Posts Tagged With: tradition

What Peter Viereck Can Tell Today’s Conservatives

In later editions of his bookConservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Ideology, Peter Viereck includes a second part with the provocative title “The New Conservatism: What Went Wrong?” In his provocative post on “cool kids” conservatism, Kelse mentions Viereck fairly negatively in a discussion about just what it is that conservatism is worth. I think Viereck presents a challenge to the libertarians and the conservatives on this blog (as well as a lot of what counts as the conservative right today) in those few pages. It is relevant today, just as it was when it was first published around 40 years ago.

Here are some passages which, I think, require contemporary conservatives to face some unpleasant political realities.

(from page 134 of the Transaction edition 2005)

In America, Southern agrarianism has long been the most gifted literary manifestation of the conservatism of yearning. Its most important intellectual manifesto was the Southern Symposium I’ll Take My Stand, 1930, contrasting
the cultivated human values of a lost aristocratic agrarianism with Northern commercialism and liberal materialism. At their best, these and more recent examples of the conservatism of yearning are needed warnings against shallow practicality. The fact that such warnings often come from the losing side of our Civil War is in itself a merit; thereby they caution a nation of success-worshippers against the price of success. But at their worst, such books of the 1930s, and again of today, lack the living roots of genuine conservatism and have only lifeless ones. The lifeless ones are really a synthetic substitute for roots, contrived by romantic nostalgia.

Such romanticizing conservatives refuse to face up to the old and solid historical roots of most or much American liberalism. What is really rootless and abstract is not the increasingly conservatized New Deal liberalism but the romantic conservatives’ own utopian dream of an aristocratic agrarian restoration. Their unhistorical appeal to history, their traditionless worship of tradition, characterize the conservatism of writers like Russell Kirk.

In contrast, a genuinely rooted, history-minded conservative conserves the roots that are really there, exactly as Burke did when he conserved not only the monarchist-conservative aspects of William the Third’s bloodless revolution of 1688 but also its constitutional-liberal aspects. The latter aspects, formulated by the British philosopher John Locke, have been summarized in England and America ever since by the word “Lockean.”

And he states further (this on page 142 of the previously mentioned edition)

What about the argument (very sincerely believed by National Review and Old Guard Republicans) that denies the label “conservative” to those of us who support trade unionism and who selectively support many New Deal reforms? According to this argument, our support of such humane and revolution-preventing reforms in politics—by New Dealers and democratic socialists—makes us indistinguishable from liberals in philosophy. Shall we then cease to call ourselves philosophical conservatives, despite our conservative view of history and human nature?

So, conservatives, what is your answer to his question?

Categories: 2012, Cultural renewal, Ideology, Rand Paul, Robert Nisbet, The Constitution, Traditionalism, Tyranny | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Philosophers and the Conservatives

Alexander Rosenberg and Daniel Little have written excellent books which introduce to the student of the social sciences the many different philosophical problems that the student will implicitly explicitly confront in his progress towards his mastery of the discipline(s). While both books provide excellent and overlapping overviews of the major philosophical dilemmas that are inherent to the social scientific enterprise, the Little book has one feature that elevates it above Rosenberg’s effort: examples. While Rosenberg’s book provides a philosophically rich discussion of the themes and arguments in the philosophy of social science – whose questions and answers have significant implications for the design, execution and expectations of the practice(s) of the social sciences, his book lacks the kind of (con)textual references which would appeal to the student or practitioner of the social sciences who would like to know how topics and perspectives on matters such as causality; cultural and moral relativism; the other sciences; or, Marx and Freud, have to do with them.

Little comes through where Rosenberg lags. Whereas after reading Philosophy of Social Science, the reader (whether or not he is a student of the social sciences) may be left wondering how the themes discussed in the chapters are relevant to what is placed on the average political science syllabus, journal article or book, very early on and consistently in Varieties of Social Explanation, the reader is made aware of the implicit and explicit relationships between the philosophical themes under consideration and the nuts-and-bolts work that comprises social science. Each chapter of the book contains within it any number of separate and brief boxes highlighting social scientific research, which provides concrete examples of topics of study in order to connect the abstract philosophy of social science with the concrete reality of social science practice.

I recommend both books to any student of political science, political theory or other social science disciplines. In particular, I think the political theorists would have a lot to say in response to the philosophical topics dealt with in the philosophy of social science. The bloggers and readers of beyondthegop.com would, I think, have many opinions – some strong, others weak – on the philosophical matters that social scientists and social science confront. On whether or not human behavior is rational; whether or not human behavior is best understood as a product of the structure or function of a particular social system; whether or not there are universals in human cultures or whether or not there are incommensurable differences in beliefs, morals and/or cultures; whether or not a science of human behavior is either possible or desirable; and, how the answers to these and other questions affect our study of human behavior. All of this is taken under consideration in both of the books.

