One of the most tiresome and repeated tricks I see in political discourse is right-leaning moderates using Edmund Burke’s name in justifying big government conservatism. The latest to use Burke’s name to justify political moderation is Peter Berkowitz in his book Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. Here’s a blurb from the book.
The first entrenched reality is that the era of big government is here to stay. This is particularly important for libertarians to absorb. Over the last two hundred years, society and the economy in advanced industrial nations have undergone dramatic transformations. And for three-quarters of a century, the New Deal settlement has been reshaping America’s expectations about the nation-state’s reach and role. Consequently, the U.S. federal government will continue to provide a social safety net, regulate the economy, and shoulder a substantial share of responsibility for safeguarding the social and economic bases of political equality…..the attempt to dismantle or even substantially roll back the welfare and regulatory state reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities.”
And here’s a blurb from Harvey Mansfield.
Peter Berkowitz makes a match between Edmund Burke and the American Founders to give ‘political moderation’ a good name on our partisan battlefield. A short, effectual book with shining prose, a telling argument, and a lasting message. –Harvey C. Mansfield, Harvard University
Jeffrey Lord takes on Berkowtiz as well as Jennifer Rubin, Joe Scarborough and others who are preaching the value of
capitulation moderation. As usual, Lord does a fantastic job of eviscerating the case for moderation. First, addressing the blurb quoted above, Lord writes:
So the New Deal is now the Founding principle of America? And attempts to “dismantle or even substantially” roll back the New Deal “reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities”?
Even Bill Clinton waxed Reaganesque when he said in that famous 1995 State of the Union message that “the era of Big Government is over.”
Berkowitz’s thinking — which Rubin shares — is a pluperfect example of what led a couple generations of American leaders to believe the Soviet Union was here to stay. Those were the folks rolling their eyes in their supposed sophistication when President Reagan insisted the Soviets were headed to the “ash heap of history.” Only to watch astonished as the Berlin Wall came down followed shortly thereafter by the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. Precisely as Reagan predicted.
Lord further examines how this bedrock principle and the programs created by the New Deal are crashing around us. As he writes:
The fact of the matter is that the New Deal is imploding all around us. With all manner of experts repeatedly warning the U.S. is being relentlessly driven towards a financial cliff, with entitlement spending on track to eventually consume first the defense budget before polishing off the entire federal budget. The fact that Democrats are tying themselves to the equivalent of an unexploded political IED is their decision.
But what, pray tell, is moderate, Republican or conservative about accepting the idea that America is headed irrevocably to bankruptcy and chaos?
There’s much more at the link as Lord explains how the social consensus keeps moving the left. “Moderation,” therefore, will only lead to more government control and, eventually, less freedom.
Jeff Goldstein also discusses Lord’s article and has more insights as well.
Lord and Goldstein both do great jobs of explaining the problems with Berkowitz’s position, but I want to focus on the admittedly more academic point, and that’s Berkowitz’s misappropriation of Burke. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a link to David Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. It’s almost like my friend, knowing my academic interest in Thomas Jefferson, cast some bait in my direction. And two months later, I took it.
I can honestly say that I went into it with an open mind. Even if Barton misinterpreted Jefferson, maybe he would do so in at least a semi-convincing way. After all, it’s possible for individuals to have high opinions of Thomas Jefferson without being historical hacks. I have tremendous respect for David Mayer, for example, and his opinion of Jefferson is completely different than mine.
