There are still some posts from my first weblog that have not been tranferred to this, the latest incarnation of MavPhil. What follows was first posted over ten years ago, on 4 August 2004. Reproduced verbatim.
I am reading Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000, paperback ed. 2001, xiv + 205 pp.). This Spenglerian jeremiad is required reading for anyone interested in culture-critique. I’ve had to force myself to put it down, it is that fascinating. Unfortunately, Morris Berman (not to be confused with Paul Berman, who is also an astute culture critic) is a bit of a liberal, and this interferes, as one might expect, with the clarity and rigor of his thought. Perhaps I will get around to launching a full-scale critique of his book over the next weeks and months, but for now I zero in on just one passage.
At the top of p. 56, we find the following paragraph which I reproduce verbatim:
It is also the case that New Age inanities, as well as various other myths and historical falsifications, get published by the large commercial publishing firms because they are guaranteed to sell, whereas books that debunk such myths, or are based on careful scholarship, can get published only by university presses (if at all), which accounted for 0.77 percent of the number of books sold in the United States in 1998. This effectively amounts to a new form of censorship, Benjamin Barber’s “default totalitarianism.”
The main problem with this passage is Berman’s slovenly misuse of ‘censorship,’ a misuse that clearly indicates liberal-leftist bias. In the situation he describes, there is no censorship at all. Censorship involves the active suppression of free expression, typically, by a government agency. In the situation described, however, there are simply impersonal market forces at work: the market for scholarly works, which typically demand hard work and intelligence on the part of the reader, is small, unlike the market for drivel which makes minimal demands on its readers. Since there is little demand for scholarly books, the large commercial firms have no economic reason to publish them. To call this censorship or a form of censorship is absurd. Why ruin a perfectly good word?
Analogy: suppose you try to use a screwdriver as a crowbar. Chances are excellent that you will fail to pry loose what you are trying to pry loose but will destroy the screwdriver in the process. Use the right tool for the right job. Similarly, use the right word for the right concept, on pain of entering into the Spenglerian twilight.
Berman’s fallacy could be called ‘verbal inflation.’ One takes a perfectly useful word and inflates it so that it becomes useless and misleading. He commits the fallacy a second time when he cites Barber’s “default totalitarianism.” In what sense is a free market totalitarian? This needs to be explained.
An even more serious problem with the passage cited is that it refutes itself. It amounts to a performative self-refutation analogous to ‘No one is speaking now’ spoken by me now. Let me explain. Berman claims that books based on careful scholarship get published, if at all, only by university presses. Now his book is based on careful scholarship, but it is not published by a university press. It is published by Norton, and is touted on its cover as a “national bestseller.” Therefore, the existence and widespread availability of Berman’s book refutes the central thesis of the paragraph cited above. For the record, I found my copy of his book in paperback in a Borders bookstore, not exactly an arcane locale accessible only to pointy-headed intellectuals. So where is the censorship?
Am I being pedantic? Well, if you are going to preach high standards, then, dangblastit, you must adhere to them yourself. Of course, it is easy to zero in on a passage and tear it to pieces. But I’m a serious man with a serious point. Berman is on the right track, and we need culture critique; but we need to extrude the liberal-leftist nonsense from it. What we really need is conservative culture-critique. In addition, we need a conservative metacritique of the extant culture-critiques, a metacritique that extrudes the bad elements in them, which are mostly of liberal-leftist provenience, and retains the good elements, which are mostly of conservative provenience.
I don't much like law enforcement agents (qua law enforcement agents) and I try to avoid contact with them, not because I violate laws or have something to hide, but because I understand human nature, and I understand how power corrupts people, not inevitably, but predictably. Cops and sheriffs are too often arrogant, disrespectful, and willing to overstep their lawful authority. I know that from my own experience with them, and I am a middle-class, law-abiding, white male who avoids trouble.
But there is a species of varmint that I like even less than law enforcement agents: criminals and scofflaws. They are the scum of the earth. To clean up scum you need people who are willing to get dirty and who share some of the attributes of those they must apprehend and incarcerate. I mean such attributes as courage, cunning, some recklessness, with a dash of ruthlessness thrown in for good measure. Government and its law enforcement agencies are a necessary evil. Necessary evils are those things we need, given the actual state of things, but that we would not need and would be bad to have if we lived in an ideal world. Paradoxically, necessary evils are instrumentally good.
That government and its law enforcement agencies are necessary evils is not pessimism, but realism. There are anarchists and others who dream of a world in which good order arises spontaneously and coercive structures are unnecessary. I want these anarchists and others to be able to dream on in peace. For that very reason, I reject their dangerous utopianism.
