Posts Tagged With: traditionalism

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 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.


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

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

Go ahead. Do something crazy. Vote for the Green Party.

Hey there. I’m here in an attempt to convince you of something that may, at first, seem crazy. I want you, as a traditionalist conservative, to vote for Green Party Candidate Jill Stein for president. Go ahead, get the laughs out, I’ll wait. Ok, done? Good, then let’s talk.

First off, Mr. O’Shea, in his defense of voting for Governor Romney declares that conservative politics must be about the possible, and therefore, the traditionalist must remain within the two-party framework, hoping beyond hope that the Republican candidate governs conservatively. What he forgets is that third parties historically have had a significant impact on American politics, even without electoral success. Dr. Stein and the Green Party are also thinking of the possible; they aren’t expecting to win, and in fact, the front page of their website implies that getting as little as 1% of the popular vote would be a success. This is because simply by taking away votes from the major parties can be enough for one of them to coopt the party’s positions in the next election in order to gain more voters. The beauty is that this works, if you take a look at the Populist Party platform from 1892, or any of the Socialist Party platforms under Eugene V. Debs, you’ll see that these parties managed to get plenty of legislation passed without ever winning an election.

Are you with me so far? A vote for Jill Stein isn’t cast in order to win the 2012 election, voting for her means you’re playing the long game (but you’re a conservative, so you should love the long game). But why vote for Dr. Stein of all people, isn’t she the one the people to the left of Obama are going to be voting for? Certainly, and last I checked, traditionalist conservatives have a lot in common with the American left, especially on issues such as foreign policy, the importance of community, society as an association that extends beyond the living, and the belief that successful acquisitive individualists should not, by default, rule because of their successful acquisitiveness. In order to look at these similarities more closely, I’m going to go straight to the Green New Deal, the platform that Dr. Stein is running on this year.

Let’s start with foreign policy, shall we? I think that after watching the last debate, we can agree that the next four years are going to be, at best, the same as the last four, and at worst, will result in the invasion of Iran. As far as I’m concerned (and I believe there’s something called a Constitution that backs me up on this) this is the most important aspect of President’s job, the area where he has almost unilateral power. As a conservative, a dealer in what’s possible, this is where you should be looking when you cast your vote, because let’s be honest, nothing is going to be possible domestically with a divided congress for at least two more years.

What does Dr. Stein say on foreign policy? Let me pull out a few choice quotes. For her, the problem is not vague Middle Eastern “terrorism,” but rather, “we must protect our liberty from those who would frighten us into surrendering our freedoms in the name of security. The Green New Deal will repeal the Patriot Act and those parts of the National Defense Authorization Act that violate our civil liberties. It will prohibit the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI from conspiring with local police forces to suppress our freedoms of assembly and of speech.” A good start, right? She continues, declaring that, “Protecting our liberty requires one additional, important step. Washington and Eisenhower, both generals who became president, warned us about the military industrial complex. They warned us about the dangers of empire.” Wait; did she just cite a founding father (I thought librools hated them!) and a Republican as examples? Whaaat?

There’s no talk of Wilsonian internationalism or the Bush doctrine here, her policy position is includes “a 50% reduction in military spending and the withdrawal of U.S. military bases from the over 140 countries in which our military is now located. It calls for restoration of the National Guard as the centerpiece of our system of national defense. It creates a new round of nuclear disarmament initiatives. Overall, it requires shifting from an economy in which the majority – the majority – of our discretionary budget is spent on war and the occupation of other countries, to an economy that provides the secure, just, peaceful future we all deserve.” If you’re looking for the candidate who wants to end the American Empire, I think you’ve just found her.

I’ll be honest with you though, you could also vote for Gary Johnson for the exact same foreign policy reasons. So what else does Dr. Stein have to offer? How about something that Governor Johnson certainly doesn’t stress, the importance of community. While Dr. Stein and the Green Party certainly use the symbolism of FDR in their party platform, a closer look reveals that the use of the term “New Deal” might be a bit misleading. Rather than large-scale federal programs, Dr. Stein calls for federal money to be implemented locally. For instance, “Our Full Employment Program will directly create 16 million jobs through a community-based direct employment initiative that will be nationally funded, locally controlled, and democratically protected against conflicts of interest and pay-to-play influence peddling. The program will directly create jobs in the public and the private sector. Instead of going to an unemployment office when you can’t find work, you can simply go to the local employment office to find a public sector job.” Notice that the point is to work, not receive unlimited unemployment insurance.

The emphasis on local implementation is not incidental, she continues by saying, “This program will not be run from Washington D.C. Our job in Washington will be limited to insuring that you have a say in how this program runs. Local communities will be responsible for putting this jobs program into practice through a process of broad community input and democratic decision-making involving you, your neighbors and local government – not corrupting monied interests.” Um, isn’t that like, you know, the definition of subsidiarity? And, if you happen to be a traditionalist with an agrarian bent, you might just be a fan of the idea that some of the jobs created at the local level will be in “regional food systems based on sustainable organic agriculture.” Yes. Jill Stein is also the Jeffersonian candidate.  