Sadly, my low expectations were met. To be sure, Barton does offer enough arguments to rebut the most absurd and historically inaccurate claims about Jefferson. For example, Barton correctly points out the fallacy of the claim that it has been definitively proven that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by the slave Sally Hemings. I also believe that Barton’s insinuations about the partisan motivations behind the claims have some merit. But this chapter exemplifies so much of what is wrong with Barton’s methodology. While there can be no conclusive argument made that Jefferson fathered children by Hemings, it is also impossible to assert with any certainty that he did not. But Barton cannot leave well enough, and Barton distorts the findings of the commission tasked with determining the paternity of Hemings’ children to make it appear that Jefferson almost certainly could not be the father. While it’s certainly true that genetic testing at this stage of history cannot offer conclusive proof one way or the other, the idea that the father of Hemings’ children can be any one of a dozen men or so is also not really credible. Personally I am rather agnostic on the question, and don’t think it is of huge historic import, but Barton stretches the truth almost as badly as those who adamantly insist that Jefferson was the father.
The real meat of the book focuses on the topic of religion. Again, Barton is incredibly frustrating to read. He asserts towards the beginning of the book that it is important to read primary sources, and to truly understand the historical context when judging historical figures. He is correct on both counts. He then incredibly proceeds to selectively cite dubious secondary sources in order to prove his assertions, and then ignores broader context when cherrypicking quotes from Jefferson.
A prime example of Barton cherrypicking Jefferson occurs in a chapter in which Barton tries to prove that Jefferson was no fan of the secular French Enlightenment. Barton offers as proof of this assertion a critical passage in one of Jefferson’s letters regarding the French philosopher Guillame Raynal. Evidently one critical passage about one obscure thinker is all the evidence we need that Jefferson was at odds with French Enlightenment philosophy. Well then.
Barton’s reliance on dubious sources bites him when discussing the supposed Jefferson Bible. Again, Barton is correct in the narrowest sense when he notes that Jefferson did not attempt to create a bible. Rather, two separate works by Jefferson – The Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth – were compilations of Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. It wasn’t a “bible,” and Jefferson never attempted to pass these compilations off as such. But then Barton claims that neither work was as unorthodox as historians have claimed them to be. Jefferson did not cut out the supernatural elements from the Gospel, and indeed included some stories that referenced miracles and the afterlife. But as Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter demonstrate in Getting Jefferson Right, Barton’s source declaring that Jefferson included the miracle stories in his compilations is just plain wrong. As for the other examples of Jefferson including references to the supernatural, these were mainly concerned with the afterlife. Throckmorton and Coulter concede that Jefferson did believe in the afterlife, thus it isn’t all that surprising that Jefferson would include these references. After all, Jefferson was not an atheist. He certainly believed in God, though he did not believe that Jesus Himself was a member of the Godhead.
And that is really the fundamental problem with Barton’s work. Barton tries mightily to paint Jefferson as some kind of conventional Christian, suggesting that his heterodoxy developed late in life as he fell under the Unitarian influence. Barton has to ignore almost an entire lifetime of Jefferson’s work in order to reach this conclusion. Here is how Jefferson expressed his views on Jesus:
The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.
1.He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.
2.His moral doctrines, relating to kindred & friends, were more pure & perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
3.The precepts of philosophy, & of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
That’s pretty clearly not orthodox Christianity to me.
Jefferson would even call Jesus’s teachings defective, though he praised Jesus as an ethicist. His compilations from the Gospels were meant to restore Christ’s teachings to their original intent, as it were. Jefferson believed that Paul and the other Apostles had distorted Christ’s work, so that is why he took out all accounts of miracles and references to Jesus being in any way part of the Godhead. Most importantly, his compilation ends at the death of Christ on the cross and his placement in the tomb. Jefferson rejected the resurrection.
Jefferson repeatedly excoriated Paul as one of the principle impostors who distorted Christ’s teachings.
Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and firm corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.
Jefferson added that Paul was a “Platonist who had brought beclouding mysticism to Jesus’ clear moral teachings.”
Barton also glosses over Jefferson’s disdain of the clergy. He cites some examples of Jefferson praising men of the cloth, but in almost every example Jefferson was praising a fellow heterodox Christian. It would be like trying to prove that someone is a faithful Catholic by highlighting their words of praise for Voice of the Faithful or Catholics for a Free Choice.
