Author Archives: Edmund Babbitt

The Conservative Case for Radical Change

The disastrous American fiscal and financial practices that have produced massive annual budget deficits, an enormous national debt, and the increasing certainty of rising interest rates, inflation, and default raise the important question of the desirability and necessity of significant policy change.  It is commonly argued by both self-styled conservatives and critics of conservatism that the conservative approach to statecraft mandates adherence to the status quo and precludes drastic alterations in governance.  Although generally eschewing sharp deviations from existing policies, conservatism does not categorically oppose dramatic changes in all circumstances.  This essay will briefly explain the conservative approach to statecraft and why it is not incompatible with radical change under exigent situations.

There are several premises of philosophical conservatism that are relevant to the question of whether substantial change is fundamentally incompatible with the conservative disposition toward public policy.  The first is the belief that the universal is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for human action which cannot be fully and comprehensively articulated or known by individuals.  Although knowledge of the good, the true, and the beautiful is certainly possible, final and complete comprehension of the transcendent is beyond human attainment.  As a result, conservatism is highly suspicious of ideological systems which purport to possess universally applicable blueprints for social and political order.  Conservatives are strongly opposed to policy prescriptions based upon abstract principles regardless of whether they support or oppose the status quo.  However, dislike for ideologically motivated innovation or preservation does not mean that conservatives are categorically against all reform.  Instead, the recognition that the universal is not completely exhausted by any existing political order renders conservatives amenable to prudent reformation.

The second is the belief that the universal is discovered or revealed in the particular or historical realm.  Individuals encounter concrete instantiations of the good, the true, and the beautiful in the best of historically evolved traditions, customs, and precedents.  Consequently, conservatives generally grant deference and respect to longstanding practices which have an observable record of success.  However, conservatives are also profoundly aware that many social institutions and practices are deeply flawed and require improvement.  As a result, conservatism is not necessarily opposed to the alteration of existing social structures so long as the proposed changes can be justified by concrete evidence.

The third is the belief that human reason is fallible and limited.  Although reason is an important faculty for reflecting upon and categorizing concrete human experience, it is insufficient for constructing whole political and social orders.  While human reason may be instrumental in discovering inadequacies and deficiencies in political society, it may also provide erroneous and inaccurate assessments and solutions which, if implemented, could constitute civilizational retreat rather than progress.  As a result, conservatism is cautious about attempts to reform political society and generally favors limited and incremental rather than drastic and immediate change.  If attempts at reform prove problematic, small changes cause less damage and are easier to repair than massive alterations.  Nevertheless, conservatives recognize that uneasiness about change does not translate into adamant and unqualified opposition to all attempts at improvement—even radical ones.

The fourth is the belief that real solutions to concrete problems are best derived through intimate familiarity with the particulars of a given situation.  As a result, authority for prescribing solutions to problems is proportional to knowledge of the situation in which the difficulty arises.  The concrete circumstances not only determine whether change is appropriate but also the necessary magnitude of amendment.  Although conservatives tend to be skeptical of significant alterations—especially ones based upon ideology or ahistorical rationality—they recognize that certain conditions may require drastic measures to avoid great evils.  If the current practices are sufficiently defective, and if the consequences of continuing the status quo are sufficiently disastrous, it is consistent with conservative philosophy to call for drastic measures to avert or mitigate a crisis.  Conservatives recognize that in certain situations, the consequences of preserving or slightly changing the status quo may vastly outweigh not only the perceived consequences of substantial change but also the inherent risks of radical amendment.  However, the amount of historical evidence necessary to justify enormous change is usually quite high and thus situations of this type are unusual.  As a result, conservatism is not categorically and irrevocably opposed to drastic change in all circumstances.

The fifth is the belief that social and political reformation should be rooted in the totality of a whole tradition spanning centuries rather than in the past few years or even decades of political practice.  As Peter Viereck argues in The Unadjusted Man, conservatives adjust to the archetypes of the ages rather than the stereotype of the present age.  In order to avoid the assumption that the present period possesses a monopoly on wisdom, conservatism tries to consider all the evidence presented by human history.  As a result, conservatives may reject a significant trend which has developed in a given political society over years and decades as inconsistent with the concrete evidence found throughout the vast experience of history.  Thus, the demand for a significant change is not necessarily inconsistent with conservatism.  It may be conservative to reject a major development within a tradition and it may be profoundly anti-conservative to support the status quo.  The ultimate determination of whether an action is conservative depends on the basis for accepting or rejecting a policy and not on whether the acceptance or rejection constitutes opposition to or support for change.