 

So what is a conservative to say to the person who wants to be a social scientist? I think that the answer depends on the conservative. I say this to, I suppose surreptitiously, point out that conservatism per se really has nothing to say to the study of human behavior. After all, conservatism claims to be the anti-system. Anti-ideology, anti-rationalism (enlightenment), anti-change, anti-dreams, fantasies and fancies. The does not leave much for conservatism to say to a person who wants to systematically study and produce conclusions about the social world. Conservatism is not Marxism (some of whom, working in that tradition, have produced some interesting stuff).

I don’t think that conservatives should be looking to conservatism in order to find any guiding wisdom for the study of the social world. The conservative – traditionalist, neo, paleo, christian, etc. – should realize that the self-acknowledged limitations of conservatism imply that the conservative has to search elsewhere if (s)he wants to actually make conservatism matter. Decouple and unpack the assumptions that the individual traditionalist has about the world and then come back to conservatism after the traditionalist has a slightly better understanding of the relationship between his view of the world that is independent from the conservatism that is supposed to be its source. Is it at this level where I think that the conservative theorist can meet the philosophy of social science.

After that meeting, when the conservative has engaged the topics, then return to conservatism with a better understanding of the philosophical issues at risk and then improve upon the presentation of conservatism. Philosophy of social science has the potential to give a great deal to conservatism. I hope that the conservatives will be willing to dialog with it.

Categories: Cultural renewal, Ideology, Libertarianism, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Righteous Path

Since Kelse had a music-themed post recently, I thought I would join in. I was taking a walk this afternoon when the Drive-By Truckers’ song “The Righteous Path” came up on my MP3 player.

If you don’t know the song, here’s a video of the band performing it at Austin City Limits:

The narrator tells of his struggles to provide for his family and survive in a world that’s moving too fast. He’s not a philosopher and he doesn’t have answers to the dilemmas he and his society are up against, but what makes the song’s message so poignant is the refrain he keeps repeating in response to every challenge he faces:

“I don’t know God but I fear his wrath
I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path”

“More bills than money, I can do the math
I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path”

“I’m trying to keep focused as I drive down the road
On the ditches and the curves and the heavy load
Ain’t b****ing ‘bout things that aren’t in my grasp
Just trying to hold steady on the righteous path”

Drive-By Truckers

I don’t claim to know the political views of Patterson Hood (who wrote and sings lead on this song), but I would argue that the singer’s response to what we can call the “Crisis of Western society” is a fundamentally conservative one.

Western society has undergone a tremendous shift in recent centuries: the economic, technological, and social forces of modernity have brought about immense change. Unfortunately and for whatever reason, the spiritual and social forces that used to support humans have not always been able to keep up with those changes. The spiritual and moral guidelines that we tell our children to live by seem to have been written for simpler times. Traditional communities- filled with people who raised each other’s children, beared each other’s burdens, and felt a mutually-shared sense of responsibility for their neighbor’s well being- are now a thing of the past. The traditional family unit, once the bedrock of society, is now on life support.

This is the “Crisis” that Western civilization is faced with: millions of people in Western society no longer feel as if the world they live in was made for people like them. They feel lonely, alienated, dislocated, and unable to cope with the increasingly-fast pace of their increasingly-materialistic and increasingly-empty lives. Meanwhile, they seem no longer able to turn to those institutions and relationships that used to provide a source of meaning.

This “Crisis” engenders two basic responses: the first is the revolutionary response; the second is the conservative response.

The revolutionary response is summed up well in a line by Karl Marx: “Philosophers have explained the world; it is necessary to change the world.” Tired of feeling like the world he lives in is fundamentally broken, the revolutionary will take it upon himself to redeem it. Moreover, the revolutionary will inevitably feel that contemporary society is so thoroughly corrupted at this point that his only choice is to completely level the whole structure and rebuild from scratch.

Marx

It is this desire to change the world and remake it in our own image- in essence, to supplant God- that is the hallmark of every totalitarian philosophy. It’s what fueled Communism and Fascism in the 20th Century. It’s what makes the Islamists strap bombs to themselves in the 21st Century. It’s what makes revolutionary philosophers like Rousseau so dangerous, in spite of attempts by some conservatives to whitewash him. Ultimately, I believe it was this revolutionary response (in a somewhat milder form, thank God) that propelled Barack Obama to the White House in 2008.

