hierarchy of society. Nor do they embrace sudden, transformative social change. As such, they can certainly be seen as conservative. However, they do seek sufficient freedom within society to allow people to “find their own level”, believing that there is a natural hierarchy of ability which will thus result in an ordered society, and a more desirable one than one in which hierarchy comes strictly from birth and rank.

In this sense, the freedom of a classical liberal society creates social order, and a more stable one than the sort that an ancien regime conservatism maintains. Indeed, arguably, at this point in history, it is only this Whig-ish conservatism which is commonly found within society. Ancien regime conservatism has virtually died out.

Entirely different are notions of politics or the human person in which it is held which all people are truly and fully equal — in ability and inclination as well as in human dignity. Such systems would indeed seem to lead quickly to a most undesirable oppression.

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18 Responses to Difference and Equality

  • The trouble with “individualism” in rightist (traditionalist or right-liberal) argumentation today is the lack of realization of what Robert Nisbet pointed out in the 50s and Patrick Deenan has been hammering home in recent years: it is an invitation to statism, and an opening for a grave lonliness.
    ( http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4115 )

    Individualism and personal freedom, which should always be second to virtue as a value, tends to deny a very basic truth that all conservatives must embrace: the absolute and inherent incompatibility between liberty and equality. Left-liberals value the latter, and right-liberals the former. Each is a false human anthropology when out of context. We are products of a particular time and social environment, and that cannot be escaped – which makes family the most foundational unit of the good society.

    The purpose of freedom and liberty is to protect family, material and immaterial.

  • Jonathan,

    Actually the Hayek essay (“Individualism: True and False”) this quotes would be worth your time (it’s fairly short) in that one of the things it seeks to do is arrive at a proper understanding of what individualism means in relation to the classical liberal tradition.

    What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived fromt his view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But it’s basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward and understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the reationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.

    I’d be curious at your reaction to it.

  • Is it perhaps too much of an oversimplification to describe the different views of individualism as a means/end dichotomy. Randian and leftists see individualism as an end in and of itself, whereas conservatives/classical liberals merely see it as a means by which to achieve a more just social order.

  • Darwin,

    As I recently pointed out on a different thread, the classical liberalism of the American founders was also balanced by their classical republicanism, which includes an emphasis on virtue and does not shy away from regulating wealth to preserve society.

    I would argue that classical liberalism never created a stable society – other political forces such as aforesaid classical republicanism, or later on labor movements and the Church tempered and balanced it.

    Finally, I would argue that all most all of the classical liberals are gone – that even the vast majority of libertarians are not truly classical liberals. Why? Because I believe anyone defending the right of total, untaxed inheritance today cannot possibly believe in a “natural aristocracy”, a “meritocracy”, or anything other than the perpetuation of oligarchy and plutocracy.

    Except the one libertarian I met as a socialist who said we could strike a bargain – we could tax the hell out of inheritance as long as he could become rich in his lifetime without paying a dime on it. I always thought it was a good idea.

  • Darwin,

    Hayek and Röpke, in their analysis of the “humane economy,” both identify the elevation of individualism as something like “reationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.”

    One problem though, especially for the traditionalist conservative critic (my own politics), is that Hayek’s case for the “free market” (i.e. The Constitution of Liberty) draws very heavily from Hume, A. Ferguson, and Adam Smith. That is not necessarily a red flag (Mill and Bentham would be for sure) but it remains the British, skeptic, empirical tradition. That tradition has both much to admire and quite a lot to deride from the traditionalist perspective.

    Their case rests on the necessary ignorance of human judgement, which is correct (in a civilized society, there is no centrality capable of managing a complex social outgrowth, so a minimal state is best) but also incomplete.

    Hayek, IMO, is relevant at the theoretical level yet less so at the practical level, and this is due to some uncomfortable topics like demographics and population composition. Here my critique would turn Buchananite: specific government policies matter less than the quantities and qualities of populations. Racism and sexism become cheap and lazy charges at that point, yet this is the obvious problem with all shades of individualism at the intersection of public policy – Finland, for instance, is “Finlandly” because of the Finns themselves, not because of philosophy and governmental mechanics.

  • there is no other way toward and understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior

    This is a very good refutation of Randian libertarianism and its incorrect anthropology. Individualism should not mean that subjective action is sacrosanct; it is, instead, a better way to analyze the social outcomes that are obviously the product of so many individual decisions. The temptation is to play identity politics and assume that these social constructs have some nature or form that can be counted on to behave in certain ways… Just to name one example, it would be foolish to assume that all Catholics will act similarly, ceteris paribus.

  • The trouble with “individualism” in rightist (traditionalist or right-liberal) argumentation today is the lack of realization of what Robert Nisbet pointed out in the 50s and Patrick Deenan has been hammering home in recent years: it is an invitation to statism

    Okay, let’s test this. Which part of the globe is more individualistic: the United States, or Europe? Which part is more statist?