Let’s stick to this point for a minute, because I think it is, perhaps, the strongest reason why anyone who calls himself or herself a traditionalist conservative should vote for Dr. Stein. She continues by detailing one of these subsidiarity-driven programs, the “Green Transition Program,” which “will provide grants and low-interest loans to grow green businesses and cooperatives, with an emphasis on small, locally-based companies that keep the wealth created by local labor circulating in the community rather than being drained off to enrich absentee investors.” Take out the name “Green Transition Program” and it sounds exactly like something a traditionalist who admires Tocqueville might vote for. The emphasis on community also carries over to transportation, where one of the publically created, community-based projects is the creation of “’complete streets’ that safely encourage bike and pedestrian traffic.” Fact: Jill Stein wants to reduce the effects of the “Mechanical Jacobin.”

As you might expect, the Green Party is also interested in the environment. Of course, there’s nothing terribly un-traditional about this stance either, after all, didn’t Burke say that, “Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”  Dr. Stein is clearly in this spirit then when she says that, “A business model that destroys our forests, our fisheries, our topsoil, our water supplies, our health, and our climate – is a business model that will inevitably collapse upon itself. And an economy that is addicted to ever-increasing supplies of oil is not only doomed, it is a national security disaster just waiting to happen.”

Finally, Dr. Stein rejects the notion that successful acquisitive individualism is a legitimate reason to hold power. She believes that, “the takeover of our economy by big banks and well-connected financiers has destabilized both our democracy and our economy. We do not need and should not tolerate the dictatorship of bankers and financiers who manipulate money without doing productive work and who enrich themselves at the expense of real businesses and real working people. It’s time to take Wall Street out of the driver’s seat and to free the truly productive segments of working America to make this economy work for all of us.” Note that this is not a call to a revolution, a takeover of the means of production by the proletariat, or a wholesale rejection of the good that capitalism brings. Rather, it is an emphasis on the dignity of both labor and ownership that has suffered at the expense of financial gamesmanship.

There are many more examples in the Green New Deal of things that traditionalists would agree with (and certainly some things they wouldn’t), but here’s the thing, there is no other candidate in this race who emphasizes the dignity and importance of the local like Jill Stein does. Sure, her candidacy will attract all the hippies and crunchy co-op people, but lets face it, traditionalists have a lot more in common with them than they’d like to admit.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Great Traditionalism Debate, Part 73

The debate on this blog over rationalism vs. traditionalism has been fun so far, even though at time it has kind of an esoteric quality.  I don’t have a lot more to say on it, because I think that most of what needs to be said has already been said, and also because I don’t think my position is really as far from Ben’s as some of these posts might make it seem.  That is, we both agree on most of our substantive political goals and, as I will discuss below, I am certainly no armchair “ideologist,” as in Ben’s caricature of rationalism.  I believe that it is important to understand your own tradition, but, unlike Ben, I do not believe that doing so is the only way to be rational.

Nevertheless, there are still a few points to clean up.

First, Ben keeps arguing that reason can’t be separated from tradition.  The actual evidence for this, beyond mere assertion, is only contained in a few pithy examples.  For instance, he notes in an earlier post that if it weren’t for John Locke, the Magna Carta, and the Scottish Enlightenment, I would not be the thinker that I am today.

Okay, sure.  But so what?  The fact that I am not able to conjure up an entire, completely correct philosophy out of whole cloth is surely no argument against rationalism.  Everyone is dependent on the people who came before them–Isaac Newton famously stated that he could only as far as he could because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  But that isn’t an admission that physics is governed by tradition.  Far from it; Ben admits as much when he states that the same law of gravity that applies to us also applies to primitive tribes.  (Although admittedly, tribesmen do have a tradition of falling when they stumble over logs.)

Understanding this point also shows the error behind Ben’s insinuation that libertarian rationalists must believe that “Murray Rothbard was the first rational man,” because otherwise they couldn’t possibly explain why libertarianism wasn’t all thought up at once, centuries ago.  Of course, I don’t know of anyone who believes anything close to this.  Indeed, because libertarians tend to value the division of labor–Ludwig von Mises called it the “fundamental social phenomenon”–they easily grasp the point that Ben has missed.  Just as no one person could live entirely cut-off from society and maintain a modern standard of living, so too no one person can simply deduce the entire corpus of knowledge all on his own.

Indeed, Rothbard was heavily influenced by the Spanish Scholastics, the French classical liberals, and the American Old Right.  But, once again: so what?  That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t engaged in a rationalistic project.  Just like the physicist who deduces real-world phenomena, the social scientist can deduce the nature of man and therefore the society that is best for man without being bound by any historical tradition.  The fact that every social scientist is influenced by those who came before him is true, but does not change the nature of the project that the social scientist engages in.

Continue reading

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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.

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

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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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

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

Paul Krugman: Burkean?

Paul Krugman has a column up at the New York Times called “Death by Ideology.”

The column doesn’t take on the concept of “ideology” per se, like Russell Kirk or Michael Oakeshott might.  But it is becoming a recurring theme on the Left to emphasize how (1) conservatives are overcome by an extreme anti-government ideology, while (2) liberals just want to continue with all those venerable (and popular) American traditions like the New Deal and the supremacy of the federal government.

I think traditionalist conservatives tend to gloss over their similarities with the Left.  They fail to address the fact that, if tradition is our main guide, things like Social Security and Medicare are pretty huge parts of our American tradition.  And if traditionalists value states’ rights and localism–as many do–they fail to fully address that these haven’t been important values in America since the nineteenth century.  For these reasons, I don’t think that traditionalist arguments can sustain a critique against Obamacare or the evisceration of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments–only a libertarian, rationalist argument can.

But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what some left-wing commentators have to say:

Continue reading

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