Alex L. writes, "I was interested in the post where you mentioned voting rationality. I've heard this argument as well -- that the chance your vote will influence elections is minuscule, so it's not rational to vote."
But that is not the argument. The argument is not to the conclusion that it is not rational to vote, but that it is rational for many people to remain ignorant of past and present political events and other relevant facts and principles that they would have to be well-apprised of if they were to vote in a thoughtful and responsible manner.
What is at issue is not the rationality of voting but the rationality of political ignorance.
The reason it is rational for many people to remain politically ignorant is that one's vote will have little or no effect on the outcome. To become and remain politically knowledgeable as one must be if one is to make wise decisions in the voting booth takes a considerable amount of initial and ongoing work. I think Ilya Somin has it right:
. . . political ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people. If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example). For most of us, it is rational to devote very little time to learning about politics, and instead focus on other activities that are more interesting or more likely to be useful.
And please note that if it is rational for many to remain politically ignorant, that is consistent with the rationality of others to become and remain politically knowledgeable. I gave three reasons for someone like me to be politically savvy.
First. My goal is to understand the world as best I can. The world contains political actors, political institutions, and the like. Therefore, in pursuit of my goal it is rational to study politics.
Second. Politics is interesting the way spectator sports are. Now I don't give a flying enchilada about the latter. Politics are my sports. In brief, staying apprised of political crapola is amusing and diverting and also has the salutary effect of reminding me that man is a fallen being incapable of dragging his sorry ass out of the dreck by his own power, or, in Kantian terms, that he is a piece of crooked timber out of which no straight thing ever has been or ever will be made.
Third. Knowledge of current events in the political sphere can prove useful when it comes to protecting oneself and one's family. Knowledge of the Obaminations of the current administration, for example, allows one to to plan and prepare.
It is also worth pointing out that while political ignorance is for many if not most citizens rational, that it not to say that it is good.
Note finally that if it is not rational for most of us to acquire and maintain the political knowledge necessary to vote wisely, election after election, that is not to say that it is not rational for most of us to vote. For one can vote the way most people do, foolishly. Consider those voters who vote a straight Democrat ticket, election after election. That takes little time and no thought and may well be more rational than not voting at all. Let's say you are a welfare recipient or a member of a teacher's union or an ambulance chaser. And let's assume you are voting in a local election. Then it might be in your interest, though it would not be for the common good, to vote a straight Dem ticket. It might well be rational given that no effort is involved.
There are those who love to expose and mock the astonishing political ignorance of Americans. According to a 2006 survey, only 42% of Americans could name the three branches of government. But here is an interesting question worth exploring:
Is it not entirely rational to ignore events over which one has no control and withdraw into one's private life where one does exercise control and can do some good?
I can vote, but my thoughtful vote counts for next-to-nothing in most elections, especially when it is cancelled out by the vote of some thoughtless and uninformed idiot. I can blog, but on a good day I will reach only a couple thousand readers worldwide and none of them are policy makers. (I did have some influence once on a Delta airline pilot who made a run for a seat in the House of Representatives.) I can attend meetings, make monetary contributions, write letters to senators and representatives, but is this a good use of precious time and resources? I think Ilya Somin has it right:
. . . political ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people. If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example). For most of us, it is rational to devote very little time to learning about politics, and instead focus on other activities that are more interesting or more likely to be useful.
Is it rational for me to stay informed? Yes, because of my intellectual eros, my strong desire to understand the world and what goes on in it. The philosopher is out to understand the world; if he is smart he will have no illusions about changing it, pace Marx's 11th Thesis on Feuerbach.
Another reason for people like me to stay informed is to be able to anticipate what is coming down the pike and prepare so as to protect myself and my stoa, my citadel, and the tools of my trade. For example, my awareness of Obama's fiscal irresponsibility is necessary if I am to make wise decisions as to how much of my money I should invest in precious metals and other hard assets. Being able to anticipate Obaminations re: 'gun control' will allow me to buy what I need while it is still to be had. 'Lead' can prove to be useful for the protection of gold. And so on.
In brief, a reason to stay apprised of current events is not so that I can influence or change them, but to be in a position so that they don't influence of change me.
A third reason to keep an eye on the passing scene, and one mentioned by Somin, is that one might follow politics the way some follow sports. Getting hot and bothered over the minutiae of baseball and the performance of your favorite team won't affect the outcome of any games, but it is a source of great pleasure to the sports enthusiast. I myself don't give a damn about spectator sports. Politics are my sports. So that is a third reason for me to stay on top of what's happening.
