Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Great Traditionalism Debate, Part 73

The debate on this blog over rationalism vs. traditionalism has been fun so far, even though at time it has kind of an esoteric quality.  I don’t have a lot more to say on it, because I think that most of what needs to be said has already been said, and also because I don’t think my position is really as far from Ben’s as some of these posts might make it seem.  That is, we both agree on most of our substantive political goals and, as I will discuss below, I am certainly no armchair “ideologist,” as in Ben’s caricature of rationalism.  I believe that it is important to understand your own tradition, but, unlike Ben, I do not believe that doing so is the only way to be rational.

Nevertheless, there are still a few points to clean up.

First, Ben keeps arguing that reason can’t be separated from tradition.  The actual evidence for this, beyond mere assertion, is only contained in a few pithy examples.  For instance, he notes in an earlier post that if it weren’t for John Locke, the Magna Carta, and the Scottish Enlightenment, I would not be the thinker that I am today.

Okay, sure.  But so what?  The fact that I am not able to conjure up an entire, completely correct philosophy out of whole cloth is surely no argument against rationalism.  Everyone is dependent on the people who came before them–Isaac Newton famously stated that he could only as far as he could because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  But that isn’t an admission that physics is governed by tradition.  Far from it; Ben admits as much when he states that the same law of gravity that applies to us also applies to primitive tribes.  (Although admittedly, tribesmen do have a tradition of falling when they stumble over logs.)

Understanding this point also shows the error behind Ben’s insinuation that libertarian rationalists must believe that “Murray Rothbard was the first rational man,” because otherwise they couldn’t possibly explain why libertarianism wasn’t all thought up at once, centuries ago.  Of course, I don’t know of anyone who believes anything close to this.  Indeed, because libertarians tend to value the division of labor–Ludwig von Mises called it the “fundamental social phenomenon”–they easily grasp the point that Ben has missed.  Just as no one person could live entirely cut-off from society and maintain a modern standard of living, so too no one person can simply deduce the entire corpus of knowledge all on his own.

Indeed, Rothbard was heavily influenced by the Spanish Scholastics, the French classical liberals, and the American Old Right.  But, once again: so what?  That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t engaged in a rationalistic project.  Just like the physicist who deduces real-world phenomena, the social scientist can deduce the nature of man and therefore the society that is best for man without being bound by any historical tradition.  The fact that every social scientist is influenced by those who came before him is true, but does not change the nature of the project that the social scientist engages in.

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Why I am, as a Conservative, Voting for (ughh) Romney, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Vote Republican

Yes, I am, as a conservative, voting for (ughh) Mitt Romney. (Hmm, I think I might have just thrown up a little bit in my mouth.) Why would I do this? Do I not understand that his foreign policy is virtually indistinguishable from Barack Obama’s and therefore a rejection of the Burkean prudence that I so ardently admire?

Do I not understand that his pro-life stance is a recent and rather suspicious addendum to his policy preferences serving only to make him slightly more palatable to social conservatives so as to harvest their votes? And, what’s worse, do I not know that he has more than alluded that his administration will support nothing of value to the pro-life cause?

Do I not understand that his economic proposals are only a reconfiguration of the current statist status quo?

In short, do I not understand that if aliens were plotting to conquer earth they could do worse than to release a mutant called “Obamney” that appears as two but speaks as one? We’ve seen this before, a few times actually.

Well, yes, I understand all that. However, I am voting for Mitt Romney (ughh, gulp) nonetheless. And here’s why.

Conservative political principle numero uno: politics is the art of the possible; it is the method of attaining salutary change by degrees among the political possibilities. We view history in terms of decades, centuries and millennia, not in terms of elections cycles. We do what we can in the political arena based upon the possibilities before us. Right now we’re facing a general election, specifically, for our federal president; not a primary, not a constitutional convention, not a decision on which party to give our affiliation or contributions.

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Traditionalism and “Transcendent Truth”

In a recent post, Joe questions whether traditionalist conservatives such as myself necessarily rule out the existence of any kind of truth that “transcends history.” Kelse, in response, gives a helpful example in asking whether traditionalists would deny the existence of universal economic laws, such as that minimum wage laws encourage unemployment.

Both Joe and Kelse seem to be taking traditionalism as saying that no universal truth can be known. If this is indeed the case, then conservatism of this sort would indeed have relatively little to offer the world. If traditionalists believed that every law of nature was subject to a random process of historical development and held no bearing over the laws of nature existing in any opposing tradition, this would be a rather dubious set of beliefs indeed. Such a philosophy would be rightfully subjected to charges of moral relativism by those who attempt to find some objective standard existing wholly outside history. For the sake of argument, let’s call the proponents of this anti-traditionalism “ideologists.”

This portrayal of traditionalism, however, misses the point by a wide margin. In turning to history, traditionalist conservatism does not deny the existence of an objective standard by which to judge particular traditions. On the contrary, the pursuit of universal truth is of ultimate importance. The key difference between traditionalists and ideologists (on both the Right and the Left) is that traditionalists attempt to locate universal truth within history, while ideologists attempt to find it existing outside of history. Traditionalism holds, as my colleague Edmund Babbitt argues quite eloquently in a separate response to Joe, that: “Universality is manifested concretely and intelligibly in the best of tradition, custom, and precedent produced through human action over time. Stated differently, universality requires particularity or historicity for existence and particularity or history requires universality for eternal meaning.”

A good example of this relationship can be found in Christianity. According to the Christian faith, God is a transcendent being and divine law exists outside of history. In order for humans to understand divine law, however, it was necessary for God to enter history in the form of a man: Jesus of Nazareth. The transcendent became historical and our understanding of divine reality is thus a thoroughly historical one. Once an element of universal truth is uncovered within a tradition, it can be applied more generally outside the tradition, although its historical nature must always be kept in mind.

All of that to say: there are some truths that the traditionalist recognizes as having universal validity. Gravity, for example, is no less of a physical reality in an indigenous tribe that has never heard of Isaac Newton. Or, to take Kelse’s example, the connection between decreased employment and minimum wage laws is no less of an economic reality in any country that favors Keynesian to Misesian economic theories.

Kelse’s minimum wage example, however, requires further examination. Although we now know that minimum wage laws lead to higher unemployment, it still remains to be proven that they should not be enacted. After all, are there economists out there who support minimum wage laws specifically because they are thought to be a good way of increasing employment? I hardly think so. Rather, the proponent of minimum wage laws might argue that they are necessary to prevent the exploitation of workers, that their benefits to those who are employed outweigh the detriments to those who are not, etc.

Eventually, in order to make a faithful argument against minimum wage laws, the libertarian will have to address the elements of a particular culture in order for his economic arguments to carry any weight. Some cultures might be conducive for startup competitors to enter the marketplace, others might not. Some cultures might have strong cultural proscriptions against mistreating your employees, others might not. Some cultures might feature a social safety net that will protect the most vulnerable members of a society, others might not.

The point here is not to argue that minimum wage laws should be enacted in some cultures; personally, I’m not sure that the benefits will ever outweigh the harm they cause. Rather, my point is that truth divorced from historical context is not necessarily true at all. “Human nature” is unchangeable and universal, but the interplay between what is generally human and what is unique to a particular culture- between nature and nurture, if you will- is far more complex than the ideologists acknowledge.