  • Blackadder: on a blog discussing the anti-gay marriage vote in NY, a European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues, because we don’t want a situation where people vote to deny other people their rights. He obviously thought that was highly superior to the way we rednecks do things.

    Ironically enough, it is the Left which now embodies the mentality of the ancien regime. In Europe, the dukes and earls have been replaced by the EU elites, because the judgment of the peasants is not to be trusted. And many liberals in this country also put their faith in the elites and the courts and would like us to become more like the Europeans in that respect. The funny thing to me is that it’s basically feudalism presented as cutting edge progressivism.

  • “The funny thing to me is that it’s basically feudalism presented as cutting edge progressivism.”

    On target analysis Donna. Leftist comments about the tea bag party protests reminded me of a British aristocrat looking down his nose and cursing at the American rabble of 1776. The Left has a childlike faith in government by experts with the “proper opinions” amd judges with the “proper opinions”. Voters simply cannot be trusted to elect representatives with the “proper opinions”. That is also why Leftists love treaties to bind what elected representatives can do.

  • European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues, because we don’t want a situation where people vote to deny other people their rights. He obviously thought that was highly superior to the way we rednecks do things.

    Maybe it’s all Providence. Clearly someone like this isn’t a clear enough thinker to understand the virtues inherent in a properly constructed constitutionally limited republic. Its a pity when someone forfeits his ability to shape society for the better and contribute to his own governance, but maybe it’s best that those who would, should.

  • on a blog discussing the anti-gay marriage vote in NY, a European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues

    That’s an interesting argument, or at least it would be if it was remotely true. There’s no supra-national body in Europe telling nations that they have to recognize gay marriage. The issue is decided country by country, and in fact most European countries do not recognize gay marriage.

  • Because I believe anyone defending the right of total, untaxed inheritance today cannot possibly believe in a “natural aristocracy”, a “meritocracy”, or anything other than the perpetuation of oligarchy and plutocracy.

    Clayton Cramer has visited this issue on occasion and (I believe) has some citations to literature. His point: that with some exceptions (the duPonts, for example), families tend to lose their mojo after a few generations and their wealth is dissipated (by alcoholism, failure to earn well, and bad investments, among other things). A sad contemporary example would be Robert Kennedy’s in laws.

    You also would not want to work it so that an able businessman could not provide for his wife or his disabled children.

  • Okay, let’s test this. Which part of the globe is more individualistic: the United States, or Europe? Which part is more statist?

    Europe is more statist. This doesn’t negate though, the point of the first post, and I think ties into the second. A welfare state/statist/collectivist/ect. governmnetal organization “works” much better in a homogeneous society, for reasons explained by Putnam among many others.

    And so one big reason “individualism” as a public ethos is an open pathway to statism is that the “autonomous rights-based individuals” many open border/libertarian types tend to be happy to receive will over time make the country significantly more statist: one glaring example is California in the last three decades.

  • A welfare state/statist/collectivist/ect. governmnetal organization “works” much better in a homogeneous society, for reasons explained by Putnam among many others.

    The evidence isn’t that it works any better, only that it is more popular. I don’t see that as being necessarily a positive.

  • I think we find the first link between individualism and statism in Hobbes. First he shatters organic society and breaks us up into individual atoms, then he reconstitutes us in the body of the Leviathan, the absolute monarchy.

    This is why I object when people compare modern statism to feudalism, calling it “neo-feudalism.” At least in places such as England, the average peasant probably had more freedom certainly than a “worker” under communism. It was the medieval village (and the Church as the provider of social services) that had to be broken up and destroyed so that absolutism and statism could consolidate themselves.

  • The evidence isn’t that it works any better, only that it is more popular. I don’t see that as being necessarily a positive.

    I disagree with you on the evidence, but that’s another argument. Let’s accept this premise: in a homogeneous society (race, ethnicity/culture, religion, language being the most important) a statist system of governance is more popular and nothing else. This is not nothing if that state retains republican or democratic processes….in fact, popularity of large-scale policy is essential to societal harmony and decent, honest governance. Diversity and proximity equals conflict – all across the world, all across time and environment. Does this mean any one person is “lesser” than another? No. It means human populations are different, and (for powerful evolutionary reasons) prefer their “own.”

    Now let us consider a societal opposite. With different (and, by the way, strongly self-segregating populations), and with our incredibly advancing understanding of genetics, the future of social policy could very well be very contentious and ugly, with resentments galore.

    Geoffrey Miller in the current Economist:

    Human geneticists have reached a private crisis of conscience, and it will become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis has depressing health implications and alarming political ones. In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races.

    Uh oh. I just don’t see how it is not obvious that such revelations, in a republican society with democratic processes, an egalitarian ethos, and different populations, is not a toxic mix.

    (And again, let me be clear: I am not saying, nor do I believe, that any one person has less moral worth or inherent human dignity than another.)

  • Joe,

    I guess I see two issues with your characterization of the approach that classical liberals would/should take to inheritance:

    1) I’m not aware the Burke, Smith, etc. in any way endorsed a confiscatory approach to inheritance.