In several of his letters, Jefferson overtly criticized organized religion. “My opinion is that there never would have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest,” he wrote to Samuel Smith, meaning that religion creates artificial guidelines which restrict freedom of thought. He added that clergy only lay down these rules in order to augment their own power. “The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.”
Barton is correct to temper some of the more extreme claims about Jefferson and religion. Jefferson was no atheist, and it would not entirely be correct to say that he disdained Christianity as such. On the other hand, Barton glosses over much of Jefferson’s more negative assessments of Christianity. Most importantly, his attempt to portray Jefferson’s heterodox views as a late-life aberration is simply laughable.
Barton and those that follow him do neither conservatism nor Christianity any favors by distorting the historical record. Barton seems to be under the impression that each of the Founding Fathers must be protected from the slings and arrows of Progressive historians who would tear down these great men. I share Barton’s distrust and even contempt for most contemporary historians. But Barton’s pseudo-history is no way to counter this trend, and only provides ammunition to those who would mock conservative Christians. The progressive reading of Jefferson happens to be the correct one. Well, you know what they say about stopped clocks.
Spanish American philosopher George Santayana once noted, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Fallen man will make essentially the same mistakes that his forbears have made unless he learns from the lessons of history. For this reason, the study of political and philosophical history is essential to understanding current political theory in order to ensure that dangerous philosophies — those which threaten the inalienable rights of human persons — may be identified and rejected through reasoned, free and informed debate before their dangers become brutal reality. People educated in the lessons of history are people wise enough to reject its horrors. So it is that I have come to understand the necessity of learning more about Marxism in light of the current administration’s political machinations which seem to be, on some level, inspired by it.
Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown by Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is widely hailed as the definitive work on the subject and his book is credited with “laying some of the paving stones that would eventually lead to the Solidarity movement”, a movement which itself led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I read through this volume, which is actually three books in one, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on what I am learning from it. This will be part one in a series and covers the introduction.
Avoiding subjective presumptions.
Kolakowski outlines the reasoning behind the methods he uses to offer an accurate history of Marxism. He immediately mentions the German philosopher Karl Marx and notes that the very fact that Marx was German may, in and of itself, invoke in the reader certain presumptions about his philosophy. When we make an assessment about something, we always bring our subjective experiences to the table with us. One might be familiar with the differerent schools of thought in the world and presume that Marx, because he was German, held a philosophy somewhat consistent with the German philosophers most commonly known at the time in which the reader is living. Subjective presumptions like this often get in the way of finding out the truth about something. I recall once hearing a teacher tell her class in Kentucky that she had moved from Pennsylvania and was surprised when she got to Kentucky that there were not many people running around barefoot. Reality is very often completely inconsistent with what we presume must be true. Kolakowski sets out to answer questions about the Communism of his day by studying the history of Marxism with a determination not to let subjective presumption get in the way.
Things rarely occur in real life exactly as written on paper.
Kolakowski notes the difficulty in his endeavor being primarily that one cannot precisely connect the dots between the words of a particular philosophy on paper and a social movement of people who follow that particular tradition and thereby prove that one absolutely beget the other with no other factors having impact. As a Catholic, I see this dynamic in the Church which defines through theMagisterium what is believed by Catholics to be absolute dogma leading us to the highest good while, due to man’s fallen nature, the highest good is never fully manifest among her members as a whole. There are Catholic saints alongside those who betray the doctrine through various levels of dissent. So it is with any philosophy, even if the philosophy ostensibly guides a large number of people. The historian should do his work with the understanding that what Marx wrote on paper should not necessarily be presumed to be exactly what Communism became as a social movement of living, breathing people. So it is that we cannot reasonably indict Karl Marx alone for Communism, nor say that Communism is fully Marxist, to the absolute exclusion of everything else. Kolakowski argues that the social movement itself, though it may represent itself as the body of true keepers of a given ideology, is generally quite stronger than the ideology itself.