For, in eschewing history and focusing only on ahistorical “laws,” the ideologists are in constant danger of mistaking genuine cultural idiosyncrasies for universal truth. They observe some truth about human nature- a truth that is entirely contingent upon cultural and environmental factors- and from there assume that it is a truth about human nature generally. They are, in more Voegelinian terms, mistaking the “existence of order” for the “order of existence”: assuming that because a particular order exists in one culture, that this truth must “transcend history” and represent the order of all reality.

Let’s return to the example of Christianity provided above. A Christian might reasonably say, looking at the life of Christ, that “it is a universal truth that all men must love one another” or “it is a universal truth that all men need a divine Savior”; on the other hand, saying “it is a universal truth that that Savior must speak Aramaic” or “it is a universal truth that that Savior must die on a cross [a method of execution peculiar to its time and place]” would be confusing the instantiation of truth with the essence of truth.

Truth as we know it always has a historical character. We may, over time, get closer to understanding the true “order of existence,” but we do so, not primarily on the strength of our own individual reason- which is feeble and necessarily bound by our historical circumstances- but by relying on the historical truth embedded in the best of our cultural heritage. This reliance is the true essence of traditionalism.

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Hurricanes and Price Gouging

As Hurricane Sandy hits the east coast, bureaucrats have been predictably warning businesses against price gouging.  On the local news today, I heard official talking about how, during a hurricane, “normal economic operations don’t apply” and price controls become necessary.

Here’s Art Carden, writing at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, on what price controls actually accomplish during natural disasters.  (Spoiler: It’s not pretty.)

First, price controls create shortages because they eliminate the market’s way of telling people to conserve scarce resources. After a disaster like a flood, a hurricane, or a tornado, demand for some goods increases while the supply of some goods decreases. If prices are not allowed to adjust, people will want more “water, ice, storage units, and generators” than the market is prepared to supply at the controlled price. As Michael Munger, chairman of Duke University’s political science department, has pointed out, this means that the effective price of a good for which the price has been controlled is infinite: beyond the amount that the market will supply at the controlled price, nothing can be done to call more goods into existence.

Instead of relying on prices, governments that institute price controls must rely instead on moral suasion. This will help in some cases, but it is unlikely to be as effective as a price increase. One might be tempted to respond that the government should be able to make up for the shortage, but the government’s performance in similar cases, such as FEMA’s ham-fisted response to Hurricane Katrina, provides us with grounds to be skeptical of this claim.

Restricting the price mechanism also means that recovery will be delayed. If prices are allowed to fluctuate freely, resources will be directed to where they are most desperately needed. Someone who wishes to build a new deck in San Antonio will have to think twice if lumber prices increase because people in Iowa are struggling to rebuild their houses. If lumber prices are not allowed to change, our deck-builder in San Antonio lacks the signal he needs to learn that the lumber he would otherwise use to build a deck might be better used rebuilding houses in Iowa.

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Conservatism, Capitalism and the Decline of the Working Class

On this hurricane day, I want to be to be a little productive with my time and post something that I hope will get some responses. Here is an article for conservatives, traditionalists and libertarians of all stripes: Charles Murray on the decline of the white working class

I encourage people to read the article. His analysis fits with views expressed on this blog, I think. Here is his book

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One More Question for Traditionalists

I have another entry to add to Joe’s list of questions for “historicist traditionalists.”

Do traditionalists disavow economic laws that transcend place and time?  That is, do they believe that a minimum wage law in Saudi Arabia should be judged by different standards than a minimum wage law in the United States?

I get the feeling from Ben’s response to my earlier attacks on traditionalism that the answer is “yes.”  (Ben says: “If the Saudi Arabians want a more libertarian culture, then they should develop one within their own cultural context.”)  If so, could someone please enlighten me as to how raising the costs of labor will tend to not discourage employment in Saudi Arabia or wherever else?  (That is: tell me how raising the minimum wage, wherever you are, will not have the tendency to keep employment lower than it otherwise would be–which is different from the question of whether there may be some situations in which a minimum wage increase is accompanied by either stagnant or increasing employment rates.)

Conversely, if the answer to my question is “no,” then haven’t traditionalists given the whole game away?  They will have recognized an objective criterion independent of any tradition, and standing in judgment of all traditions.

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Smacking Down Academic Pretension

Theodore Dalrymple at Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty published a hilariously scathing attack on the socialist and Euro-centrist academic Jurgen Habermas.  Read the whole thing for a good deflation of academic pretentiousness, but one passage in particular stands out.

At the bottom of page 69 of this short but frivolously dense book entitled THE CRISIS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION: A Response , we read with respect to [Habermas's] scheme for a world body that will deliver universal justice (modeled more or less on the triumphantly successful European Union): “But any design for a world order aiming at civilizing the exercise of political authority, no matter how farsighted it might be, must take account of the fact that the historical asynchronicity of regional developments and the corresponding socio-economic disparities between the multiple modernities cannot be erased overnight.”

Do we really need a professor of philosophy  – indeed, do we need anyone – to tell us this? Professor Habermas tries to squeeze significance out of truisms, as a constipated man tries to squeeze stools out of a reluctant colon, by the use of locutions such as ‘multiple modernities’ and the printing of the word ‘overnight’ in italics. But is there a single person in the world who thinks that all economic differences between individuals and nations could be ironed out overnight, and who either needs to or would be disabused of this notion by Professor Habermas’s contradiction of it? Academic vacuity can go no further.

I’ve often thought that 95% of professional philosophy is all about restating things that everyone already knows, but doing so in abstruse and convoluted language in order to keep a reputation for profundity.  How much ink has been spilled trying to prove whether or not the external world exists?

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Questions for Historicist Traditionalists

In the back-and-forth debate over historicism, here are some questions for the historicist-traditionalist conservatives:

1. How does the historicist-traditionalist effectively discern whether or not the tradition in which he or she exists is an appropriate expression of the universal good, true and beautiful?

2. what is the method by which a historicist-traditionalist determines that his interpretation of the tradition is consistent with the actual tradition? Does the tradition exist independently of the person who experiences it, that is to say?

3. How are we to understand dynamics of actions such as change and transformation (such as revolution and counterrevolution) and continuity? Is there a point at which history does not matter? Can we tease out causes and effects at some general level or are we not supposed to? Is the hitoricist-traditionlist acknowledgement of historicity also an acknowledgment that we only make intelligible human action and deny the possibility of such an project of human knowledge?

4. How does the historicist-traditionalist reconcile the claims of a an often theological claim about a universal human nature, with the denial and downplay of the universality of our fallenness or determinedness across time and space? That is to say, how does the historicist-traditionalist affirm human nature while maintaining the primacy of the historicity of both experience and reality? It would seem that there would be a tension between affirming a human nature and affirming that human experience is defined by its historicity. Either we have a human nature and that this nature is not historically-dependent, but rather is universal and can be extrapolated from specific experiences and known abstractly; or we deny an immutable human nature because we humans cannot escape history and we cannot have knowledge outside of historical experience, which would cast doubt on the existence of an immutable and universal human nature (I am thinking of what edmund wrote about the “inexhaustible” source that universality is, but that just seems to me to suggest that this worldview provides someone with many many ways to really screw the world up, all in an effort to enjoy all the particular pleasures that are possibly found in that inspiration known as the universal). I think that the historicist-traditionlist is presupposing something else (such as Christianity) which necessarily colors, limits and guides historicism, which as a result, may be better understood as useful took to make sense of the world he experiences; it is not indicative or representative of human experience otherwise.