    2) The desire to be able to pass on an inheritance does not necessarily stem from an opposition to meritocracy (some idea that because your parents were rich you deserve to be rich regardless of your own abilities) but rather from self interest in the sense the classical liberals talked about it. When Smith talks about “self-interest” he means no so much “selfishness” or “what I want for me, myself” but rather “what I, myself, want to do with my goods”. One of the very natural things that people desire (and work to achieve) is the ability to take good care of their loved ones and of other causes or institutions they care about. In this sense, wanting have the fruits of one’s labor result in financial support for one’s children, one’s church, etc. would all be examples of “selt interest” in the classical liberal sense.

7 Responses to Ross Douthat on "a different kind of liberal"

  • An excellent column, well-researched and clearly, simply written. As I read the comments attached to it, always an exercise in frustration-building, it occurred to me that the clear cognitive dissonance that Douthat points to in positions on abortion–popular among many on the Left and even among social moderates–is something that they have learned to tune out completely in order to maintain their sanity. One of the commenters there, trotting out the oft-used logical fallacy “I find abortion abhorrent personally, but who am I to impose my views on others?”, upbraids Douthat for being “judgmental” and chiding him that only the Almighty God of judgment can judge us. Situational ethics at its worst and most illogical. No doubt those same people who wail and gnash their teeth over Douthat’s clear line of reasoning would have no trouble (nor should they, of course!) recognizing their hypocrisy if the issue at hand were slavery, as it was 150 years ago in this country.

    We have much work to do as pro-life Catholics, but the more I read the pablum that spews forth from the lips of the unthinking pro-choice crowd, the more I realize that nothing I say or do could change their minds; it is up to the grace of the Holy Spirit to change their hearts, and for that all I can do is pray.

  • It’s a perfectly fine column, but just says what we already knew about the late Mrs. Shriver and the late Senator Kennedy. And the comments tell us what we already knew about the few remaining pathetic readers of the NYT.

  • This was an excellent editorial. I am glad it is posted here.

  • Ross Douthat is the smartest young conservative writer out there, aside from Labash. Always worth a look.

  • Maybe. But something about Douthat rubs me the wrong way. Nevertheless, it’s a good piece.

    Mind you, he’s not saying anything that countless other Catholic commentators weren’t already saying. But I suppose it’s new to the readers of The New York Times, so Douthat has doubtless done a service by putting something they’d never otherwise read out there for them to see.

  • I’m with Jay – though I liked and linked to this particular article and think that Douthat puts out some nice work, I’m not fully on board with his program. I thought Party of Sam’s Club, on top of some policy disagreements, was a major disappointment. It just wasn’t a very good or really enlightening read. But he’s on the money here.

  • Of all the Kennedy siblings, perhaps Eunice was the one who really SHOULD have been the first Catholic president 😉

What Is Conservatism

Sunday, June 21, AD 2009

Seeing a fair amount of discussion as to what “conservatism” is or is not cropping up on various threads — and not having time to write a massive treatise on the topic — I’d like to put forward a few basic thoughts on the topic and then turn it loose for conversation with our readership, which clearly has a number of opinions as to the matter.

I would argue that conservatism is, to a great extent, a relative term. Conservatives seek to preserve the ways and institutions of the past. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, there was a worldview present among conservatives that there had been, in the past, a literal golden age — in the age of the great heroes. Among modern conservatives, resistance to change is rooted more in a suspicion of programs of change based upon ideologies that seek to remake the human person or society into new forms. In this sense, conservatives do not necessarily hold that the way things have been in the past are necessarily good, but they lean towards the fear that drastic change will make things worse.

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30 Responses to What Is Conservatism

  • There has to be something more to conservatism than a simple defense of the status quo, whenever, wherever.

    I believe the Church’s social doctrine is essentially conservative. I also think Aristotle was essentially conservative. I think the conservative view of society, at least up until this thing called American conservatism, is that of a hierarchical social organism.

    It is a travesty that in this day and age only leftists are regarded as opposing great social inequality, while those on the right – often, not always, but often – justify it or at least accept it as a necessary outcome of economic freedom.

    For in Aristotelian and Catholic political thought, which I think anyone would be hard-pressed to dismiss as ‘leftist’ (seeing as how both pre-date the concept), wealth and property can and must be regulated with an eye to preserving a social balance. It isn’t about leveling or envy; it is about preserving the peace and ensuring that each member of society is rightfully recognized for the contribution they make.

    A conservative, then, has the goal of preserving or conserving society as a social organism. Whether it is ancient Greece or America in the Great Depression, you have those who insist that economic freedom is good only within limits, that the role of government may extend beyond mere prevention of force and fraud.

