Posts Tagged With: historicism

President Obama and the Future of Conservatism

The re-election of President Barack Obama to a second term of office has sparked some intense debate about the place of conservatism in American politics in particular and in American society more broadly. This blog is no exception in its participation in this post-election evaluation of the state of conservatism at the precipice of a second term for the Obama presidency.

I am, perhaps, in the minority on this blog, because what I am going to say in this post-election autopsy differs from the majority on this blog who express a view which I think could be accurately labeled decadent conservatism. This is a worldview that turns history and experience on its head; it is a view that, to be honest, I don’t recognize as conservative, if conservatism is to be understood, defined and delimited by the Six Canons of Conservatism laid down by Russell Kirk so many years ago in his The Conservative Mind.

  1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems…
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless” society.”
  4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked…
  5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophists, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs
  6. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress

Conservatism at its best is not supposed to be an ideology; conservatism at its best is supposed to be a practical, realistic and empirically-driven approach toward the world. In the lament over the re-election of President Obama, I think some conservatives miss out on being conservative. These conservatives have elevated the pure abstraction of ideology over the brass tacks that makes conservatism so, well, real. Really real, in a way that distinguishes it from and serves as its intrinsic appeal over all of its ideoligical opposites, such as the many varieties of leftism that have had the unpleasant fact of having existed.

However I fear that conservatism or conservatives – at least of some varieties – cannot legitimately or at least convincingly make that reference to reality in the wake of this response to President Obama’s re-election. Not if conservatives are rejecting history and experience in favor of celebrating abstract, vague and circuitous appeals to eras and ideas that are no longer relevant to the American cultural, social or political tradition. Well, a historicist cannot. A traditionalist, I suppose, can.

So, after this long, winding and lamenting encomium to conservatism, what do I think the re-election of President Obama means for conservatism? It means absolutely nothing. This is because conservatism is dying — conservatives are killing it.

If conservatives and conservatism want to begin to digest and respond to the re-election of President Obama, it would seem that we should take a page from Andrew Sullivan and read some Michael Oakeshott

Categories: 2012, Ideology, Traditionalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope, Change and the Staid President

My apologies to readers and fellow contributors to the blog; this is later in the day than I wanted to post. That being said, here it is.

Up to this post, our readers have been given advice (with one notable exception) to behave in a way that in practice results in a repudiation of the two-party system in which we participate. I do not think that voting third-party is an effective behavior; I think it is a radical behavior that is contrary to the tenets and the practice of conservatism. So, like Chuck O’Shea, I advocate the support of one of the major two-party candidates in this election. The candidate I support will be the one running against him. I believe that a conservative should support President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012.

This post is broken up into two sections: the first section will provide an anchor for the argument by way of description of a practical conceptualization of the kernel of conservatism as uncertainty; the second section will shift to a description of a case (through secondary sources) for why President Obama has governed as a conservative and why this should be sufficient to persuade conservatives to support him for re-election.

Part 1: Conservatism as Uncertainty

The arguments that have dominated this blog revolve around the definition of conservatism and the corollary of who and what qualifies as conservative today? Many of us on this blog have input time and energy into answering a question that pundits more important than we are
have dwelt. This suggests a broadness, perhaps more accurately and precisely, a foundational uncertainty to be the characteristic which is hallmark of conservatism. Conservatism, in a sense, is so dysfunctional and confused (or at least antifoundational) that a prominent conservative magazine is subjecting itself to an identical tortured process that we are conducting at the same time we are conducting it.

This uncertainty can be understood as an effect of a fluidity the vocabulary of the traditionalist-historicist conservative would recognize as the universal being expressed in the particular; further, in its vocabulary, it is what the rationalist would recognize as a fundamental abstract principle being applied to or filtered by and through reality: it is a cornerstone of a conservative case to support President Obama for re-election in 2012.

Part II: President Obama as Conservative, or the Prudence of Practice

Let me move to the second portion of this post, which lays out a case for the conservative support of President Obama by a brief examination of his policies in his first term.