5. What does the historicist-traditionalist say to other conservatives who argue against historicism in favor of a foundation in some kind of knowledge or status that transcends history? Are non-historicist forms of traditionalism and conservatism compatible with each other or are they closed off to one another?

I’ll close with a Mises quote

“The theorems of economics, say the historicists, are void because they are the product of a priori reasoning. Only historical experience can lead to realistic economics. They fail to see that historical experience is always the experience of complex phenomena, of the joint effects brought about by the operation of a multiplicity of elements. Such historical experience does not give the observer facts in the sense in which the natural sciences apply this term to the results obtained in laboratory experiments. Historical facts need to be interpreted on the ground of previously available theorems. They do not comment upon themselves. The antagonism between economics and historicism does not concern the historical facts. It concerns the interpretation of the facts.”

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Should Libertarians Oppose Inconsequential Laws?

An interesting question came up yesterday that challenges my position from a previous post that libertarians should be utilitarians.

Yesterday I had a discussion with a friend over one of the ballot initiatives in Massachusetts, the so-called “Right to Repair” law.  The law forces car manufacturers to allow competing repair shops to buy technology from them which will allow the repair shops to read code generated by a customer’s car’s internal computer.  This allows the shop to diagnose vehicle malfunctions.  As it is now, only the manufacturer has the ability to read this read this code.

I stated that I oppose the law for several reasons, mainly based on the facts that the law undermines contracts between individual dealers and manufacturers, makes it less profitable for dealers to enter into exclusive relationships with manufacturers in the first place, and discourages manufacturers from incurring research and development costs to create new technology that can then be bought up by competitors.  Each of these would lead to a poorer market for consumers.

But to be fair, the real-world impact that the law would be likely to have in any of these areas is probably very small.  My friend said that, even if she accepted all of my arguments, the costs that the new law imposes on car manufacturers is so remote to her that it would still be worth it to vote “yes” to the new law.  After all, most people only enter the retail market for cars around once or twice a decade.  But they got to repair shops much more often.

How does this affect my position on utilitarianism?

Well, if we judge restrictions on freedom by their negative consequences, what about those laws, like this one, that have not much of any consequences at all?  What, for instance, should a libertarian say about the birth control ban in Griswold v. Connecticut, which was on the books but never enforced?  What about a rent control ordinance that caps rent so far above the market clearing price (say, $5 million/month) that no one would ever violate it?  Or a law regulating a dying industry like the absbestos or quill-pen industries?  If we judge laws by their consequences, does that mean we can’t make any judgments about laws with few, if any, bad consequences?

I don’t think so.  Indeed, I think everyone should oppose all the laws I’ve mentioned.

Before we start judging the utility of individual regulatory laws, it makes sense to first judge the utility of the entire concept of the regulatory state itself.  To state a few of the most obvious problems, government regulations distort the market by substituting the choices of bureaucrats for the choices of free consumers and therefore make people worse off then if they were left free to pursue their own ends.  By their involuntariness, regulations also introduce social conflict into what was once free and mutually beneficial exchange (as in subsidies or tariffs, which direct consumers’ money away from where the consumers want it and toward government-favored industries).  The fact that they can be changed at will makes it harder for people to predict the future and disincentivizes people from entering long-term contracts, given that those contracts could be negated at any time by a change in the law.  The regulatory states’ enforcement mechanism also consumes huge amounts of tax money which could otherwise by invested in more productive areas.  Moreover, taxation itself leads to a decline in net income, which means that people have less money to invest or to put toward their own futures.

When we understand this destructive nature of the regulatory state, it is no longer necessary to judge each new regulation on its own terms, entirely independent of the rest.  Rather, we can understand that, though the new car law probably won’t have a huge effect on the market, to support it is to support a principle of interventionism that has been and will continue to be hugely destructive of civilized society.

Of course, it may be difficult to find the terms to oppose seemingly inconsequential laws in any given case.  But if we fail to do so, then we risk giving up necessary ground to the interventionists.  The burden should be on them to prove why any given law is so necessary that we should support it, rather than on us to show how each of their new machinations will be harmful in any given case.

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Historicism’s Confusion and a Case for a Positivist Conservatism… Kind of…

Warning: this is a bit all over the place heavy on the links. My apologies.
In his response to my critique of the conservative overworship of history, Edmund Babbitt puts the hammer to my position, so to speak, by providing a passionate explanation of the conservative embrace of a historicist conception of human knowledge. Yet, it remains unconvincing and, I think, produces more questions than answers in its defense of traditionalist-historicist conservatism.
First, I would disagree with Edmund’s description of the main claim for which I argue: while I concede that my position presupposes an abstract (ahistorical?) “standard of judgement” in order to determine what is good and bad (within history), that is not, I don’t think, the emphasis I want to make in my argument. It is not an argument for one philosophical position in opposition to another. Rather, and this may be a distinction without a difference, my argument is that the conservative historicist is in some way fundamentally flawed and needs to reconsider its philosophical (non)foundations.