  • American conservatism is, in large part, the political ideals of the Founding Fathers. These ideals of course did not spring newborn to Earth in 1776. The largest ingredient was the experience of the American colonists from the time of settlement up to the Revolution. The colonies were largely left to their own devices by England throughout most of the colonial period. They grew used to running their own affairs. The American colonists were lightly taxed by the governments they set up, probably the most lightly taxed people in the history of the world. Self-reliance was a must in a new country with virtually zero in government services, and not much in the way of government at all, especially outside of the few towns. This was a great laboratory for a grand experiment in a new way of looking at government, and this experiment is still underway.

  • There has to be something more to conservatism than a simple defense of the status quo, whenever, wherever.

    Well, I would say that at any given time and place, conservatives have an ideology which is rather more than this, but that the conservative tendency is one towards preservation of whatever is seen as the good of the past.

    It is a travesty that in this day and age only leftists are regarded as opposing great social inequality, while those on the right – often, not always, but often – justify it or at least accept it as a necessary outcome of economic freedom.

    In a sense, though, wasn’t this the case in many earlier cases as well? Around 1800, conservatives (and the Church very much among them) were defending, at least in essentials, a system in which the vast majority of the population were effectively bound to the land and living at a level barely above subsistence, while a small minority owned the land and enjoyed a level of wealth and comfort unimaginable to peasants. The liberalism of the French Revolution and the other political and cultural revolutions which swept Europe were imagined to be a leveling force, though in many ways they opened the door to a devolution of social structures which allowed even greater social inequality.

    Not only were conservatives (and the Church) defending a system of inequality, but of ingrained and inflexible inequality. Modern inequality is, at least, porous and meritocratic in nature by comparison.

  • Darwin,

    You have hit on my favorite topic!!! A few points:

    Conservatism begins with Burke.

    A plausible case, depending upon definition, can be made for “pre-Burke conservative figures” (limiting to the the West and obviously depending upon defintion). I believe a good case can be made for Cicero and Hume.

    The Enlightenment changed everything. And I mean everything. We cannot escape this umbrella. Rights-infused liberalism is in the very air we breathe. Thus conservatism in any definition will contain some aspect of liberalism.

    Here is my definition of conservatism. In one phrase, the negation of ideology. In longer form over several considerations here:

    http://vox-nova.com/2009/02/06/what-is-conservatism-part-v/

    Now, in sum, I would say it is this – in effect, a sentiment…. :

    the negation of ideology, the political secularization of the doctrine of original sin, the cautious sentiment tempered by prudence, the product of organic, local human organization observing and reforming its customs, the distaste for a priori principle disassociated from historical experience, the partaking of the mysteries of free will, divine guidance, and human agency by existing in but not of the confusions of modern society, no framework of action, no tenet, no theory, and no article of faith.

  • Jonathan,

    Shoot me an email at tito[.]benedictus[at]gmail[dot]com.

    Thanks!

  • Such definitions, of course, beg the question of how political and social practice could follow. Essentially, a “conservative” reaction to a policy problem would be : 1) against systematic and large-scale application (the coercive) 2) against both the individual and the synthetic collective as the foundational unit of society.

    So – applied to “gay marrige”, for example, Patrick Deenan spells this out here:
    http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=3636

    Here, culture and community are more important than politics, and group morality is more important than individual right and justice. (And in my conjecture, culture and community, the foundations of conservative sentiment, require homogeneity and.or assimilation.)

    The problem for U.S. conservatives is not only that their political goals are often infused with liberalism and rights, but that there was not much terribly conservative about its founding. One may still wish to preserve and value founding principles, however, seeking cautious change following Burke and so on, and thus lay claim to the title (although the case might well fall apart philosophically).

  • Burke of course was quite sympathetic to the American Revolution, so sympathetic that during the Revolutionary War his political opponents denounced him as an “American” and a near traitor to the Crown. I have always thought that Burke’s sympathy for the American Revolution, and his condemnation of the French Revolution, is one of the keys to understanding American conservatism.

  • Donald, that is certainly true, but remember that Burke was very much in the liberal tradition and remained a loyal Whig his entire political life, which was rather long.

    The reason that conservative sentiment (not ideology, and conservatism can certainly have an ideology…in fact, several intellectuals like W. Kendall and Kuehnelt-Leddihin wanted to make it an ideology) begins with Burke is that he wrote in reaction against an earth-shattering event, a culmination of liberalism. By this I mean that conservatism is a reaction to liberalism, its partial parent.

    And thus a style, a sentiment, a bias against efforts of utopianism, ideology, and against the promise of a bright new future casting aside considerations of human nature. This is all over the Reflections – natural rights must be in accord with prior practice and convention (my reason of association with Hume and Cicero). This is a received, accumulated, generational wisdom worthy of commitment against movements that would seek to alter them so as to pursue ideological aims.

    The Rockingham Whigs hated arbitrary monarchical power, most of England’s overseas colonial adventures, and wanted very badly internal governmental reform. When Burke spoke of the Glorious Revolution as a “revolution not made, but prevented,” he meant that James II, the last Stuart king overthrown in 1688, was trying to increase royal prerogatives and was thus the true revolutionary. This was against Britain in its development of natural right. The American revolution was positive by his lights in the same manner, due to prudence and prescription in its pursuit of natural right (from God, not usually the right of liberalism). The colonists sought to preserve and continue the English institutions of representative government and private rights founded in the transcendent first and foremost.