All this having been said and properly appreciated, one must nevertheless keep things in perspective by bearing in mind Henry David Thoreau's beautiful admonition:
Read not The Times; read the eternities!
For this world is a vanishing quantity whose pomps, inanities, Obaminations and what-not will soon pass into the bosom of nonbeing. And you with it.
Your post on why the left “went ballistic” over the Hobby Lobby case was well-done as usual, and I for one was grateful for your emphasis that the so-called contraceptives in question were really abortifacients, and that the latter is not a proper adjective for the former. I do have a couple of questions/comments though.
First, about the left and religion. While I don’t like the politics or the theology of people like Jim Wallis of Sojourners or the President’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, it certainly seems that they are really religious and their politics flow from their faiths. I’m inclined to say that they have a mistaken anthropology and overvalue one understanding of justice at the expense of other legitimate senses, but wouldn’t say that they’re not really religious or that their true religion is leftism. (Well, maybe if I knew more about Wright’s theology I would say that about him. But I don’t believe that all lefties who claim to be Christians are just faking it and make a god out of the state and/or left-wing politics.)
Second, the statement that “they don't have the right to use the coercive power of the state to force others to pay for them when the contraceptives in question violate the religious beliefs of those who are forced to pay for them” seems to be overdrawn, at least if it’s generalized. If a Jehovah’s Witness owns a business, does he have the right to refuse to pay for an employee’s insurance when it pays for a blood transfusion? What about a pacifist being forced to pay taxes to support a war effort (especially one that doesn’t involve direct national self-defense)? There are all sorts of things we’re forced to pay for even though they violate our moral and religious beliefs, and while we can sometimes successfully fight those challenges (when, e.g., it poses an “undue burden”) there are other times when we must knuckle under unless we wish to engage in civil disobedience.
Maybe I will get to the first objection later.
Here is a very blunt response to the second. If you are opposed on moral grounds to blood transfusions, then you hold a position that is not morally or intellectually respectable. Therefore, IF the government has the right to force employers to provide health insurance that covers blood transfusions for employees, THEN it has the right to violate the beliefs of a Jehovah's Witness when it comes to blood transfusions. And the same goes for pacifism. If pacifism is the view that it is always and everywhere wrong to kill or otherwise harm human beings, then I say you hold a view that is not morally or intellectually respectable. I could argue this out at great length, but not now; I told you I was going to be blunt.
Note, however, that the blood transfusion case as described by Monokroussos is importantly different from the pacifism case. The first case arises only if something like the PPACA -- ObamaCare -- is in effect . I say the bill should never have been enacted. Government has no right to force private enterprises to provide any health insurance at all to their employees, and no right to force workers to buy health insurance, and no right to specify what will and will not be covered in any health insurance plan that employers provide for their employees.
The pacifism case is much more difficult because it arises not from a dubious law but from the coercive nature of government. I believe that government is practically necessary and that government that governs a wide territory wherein live very diverse types of people must be coercive to do its job. Moreover, I assume, though I cannot prove, that coercive government is morally justified and has the moral right to force people to do some things whether or not they want to do them and whether or not they morally approve of doing them. Paying taxes is an example. Suppose you have a pacifist who withholds that portion of his taxes that goes to the support of what is perhaps euphemistically called 'defense.' Then I say the government is morally justified in taking action against the pacifist.
But if the government has the right to force the pacifist to violate his sincerely held moral principles, why is it not right for the government to force the pro-lifer to violate her sincerely held principles? The short and blunt answer is that pacifism is intellectually indefensible while the pro-life position is eminently intellectually defensible. But the pro-choice pacifists won't agree!
Clearly, there are two extremes we must avoid:
E1. If the government may force a citizen to violate (act contrary to) one of his beliefs, then it it may force a citizen to violate any of his beliefs.
E2. The government may not force a citizen to violate any of his beliefs.
The problem, which may well be insoluble, is to find a principled way to navigate between these extremes. But what common principles do we share at this late date in the decline of the West?
Perhaps we can agree on this: the government may legitimately force you to violate your belief if your belief is that infidels are to be put to the sword, but it may not legitimately force you to violate your belief if your belief is that infanticide and involuntary euthanasia are wrong. (Suppose the government demands that all severely retarded children be killed.) But even here there will be dissenting voices. Believe it or not, there are those who argue from the supposed moral acceptability of abortion to the moral acceptability of infanticide. May the Lord have mercy on us.