The does not demonstrate that the “standard for discerning universality is found in history.” The essay makes the assumption that it is, and assumes that the standard exists, but it makes transparent neither the argument, nor provides much empirical-historical (or abstract-rational) support for the claim. To put it simply: it merely asserts, it does not argue, that the relationship(s) between history, human experience and human existence are inter-related in an inseparable (constitutive?) way. Until such evidence is provided and an argument is made for the traditionalist-historicist conservative position, then the traditionalist-historicist conservative is stuck drawing circles for arguments.
If it is the case that there is no object of existence outside of reality that can provide conservatives with any philosophical guidance, then what does that mean for the conservative believer in any type of religion? What does that mean for the Christian conservative (Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant) who recognizes the central event that is the incarnation? It would seem that such an event presupposes the existence of something outside of history; and if we are to grant that, then surely it would follow that other lesser standards (which may or may not be perceivable by us humans) of judgment, knowledge or existence would potentially exist outside of history as well. And we should entertain the possibility of transhistorical entities (or facts, whatever terminology one would like to use to describe what exists out there).
What if it is a problem of perception, not existence as such – conservatives of the traditionalist-historicist type just get the order wrong? Our existence is not historical, but it is our truncated experience that results in an incorrect perception that our human experience itself is historical; rather our existence is individual and nonhistorical. Could it be that a more accurate descriptive understanding of what we call the historicity of human experience and human knowledge is that we perceive experience in a way that is formed by our time and place but which is not reducable to temporal-spatial conditions? if we recognize that it is at the level of perception that our “historical” experience is to be found, but our existence itself is not historical? Even though we are bound by time and space (history), our knowledge of that which is good, true and beautiful is not necessarily dependent upon a cognizance of the historicity of our individual consciouscness or the historicity of human experience in general. It is still something that can be referenced to as existing independent of the historical experience in which we find ourselves.
How do we understand “civilized society” and how does it follow from our interactions with the society that our knowledge of what is right and wrong comes from it? And what are we to make of those who reject the society (such as abolitionists, to toss out that tired reference) in favor of an order that we in our day would presumably not be opposed to (the whole slavery thing, that is)? Is it the encounter with other societies and the broadening of the parameters of their historical consciousness that are contributory causes to the existence of such examples in history? Or can we attribute the existence of such individuals and such ideas to modes of knowledge that potentialy operate beyond the strictures of historical experience? Or is it that they learn from the society in which they exist about the good the true and the beautiful? In which case, there are still problems for the traditionalist-historicist conservative, who must then explain why it is not only that the wrong tradition exists and persists to dominate and define the society, but also how it is the minority in the culture (as opposed to the majority in the culture) who discover this correct expression of the tradition in contrast with the majority who ignore it or otherwise is not aware of it; it would seem that given the variety of interpretations that could occur, then there is some other standard (empirical or rational) that is not historicist that better explains the riddle of tradition than historicism explains it. Just beause it is the case that people encounter the good, the true and the beautiful as people bound by time, space and plcae, does not mean that historical experience is how we know such forms of knowledge or that such forms of knowledge are inherently historicist. It only means that we are finite. But we already knew that.
If the reformers have only history to look to in order to find reasons and inspirations for their reform, then it would seem that traditionalist-historicist conservatism and conservatives have no way within the tradition itself to “carefully mitigate the worst of their past and creatively rearticulate and enhance the best of their traditions.” It requires some other standard (empirical or rational) in order to mitigate the worst and discover and promote the good. Unless one wants to claim that historicity does provide that standard, but then it would at best seem to be merely myth, not anything concrete borne out of the experiences of those steeped in the culture. What is reform but an alteration of this historical and contingent reality? (somewhere in all of this discussion about historicity and historicism and all this other fun stuff is a commensurability problem, i just know it)
Historicism, in so far as it is open to the possibility of human development of that which is imperfectable, seems dangerously open to the potential of being an inspiration to the utopian scheming and ideological nightmares that have hampered our history.
I think that if conservatives want to make an insighftul and convincing argument for their position, they are going to need to make reference to a body of knowledge or school of thought besides and beyond historicism and the broader interpretivist viewpoint of which it is a subtype.
I think conservatism should look to alternative – more sophisticated? – ways of self-understanding than the repetitive, circular and evidently not evident historicism. Perhaps in the case of historicism, Leo Strauss is right.

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The Anti-Obamney Majority

Green Party candidate Jill Stein stated at last night’s third party debate that the half of all registered voters–double the amount who will vote for either Obama or Romney–will not participate in this election at all (see video at 1:20:00).  She says that “those are voters who are saying ‘no’ to politics as usual and saying ‘no’ to the Democratic and Republican Parties.”

I don’t think that anyone can know what 90 million other individuals are thinking.  Still–and whatever one might say about some of Jill Stein’s other ideas–I have to admire the sentiment in that quote.  Nonvoters get caricatured as lazy and uninformed.  But it is much nobler to just go to work, spend time with your friends, or even watch reruns of Tosh.0 than it is to give your vote to a candidate who supports drone strikes, indefinite detention, the TSA, or war with Iran.  Not voting is an implicit rejection of the status quo, or at least an indication that you can’t be bothered to care about the major parties.  Either way, the fact that the majority of all Americans won’t be casting a ballot for either Obama or Romney should give some hope to those of us who reject mainstream politics.

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“Why I Am a Utilitarian,” or “A Round-About Response to Ben David”

Reason magazine published a review of some new book about the Tea Party, edited by two Berkeley (!) sociologists (!!).  I haven’t read the book, but one passage from the review stands out:

Postel, the author of The Populist Vision, asks whether Tea Party groups are authentically “populist.” Setting the tone for the book, he argues that the Tea Parties cannot be legitimately understood within the late 19th century populist tradition, which he characterizes as “a democratic movement for economic justice,” because they stand fundamentally opposed to many of the original populist reforms. Instead, he says, the movement has to be understood within a right-wing history that includes the likes of the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. Authentic populists would address the concerns of the middle class, he continues, while Tea Partiers are free-market fundamentalists in league with a corporate elite, struggling to dissolve what remains of a middle-class safety net. “In this time of crisis of political economy,” he writes, “where is the populism in a movement that demands hard money and to revert to the gold standard?” (Emphasis added.)

This type of argument should be familiar to anyone who has ever spent time on a college campus.  It is also, in my opinion, one of the Left’s most annoying conceits.  It is an effort to win a debate by simply defining terms in your own favor and thereby pigeonholing the other side.  Briefly, the argument (in an admittedly cleaned-up and idealized form) goes something like this:

  1. I support Social Security because it helps the middle class.
  2. You might not support Social Security, and that’s fine, to each his own.  But if you don’t support Social Security, that means you don’t think that helping the middle class is a big priority.  Maybe you think that “only the strong should survive” or maybe you believe in some abstract right to be free from taxation.
  3. Given the above, people who support policies that help people will support Social Security, whereas people who believe in following some abstract philosophy, regardless of the horrible impact it might have on the most vulnerable classes, will oppose it.

Admittedly, conservatives and libertarians often don’t do themselves any favors in these debates.  Often, they will reply with something like, “Sure, Social Security helps people, but ‘helping’ some people by extorting the taxpayers is still immoral!”

I’m not saying that that reply is wrong (in fact, I’m fairly sure that I believe it to be right).  But the vast majority of people won’t find it convincing–most people are practical consequentialists rather than philosophers.  So in defining terms this way, the leftist almost always wins.

One of the most important projects for conservatives and libertarians, then, is not to frame arguments in terms of morality or deontology, but rather in terms of consequences and utility.  It was in this vein that Ludwig von Mises wrote (as I recall) to Fritz Machlup to say something along the lines of: “Socialism is not wrong because it is a form of theft.  If socialism were beneficial we should all hurry to embrace it.  The reason we oppose socialism so harshly is because it is destructive.” (Quoted in Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism.  I can’t find the page number–it’s a very long book!)

In a sense, this is what conservatives have been doing all along (though they might not like the term “utility”).  Edmund Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was based primarily on the bad consequences that he thought (correctly) the Revolution would engender.  But libertarians tend to get caught up in some of the abstract rationalism of philosophers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard and start to miss the point of what they should be arguing all along.  They think that, if they can prove that Social Security is theft, then they have refuted all the arguments in favor of it.

But in so doing, they misapprehend why we oppose theft in the first place.  Theft is not wrong just because it is theft; rather, it is wrong because its acceptance would undermine the basic values necessary to a functioning society.  To a certain extent, this proposition is so basic that it doesn’t need restating.  But it is important to remember it, because, when we phrase things this way, we can easily see that if it were possible to think up a form of theft that actually led to beneficial consequences, it is not at all clear that we should oppose it.

Moreover, I think that this understanding of “utilitarian” libertarianism is pretty much in keeping with Rand and Rothbard’s basic methodology (even if many of their other followers would disagree).  Both of their philosophies are essentially variants of natural law theory, whereby we can deduce both the nature of the human being and the nature of his or her environment, and thereby understand what kind of society is best for human beings.  Rand and Rothbard both concluded that a society that prohibits coercive force is best.  I certainly agree.  But the key point for our analysis is not the coercion is per se wrong.  It is that coercion leads to bad consequences, and, given the nature of humans and of the world, its rejection will leave people better off.