    This takes us to the case that “conservative” requires the transcendent, which strikes me as plausible yet is at the very least another fault-line of argument, similar to Russell Kirk v. Frank Meyer and W. Kendall.

  • I don’t have a whole lot to contribute here, perhaps because of my own ignorance on shifting definitions over time.

    The Catholic Church is “conservative” by nature because its mission is to preserve the teachings of Jesus Christ. Politically however, she might find herself aligned with either political liberals or political conservatives in any given time or place.

    In the United States “conservative” ought to be defined by adherence to the Constitution of the United States, even when inconvenient. Events and culture have manipulated and warped that definition beyond recognition, to the point where genuine fidelity to the founding documents is shattered across the political spectrum. One party might be better on civil liberties, while the other better on economic matters.

    I suppose anything else would qualify as additional, no matter how valuable.

  • (I apologize in advance for my comments; I do not mean to be disrespectful. I follow your inspired blog with real affection.)

    “I would argue that conservatism is, to a great extent, a relative term. Conservatives seek to preserve the ways and institutions of the past.
    Because conservatism is a suspicion of change, we see conservatives embrace very different causes in different places and times.”

    While the historical context is interesting for understanding Conservatism it may be the wrong premise for a “positive” definition (when President Reagan said “tear down this wall” he wasn’t looking back !). If Conservatism is being “suspicious of change” then you have to twist the definition and make the definition “relative” because there is no fixed point in the past to which Conservatives are clinging (wink). The same argument can be advanced regarding our beloved Catholic Church –would you say that we are trying to preserve the ways of the Borgia Popes or the Avignon Popes? -. There are some unchangeable Catholic Values, rather than institutions or ways, we seek to preserve. So I would argue that to define Conservatism we need to define Conservative Values, rather than look at some mythical past.

    If you define modern liberalism as an attempt to establish in our society a set of different values; and you define Conservatism as an attempt to stop the spread of those “foreign”-in the sense of different- values you get to your definition of “Conservative seek to preserve”. The problem with that definition is that we become defined by them, Conservatism is opposition to change, and then they define change as good and opposition to change as bad; so we end up as “bitter clingers”.

    “In the American context, conservatives hold to the ideals of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers . . . limited government, constitutionalism, division of powers and local/regional rights. Because free markets were rejected by adherents of socialism and communism, American conservatives tend to be pro-business.”

    Here you attempt to define Conservative Values, good ! Maybe this is a useful discussion, and we can make some progress. Conservatism is not just pro business/free markets (again you are letting them define us: business is bad; conservatives are pro business; conservatives are bad). Conservatism is about Capitalism and Capitalism only works with a market system and strong property rights The reason Conservative Economist like free –competitive- markets is that with increased competition prices are lowered, to the benefit of consumers. Note that increased competition reduces profits to companies. That is why companies spend so much money lobbying the government seeking to limit competition. Companies do not like free markets. So again, we cannot define Conservatism as pro business; we are pro competitive markets and therefore pro consumers.

    I feel that we need to rescue Capitalism as a bedrock value. At the end of the day we are in an ideological struggle with the Marxist/Communist/Socialist/Liberals/Leftist –notice how they mask themselves to make inroads into a gullible population, does this attitude remind you of the forces of darkness- Wow ! now I’m really sounding like a paranoid kook LOL

  • Pingback: Diagnosing contemporary conservatism’s ills. « The American Catholic
  • The website ‘First Principles’ (from the ever-resourceful Intercollegiate Studies Institute) has a helpful overview of American conservatism and its contributors.

  • I wish someone could coin a new word to describe what we call “conservatism” because at its root it means attempting to conserve already-existing or well-established ideas. In the area of social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, that is exactly what conservatives are attempting to do. However, some economic and other policies favored by conservatives, such as school choice/vouchers and privatization of Social Security, would actually represent radical change from the status quo.

    Right now I am in the middle of reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography “The Long Loneliness.” Day was an active socialist/communist prior to her conversion to the Catholic faith, and continues to be thought of to this day as very left-leaning because of her pacifism and labor activism. Yet, some of her ideas would be considered extremely “conservative” today. For one thing, she and many of her followers like Peter Maurin did NOT approve of Social Security or most of the New Deal social programs. They believed that making the needy dependent upon government for help was another way of enslaving them. To this day many Catholic Worker houses do not apply for tax exempt status because Day believed works of charity should be done for their own sake and the government should neither encourage nor discourage them.

    Some ideas are, IMO, kind of hard to classify as either liberal or conservative. Take Chesterton and Belloc’s ideal of distributism. My understanding of it, based on what I’ve read about it so far (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) is that it means every individual or family owning enough property or other means of supporting themselves to make a decent living without having to be dependent upon an employer or the government.