So what's the solution? The solution is limited government, federalism, and an immigration policy that does not allow people into the country with wildly differing values and moral codes. For example, the Hobby Lobby case would not have come up at all if government kept out of the health care business.
The bigger the government, the more to fight over. But we don't seem to have the will to shrink the government to its legitimate constitutionally-based functions. So expect things to get worse.
Could I present liberal-left ideas in such a way that the reader could not tell that I was not a liberal? Let me take a stab at this with respect to a few 'hot' topics. This won't be easy. I will have to present liberal-left ideas as plausible while avoiding all mention of their flaws. And all this without sarcasm, parody, or irony. What follows is just shoot-from-the-hip, bloggity-blog stuff. Each of these subheadings could be expanded into a separate essay. And of course there are many more subheadings that could be added. But who has time?
Abortion. We liberals believe that a women's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is a very important right that must be upheld. We are not pro abortion but pro choice, believing that decisions concerning a woman's reproductive health are ultimately her decisions, in consultation with physicians and family members and clergy, but are not the business of lawmakers and politicians. Every woman has a right to do what she wants with her body and its contents. While we respect those who oppose abortion on religious grounds, these grounds are of a merely private nature and cannot be made the basis of public policy. Religious people do not have the right to impose their views on the rest of us using the coercive power of the state.
Voting Rights. We liberals can take pride in the role our predecessors played in the struggle for universal suffrage. Let us not forget that until the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution on 18 August 1920, women were not allowed to vote. We liberals seek to preserve and deepen the progress that has been made. For this reason we oppose voter identification laws that have the effect of disenfranchising American citizens by disproportionately burdening young voters, people of color, the elderly , low-income families, and people with disabilities.
Gun Control. We live in a society awash in gun violence. While we respect the Second Amendment and the rights of hunters and sport shooters, we also believe in reasonable regulations such as a ban on all assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Marriage. We liberals believe in equality and oppose discrimination in all its forms, whether on the basis of race, national origin, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. For this reason we support marriage equality and same-sex marriage. Opposition to same-sex marriage is discriminatory. As we become more enlightened and shed ancient superstitions, we extend the realm of freedom and equality to include more and more of the hitherto persecuted and marginalized. The recognition of same-sex marriage is but one more step toward a truly inclusive and egalitarian society.
Taxation and Wealth Redistribution. We liberals want justice for all. Now justice is fairness, and fairness requires equality. We therefore maintain that a legitimate function of government is wealth redistribution to reduce economic inequality.
Size and Scope of Government. As liberals we believe in robust and energetic government. Government has a major role to play in the promotion of the common good. It is not the people's adversary, but their benefactor. The government is not a power opposed to us; the government is us. It should provide for the welfare of all of us. Its legitimate functions cannot be restricted to the protection of life, liberty, and property (Locke) or to the securing of the negative rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson). Nor can it be restricted to the securing of these and a few others: people have positive rights and it is a legitimate function of government to ensure that people received the goods and services to which they have a positive right.
Health and Human Services. A decent society takes care of its members and provides for their welfare. The provision of welfare cannot be left to such institutions of civil society as private charities. It is a legitimate state function. People have positive rights to food, water, shelter, clothing, and health services. These rights generate in those capable of satisfying them the duty to provide the things in question. It is therefore a legitimate function of government to make sure that people get what they need.
Capital Punishment. We liberals are enlightened and progressive people. Now as humankind has progressed morally, there has been a corresponding progress in penology. The cruel and unusual punishments of the past have been outlawed. The outlawing of capital punishment is but one more step in the direction of progress and humanity and indeed the final step in implementing the Eight Amendment's proscription of "cruel and unusual punishments." There is no moral justification for capital punishment when life in prison without the possibility of parole is available.
The Role of Religion. As liberals, we are tolerant. We respect the First Amendment right of religious people to a "free exercise" of their various religions. But religious beliefs and practices and symbols and documents are private matters that ought to be kept out of the public square. When a justice of the peace, for example, posts a copy of the Ten Commandments, the provenience of which is the Old Testament, in his chambers or in his court, he violates the separation of church and state.
Immigration. We are a nation of immigrants. As liberals we embrace immigration: it enriches us and contributes to diversity. We therefore oppose the nativist and xenophobic immigration policies of conservatives while also condemning the hypocrisy of those who oppose immigration when their own ancestors came here from elsewhere.