On this note, there is an exciting new undercurrent in libertarian thought–”bleeding heart libertarianism“–which attempts to use the methodology of left-wing statists like John Rawls (most notably, the idea that justice requires that all social institutions should be judged by whether they benefit a society’s least well-off members)  to reach libertarian conclusions.  I plan to have a post on this sometime soon.  Moreover, John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness is excellent exposition of this new development–particularly the “Hit Parade” section of chapter 5, where he shows how most of the greatest libertarian thinkers throughout history have been motivated by a desire to help society’s most vulnerable.  The chapter even includes Ayn Rand! (The “everyman” character Eddie Willers of Atlas Shrugged ends the book stranded in the desert after the world has fallen apart, which demonstrates how rejection of Rand’s libertarian philosophy tends to hurt everyone, not just the brilliant and heroic.)

Well, this is a lot to say in reply to a review of an inconsequential book.  But I think it also answers some of Ben’s criticisms of my own rationalism–or at least clarifies what I mean by “rationalism.”  Whereas Ben seems to think of people like Descartes and Diderot when he thinks of rationalists (that is, people who think they can deduce the entire world of knowledge by pondering in their studies), I base my rationalism on natural law theorists following in the tradition St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the later “practical” utilitarians.  That is, I take reason as my means of understanding human beings and understanding the world around them, and then applying that understanding to deduce what kinds of social arrangements are best suited to human beings’ needs.

This analysis will be inherently utilitarian.  And by its very utilitarianism, it also exposes the conceit of certain campus leftists who believe that caring for the poor or worrying about real world consequences inevitably lead one to embrace the nanny state.

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Murray Rothbard on George McGovern and Libertarian Populism

Charles Burris at LewRockwell.com posted a withering critique by Murray Rothbard on the late George McGovern today–written back in October 1972.

The true reflection of McGovernite “populism” is the statistic that no less than 39% of the delegates to the Democratic convention have attended graduate school! What we are seeing then is a naked grab for power on the part of an eager new elite of graduate students and upper-middle-class “reformers” (those who used to be called “parlor pinks.”) It is a drive to fasten a new Mandarin class of self-styled intellectuals upon the country, a class that would reach for absolute power and the crushing of other groups and indeed of the bulk of American citizens. Our current ruling classes, as reprehensible as they are, at least allow for a great deal of pluralism, and for relatively secure status for most of the groups in the population. We can see from the ruthlessness of their quota system that the McGovernite elite would be far more totalitarian and hence far more dangerous in their wielding of State power. The sooner and the more completely that the McGovernite movement is crushed to smithereens, the more viable will be the long-run climate of individual freedom in America.

The McGovernite movement is, in short, in its very nature a kick in the gut to Middle America. And yet the libertarian movement, in its program for getting the government off the backs of the individual, aims to be the fulfillment of the aspirations of that same Middle America. When Middle America, therefore inevitably responds in November by its kick in the gut to the McGovernite movement, it behooves libertarians to stand and cheer. (Emphasis added.)

Before reading this article, I would have thought that Rothbard would have supported the pro-peace McGovern.  And I’m not sure that others, who see McGovern as a conservative populist, are all wrong.  But Rothbard’s perspective is illuminating as it relates to the so-called “paleo” alliance of libertarians and conservatives, which I mentioned here before.

That is: Given that (1) libertarians want to kick the State out of each individual’s life, so that each individual may order his own life as he sees fit, and that (2) outside of a few coastal enclaves, broad swathes of the country are dispositionally very conservative, does it make any tactical sense for libertarians to ally with the modern-day McGovernite Left, if the typical “Middle American” conservative would never associate with them of his own free will?  If society is generally conservative, then a libertarian society would also be conservative, because a libertarian society would reflect the freely-chosen preferences of its component parts.

The general distaste with which most people viewed the Occupy movement provides a good case in point and indicates that, despite the country’s leftward shifts since 1972, libertarians still have little to gain by allying with the fringey Left, regardless of its views on war and civil liberties.  “Common sense” conservative populism–the kind associated with flyover country–is likely to still be the libertarian’s natural ally.

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Why History Matters: A Response to “Conservatives and History”

In “Conservatives and History:  Does it Matter, I Mean Really?,” Joe argues that conservatives need a standard of judgment to discern between good and evil or universality and its opposite in history.  Since history does not supply this standard of evaluation, the conservative must turn to something other than tradition or custom.  Consequently, history is not as important as conservatives claim.  This short essay will argue that since the standard for discerning universality is found in history, conservatives are justified in revering the past.

Conservative political philosophy argues that human consciousness and experience is inextricably and irreversibly confined within historical parameters.  In other words, human existence is fundamentally historical.  Consequently, there is no Archimedean point outside of history which provides individuals, groups, or whole societies with a clinical or objective view of human existence.  All relevant and authoritative standards for human action originate and exist within history.  Thus, conservatism denies the existence of an ahistorical standard of judgment such as Strauss’s natural right or the enlightenment’s idea of abstract rationality.  As a result, conservatives display great respect and deference toward history.

Since all human existence is historical, conservatism contends that history is the sole horizon or realm in which human beings encounter the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Universality is manifested concretely and intelligibly in the best of tradition, custom, and precedent produced through human action over time.  Stated differently, universality requires particularity or historicity for existence and particularity or history requires universality for eternal meaning.  Since the universal is known only through the particular, history is the venue where individuals acquire a sense of justice, goodness, and morality.  Individuals develop and form an understanding of universality through encountering and interacting with the achievements of civilized society.  As a result, human beings owe their moral and ethical sense to history.  Thus, history provides a standard of judgment for discerning between what is good and what is evil in human experience.  For this reason, conservatives elevate history to a privileged status.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke argues that individuals should rely upon the wisdom of the “bank and capital of nations” rather than upon their “private stock of reason.”  Burke also contends that the statesman should look to “permanent” rather than “transient” things.  In The Unadjusted Man, Peter Viereck argues that the unadjusted man conforms to the “archetypes” of the ages rather than to the “stereotypes” of the present age.  The point that both Burke and Viereck are making is that which is recurring, enduring, and consistent throughout the history of human civilization serves as a reasonably reliable, although certainly not infallible, guide to discerning or differentiating between that which is universal and that which is not.  Individuals and civilizations owe much of their ability to discern between good and evil to the foundation laid by past generations.  As a result, both Burke and Viereck affirm the paramount importance of history.

Conservatives reject the idea that an absolute, final, complete, and comprehensive standard of judgment is available to human beings.  Since the universal is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for excellent human action, and since human beings are finite, the good, the true, and the beautiful are never fully manifested or actualized in human experience.  By starting with the foundation erected by past generations, individuals can struggle toward an improved articulation of universality within political society.  However, concrete manifestations of the good, the true, and the beautiful are always incomplete and can always be improved upon by subsequent human efforts.  As a result, it is impossible to construct an infallible or perfect standard for judging history which serves as a guide for future human action.  This is the point that informs Burke’s argument that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”  Since political society is an imperfect and incomplete articulation of universality, Burke argues that society can always discover and implement superior manifestations of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  However, improvement of political society is not initiated through an appeal to abstract standards divorced from concrete historical experience.  Instead, individual reformers carefully mitigate the worst of their past and creatively rearticulate and enhance the best of their traditions.  Since custom and precedent provide the best guide available to individuals, Burke displays great appreciation for history.