    So, is distributism a conservative or liberal idea? Chesterton himself said that the problem with capitalism was not that there were too many capitalists, but too few. However, he was very opposed to the notion of “big business” and distributist ideas are said to have heavily influenced the creation of American anti-trust laws. I don’t think that would go down well with some of the hard-core economic conservatives who think ANY government regulation of business is evil.

  • As a student, I am really learning a lot about conservatism and other agendas from your article. Thanks!

  • “So, is distributism a conservative or liberal idea?”

    It is neither, really, though if I had to choose one, I would say conservative.

    The Church’s view on private property is that it is a right attendant with social obligations and duties. You may not do whatever you please with your property. Your right to own it is conditioned on your duty to use it morally.

  • There are 2 dimensions to this debate. The first is definitional. The dominant strand of American “conservatism” is in no way conservative — it is pure, undiluted, liberalism. Darwin defines conservatism as an evolution vs. revolution concept, and there is some validity to this hermeneutic. But it falls short. For the economic order of the New Deal is firmly embedded in the economic and constitutional order, and yet the so-called “conservatives” oppose it. I think Sam Tanenhaus puts it best — this group defines itself by what they oppose (often using cartoonish generalization) and thus employs tactics that border on Marxist (and I mean Marx’s followers, not what he said himself).

    I think a more pertinent approach would be to say that conservatism values the stability of the social order, and the community over the rights of the individual. Obviously, opposition to abortion and gay marriage would count, but the rest of American “conservatism” is a hymn to individual rights (guns being the most egregious example). And on guns, I think Darwin is being a little deceptive — the American right does not oppose gun control because no such controls existed historically, but because they have totally ingested a liberal ideology of protection of the individual from outside coercion.

    The second question is the relationship to Catholic social teaching. In a sense, these debates over the definition of conservatism are academically interesting, but not that relevant. For Christianity does not call us to be “conservative” in all senses. Yes, we are called upon to protect the common good, but we are also called upon to change the social order if it is faulty. We share conservatisms suspicion of utopia, and yet we are called to build God’s kingdom on earth. There is a tension here, for sure, a tension which probably underlies all the divisions within the Church.

    Final point: the American definition of conservatism is nothing more that old liberal enemy condemned by the modern Church — from Pius XI’s twin rocks of shipweck (capitalism and socialism) to John Paul’s idolatry of the free market. Call it what you like, but we should oppose this ideolgy just as much as we should oppose socialism.

  • Elaine,

    The Church in its social teaching also insists that government programs not make people dependent on such programs in that they will be enslaved.

  • For the economic order of the New Deal is firmly embedded in the economic and constitutional order, and yet the so-called “conservatives” oppose it.

    Yeah, not so much. Do conservatives want to abolish the FDIC, Social Security, or the SEC? They do not. There are exceptions, but generally speaking conservatives are fine with the post-New Deal economic and constitutional order. At most they seek to restrain its growth a bit.

    this group defines itself by what they oppose (often using cartoonish generalization)

    I think this is true of most every political group. Recall Henry Adams statement that politics was the organization of our hatreds. There’s a lot of truth in that.

  • For the economic order of the New Deal is firmly embedded in the economic and constitutional order, and yet the so-called “conservatives” oppose it.

    I think this assertion would require a lot more teasing out to see if it’s true and to what extent. Clearly, a lot of the New Deal was not well embedded in the economic and constitutional order, since much of it was rejected as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and overturned. Kosher butchers are no longer being jailed for the sin of allowing their customers to select which chicken they want to buy. But what I assume you mean at this point is that those elements of the New Deal which have survived are now embedded in the economic and constitutional order, and yet you perceive American conservatives to be against them. The obvious question in regard to this is which elements of the New Deal you have in mind, and who among conservatives are actually calling for the repeal of those elements.

    I think a more pertinent approach would be to say that conservatism values the stability of the social order, and the community over the rights of the individual. Obviously, opposition to abortion and gay marriage would count, but the rest of American “conservatism” is a hymn to individual rights (guns being the most egregious example).

    Why do you think this would necessarily be “conservative”? Certainly, there are certain cases where progressives might assert a new individual “right” which is detrimental to the social order and conservatives oppose it, but there might be a fair amount of disagreement as to whether a “right” is individual, and whether it is in fact detrimental to the social order. It seems to me that the definition you’ve chosen here may be more suited as a framework for expressing approval and disapproval of specific political positions than for articulating a philosophy. Though perhaps you just need to expand on it a bit further. What would you see as the things that should be major “conservative” concerns at this time and place in history?

    Keep in mind, especially, that thing which some see as aiding the social order will be seen as others as destructive to it. It’s widely held that social safety net programs aid the social order, while radical individualists oppose these programs. But in a sense, programs which make it more economically feasible for individuals to remain economically provided for without the aid of a community enable individualism. It’s perhaps instructive that medicare and social security (which I assume are programs you are very much in favor of) are both rejected by the Amish and (if the several mentions I’ve run into are correct) by many members of the Catholic Worker movement, because they replace the works of a local community with a direct relationship between state and individual.

