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.