In summary, due to the inescapable historicity of human experience and the finitude of human understanding of universality, history is a perpetual struggle for the more complete, yet never final, articulation of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Individuals attempting to creatively improve on past manifestations of universality ultimately must rely upon history as the only available guide for future action.  Consequently, philosophical conservatism affirms the indispensable nature of concrete human experience or history.

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Are Democrats a Clan of Vampires?

Yes, according to this guy.  BuzzFeed asked 25 college Democrats and 25 college Republicans to describe their political opponents in 3 words.  He responded, “Incompetent, malkavian, weak.”  Malkavians, according to Wikipedia, are a video-game vampire clan.

The Democrat’s responses are here.  The Republican’s are here.  It is worth reading if you (1) need a laugh or (2) want to get rid of that pesky notion that civilization can ever be saved.  Malkavian is one of the nicer words used.  Others use the words “ignorant,” “asshole,” and “shithead” a lot.  But don’t forget–college is a place where young people learn to open their minds!

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Paul Gottfried on the Libertarian-Conservative Alliance

The American Conservative has a great old piece up by Paul Gottfried on the prospects of libertarians and “Old Right” conservatives uniting against the modern State.

It is certainly worth reading.  Though the formal alliance never got much traction after the 1990s–it seemed to peak with the rise and fall of Pat Buchanan’s presidential candidacy, which the libertarian Murray Rothbard stirringly hoped would “break the clock of social democracy” and “repeal the twentieth century”–the ideals influencing it were certainly a contributing factor to the creation of this blog.  As Ben’s recent post accusing libertarians of “laughable hubris” makes clear, we may come from different perspectives, but we still share a lot in common.  Emphasizing those commonalities could someday lead to a truly powerful political movement, both in practical and in philosophical terms.

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Replicating American Libertarianism

Kelse’s response to my post “Traditionalism and Statism,” suggests that my defense of traditionalism over some kind of rational libertarianism was off-base because I focused only on the tradition that he and I share, not on traditionalism as such. Kelse suggests that, were we to focus our attention on a different culture (he gives the example of Saudi Arabia), my argument would have much less to offer it. There are three points I would like to make in response to this: 1) libertarianism as Kelse knows it is inextricably tied to a particular historical context, 2) traditionalism offers more hope for the libertarian-minded individual in Saudi Arabia than Kelse suggests, and 3) that this form of tradition-infused libertarianism actually has more to offer than does a purely reason-based libertarianism, if one can be said to exist.

Kelse readily acknowledges that his own libertarian beliefs fit relatively well into the broader Anglo-American tradition. He stops short, however, of recognizing that this is because the Anglo-American tradition gave birth to libertarianism.

Without the Magna Carta, without a Hobbesian conception of social atomism, without a Lockean understanding of property rights and religious toleration, without the Scottish Enlightenment, Kelse wouldn’t be the same thinker he is today. It is important then to note that Kelse’s beliefs do not arise “in a vacuum independent of tradition” as he argued in an earlier post. Either libertarianism is not as “reason”-based as Kelse suggests, or else reason is not as easily divorced from tradition as we are prone to believe. Either way, libertarianism has slowly grown and evolved within a particular historical context (borrowing, here and there, from minds outside the Anglo-American tradition).

Why was it not rationally deduced all at once? Did people just not think hard enough? Was Murray Rothbard the world’s first fully rational man? On the contrary, the history of philosophy would suggest that, whatever the differences in our individual reasoning capacities, all humans are in some way bound by the limits of their own tradition’s worldview: there are certain things they can and cannot see from their own particular historical vantage point. The Enlightenment notion that we have already achieved the pinnacle of human wisdom from which no further growth is possible is, from this point of view, laughably hubristic. One might then say that Anglo-American libertarianism is the best political philosophy heretofore known (which is improbable but conceivable), but one cannot say that it is the best that will ever exist.

As a traditionalist, I am proud of my culture’s accomplishments and believe that elements of its tradition have much to offer the modern world today. Yet, I do not believe that my own tradition represents any kind of grand advancement in human development. The value of my tradition is the same as the value of every other tradition: it conveys a universal truth about humanity. If a tradition has endured over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, it must have some degree of staying power. Thus, although I might have serious spiritual, cultural, and political differences with members of the Muslim world, I would have to acknowledge that there must be something worthwhile within their tradition to allow it such longevity.

This is not to suggest that there are not aspects of every tradition that do more harm than good to a society. My primary cultural identity comes from being born in the American South. And while there are many aspects of my culture that I love deeply, there are also some unfortunate aberrations from that tradition: slavery, discrimination, and racial prejudice to name a few. Did slavery exist for so long because it conveyed some deep truth about human nature or encouraged human excellence? Obviously not. So, as a Southerner, I must make a conscious choice to emphasize some aspects of my tradition over others. In order to make this distinction, I admittedly must have some understanding of a higher good that transcends my particular historical tradition. In a sense, perhaps this is similar to what Kelse means when he talks about “reason.” That being said, I would maintain that universal truth can only be understood through historical tradition.

This leads to an important point I was attempting to make, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, in my previous post: as a traditionalist, I am not trying to perfectly recreate an instantiation of universal truth that has already existed in the past; I am attempting to reformulate that truth to fit new circumstances. In the process, I am also constantly trying to improve my own tradition.

The libertarian-minded individual living in Saudi Arabia has the option of doing the same thing. If he were to look back at his own culture and see that theocratic Islamist statism does indeed lead to human excellence, he might begin to reconsider his previous attachment to libertarianism. If, on the other hand, he finds within his own tradition some kind of cultural precursor for limited government, for individual liberty and property rights, then he has the option of building upon this tradition and pointing his culture toward the type of society he sees as best encouraging human flourishing.

Ostensibly, a distinctly Saudi Arabian form of libertarianism won’t look exactly like the Anglo-American libertarian tradition that Kelse is familiar with. Nor should it. Libertarianism in America itself originated within a particular culture. Why should Saudi Arabian libertarianism not? Or alternatively, why should we hold out hope for Anglo-American libertarianism thriving in Saudi Arabia?

Libertarianism, to the extent that it has been separated from its original cultural moorings, has proved to be a more destructive than positive influence. If the Saudi Arabians want a more libertarian culture, then they should develop one within their own cultural context.

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Not Taking the Easy Way Out

Ben’s reply to my post (which linked traditionalist conservatism with left-wing statism) focuses in large part on the benefits of the “greater” old Anglo-American tradition.  Ben argues that traditionalists like Burke actually had many libertarian inclinations, such as supporting constitutionalism and opposing imperialism.  It is in reference to the greater tradition, Ben believes, that we can recognize statism to be an aberration.

These kinds of arguments are often made by traditionalists.  I even made similar arguments myself once.  But those were just the follies of youth.  After all, what college kid hasn’t gone through an Edmund Burke phase?

I reject these arguments now, as I see that they fall into the trap of what we call, in law school lingo, “fighting the hypo.”  For example, imagine that a professor poses to me the following hypothetical question: “If you are driving drunk and hit a jaywalker, can you get the jaywalker’s lawsuit against you dismissed for contributory negligence?”  I would be “fighting the hypo” if I replied, “Well, I wouldn’t drive drunk in the first place so this situation wouldn’t arise.”  By focusing on the idiosyncrasies of one particular driver (me), I’m missing the broader principle that the hypothetical was originally posed to uncover.