In conclusion, although producing a disposition against radical change, the premises of philosophical conservatism do not mandate absolute opposition to all dramatic alterations of current social practice.  Instead, several key principles of conservative political thought are incompatible with categorical and ideological denunciations of all significant change.  The question of whether conservatives are able to support significant deviation from the immediate past is relevant to the present American cultural, social, ethical, economic, and financial condition.  Since the United States faces crucial problems in each of these areas, radical amendment of existing practices and institutions may become not only advisable but also unavoidable.  If conservatism is construed as advocating categorical opposition to all dramatic change regardless of the circumstances, it will fail to prepare individuals for action in the real world and thus become irrelevant if not detrimental to good civilization and constitutional order.

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Civilization and Firearms: A Response to Alan Jacobs

In “Guns, Risks, and Safety,” Alan Jacobs argues against the proposal for arming school teachers to reduce the amount and magnitude of violence in public educational facilities.  Although expressing some reasonable observations concerning the problem of creating legislation in response to extreme or rare cases, and although raising some potentially valid logistical issues concerning arming teachers in public schools, Jacobs ultimately makes several bazar and puzzling assertions which contradict basic logic and concrete experience.  This short essay will summarize Jacobs’s unpersuasive arguments and provide a short refutation.

The first problematic argument made by Jacobs pertains to the consequences of arming public school teachers for the purpose of deterring and mitigating shootings in educational facilities.  Jacobs argues that if public school teachers were armed, “we can be absolutely sure that within a few years more people would be killed by teachers who fired their weapons accidentally or in misplaced anger or fear, or by students who stole their teachers’ guns, than have ever been killed in school massacres like those in Newtown and Columbine.”  Interestingly, Jacobs provides no concrete evidence or rational argumentation to support this bold assertion.  Jacob’s argument ultimately rests on the assumption that the possession of a firearm encourages and facilitates irrational and uncontrollable outbursts of violence.  This assumption is problematic since the vast majority of individuals who legally possess and carry firearms in the United States do not use them to commit crimes.  For example, the percent of individuals possessing permits to carry loaded firearms (both open and concealed) who commit crimes of any sort with their guns is extremely low.  Jacob’s argument is further weakened by the fact that although many public school teachers have children and also have the legal right to possess firearms in their homes, there are few or no deaths in the homes of school teachers due to discharging firearms because of anger, fear, or accident.  If teachers can own and carry firearms around their own children in their own homes without violent or fatal incidents, it appears that similar outcomes should occur when teachers carry firearms in educational facilities.  Jacob’s argument implies that the same teachers who can responsibly handle firearms around their own children are somehow unable to handle firearms responsibly around children in schools.  Although there may be good reasons to oppose arming teachers in public schools, Jacob’s fails to provide any in his article.

The second unpersuasive argument articulated by Jacobs concerns the relationship between an increase in the ownership of firearms and the existence of good civilization.  Jacobs explains that the proposal to arm teachers represents an “absolute abandonment of civil society” since “it gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian ‘war of every man against every man’ in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.”  Jacobs’s argument rests on the assumption that the maintenance and restoration of good civilization is incompatible with the proliferation of firearms.  This assumption is problematic since there is no necessary connection between the rates of firearm ownership among members of society and the quality of civilization in a country.  High levels of civilization can correlate with either high or low levels of gun ownership and low levels of civilization can correlate with either high or low levels of gun ownership.  The ultimate determinant of the quality of civilization is the nature of the ethical and spiritual lives of individual citizens.  As a result, political and social renewal begins with the difficult labor of self-reform rather than with legal and institutional measures pertaining to firearms.  Also, ownership of a firearm for self-defense does not necessarily imply a Hobbesian war of all against all or a society predicated upon brute force.  The purpose of owning firearms for self-defense is to protect against the rare exception rather than against the vast majority of people.  The decision to purchase a gun for self-defense does not mean that an individual assumes that most or all people, despite their obvious and numerous flaws, are a threat.  Instead, it may be a recognition that due to the division in human nature between higher and lower potentialities or good and evil, there exists in all societies—even the most decent and civilized—a small percentage of the population which is prone to violence.  Thus, it may be prudent to own and carry firearms for self-protection even in a reasonably decent society.  Furthermore, Jacobs’s argument suggests that individuals who desire good civilization should lay down their arms and trust their neighbors in the hope that there will be mutual peace and harmony.  However, given the nature of human beings, force—whether employed by private citizens in self-defense or by the state through the police powers—will always be necessary for preserving the order and peace which are the prerequisites for good civilization.  Consequently, individual citizens employing firearms for self-defense may enhance rather than inhibit the existence of good social and political order.

In summary, although providing some reasonable insights concerning policy, Jacobs’s article contains several claims which are predicated upon highly questionable assumptions.  A closer examination of these assumptions reveals that they are contradicted by both concrete experience and rational argumentation.  As a result, Jacobs’s case against the proposal to arm public school teachers is weak and unpersuasive.