The particular rallying point of any movement is one key to understanding it.
All movements have their rallying point. For the current Tea Party movement, which is decidedly anti-Marxist, the rallying point is widely credited to the February 19, 2009, plea by Rick Santelli from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Though this came decades after Kolakowski penned “Main Currents of Marxism“, his claim that other factors cause social movements to evolve over time is ringing true in the Tea Party movement now, less than three years after the rallying point. It is because of this inevitable evolution that we find it difficult to delineate with accuracy what ideals make one a “true” Tea Party “patriot” or “representative”. This same difficulty faces Kolakowski in his examination of Marxism, and he argues that for any “historian of ideas”, the correct question on this matter should be to find out what ideas caused the rallying point in the first place.
No single, flawed human being can represent the epitome of a philosophy.
Kolakowski offers an important caution, that it is a fruitless endeavor, at least in the context of historical analysis, to insist that only those who hold to the particular idea(s) that launched the rallying point are the “true” representatives of the movement. A president may be “Marxist”. He may even be a “true” Marxist, but at the same time disagree on key issues with other “true” Marxists. The leader of the movement does not necessarily precisely define the movement or the ideology, nor vice versa. Further, there may be different groups which carry the banner of “Marxist” (or “Tea Party”, or “Progressive”, as the case may be), and movements may change from generation to generation. These are all difficulties for historians of philosophy. The primary reason for this point is to explain that while a study of the history of a philosophy entails the study of the ideas of individuals who clearly, on some level, hold forth that philosophy, this process of discovery is misused if it is given as reason to classify certain individuals as being absolutely “true” or absolutely “false” representatives of that philosophy. Certainly, people have their loyalities to particular political leaders, and fallen man will seek to put a brand name on his hero or his opponent in order that others may be encouraged to follow, or reject, that leader. We see this phenomenon at times in the Tea Party movement with the debate on who leads the movement and with the Left’s attempt to smear the brand “Tea Party” in order to discredit its leaders. Such debates, inevitable due to man’s human nature, are reflections of the very same difficulties Kolakowski describes as being problematic during his Communist-era historical study of Marxism.
The role of culture in the development of philosophy.
Culture plays a significant role in the development of philosophy, and Kolakowski describes his view of the role of culture as being similar to that of the German writer Thomas Mann. Mann did not seek to absolve German culture of the evils of Nazism. Rather, he approached the question by seeking to find those aspects of German culture which allowed Nazism to take root. Though Mann was, as a citizen of Germany, a part of the very same German culture he studied, he did not seek to protect Germany from learning hard truths about the culture which may or may not have facilitated the horrors of fascism. The very clear influence of Nietzsche did not, after all, occur within a vacuum. Again, we see this point about culture holding true in America today with the Tea Party laying claim to the hallmarks of American civilization in the use of imagery of the Founding Fathers, the American flag, the American Bald Eagle, etc.. This cultural imagery represents America’s historic opposition to totalitarianism. Meanwhile, as the far left rejects the idea that one culture is better than another, there is backlash against the use of American imagery and, often, the propogation of Islam in an attempt to establish it as a major cultural component of our national identity. An interesting question to pose might be whether or not the “multi-cultural” far left in America has a culture itself and, if so, what does that culture look like? Also, is there, as with a power vacuum, a danger in having a “cultural vacuum”?
Limitations regarding the flow of information.
There are practical limitations in studying the history of Marxism specifically. Among them is the fact that so many of Marx’s works were not even in print until the Communist Revolution had already taken place, though they were later considered by Communists to be essential works. Fortunately, in this age of more advanced technology, it is far easier to offer for mass distribution the writings of college student Obama, community organizer Obama, or Senator Obama so that the public might examine trends in his thinking and whether or not those trends are the source of his current policies as president. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Another difficulty is that Marx addressed multiple fields — “basic philosophic anthropology, socialist doctrine, and economic analysis” — and that varities of opinions abound, not only on the particular division of fields, but also on the question of how (and whether) they are related. We see this same difficulty in our examination of the far left in America as a movement made up of various dimensions including radical environmentalism, multiculturalism, anti-capitalism, etc. Despite this variety of “talent” and goals, it is still possible to assess similarities in thinking which are common threads in the philosophy.
