A Death in the Family

Sunday Night Journal — December 10, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (1a)

Being both occupied and preoccupied with the death of my brother-in-law, I’ve only just now been able to read some of the lengthier items that have been mentioned in comments or emailed to me in response to last week’s column. So instead of continuing with my own train of thought, I think I’ll stop tonight and respond to those.

First, my old friend Robert emails me a couple of items from the newest issue of Touchstone:

Since you may not have received it or gotten around to it, there's an entry in the Quodlibet section which I thought you might be interested in, concerning a topic by [S.M.] Hutchens titled “Holy Economics”:

“…The problem with socialism is its tendency to harm the individual in favor of the common good, and with capitalism its tendency to harm the common good for the enlargement of the individual. Both—as theoretical systems—are to be avoided.”

“The historian Phillip Schaff said of Calvinism and Arminianism that the Bible was more human than the first, more divine than the second and more Christian than either. Of capitalism and socialism as economic theory and practice it might be similarly said that holy economics is more selfless than the first, more interested in the individual than the second, and kinder than either.”

I have in fact received the magazine but have not so much as opened it, being now two full issues and part of a third behind. This is excellent. I particularly like the remark about avoiding both as theoretical systems. I’m adding my own emphasis to the word “theoretical,” as I think that’s very important: both words together point to one of the great mistakes typical of our time, the effort to impose a mechanical paradigm on social life and then to invent “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” (I think that’s Eliot).

In my experience most discussions of capitalism in the abstract plunge directly into a false dichotomy which arises from the fact that it really doesn’t have a definition which is at once clear and generally accepted. Some pro-capitalists will assert that it simply means the legitimacy of private property, making any criticism of any market-based behavior a profession of Communism. Likewise, some socialists seem to define it as the right of the rich to feed their cats and dogs with the vital organs of the poor. It’s pretty difficult to argue against “capitalism” in the first case, or for it in the second.

Responding to my remark that “Conservatives are only slowly waking up to the fact that large corporations are the enemies of much that they hold dear, considerably more dangerous today than utopian socialism,” Robert adds: “Maybe true, but there is a non-utopian socialism, a postmodern one if you will, of which we have everything to fear. Look to Europe where this postmodern socialism is poised to destroy it altogether.”

I can’t speak to this myself, but Robert has spent some time in Europe, and I haven’t. And I’ve heard some surprisingly loud complaints about European attitudes toward work, business, and bureaucracy from a couple of young Americans who have lived in France and Germany for a year or more and who are by no means on the political right (at least not by American standards).

Next, this lengthy item by Russell Arben Fox, which is really an informal essay that rather stretches the boundaries of the blog post. I’m not going to try to summarize it, but it’s very much worth reading. Dr. Fox is a political science teacher and scholar, and I’m pretty quickly out of my academic depth in trying to follow his points about Rousseau, Hegel, Derrida, and others. And I can’t define terms like “post-structuralist” and “anti-essentialist” (although I think I figured out the latter from context). The truth is, I’m not very interested in banging around among the works of people like Rousseau et. al. With my sixtieth year not very far over the horizon, I’m very conscious that the time remaining to me is not unlimited, and I don’t care to use very much of it studying political theory. I also have less inclination than Dr. Fox to look for kindred spirits on the left, which is partly a temperamental thing and partly a suspicion that there is not as much room there for the values he wants to preserve as he hopes.

Still, there is much here with which to agree, and much to think about. I particularly like this:

Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now).

As a Catholic, of course I think the Benedictine response perfectly reasonable and possibly advisable, though I myself am not in a position to make it. Rod Dreher in Crunchy Cons talks of it as an option, following Alisdair Macintyre (whom I have not actually read but am always reading about). Daniel Nichols and I and a number of others talked about it a lot in Caelum et Terra ten or fifteen years ago, but I notice neither Daniel nor I is talking about it much anymore. So far, aside from actual Benedictines or other religious, no substantial movement for the establishment of formally set-apart Catholic communities along the lines of the Amish has appeared, even though a great many of us think it might be a good idea. This, I think, reveals some weakness, and perhaps some child-of-the-times-ness: we aren’t, finally, ready to make the sacrifices such an effort would require.

And, lastly, Mark Henrie of ISI, where he is among other things senior editor of Modern Age, sent me a link to a terrific essay of his which appeared in The New Pantagruel, “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism.” I would have even less hope of doing it justice in a summary than I did with Dr. Fox’s post above. It’s quite long, but tNP is among the most readable web publications, and this is well, well worth the time. I’m going to include some snippets which I think particularly good, with occasional comments in italics:

The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling, the intuition that constitutes his moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia....The conservative spirit, as such, arises only when loss is at hand, or, probably more frequently, when loss has occurred. Consequently, there is always a “reactionary” dimension to such conservatism; the conservative typically arrives “too late” for mere conservation.

[And later: ] Wherever there is a sense of loss, the conservative knows that there lies an indicator of the human good.

...The sovereignty of the people as the sole legitimating principle of the liberal regime places in question the sovereignty of God. [I don’t think there could be a more succinct statement of the core problem of liberalism in general and the United States in particular.]

...Whereas the Enlightenment “builds down” from politics to morals, the conservative “builds up” from morals to politics.

...autonomous individuals bristling with rights... [that’s just a great phrase]

And, finally, I think this is the essential distinction between the liberal conservative and the conservative (or for that matter liberal) liberal:

…[T]raditional conservatives endeavor to correct liberalism, not to save it.



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