The conservative response is much more humble in its ambitions. Like the narrator in “The Righteous Path,” the conservative will attempt to do the best he can to provide for his family, try to live up to traditional standards of morality, and (to paraphrase Mr. Hood) not “worry about things that aren’t his grasp.” Fundamentally, the conservative believes that any resolution to the cultural “Crisis” will be brought about more as a result of his own inward moral development than of any government program or the regulation of others’ behavior.

This is not to say that the conservative never seeks to change his society. Seeking justice always requires some element of social alteration, but the conservative always sees society on the whole as doing more good than harm and will thus be apprehensive about jeopardizing the already-fragile social order through radical action. The revolutionary’s glossy visions of the world transformed hold no sway over him because he doesn’t believe Utopian goals can be attained.

—————-

Ultimately, those still fighting for the preservation of that which is best in the Western tradition have a difficult task at hand: they must find some way to make classical/Christian morality and traditional bonds of community and family once again accessible to a culture that can no longer take them for granted.

Until such a time, the fate of Western civilization rests on the uncommon strength of everyday men and women who, like the singer in “The Righteous Path,” try their best to follow traditional morality without understanding it and lacking the accompanying social pressure that used to encourage obedience to it. Our fate rests on the shoulders of people who “fear the wrath” of a God they no longer know, who hopelessly wander through the long-forgotten ruins of Athens and Jerusalem without every fully knowing what a healthy civilization looks like but still somehow sensing that the answer lies in some forgotten tradition.

Let’s hope they can keep it up a little longer. At least until my dissertation gets published…

Categories: Cultural renewal, Ideology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Abbeville Institute: Is America Too Big?

The Abbeville Institute has launched a new video series, “Is America Too Big?” The first video is here, featuring the left-wing decentralist Kirkpatrick Sale and the inimitable Donald Livingston, a philosopher of secession who also served as my undergraduate honors thesis advisor.

The Abbeville Institute is a broadly paleoconservative and paleolibertarian organization that promotes political decentralization within the context of the southern tradition. I highly recommend checking them out. Though their focus is on the South, the principles they espouse—the right of secession, decentralized government, and the importance of tradition and place—are applicable everywhere. As a Yankee, I never felt out of place at any of their events.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

President Oakeshott

Joe Ptak believes that, with Barack Obama’s reelection, “we have [a president] who may fit the mold of a [Peter] Viereck or a[ Michael] Oakeshott.”

I have been gleefully waiting for someone here to write something like this. It sheds a lot of light on the debate we’ve been having on this blog on traditionalism versus rationalism. In the beginning of that debate, I tried to make fun of traditionalist conservatives by linking them to Paul Krugman. But for a conservative to link himself to Barack Obama of all people–that’s the jackpot!

Of course, I don’t disagree with Joe’s factual assessment. To the contrary, I think that Obama clearly does fit the mold of Michael Oakeshott.  (I don’t know anything about Viereck, so I can’t comment on that.) In his essay “On Being Conservative,” Oakeshott defined conservatism as essentially just a preference for whatever happens to exist at the present moment. And if there is anything that the Obamaphiles love, it is what happens to exist at this present moment.

But I also agree with Ben when he called this conception of conservatism “deeply flawed.” Indeed, if this is our definition of conservatism, then I’m with the Old-Right journalist Frank Chodorov, who reportedly proclaimed: “Anyone who calls me a conservative gets a punch in the nose.”

Just look at the list of Obama’s “conservative” accomplishments that Joe provides, courtesy of that other eternal defender of the status quo, Paul Krugman. Joe tells us:

  1. Obama’s stimulus bill was half the size that his Keynesian advisors advised. (Gee, thanks!)
  2. He continued Bush’s wars. (Nothing more conservative than demolishing one society and building a new one!)
  3. He put forward a healthcare plan, which all those Burkean Republicans like Newt Gingrich used to support, and which wasn’t even the socialist plan that he originally threatened–err–offered us.
  4. He supports tax cuts and deficit reductions.  That is, he has supported them “in the past few weeks,” after spending 95% of his political career denouncing them.
  5. The New Deal and the Great Society are here, presumably, until the end of time. No use fighting them–a conservative would just lay back and take them.

It is true that these “accomplishments” all fit into the twentieth-century American tradition. But that is also a tradition that gave us the IRS, the Federal Reserve, the Patriot Act, the TSA and body-scanning, indefinite detention of American citizens and non-citizens at the president’s say-so, permanent war and overstretched empire, mass incarceration (much of which stems from the criminalization of victimless conduct), and ever-increasing federal regulation of every aspect of personal and economic life, all accompanied by a decline in the importance of local centers of authority, an increase in single-parenthood and welfare-dependence, a permanent sense of economic instability, high unemployment, and little hope of any improvement in cultural or economic life in the foreseeable future.