The role of tradition.
We will always find, even in the anti-tradition Left, a certain level of adherence to traditional thinking. Though the “democrat” may reject the idea that tradition is worthy of our consideration, surely he points to figures from tradition, like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln (both of whom were Republicans) and claims them as forbears.
Catholic philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote on the topic of “democrats” and their rejection of tradition:
Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils.
Surely, the Communist regime had the deceased Karl Marx at their “councils” in the form of adherence to his ideas. So, too, we may endeavor through the research of common threads to see if Karl Marx is similary seated at the table with President Obama’s Cabinet.
The impossible goal of Utopia.
Considering the many challenges involved in the analysis of a philosophy, Kolakowski resolves to focus his efforts “on the question which appears at all times to have occupied a central place in Marx’s independent thinking…” which is the question of how one can possibly adopt a utopian ideal when there exist so many variables that contribute to what is, in reality, an inevitable diversity of opinions and of outcomes. There is a further difficulty, as well, that Kolakowski points out. Marxists believe that history has “progressed”, and will continue in a “progressive” manner, in stages of class warfare, with the end result being “true” socialism. I am reminded of a quote from our progressive President Obama which he borrowed from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
The “bending arc” toward “justice” is one way of describing Marxist thought about history’s “progressive” stages toward socialism. Unfortunately for us, the “moral universe” of Marx rejects both tradition and natural law, finding its basis in economics and class warfare, unlike Dr. King’s “moral universe”. King said that law not rooted in natural law is unjust. Dr. King himself borrowed his quote on the arc of the moral universe from Theodore Parker, who inspired Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and was a proud grandson of Captain John Parker, American Revolutionary leader at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Perhaps the historians of the future can sort out the reasons why a progressive would use a quote about justice from a Christian preacher who stood firm on the justice of natural law. Was President Obama’s quote an act of preserving or usurping traditional values? I would argue that it is an usurpation.
Indeed, values and philosophies are carried on from generation to generation, from sea to shining sea and beyond. Some preserve while others usurp. I look forward to reading more of “Main Currents of Marxism” and sharing my thoughts with you as I delve deeper into the history of Marxism.
In Florida, a judge has ordered the use of ‘Ecclesiastical Islamic Law’ to decide a case among litigants in a suit involving an internal dispute at a mosque. Why are some so accepting of the idea that the melding of “Mosque and State” in American jurisprudence is acceptable? I submit that, at least in some cases, political motivations stand in the way of intelligent, reasoned debate on issues related to Islam. Leftist disdain for the Right and the leftist political doctrine of multiculturalism cripple their ability to reasonably debate these issues.
Those critical of Islam and the terror which is born from it are frequently accused of trying to pigeon-hole all Muslims into one category of believers who are seeking Islam’s domination. In this accusation, the reality that some actually do seek to do just that is brushed under the rug. Though I would agree that not all Muslims desire that political Islam should become a part of America’s legal system, it is clear that the desire for Islam to dominate in America does exist among some Muslims. There is perhaps no more serious example of this than in attempts to make Islamic Law hold precedence over American Law.
Many on the Left will leap to the defense of Islam at every turn. It is true even in this case, even though the leaders of the mosque themselves argue that Florida law should hold precedence. Why would the Left press for Islam when the mosque itself argues the contrary?
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Left has introduced new doctrines that are Marxist in nature, but that have a non-Soviet flavor which may make them more palpable to Americans. One such doctrine — “multiculturalism” — has replaced “melting pot” thinking all too frequently in America. Multiculturalism is one avenue through which Sharia courts in America could gain more acceptance whereas this could not happen wherever the traditional “melting pot” thinking is applied.
