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.