Posts Tagged With: Statism

Waco, The Modern State and the Why of Power

Ben has written a very insightful post which problematizes the norm of the use of state power against religious minority sects in way that encourages the deeper exploration of this matter both as a theoretical and empirical problem. That being said, I don’t feel like agreeing with what Ben writes.

The first question I have to ask is: does anyone really care about the massacre at Waco? Don’t misunderstand me, it was a tragedy. But, it was a tragedy that occurred 20 years ago. As an exemplar of the voracious appetite of the state, it’s not so unique. And conservatives have been warning of the statist apocalypse for a while. In any or none of the following figures and laws on this arbitrary and woefully incomplete list may be found the conservative root of all statist evil

I hope that the few people reading this list can sympathize with the difficulty I have when I attempt to determine an adequate causal pattern to explain the rise of the state. When reading typical anti-statist literature, I just can’t figure out a time when the modern state was not present. If encroachment and centralization are the names of this game, then the modern state has been around in various iterations for a long time. So, the fun of variations on a theme notwithstanding, this makes for perplexingly selective history and even more baffling and unhelpful analysis.

The second question I have is: did Ben and I read the same article? Ben’s blame-the-big-state trope is undermined by the Jenkin’s article from which he extensively excerpts: it was not the big state as such which is to be pointed to as the cause, but rather the linkage of “separatist compounds” with violent and extremist political movements that helped to make the raid possible. That is excised from the excerpt Ben uses to support his argument in his post. I don’t quite get the logic of Ben’s analysis at the point that we’re excluding from discussion this seemingly central perceptual frame which played so important a causal role in the tragedy. Jenkins himself writes in his piece that these patterns of relationships that preceded the Waco siege contributed to the perception of the Branch Davidians as being more of the same – and the behavior of the Branch Davidians simple confirmed for the feds their belief about the group in a tragic example of feedback.

Ultimately, what Ben has done is to refute the traditionalist dictum of history, instead to be in favor of an ideologically appealing and comparatively thin abstract explanation which ignores or denies the fluidity and tension of the temporal that is at the heart of a historical understanding of politics.

And that is a problem for conservatism. If conservatives want to produce work that is read, that is thought about and that is engaged, then we’re going to have to do a better job than the empirically thin, theoretically vague and maddeningly irrelevant material of mass produced replications of a theme that conservatives have not moved away from since conservatives started complaining about how much the world is changing.

Seriously, we’ve been writing about the demise of community and the ascent of the state for years now (even before Russell Kirk). Waco is just another confirmation of this pattern that I can’t help but begin to think is the norm – which makes us look like tinfoil hat wearing oddballs. We’re busy trying to chronicle and explain something that really isn’t all that abnormal, finding causal, phenomenal or rhetorical significance in events – like Waco – while ignoring the events, effects, and patterns that can produce some neat insights into a social phenomena (like state power) and contribute to our cumulative knowledge of it. We conservatives need to think of some new stuff to say, instead of pimping out themes that were battered and chapped even thirty years ago. But here we are… new puzzle, new problem, same answer. And we still haven’t bothered to touch the “why” of this power. Sure, we theorize about it. But the theory is stale. We need some new stuff. For a class of people who prides ourselves on being historically acute and astute, we’re not living up to our claim.

While Ben’s post is an interesting meditation on the nature, structure and behavior of the modern state, it’s reliance on the Waco example – or, Jenkin’s on Waco – obscures more than it illuminates. It’s heavy theory and light fact produce an interesting, albeit confusing and ultimately dissatisfying, thought experiment.

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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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Revenge of the Unseen

Many on the statist left are using Hurricane Sandy to prove why big government is necessary and to stick it to the crazy libertarian Mitt Romney.

This is an example of what the French classical-liberal Frederic Bastiat called the inability to perceive both “the seen and the unseen.”  That is, we can all see the actual destruction caused by the hurricane.  But what we can’t see is how a society that didn’t depend on centralized government for disaster relief–not to mention disaster mitigation or prevention–would function in the first place.

At the American Conservative, Rod Dreher, for instance, has a perceptive post about how government disaster relief degrades civil society–it fosters helplessness among neighbors, who rather than helping each other, just wait for the government to arrive.

“Seeing the unseen” doesn’t have the raw emotional power of pointing to burnt-out homes.  But if we want to think maturely about government power, we should ask ourselves how people would act if they weren’t constantly that the government is the proper responder to hurricanes.  What kinds of levees would private companies have built to prevent destruction from the sea?  What drainage technology would private companies use that municipalities have never contemplated?  What kind of insurance contracts would people enter into and what level of responsibility would they feel toward their own neighbors if they weren’t taught that only the government could save them?  What would a privatized FEMA actually look like?  Would it take the form of private companies throwing their clients into the sea, as the picture above suggests?  Or would a more rational business model look something like AAA, where clients pay monthly fees so that, if trouble actually arises, they have an entitlement to relief work?

Above all: is the destruction so bad in spite of government relief work, or is government preemption of the relief market a contributing factor to the extent of the destruction?

I don’t claim to know all of these answers for certain–no one can really predict how new markets will develop.  But those are the kinds questions we should be asking, rather than just looking at destroyed cities and then repeating bromides over “good government.”


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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.

Categories: Traditionalism | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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