In our traditional “melting pot” society, immigrants “blend in”. They accept the basic values of the American system into which they have moved while retaining those elements of their culture which do not trample over the most basic American values. For instance, in Chinatown, Americans can experience the flavor of Chinese culture, but still be fully American and retain all the freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution. There is no need to be concerned that on a visit to Chinatown, you might automatically become a citizen of China or be otherwise subject to Chinese law. You’d be hard pressed to find an American on the Right or the Left who does not accept Chinatown as a highly welcome part of American society. Chinatown is a textbook example of America’s “melting pot” values system.
Multiculturalism is the polar opposite of the “melting pot.” “Multiculturalism,” a “major ideological successor” of Soviet-style Marxism, rejects the idea that immigrants should “blend in” to the American system of values.
Values like universal human rights, individualism and liberalism are regarded merely as ethnocentric products of Western history. The scientific knowledge that the West has produced is simply one of many “ways of knowing.” In place of Western universalism, this critique of the West offers the relativism of multiculturalism, a concept that regards the West not as the pinnacle of human achievement to date, but as simply one of many equally valid cultural systems.
I can see the Left’s embrace of the ideological doctrine of multiculturalism — as opposed to a “melting pot” — reflected in the exposition of Sharia Law as a system of law that is equally valid to other systems of law. An example of this is a recent report at Salon by Justin Elliott. Though Elliott has taken great pains to claim that Tea Party protests against radical Islamists are “anti-Muslim hate,” he admits to having little idea about what Sharia Law is.
Indeed, anti-Muslim political operatives have been warning of “creeping sharia” and “Islamist lawfare” for years, though the anti-sharia efforts have gained new prominence in recent months.
But even basic facts about sharia — what is it? how is it used in American courts? — are hard to come by. So I decided to talk to Abed Awad, a New Jersey-based attorney and an expert on sharia who regularly handles cases that involve Islamic law. He is also a member of the adjunct faculties at Rutgers Law School and Pace Law School. He recently answered my questions via e-mail.
Here we have a writer at Salon who is operating from a presumption that the protests against Sharia are “anti-Muslim” efforts by “political operatives.” He claims these protests are based in bigotry, instead of what they really are — legitimate concerns about support for terror and anti-Semitism at the Islamic Circle of NorthAmerica.
Operating from a foundation of disdain for the Right, he hangs on to the presumption that the protests are not legitimate opinions expressed by citizens but, instead, are a campaign run by “political operatives”. It is from that foundation of flawed belief that he builds. Further, in realizing that he is completely ignorant of Sharia, he seeks to build his arguments against those who would seek to discredit Islam by doing research made up entirely of an email exchange with one Muslim attorney.
It is in this manner that the Left’s knee-jerk disdain for the Right, the doctrine of multiculturalism and downright ignorance about Islam are so often found together in a formula that causes them to jump to the defense of Islam in every issue…even issues wherein they are taking the position opposite of a mosque that is opposed to Islamic supremacism in our courts.
We hear a lot about the “Far Right” in America’s political discourse on Islam. Indeed, the Far Left and their ideological doctrines contrary to America’s founding values are very much at play in these debates. Let us not forget that important point.
We here at The American Catholic, along with conservative Catholics in general, have been accused many times of “Calvinism” by certain writers at Vox Nova. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that this accusation is nothing more than a massive projection made by people who harbor Calvinist theological assumptions themselves, of which they may or may not be fully aware. Particularly, I think in their constant shilling for big government programs, for slavishness before all forms of authority, for the unlimited extension of “rights” (i.e. entitlements), and the rest of the statist agenda, the leftists at Vox Nova and throughout American political landscape have absorbed a perverse Calvinist doctrine of their own, namely that of the total depravity of man.