One could look at all of that and reply simply, “Yeah, that’s our tradition. Therefore, I support it.” But if conservatism is to be something meaningful, it has to offer something more. It has to be able to engage in a critique of existing social and political structures. (In that sense, whatever my other disagreements with Ben’s traditionalism, it is at least better than Joe’s.) If conservatism cannot engage in that critique, then traditionalists will just end up playing second-fiddle to the Democrats. They will only serve to ratify each new expansion of federal power, with appeals to Oakeshott and continuity.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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

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

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

Replicating American Libertarianism

Kelse’s response to my post “Traditionalism and Statism,” suggests that my defense of traditionalism over some kind of rational libertarianism was off-base because I focused only on the tradition that he and I share, not on traditionalism as such. Kelse suggests that, were we to focus our attention on a different culture (he gives the example of Saudi Arabia), my argument would have much less to offer it. There are three points I would like to make in response to this: 1) libertarianism as Kelse knows it is inextricably tied to a particular historical context, 2) traditionalism offers more hope for the libertarian-minded individual in Saudi Arabia than Kelse suggests, and 3) that this form of tradition-infused libertarianism actually has more to offer than does a purely reason-based libertarianism, if one can be said to exist.

Kelse readily acknowledges that his own libertarian beliefs fit relatively well into the broader Anglo-American tradition. He stops short, however, of recognizing that this is because the Anglo-American tradition gave birth to libertarianism.

Without the Magna Carta, without a Hobbesian conception of social atomism, without a Lockean understanding of property rights and religious toleration, without the Scottish Enlightenment, Kelse wouldn’t be the same thinker he is today. It is important then to note that Kelse’s beliefs do not arise “in a vacuum independent of tradition” as he argued in an earlier post. Either libertarianism is not as “reason”-based as Kelse suggests, or else reason is not as easily divorced from tradition as we are prone to believe. Either way, libertarianism has slowly grown and evolved within a particular historical context (borrowing, here and there, from minds outside the Anglo-American tradition).

Why was it not rationally deduced all at once? Did people just not think hard enough? Was Murray Rothbard the world’s first fully rational man? On the contrary, the history of philosophy would suggest that, whatever the differences in our individual reasoning capacities, all humans are in some way bound by the limits of their own tradition’s worldview: there are certain things they can and cannot see from their own particular historical vantage point. The Enlightenment notion that we have already achieved the pinnacle of human wisdom from which no further growth is possible is, from this point of view, laughably hubristic. One might then say that Anglo-American libertarianism is the best political philosophy heretofore known (which is improbable but conceivable), but one cannot say that it is the best that will ever exist.

As a traditionalist, I am proud of my culture’s accomplishments and believe that elements of its tradition have much to offer the modern world today. Yet, I do not believe that my own tradition represents any kind of grand advancement in human development. The value of my tradition is the same as the value of every other tradition: it conveys a universal truth about humanity. If a tradition has endured over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, it must have some degree of staying power. Thus, although I might have serious spiritual, cultural, and political differences with members of the Muslim world, I would have to acknowledge that there must be something worthwhile within their tradition to allow it such longevity.

This is not to suggest that there are not aspects of every tradition that do more harm than good to a society. My primary cultural identity comes from being born in the American South. And while there are many aspects of my culture that I love deeply, there are also some unfortunate aberrations from that tradition: slavery, discrimination, and racial prejudice to name a few. Did slavery exist for so long because it conveyed some deep truth about human nature or encouraged human excellence? Obviously not. So, as a Southerner, I must make a conscious choice to emphasize some aspects of my tradition over others. In order to make this distinction, I admittedly must have some understanding of a higher good that transcends my particular historical tradition. In a sense, perhaps this is similar to what Kelse means when he talks about “reason.” That being said, I would maintain that universal truth can only be understood through historical tradition.

This leads to an important point I was attempting to make, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, in my previous post: as a traditionalist, I am not trying to perfectly recreate an instantiation of universal truth that has already existed in the past; I am attempting to reformulate that truth to fit new circumstances. In the process, I am also constantly trying to improve my own tradition.

The libertarian-minded individual living in Saudi Arabia has the option of doing the same thing. If he were to look back at his own culture and see that theocratic Islamist statism does indeed lead to human excellence, he might begin to reconsider his previous attachment to libertarianism. If, on the other hand, he finds within his own tradition some kind of cultural precursor for limited government, for individual liberty and property rights, then he has the option of building upon this tradition and pointing his culture toward the type of society he sees as best encouraging human flourishing.