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Conservatives and Immigration

Since the defeat of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, partially due to weak support from Latino voters, many political analysts have argued that the Republican Party needs to rethink its policy positions on immigration in order to accommodate the changing demographics of the American electorate.  This policy debate among GOP consultants and strategists raises deeper questions concerning the purpose of boarders and immigration policy.  This short essay will attempt to outline a conservative approach to the issue of immigration.

Many proponents of unrestricted or minimally restricted boarders on both the left and the right argue that since America is a nation lacking a specific ethnic heritage, unity is a result of adherence to an ideological creed.  It is commonly asserted that the United States is composed of immigrants who fled from their oppressive and corrupt countries of origin in the name of ideas including freedom, equality, opportunity, and prosperity.  America is viewed as a shining city on a hill or a beacon of freedom to the world where individuals may relocate and enjoy the benefits of liberty.  To perform the function of a promised land for the oppressed around the world, the United States must adopt an unrestricted or relatively unrestricted immigration policy.  The problem of conflict between different cultures and peoples coexisting together in America is solved by the assumption that most, if not all, individuals can be persuaded to embrace a common ideological position affirming freedom, equality, and tolerance.  All individuals, regardless of place of origin, tradition, or culture, are assumed to possess a strong desire for freedom and the capacities and abilities to render liberty and good civilization compatible.  In essence, individuals will readily adopt the American creed because it corresponds to liberated human nature.  Consequently, open boarders are not a threat to American culture since the ideology of the United States is an affirmation of the natural longings and inclinations of all peoples around the globe.

Philosophical conservatism rejects the claim that America was founded by a collection of individuals having little in common except ideology.  Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the majority, although certainly not all, of the individuals who immigrated to America came from England.  As a result, the British influence pervaded the dominant political, social, legal, and religious institutions of the colonies.  Both before and after the war for independence, the colonies displayed many aspects of British culture, tradition, and custom.  Although the American and English traditions are not identical, the former evolved out of and drew heavily from the latter.  The great traditions and customs of the United States did not emerge from a vacuum but rather developed from the practice of British immigrants who relocated to North America.  As a result, it is inaccurate and misleading to claim that the United States lacks a common cultural heritage and that it is unified primarily through an adherence to a political ideology.

Conservatism also rejects the assumption that individuals are naturally qualified for liberty.  The constitution or governmental institutions of a particular country are a reflection of the dominant character type existing within the nation.  The glaring dearth throughout history of constitutional governments respecting individual liberty strongly suggests that the character qualities which render free society possible are difficult to achieve.  The mere desire for freedom is not sufficient for the coexistence of liberty and good civilization since individual rights and liberties depend on the existence of a certain character type capable of placing restrictions on expansive appetites and passions which are destructive of freedom and order.  As a result, limited government and individual liberty are products of hard, protracted effort by generations of individuals within a particular tradition.  Consequently, the assumption that human beings are naturally endowed with the characteristics necessary for freedom is problematic.

If ordered liberty in the United States is a result of the efforts of generations of individuals working within the Anglo-American tradition, and if people are not naturally qualified for liberty by the mere fact of their existence, it follows that a large migration of individuals from competing cultures and backgrounds into the United States is unlikely to result in the perpetuation and strengthening of American order.  Consequently, an unrestricted or minimally restricted immigration policy is problematic for maintaining the American practice of limited government and individual liberty.

Conservatism recognizes that one of the purposes of restricting, although not completely prohibiting, immigration is the protection of the culture and traditions which render a particular political society operative.  A mass influx of individuals affirming traditions which are incompatible with the historically evolved order of a particular country can lead to a breakdown of order since participants within political society must possess some degree of common ground.  However, since no particular tradition is a complete or final expression of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and since different societies often articulate diverse aspects of the universal, it is possible that cultural exchange between countries can have mutually beneficial results.  One society may articulate some aspect of universality in a manner superior to another and thus the latter may be able to gain from the example of the former.  One way that a particular country can benefit from the cultural heritage of another is through selective immigration which permits the possibility of creatively incorporating good aspects of a foreign tradition into a domestic one.  Consequently, neither an unrestricted nor a completely prohibitive immigration policy is desirable for enhancing the quality of the traditions of a nation.

In summary, the debate over revising immigration policy among Republican Party pundits in the aftermath of the past election raises questions concerning the purpose of immigration policy.  A philosophically conservative approach to immigration recognizes the importance of protecting and maintaining a common cultural heritage conducive to good order and civilization.  As a result, restrictions on immigration are necessary while complete prohibitions are unnecessary.  In contrast to the two extremes, a restrictive and selective immigration policy both protects the existing American culture and allows the potential for the transmission and incorporation of the best of other civilizations into the American tradition.  Consequently, an appropriate immigration policy attempts to aid the struggle toward a superior articulation of universality in the United States.

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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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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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