I have actually written about this before: the process by which radical leftism transformed from a project rooted in optimism, in a fanatical belief in man’s goodness and reason (apart from God of course), to one of utter pessimism and misanthropy. The first communists, and particularly Marx – for all of their deep flaws, errors, and hatreds – retained a belief in man’s goodness that they had mistakenly come to believe Christianity had rejected through the heresies of the Protestant rebellion.
I’ll begin by stating that part of the blame or praise for this post ought to go to Christopher Blosser and David Jones for their excellent overview and commentary on the ongoing political/economic dispute between Catholic Distributists and Catholic libertarians.
I wish I could easily come up with a logical, smooth flow to all of these points. But really I just want to get them out there, no matter how disjointed in appearance.
Finally, I really mean it this time: we will have a respectful discussion on this topic, or none at all. That means certain people and their comments will likely be banned from the discussion. It will not be possible to avoid charges of “being afraid” to debate with such indestructible champions of the one true political philosophy, given their amazing ability to rule out all other possible reasons, including their coarse and offensive personal behavior, as to why no one wishes to engage in discussions with them. C’est la vie.
The best way to contribute here, though, is to ask questions that I can answer for this FAQ!
Where does the word “Distributarian” come from?
The word “Distributarian” was pejoratively applied to me and a few others who have attempted to blend libertarian and Distributist ideas by those not so enamored with the project. Since I see it as a good thing, I don’t mind wearing the label as a badge of honor.
What is a Distributarian?
It is one who does not see a necessary conflict between the basic propositions of Distributism and libertarianism, and insofar as possible, seeks to incorporate both of them into their social vision.
What are these propositions?
The following propositions are both necessary and sufficient for each ideology:
Of Distributism: property should be as widely distributed as possible.
Of libertarianism: social relationships should be as voluntary as possible.
Naturally some doctrinaires will dislike the wording “as ___ as possible”; why should we care about what is possible when great ideas are at stake? Either they exist full-fledged without imperfection in the world or they may as well not exist at all! If we move past this childish expectation and begin with the possible, I think we will find that there is no contradiction between these propositions.
Distributism and libertarianism challenge each other in a good way. Distributism challenges libertarianism to move beyond individual autonomy and articulate a vision of the common good; libertarianism challenges Distributism to clearly articulate how property distribution ought to come about – through force, or through consent?
Not only do they challenge each other; they compliment each other. Property owners will thrive in an environment of economic freedom; genuine liberty will thrive as it is rooted in solid social institutions based upon private property. As property ownership will increase the self-sufficiency of individuals, families, and communities, it will decrease dependency upon the state.
And please note that this is a work in progress!
The Governors office and both chambers of the Washington State legislature are currently under Democratic control. Years of spending on European style socialist programs have created a budget deficit. The Democrats have decided instead of cutting or trimming their state programs whey will instead add a beer tax (and more) to compensate for the budget shortfall.
Republicans don’t have all the answers either. But you know (most times) it won’t be taxes that they turn to to solve a budget deficit.
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.
Since 2002 Ken Masugi, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and lecturer in Government at Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, has conducted Advent interviews with James V. Schall, S.J., author of over thirty books on political theory and theology. Fr. Schall teaches in the Government Department of Georgetown University.
The interviews themselves are a delight to read and span a variety of topics from current events to the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI to issues in philosophy, theology and ethics — and sometimes, in addition, what books Fr. Schall himself is reading at that particular moment in time.
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.
I was recently listening to an interview with Stanley Engerman, co-author of Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery. It was an interesting discussion overall, but what particularly caught my attention was basically a side-note.