Therefore, it is no defense of traditionalism to claim that the Anglo-American tradition has lots of good aspects to it.  I freely admit that, as a libertarian, the Anglo-American tradition has all the best stuff and is the best tradition to be born into.  But that’s only a nice coincidence, where my rationalist political beliefs just so happen to align with the broader tradition that I was born into–just like it is nice that, because I don’t drive drunk, I personally won’t have to worry about the jaywalker’s contributory negligence.

The real question is whether traditionalism itself is a better guide to conduct than rationalism itself.  To answer this question, it makes the most sense to look to some harder cases.

To take one such case: what if, instead of being born in Massachusetts, I had been born in Saudi Arabia?  Suppose also that I decide to spend my life in Saudi Arabia, rather than moving somewhere else and adopting a new tradition  Does that mean that, since the “greater tradition” that I was born into and live under has no hints of respect for liberty or for strong property rights, I should be an Islamist theocrat instead of a libertarian?

If so, isn’t it a problem that our answers to really important political issues–like the individual’s relationship to the state–depend on accidents of birth?  Why should my political beliefs be constrained by what tradition I happened to be born into in the first place?  If I can figure out while living in America that government power is destructive of the values necessary to a functioning society, why can’t I do the same in Saudi Arabia (assuming access to the same books as the American, translated into a language I can understand, etc.)?

Conversely, if I shouldn’t be an Islamist theocrat, then why not?  Is it because we realize that doing so would be socially and politically destructive, even though it would also be totally within the mainstream of Arabian culture going back to Biblical times?  But if that is the reason, then it seems that we have abandoned traditionalism and are now judging beliefs rationalistically.

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Traditionalism and Statism

In his post “Conservatism and the Paul Krugman Paradox,” Kelse argues that traditionalist conservatism must necessarily devolve into one of two positions: 1) a coherent philosophy that is bound by its own terms to accept certain unsavory parts of the political culture (i.e. Statism); or 2) an incoherent philosophy that in reality is not traditionalism at all, but a front for some other set of beliefs (i.e. Libertarianism or Statism). The variant of traditionalism depicted by Kelse is indeed deeply flawed, but there is another articulation of traditionalist conservatism, drawn from the philosophy of Edmund Burke, that is much more tenable and that is able to resist the growth of the state on its own terms.

Despite the way he is often presented, Burke was far from being a slave to the predominant cultural and political impulses of his day. In particular, Burke was willing to go against short-term political and cultural trends if they threatened the stability of a much deeper tradition. In cases such as today where the governing political system is fundamentally at odds with the greater historical tradition, Burke would have no trouble in abandoning the current instruments of government.

It was in this vein that Burke supported the spirit of the 1689 Glorious Revolution. When James II was actively undermining the basic constitutional structure, his overthrow became a matter of traditional continuity. Burke also argued passionately for the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India, on charges of corruption and mismanagement. In one of the most well-known speeches of his long career, Burke argued, in part, that Hastings’ actions had threatened the valuable cultural traditions already present in India. For Burke, it did not matter that British imperialism was at its zenith and that an appreciation for traditional Indian culture was not exactly on the political horizon. His foremost goal remained protecting the larger tradition.

What does this mean for traditionalist conservatism today? Among other things, it means that the traditionalist need not accept parts of the current political order that are in opposition to the greater tradition. If he apprehends that certain contemporary political institutions- for example, the modern welfare state- are in tension with the greater part of the old Anglo-American tradition, he is obliged to decry those institutions as aberrations and work to overthrow them.

Tradition, as here described, is much deeper than merely the aggregate of all changes over time. The value of a tradition is not merely that it tells us the things that have been done in the past- the value of the tradition lies in what it tells us about universal truth. We see the way that people have organized and conducted themselves over many generations and thereby discover some truth about human nature. The fact that people in recent decades have become accustomed to having a much larger federal government says absolutely nothing about the older tradition- the two are completely incommensurable. In comparison to the greater Anglo-American tradition, the modern state is easily seen as an aberration from the older tradition, not a further development of it.

It is important to note too that, the goal of the traditionalist is not merely to resurrect dead aspects of the older tradition. Because of his attention to history and cultural context, the traditionalist understands better than anyone that antiquated formulations of the tradition cannot be replicated without losing their original effect. Rather than attempting to replicate the past instantiations, the goal of the traditionalist is to find the eternal truths that are conveyed within the old tradition. Once a tradition has been abandoned, the traditionalist must set about trying to find some way to fit the truth found within the tradition to a new historical context. In other words, he must find new ways to instantiate the best aspects of the old tradition. As a consequence, the traditionalist does not attempt to return to a previous instantiation, even if it is one that he personally has some affinity for.

The traditionalist may at times feel like an anachronism- yet if he is to succeed in reinvigorating the tradition, he must find a way to make the valuable parts of the old tradition accessible to a new generation that he feels quite distant from.

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Did someone say “binders full of women”?

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There Are No “Binders Full of Women” at Bain Capital

At the last presidential debate, Mitt Romney inspired a derisive internet meme when he awkwardly bragged about how, as Governor of Massachusetts, he requested and received “binders full of” women job applicants to fill executive-branch positions.  But what one Atlantic magazine columnist considers the real “heart of the issue,” is that, notwithstanding Romney’s performance as governor, “there were no women partners at Bain Capital during [his] tenure.”  The columnist claims that while Romney did “a good job” promoting women for political benefit as governor, he did “a terrible job” promoting them in his private business.

But is the difference between Romney’s actions as Governor and his actions as a Bain executive really as hypocritical as the Atlantic writer believes?

I don’t think so.  A half century ago, the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises addressed this very issue in his book Bureaucracy.  He pointed out that the divergent natures of “market society” and of “bureaucracy” force each to adopt entirely different methods of organization, and that neither can successfully adopt that of the other.

The objective of business management is to make a profit.  As success or failure to attain this end can be ascertained by accounting not only for the whole business concern but also for any of its parts, it is feasible to decentralize both management and accountability without jeopardizing the unity of operations and the attainment of their goal. . . . There is no need to limit the discretion of subordinates by any rules or regulations other than that underlying all business activities, namely, to render their operations profitable.

The objectives of public administration cannot be measured in money terms and cannot be checked by accountancy methods.  Take a nationwide police system like the FBI.  There is no yardstick available that could establish whether the expenses incurred by one of its regional or local branches were not excessive.  The expenditures of a police station are not reimbursed by its successful management and do not vary in proportion to the success attained. . . . In public administration there is no market price for achievements.  This makes it indispensable to operate public offices according to principles entirely different from those applied under the profit motive (Liberty Fund edition, pp. 37-39).

Because private businesses are able to make profit-and-loss calculations, they are able to determine whether each component of the firm is profitable.  “The profit motive through the instrumentality of which the entrepreneurs are driven to serve the consumers to the best of their ability is at the same time the first principle of any commercial and industrial aggregate’s internal organization” (p. 29).