It is hard for many of us to understand why so many leftists have worked themselves up into a frothing frenzy over the 5-4 SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision, a frenzy that in the notable cases of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton has spilled over into shameless lying. But even among those lefties who are not lying about the decision, and who understand what it was and just how narrow and circumscribed it was, there are those who are still going nuts over it. Why?
The upshot of the decision was that closely-held, for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby may not be coerced by the government into providing exactly four, count 'em, four, abortion-inducing contraceptives for its employees in violation of the religious beliefs of the proprietors of the company. That's it!
(Parenthetical Terminological Observation: There is an interesting terminological question here that perhaps only philosophers could get excited over, namely: how can a substance or device that destroys a fertilized egg, a conceptus, be legitimately referred to as contraceptive? A genuine contraceptive device, such as a diaphragm, prevents conception, prevents the coming into being of a conceptus. Contraception comes too late once there is a fertilized ovum on the scene. 'Abortifacient contraceptive' is a contradictio in adjecto. Call me a pedant if you like, but what you call pedantry, I call precision. One ought to insist on precision in these matters if one is serious and intellectually honest.)
My question again: why the liberal-left frenzy over such a narrow and reasonable Supreme Court decision, one that did not involve the interpretation of the Constitution, but the mere construction of a statute, i.e., the interpretation of an existing law? (And of course, the decision did not first introduce the notion that corporations may be viewed as persons!)
1. The first point is that ". . . while the religious right views religion as a fundamental, and indeed essential, part of the human experience, the secular left views it as something more like a hobby, so for them it’s as if a major administrative rule was struck down because it unduly burdened model-train enthusiasts."
First a quibble. It is not correct to imply that it is only the religious right that views religion as an essential component of human experience; almost all conservatives do, religious and nonreligious. I gave an example the other day of the distinguished Australian philosopher David M. Armstrong who, while an atheist and a naturalist, had the greatest respect for religion and considered it an essential part of human experience.
Well, could religion be reasonably viewed as a hobby? Obviously not. It cuts too deep. Religion addresses the ultimate questions, the questions as to why we exist, what we exist for, and how we ought to live. It purports to provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence. Religions make total claims on the lives of their adherents, and those who take their religion seriously apply it to every aspect of their lives: it is not something that can be hived off from the rest of one's life like a hobby.
It is because of this total claim that religions make to provide ultimate understanding, meaning, and directives for action that puts it at odds with the totalizing and the fully totalitarian state. The ever-expanding, all-controlling centralized state will brook no competitors when it comes to the provision of the worldview that will guide and structure our lives. This is why hostility to religion is inscribed into the very essence of the Left. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there cannot really be a religious Left: those on the Left who are 'religious' live as if leftism is their real religion.
I would reformulate McArdle's first point as follows. The Left has no understanding of religion and no appreciation of it. They see it as a tissue of superstitions and prejudices that contributes nothing to human flourishing. They want it suppressed, or else marginalized: driven from the public square into the realm of the merely private.
That the SCOTUS majority took religion seriously is therefore part of what drives leftists crazy.
2. McArdle's second point has to do with negative and positive rights and the role of the state. A positive right is a right to be provided with something, and a negative right is a right to not having something taken away. Thus my right to life is a negative right, a right that generates in others the duty to refrain from killing me among other things. The right to free speech is also a negative right: it induces in the government the duty not to prevent me from publishing my thoughts on this weblog, say. But I have no positive right to be provided with the equipment necessary to publish a weblog. I have the negative right to acquire such equipment, but not the positive right to have it provided for me by any person or by the state.
Now suppose you think that people have the positive right to health care or health care insurance and that this includes the right to be provided with abortifacients or even with abortions. Then the crunch comes inevitably. There is no positive right to an abortion, we conservatives say, and besides, abortion is a grave moral evil. If the state forces corporations like Hobby Lobby to provide abortions or abortifacients, then it violates the considered moral views of conservatives. It forces them to to support what they consider to be a grave moral evil.
People have the legal right to buy and use the contraceptives they want. But they don't have the right to use the coercive power of the state to force others to pay for them when the contraceptives in question violate the religious beliefs of those who are forced to pay for them. To a conservative that is obvious.
But it riles up lefties who hold that (i) religion is a purely private matter that must be kept private; (ii) there is a positive right to health care; (iii) abortion is purely a matter of a woman's reproductive health.