Engerman referenced Adam Smith’s understanding of slavery which he described as being that slaves had no incentive towards greater productivity, with the result that using slave labor rather than free labor was inefficient. Smith thus attributed the fact that people use slavery despite it’s inefficiency to the will to domineer over others:
But if great improvements are seldom to be expected from great proprietors, they are least of all to be expected when they employ slaves for their workmen. The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own. In ancient Italy, how much the cultivation of corn degenerated, how unprofitable it became to the master when it fell under the management of slaves, is remarked by both Pliny and Columella. In the time of Aristotle it had not been much better in ancient Greece. Speaking of the ideal republic described in the laws of Plato, to maintain five thousand idle men (the number of warriors supposed necessary for its defence) together with their women and servants, would require, he says, a territory of boundless extent and fertility, like the plains of Babylon.
Here is a blog I wrote for fladems4life.org- this is the website for Florida Democrats for Life organization- If you are a Democrat and pro-life you should seriously consider joining the National and State chapters for Democrats for Life. There is a lot of freedom for you to bring your ideals and ideas into these growing organizations. I believe it is mostly a waste of time trying to turn Democrats into Republicans or vice versa- there is a philosophy of governance that pulls deeper than individual issues- even big issues like abortion.
It has become an oft repeated trope of Catholics who are on the left or the self-consciously-unclassifiable portions of the American political spectrum that the pro-life movement has suffered a catastrophic loss of credibility because of its association with the Republican Party, and thence with the Iraq War and the use of torture on Al Qaeda detainees. Until the pro-life movement distances itself from the Republican Party and all of the pro-life leadership who have defended the Iraq War and/or the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees, the argument goes, the pro-life movement will have no moral authority and will be the laughing stock of enlightened Catholics everywhere.
Regardless of what one thinks about the Iraq War and torture (myself, I continue to support the former but oppose the latter) I’m not sure that this claim works very well. Further, I think that those who make it often fail to recognize the extent to which it cuts both ways.
Listening to this week’s EconTalk interview with Alan Wolfe, author of the recently released The Future of Liberalism, I was struck by the following quote from the book, “Modern liberalism promises equality through what [Isaiah] Berlin calls a positive conception of liberty. It is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone [which is negative liberty]. I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.”
In discussion with host Russell Roberts, himself quite libertarian, Wolfe says that liberals do and should concede that at times empirical evidence will show that such government intervention actually reduces personal autonomy, in which case he advocates changing one’s position. He cites school choice and welfare reform as to examples of traditionally conservative positions he has adopted because he considers that these were both cases of alleviating dependence created by government programs.
But the examples that Wolfe provided of intervention to assure positive freedom struck me as interesting, and provided me with some insight into how thoughtful liberals view the world.
With the announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice David Souter President Obama wasted no time in addressing the issue of what he’s looking for to fill this vacancy. In so many words he clearly stated his desire for an activist judge with an eye towards reengineering America [emphasis and comments mine].
“It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives [meaning he wants a Justice who holds fast to the Living Constitution Theory,ie, an activist judge finding invisible law where none existed], whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.”
The following excerpt clearly reveals President Obama’s contempt for legislative history in effect eliminating a potential nominee that adheres to the theory of original intent.
“I will seek someone who understands that justice is not about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook.”
One thing is for sure, it will be an extremist liberal and pro-abortion nominee.
With people focused on the economic downturn, many have found it a good time to give a little extra thought to whether other people are making more than they ought to. The president has spoken out several times against “excessive compensation” of executives, and a number of people have floated the idea of adjusting the top marginal income tax rate to effectively cap total compensation at ten million dollars a year. MZ tackled the question somewhat humorously here.
Beyond question, $10 million is a lot of money. Most of us will never see anything like that much money, and so it seems entirely reasonable to demand: Why should anyone be paid so much? What’s so special about CEOs and actors and baseball players that they deserve tens of millions of dollars? Aren’t they running off with the money that we should be getting instead?
I certainly wouldn’t claim that executives are not often paid more than they are worth. A board of directors is still a group of people with emotional commitments (including wanting to assure themselves that they made the right pick in choosing the current CEO) and they will certainly not always do what is in their own best interest. Though we may be comforted that in a free economy the incentives are in place to automatically punish them for not doing so.