By contrast, because government operations are not subject to any profit-and-loss test, their personnel cannot be evaluated by the same measure of how well they benefit the organization.  Arbitrary standards must carry the slack for economic efficiency.  As Mises writes, in the U.S. (at least at the time of his writing),

regulations require that [bureaucratic job] applicants be a certain age, graduate from certain schools, and pass certain examinations.  For promotion to the higher ranks and higher salary a certain number of years in the lower ranks and the passing of further examinations are required.  It is obvious that such requirements refer to things more or less superficial.  There is no need to point out that school attendance, examinations, and years spent in the lower positions do not necessarily qualify a man for a higher job.  This machinery of selection sometimes bars the most competent men from a job and does not always prevent the appointment of an utter incompetent.  But the worst effect produced is that the main concern of the clerks is to comply with these and other formalities (p. 45).

Mises, of course, wrote well before the age of political correctness and seemingly did not envision that hiring binders full of women to executive branch positions would some day take its place alongside other arbitrary criteria like school attendance or years spent in lower positions.

But he would not necessarily be surprised.  He understood that government is always shaped by popular ideas and that, therefore, the standards necessarily imposed by government bureaucracies–as a necessary tool to make up for government’s inherent economic inefficiencies–would rely on future popular shibboleths like political correctness.  As long as governments are governments, they will be forced to employ these kinds of standards, or else disintegrate into calculational chaos.  Nor would Mises be surprised that a businessman like Mitt Romney seems to intuitively grasp the concept that the standards for hiring people into a business are much different.  These latter rely on increasing profits and thereby serving the consumer, regardless of what the fashionable ideologies, as promulgated in the Atlantic, might dictate.

Nevertheless, Mises, who believed that, in order for civilization to even survive at all, economics must be “the main and proper study of every citizen” (Human Action: The Scholar’s Edition, p. 875) would certainly be dismayed to learn that columnists, decades after his own death, still believe that businessmen should base their hiring decisions on arbitrary criteria like proportionate representation of women, all without the smallest reference to whether doing so will enable that business to produce a better product.

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Conservatism and the Paul Krugman Paradox

In response to my post calling Paul Krugman a traditionalist conservative, Joe wonders whether there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m not sure whether conservatism is actually, in Joe’s words “worse off” if we consider Krugman a member. But I do believe that the argument over whether Krugman is a conservative exposes the glaring weaknesses in traditionalist conservatism that led me to my ultimate rejection of it.

There are only two resolutions to the question.  The first leads to a conservatism that I find very unattractive, and the second leads to one that I consider nonsensical.

First: we can call Krugman a conservative.

But to do so, we have to take “conservatism” to only mean, as Michael Oakeshott believed, “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, . . . the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant. . . .”  It is in this spirit that the self-described Burkean Sam Tanenhaus considers Obama’s healthcare policy to be “pure Disraeli” (The Death of Conservatism, p. 117), while the Tea Party is full of “antigovernment militants . . . [who] pine for an America that neither they nor most other living Americans can recall” (125).

But this is unsatisfactory.  Though conservatives like to point out the limits of reason, I can’t understand how reason is so limited that it would prevent us from engaging in any critique of prevailing traditions.  For instance, protectionism is one of the oldest methods for the U.S. government to collect taxes, whereas it was generally frowned on in nineteenth century Britain.  Does that mean that I should support protectionism if I live in the U.S. but not if I live in Britain?  If I can understand its bad economic effects, and understand the injustice of prohibiting trade between freely consenting parties, then why should it matter what culture I was born into?  Why can’t I say as an American that, yes, pure free trade has never been tried here (NAFTA and the IMF are more about managed globalization than free trade per se), but that if it were tried it would radically improve society and raise our standards of living, and therefore it should be tried immediately?

I see no reason why not.  I might need to be pragmatic about how I proceed, but I don’t see why human reason is incapable of picking one policy over the other, in a vacuum independent of tradition.

Alternatively: we can say that Krugman actually isn’t a conservative.

To do this, we would have to try to give conservatism a more substantive definition than the one above.  Thus, for some, being conservative means supporting a government of limited powers.  For others, it means having a government that enforces a particular conception of morality.

But either way, I don’t see how tradition plays much of a role in the outcome.  The more libertarian conservative has to argue, for instance, for limits on the federal government’s powers that haven’t existed since the New Deal–that is, which haven’t existed for the most recent third of American history.  Conversely, statist conservative, on the other hand,  might support an aristocratic politics that hasn’t been part of American history since the old Virginia planters lost political power in the early nineteenth century.

I’m not saying that either libertarian or statist conservatism is necessarily wrong.  In fact, I think that they are much more philosophically profound than Oakeshott’s conservatism.  My point is that they don’t depend much (or at all) on tradition.  Rather, they are both manifestations of abstract theory that rely for their proof on appeals to abstract reason.  And that being the case, it is hard to understand how they are really forms of conservatism at all.  They aren’t “libertarian conservatism” and “statist conservatism.”  They are just “libertarianism” and “statism,” and each one can be weighed on its own merits without the confusing appeals to tradition.

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The Continuity between Marx and Rand

Although Karl Marx and Ayn Rand are usually presented as espousing diametrically opposed political philosophies, and although there are important differences between these two thinkers, Marx and Rand share an important continuity which can be described as the primacy of the economic.  This fundamental agreement between Marx and Rand is significant because it constitutes a rejection of important themes of classical political philosophy and because it is opposed to philosophical conservatism which attempts to preserve the best of the western tradition.

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Paul Krugman and the Conservative Demarcation Problem

In his post making a case for the conservative’s (potentially) necessary acceptance of Paul Krugman, I think Kelse hits on a fundamental tension conservatism consistently confronts: how does the conservative determine who (or what) is and who (or what) is not conservative? What criteria or methods are employed in this process? It’s conservatism’s very own demarcation problem. And while Kelse stirs the pot which begins a potential food fight, this is just another iteration of a fundamental problem that conservatives have dealt with in various ways throughout the history of the movement (intellectual and otherwise). As I sat reading the quotes from Sullivan and others that Kelse had marshaled together, it occurred to me that in the 1950s and 1960s, those conservatives such as Kirk and Buckley engaged with other so-called conservatives in an a variety of internecine battles whose reverberations continue to be felt to this day; the case of Peter Viereck and his battles with the then “new conservatives” (represented by Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley and others); or the “reading out” of the conservative movement of the John Birch Society by the National Review are two of the more prominent examples of this attempt at self-definition and delimitation of the boundaries of conservatism. Can a figure such as Paul Krugman be drawn out of conservatism? I question whether he can. A conservatism that is averse to abstractions and rationalism I think will have a difficult time employing history or historicism for the job. Which leads me to think that maybe Krugman qualifies as a conservative. Maybe he meets the criteria. In which case, is conservatism worse off for it?

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Yes, a protectionist I am.


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In undergrad I studied politics.  One of the requirements of my major was that I take an intro to economics course.  I had heard so many horror stories of students failing out of Prof.  Andersen’s Intro to Microeconomics, that I decided to first take Intro to Macroeconomics to better prepare myself.  I fell in love with economics during those two courses.  When compared to the meaningless parade of ‘politics’ classes on the EU, globalization, and globalization these economics courses were pure philosophical gold.  In retrospect, what I was so keen on must have been that economics only works if you accept that man has a nature, and that what he does can be predicted based on this nature; something none of my politics classes were willing to admit.  From that point forward I focused my attention on economics and in so doing salvaged some of my undergraduate education.    Continue reading

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