    And on guns, I think Darwin is being a little deceptive — the American right does not oppose gun control because no such controls existed historically, but because they have totally ingested a liberal ideology of protection of the individual from outside coercion.

    I’m not sure how exactly you discern the motivation of conservatives in this regard, but I’ll admit that there is a liberal egalitarianism involved. As you’ve pointed out on occasion, gun violence is a phenomenon which afflicts primarily the urban poor, and support for gun ownership comes primarily from the rural and suburban middle class. If we truly had not attachment to liberal egalitarian ideals, everyone would support the idea of banning gun ownership by people who live in cities but are not property owners. (Or perhaps even more reprehensible from a modern liberal point of view, simply ban ownership by poor minorities.) However, although that kind of class and property-based distinction would have been perfectly acceptable in most times and places in Christian history, we all have too many enlightenment liberal ideals at this point to accept such a resolution, and so conservatives end up supporting the same rights for everyone else as they support for themselves. Personally, I think that’s rather a good thing, but I’ll freely admit to being formed by the Enlightenment on that point.

  • So “conservatism” is bad because it’s really just “liberalism”? And “liberalism” is bad because . . . ?

    I think Sam Tanenhaus puts it best — this group defines itself by what they oppose (often using cartoonish generalization)

    Well, anyone’s beliefs can be recharacterized in that way. You, for example, could be described as defining yourself in cartoonish opposition to SUVs, guns, for-profit health care, Calvinists, Israel, Republicans, Karl Rove, and pro-lifers who do anything besides make excuses for their beliefs.

  • I find it interesting that with any discussion of “Conservatism,” more often than not, the conclusion is that conservatives are afraid of change. Conservatives can be agents of change, as in our revolution. The signers of our Declaration of Independence, justified the need for change, in other words conservatives do not like change for the sake of change. Given the right justification, change is not only desirable, but necessary. The human rights enumerated in our Declaration included the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of “Happiness.” These words are the contribution of John Locke, who as an enlighten philosopher provided us with the notion that individuals precede governments, he also stated that ownership of property is created by the application of the individual’s labor. Locke also stated a preference for limited government, “Property precedes government and government cannot dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily.” Locke’s contributions are central to the Federalist papers, our founding fathers, and they remain true to today’s conservatives (Treatment of Chrysler bond holders). As a conservative I can tell you that I am for:

    – Limited Government: Check and balances is critical to limit government abuse. We are in favor for a Federal Republic; as opposed to a Unitarian Republic were the capital city dictates to the rest of the nation, i.e., national entrance exams administered by the Ministry of Education in Paris, France. We believe in limited and government as our founding fathers. We oppose Federal encroachment on State rights i.e., Department of Education.
    – Home rule: Most conservatives support parochial schools because of the participation of students, parents and the community at large. Today home rule is eroding before our eyes with the temptations of federal moneys and mandates with strings attached. – Individual rights: We tend to support life and opposed abortion in many levels, but the first and foremost is the concept of the individual life. Today, the political correct response is that “privacy,” trumps the life of the child. However, where is the privacy when you consider that most abortions are performed as a method of contraception and at tax-payers expense? Where is my privacy when the School district decides to take the role of parenting a six grader about contraceptives? Lastly, most abortions are performed on minorities. In the not so distant future someone is going to accuse the proponents of abortion of genocide. This is a Civil Rights issue waiting to happen.
    – Limited Taxes: Essential to the well being of the nation/state/local.

    Conservatives are environmentalist too. However, our support for the environment or any other effort is proportional. Ask yourself at what expense are we to support any government effort (Mussolini kept the trains on time)? We oppose most changes that are open ended. Conservatives are not willing to sacrifice our individual freedoms for an imposed fuzzy greater good. Conservatives are tolerant, and are unlikely to impose behavior on others. An example of this behavioral enforcement is the manner in which we regulate smoking. I do not smoke, but why the persecution, or societal ostracizing of smokers? Are you really exposed to cigarette smoke (what is the frequency of smoke inhalation)? Who do we go after next; fat people? Or perhaps we go to Plato’s Republic to find a formula for discussing the individuals that will make-up our City-State. Do we want beautiful people, young, old, academics, and pious people? I can guarantee you that Conservatives are not social engineers; we are suspicious of initiatives that prescribe individual behavioral changes.

    Conservatives want change but only when well justified. We embrace most issues/arguments facing this great nation of ours. But what we hold dear is our God given “free will,” and the freedoms to exercise it. We also, accept the many choices/responsibilities that come with having made any of life’s choices. We the people empower our government, and that is a great one way street.

  • As you’ve pointed out on occasion, gun violence is a phenomenon which afflicts primarily the urban poor, and support for gun ownership comes primarily from the rural and suburban middle class.