Bruce Bartlett summarizes the case for Obama the conservative in the following bullet points (h/t to paul krugman

His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary;
He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary;
He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, pointedly rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals;
He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever;
And in the past few weeks he has supported deficit reductions that go far beyond those offered by Republicans.

I think that list makes a compelling case for the conservative to support President Obama for re-election in 2012. This is not about abstractions such as ideological purity, pro-life bona fides or any other conceptualization of conservatism whose essence exists outside of time and space; rather, this is about an on-the-ground, historically contingent conservatism which recognizes that history puts us in a set of circumstances in which liberal “big government” of the New Deal and Great Society are essential, defining characteristics of the relationship between a citizenry and its government; furthermore, that to recognize this relationship is to be cognizant of the historical concreteness that is, allegedly, at the core of conservatism. Such that this historical reality of post-New Deal and post-Great Society liberalism means that President Obama is the one conservative candidate running for President during this election. The other choices you have – which have been discussed on this blog – occupy positions on the ideological branches of the left and the right. When the pundits recognize a continuity between the two major parties’ candidates’ policies; and, when progressives recognize you to be a conservative and make a case against your candidacy for re-election, then you must be doing something right behind which conservatives (no pun intended) can throw their support.

If other conservatives want to make a convincing case that Obama is a liberal or a left-wing President of any type, then they will have to respond to the policies that he has implemented by effectively demonstrating how they represent a liberal rather than a conservative style of governance. References to a vague, amorphous, and essentially content-less notion of history or tradition will not be a strong foundation for a persuasive case against the conservative’s support for President Obama’s re-election. Nor will an effective case be made by attempting to demonstrate that his policies are contrary to certain principles (free-market, big government, etc) which are inherently conservative, at least not in an American sense of the term; nor is it sufficient to argue (however effectively one does make the argument), that in certain instances he has been an advocate, instigator or ally of policymakers or policy proposals that are contrary to alleged tenets of traditional culture (e.g., religious freedom or individual rights in the example of the health care reform bill): cherry picking is left for the fruit, it does not belong in a philosophically abstract or an empirical argument against a case for the re-election of President Obama.

The responses the economic crisis, the policies of reform, and the foreign policy that President Obama has pursued and implemented during his first term in office, point to a candidate for re-election who chooses to maintain a steady course and extract a limited amount from the circumstances given to him. That is to say, his presidency has been a conservative one. Stories of his past notwithstanding, he makes a poor example of a radical liberal, and an even poorer boogeyman of conservative critique, analysis and alarm. President Obama has governed with restraint; he has pursued policies with an eye toward the possible and not just purity of principle; he has behaved in a way that conservatives can and should recognize to be in resemblance to the doctrine, tenets and canons of conservatism. It is easy to understand why that is the case if one disregards the rhetoric and emotion that are expended in response to President Obama, and consider for a brief moment the policies he has actually pursued and realize that he is a conservative (or at least a run-of-the-mill Democrat, who is, nevertheless, probably more conservative – in a non-ideological understanding of the term – than most Republicans or self-described conservatives are at this point in our political history).

At the end of the day, the conservative is not left wondering why he should support President Obama in 2012; rather, he is left to wonder why he should not.

Categories: 2012, Ideology, Traditionalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Categories: Ideology, Traditionalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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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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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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.

Categories: Traditionalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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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Conservatives and History: Does it Matter, I Mean Really?

A popular understanding of conservatism, exemplified perhaps by the likes of Russell Kirk or Peter Viereck, claims a privileged place for history. It is popularly understood that while liberals and followers of other left-wing ideologies reject, dismiss or otherwise hold history in a distant contempt, the conservatives and conservatism recognize the importance of history as a delimiting and constitutive factor that is essential to an effective and real understanding human experience and the politics that would follow from that essential and immediate experience. I will argue briefly, and to the contrary, that that is, to be diplomatic, a debatable point. Furthermore, it will be claimed that the historicity of human experience (as such an idea is sometimes labeled) is overrated and that conservatives should emancipate themselves from their slavish devotion to it .

Continue reading

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