Ostensibly, a distinctly Saudi Arabian form of libertarianism won’t look exactly like the Anglo-American libertarian tradition that Kelse is familiar with. Nor should it. Libertarianism in America itself originated within a particular culture. Why should Saudi Arabian libertarianism not? Or alternatively, why should we hold out hope for Anglo-American libertarianism thriving in Saudi Arabia?

Libertarianism, to the extent that it has been separated from its original cultural moorings, has proved to be a more destructive than positive influence. If the Saudi Arabians want a more libertarian culture, then they should develop one within their own cultural context.

Categories: Cultural development, Libertarianism, Traditionalism | Tags: , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Conservatism and the Paul Krugman Paradox

In response to my post calling Paul Krugman a traditionalist conservative, Joe wonders whether there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m not sure whether conservatism is actually, in Joe’s words “worse off” if we consider Krugman a member. But I do believe that the argument over whether Krugman is a conservative exposes the glaring weaknesses in traditionalist conservatism that led me to my ultimate rejection of it.

There are only two resolutions to the question.  The first leads to a conservatism that I find very unattractive, and the second leads to one that I consider nonsensical.

First: we can call Krugman a conservative.

But to do so, we have to take “conservatism” to only mean, as Michael Oakeshott believed, “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, . . . the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant. . . .”  It is in this spirit that the self-described Burkean Sam Tanenhaus considers Obama’s healthcare policy to be “pure Disraeli” (The Death of Conservatism, p. 117), while the Tea Party is full of “antigovernment militants . . . [who] pine for an America that neither they nor most other living Americans can recall” (125).

But this is unsatisfactory.  Though conservatives like to point out the limits of reason, I can’t understand how reason is so limited that it would prevent us from engaging in any critique of prevailing traditions.  For instance, protectionism is one of the oldest methods for the U.S. government to collect taxes, whereas it was generally frowned on in nineteenth century Britain.  Does that mean that I should support protectionism if I live in the U.S. but not if I live in Britain?  If I can understand its bad economic effects, and understand the injustice of prohibiting trade between freely consenting parties, then why should it matter what culture I was born into?  Why can’t I say as an American that, yes, pure free trade has never been tried here (NAFTA and the IMF are more about managed globalization than free trade per se), but that if it were tried it would radically improve society and raise our standards of living, and therefore it should be tried immediately?

I see no reason why not.  I might need to be pragmatic about how I proceed, but I don’t see why human reason is incapable of picking one policy over the other, in a vacuum independent of tradition.

Alternatively: we can say that Krugman actually isn’t a conservative.

To do this, we would have to try to give conservatism a more substantive definition than the one above.  Thus, for some, being conservative means supporting a government of limited powers.  For others, it means having a government that enforces a particular conception of morality.

But either way, I don’t see how tradition plays much of a role in the outcome.  The more libertarian conservative has to argue, for instance, for limits on the federal government’s powers that haven’t existed since the New Deal–that is, which haven’t existed for the most recent third of American history.  Conversely, statist conservative, on the other hand,  might support an aristocratic politics that hasn’t been part of American history since the old Virginia planters lost political power in the early nineteenth century.

I’m not saying that either libertarian or statist conservatism is necessarily wrong.  In fact, I think that they are much more philosophically profound than Oakeshott’s conservatism.  My point is that they don’t depend much (or at all) on tradition.  Rather, they are both manifestations of abstract theory that rely for their proof on appeals to abstract reason.  And that being the case, it is hard to understand how they are really forms of conservatism at all.  They aren’t “libertarian conservatism” and “statist conservatism.”  They are just “libertarianism” and “statism,” and each one can be weighed on its own merits without the confusing appeals to tradition.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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 .

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Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Some Cultural Skepticism

Ben David kicked off this blog with a post on “cultural renewal.”  There’s a lot in that post—much with which I agree and much with which I don’t—and hopefully one of the themes of this blog will be to draw out some of the many implications for cultural conservatism discussed in that post.

For my part, however, I am skeptical of the entire project of “cultural conservatism” itself.

To start, it seems that in discussing “culture,” Ben is assigning an objective value to what is in fact a subjective phenomenon.  That is, it makes no more sense to me to say, “culture should follow such-and-such pattern,” than it does to say “you should like to eat lobster” or “you should enjoy Nicki Minaj’s music”—each is just a personal taste which cannot be rationally proven or disproven as right or wrong.

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