    Perhaps we could locate some social research on the question. If what is true in my social circle is true generally, sport hunting is characteristic of small towns and rural areas and, while found in all social strata, is most likely practiced by wage-earners, not the bourgeoisie. Shooting clay pigeons is more upscale, but, again, has a diverse clientele.

  • In rural Illinois, almost every one has a firearm of some sort: rich, poor and middle class. I am an odd man out since the last time I shot a firearm was the last time I did target practice with an M-16 in the Army.

  • in a sense, though, wasn’t this the case in many earlier cases as well? Around 1800, conservatives (and the Church very much among them) were defending, at least in essentials, a system in which the vast majority of the population were effectively bound to the land and living at a level barely above subsistence, while a small minority owned the land and enjoyed a level of wealth and comfort unimaginable to peasants.

    Hereditary subjection was, by 1789, characteristic of Eastern Europe, not Western Europe. There were some residual feudal dues in France; serfdom was gone in England and in uplands generally.

    The historian Jerome Blum did some back of the envelope calculations some years back and concluded that the exactions on Eastern European peasantry were generally severe. However, one needs be careful not to confound the manifestation of a generally low standard of living with the manifestation of a maldistribution of wealth or income. IIRC, the income from about 30% of the land area of France repaired to the clergy and nobility, who together constituted about 4% of the population. Asset ownership in occidental countries in our own time is likely at least as skewed.

    In Eastern Europe at that time, the crown was commonly an advocate of extensive reforms in the agrarian system, including the abolition of hereditary subjection (for reasons of economic efficiency). A faction of the nobility favored a like course of action.

  • If what is true in my social circle is true generally, sport hunting is characteristic of small towns and rural areas and, while found in all social strata, is most likely practiced by wage-earners, not the bourgeoisie. Shooting clay pigeons is more upscale, but, again, has a diverse clientele.

    Well, given that (due to personal and regional background) I can’t help seeing “middle class” as starting at or below 30k/yr in most parts of the country — we’re not necessarily picturing different things here. 🙂

    It’s one of the peculiarities of America that we all like to think of ourselves as middle class.

  • Hereditary subjection was, by 1789, characteristic of Eastern Europe, not Western Europe. There were some residual feudal dues in France; serfdom was gone in England and in uplands generally.

    I’m probably heavily handicapped here in that 18th and 19th century political history is very late for me (classicist and medievalist by training) which means that I mostly know what I’ve exerted myself to study: Britain, Ireland and Russia, but only general outlines in between for that period.

    That said, I was leaning more heavily on “effectively bound to the land” in that the degree of industrialization in much of Europe in 1750 to 1850 was not necessarily enough to allow most peasantry (in the broad sense, not legally surfs in the West) many options when coming in to the cities — and the options when they did so were often rather poor.

    Given that as late as the cold snap following the eruption of Krakatoa in the 1880s there were serious regional food shortages in parts of Europe as a result of poor crops due to bad weather, I think its accurate to see the inequalities between hereditary nobility (and “gentle” classes in the wider sense) and those on the land as being much wider than today’s inequalities, in that it was a gap between near subsistence agriculture and a level of plenty which would look fairly upper class even today.

    That said, I may well be letting my impressions run away with me here and am subject to correction.

  • While I think discussions of political terminology are sterile, I think one might repair to Thomas Sowell’s dialectic between the ‘vision of the anointed’ and the extant practices of ‘the benighted’, who are distinguished by the respect they accord the contrivances of the chatterati over and above the intelligence encoded in institutions as they have evolved over time. The folk in our own time who wish to replace the magisterium of the Church with the pronouncements of he board of the American Psychological Association and replace family relations with user-defined entities whose continuance is dependent upon consumer taste have their analogue in the folk who contrived the Cult of the Supreme Being and the French Revolutionary calendar.

    Since Mr. McClarey has brought up the American Revolution, one ought to note some contrasts between that and the French Revolution. The political order delineated in the Constitution of 1789 here was an elaboration upon the extant colonial forms; in France, each of the constitutions adopted between 1790 and 1813 took no cognizance of the political forms existing prior to 1789. The abolition here of legally-delineated orders of clergy, nobility, and burgesses can be seen as a consequence of the limited presence of the British nobility in the colonies to begin with as well as the confessional variegation between the colonies and sometimes within them; there it incorporated a violent rebellion upending existing social arrangements. Here the disestablishment of one or another protestant sect over the course of the last quarter of the 18th century a consequence of the demographic loss of position by the pre-eminent confession (in the South) and the loss of institutional verve (in New England); there it incorporated first a legislated attempt to render the Church a department of the French government and later an attempt to replace the Catholic faith with a deistic cult.

  • The French Revolution and the American Revolution share little in common except for the term Revolution. It is instructive to read the varying reactions of the Founding Fathers to the French Revolution, from the puerile enthusiasm for it by Mr. Jefferson, to the adamant repugnance towards it shown by Mr. Adams. A good book is waiting to be written on the subject. Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote a first rate book on Jefferson’s infatuation with the French Revolution, but little has been done as to the other Founding Fathers, except for Adams.

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