3. McArdle's third point has to do with the Left's destruction of civil society. I would put it like this. The Left aims to eliminate the buffering elements of civil society lying between the naked individual and the state. These elements include the family, private charities, businesses, service organizations and voluntary associations of all kinds. As they wither away, the state assumes more of their jobs. The state can wear the monstrous aspect of Leviathan or that of the benevolent nanny whose multiple tits are so many spigots supplying panem et circenses to the increasingly less self-reliant masses. To cite just one example, the Obama administration promotes ever-increasing food stamp dependency to citizens and illegal aliens alike under the mendacious SNAP acronym thereby disincentivizing relief and charitable efforts at the local level while further straining an already strapped Federal treasury. A trifecta of stupidity and corruption, if you will: the infantilizing of the populace who now needs federal help in feeding itself; the fiscal irresponsibility of adding to the national debt; the assault on the institutions of civil society out of naked lust for ever more centralized power in the hands of the Dems, the left wing party. (Not that the Repubs are conservative.)
From the foregoing one can see just how deep the culture war goes. It is a struggle over the nature of religion, its role in human flourishing, and its place in society. It is a battle over the nature of rights. It is a war over the size and scope and role of government, the limits if any on state power, and the state's relation to the individual and to the institutions of civil society.
In one sense, Alan Dershowitz was right to refer to the Hobby Lobby decision as "monumentally insignificant." In another sense wrong: the furor over it lays bare the deep philosophical conflicts that divide us.
George F. Will, drawing upon Timothy Sandefur, maintains that
The fundamental division in U.S. politics is between those who take their bearings from the individual’s right to a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom, and those whose fundamental value is the right of the majority to have its way in making rules about which specified liberties shall be respected.
[. . .]
The argument is between conservatives who say U.S. politics is basically about a condition, liberty, and progressives who say it is about a process, democracy. Progressives, who consider democracy the source of liberty, reverse the Founders’ premise, which was: Liberty preexists governments, which, the Declaration says, are legitimate when “instituted” to “secure” natural rights.
Progressives consider, for example, the rights to property and free speech as, in Sandefur’s formulation, “spaces of privacy” that government chooses “to carve out and protect” to the extent that these rights serve democracy. Conservatives believe that liberty, understood as a general absence of interference, and individual rights, which cannot be exhaustively listed, are natural and that governmental restrictions on them must be as few as possible and rigorously justified. Merely invoking the right of a majority to have its way is an insufficient justification.
It is twilight time for a great nation. One indication is the rise of political lawlessness.*
Should this trouble the philosopher? Before he is a citizen, the philosopher is a "spectator of all time and existence" in a marvellous phrase that comes down to us from Plato's Republic (486a). The rise and fall of great nations is just more grist for the philosopher's mill. His true homeland is nothing so paltry as a particular nation, even one as exceptional as the USA, and his fate as a truth-seeker cannot be tied to its fate. Like the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly Athens is not bound to a geographical location.
National decline is not just grist for the philosopher's mill, however, it is also perhaps a condition of understanding as Hegel suggests in the penultimate paragraph of the preface to The Philosophy of Right:
When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's grey on grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk.
Daughter of Jupiter, Minerva in the mythology of the Greeks is the goddess of wisdom. And the nocturnal owl is one of its ancient symbols. The meaning of the Hegelian trope is that understanding, insight, and wisdom arise when the object to be understood has played itself out, when it has actualized and thus exhausted its potentialities, and now faces only decline.
When a shape of life has grown old, philosophy paints its grey on grey. The allusion is to Goethe's Faust wherein Mephisto says
Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
Grey, dear friend, is all theory And green the golden tree of life.
Philosophy is grey, a "bloodless ballet of categories" (F. H. Bradley) and its object is grey -- no longer green and full of life. And so philosophy paints its grey concepts on the grey object, in this case America on the wane. The object must be either dead or moribund before it can be fully understood. Hegel in his famous saying re-animates and gives a new meaning to the Platonic "To philosophize is to learn how to die."
In these waning days of a great republic, the owl of Minerva takes flight. What we lose in vitality we gain in wisdom.
The consolations of philosophy are many.
But as citizens we fight on. For the wise philosopher knows that he can live his vocation only in certain political conditions.
Although the state under leftism is totalitarian and demands conformity and submission in matters of moment, it tolerates and indeed encourages the cultivation of a politically inconsequential individualism of private self-absorption. A people given bread (food stamps and other forms of infantilizing dependency), circuses (mass sporting events), dope (legalization of marijuana), pornography, politically correct propaganda, and such weapons of mass distraction as Twitter and Facebook is kept distracted, enervated, and submissive.
Nowadays it is not religion that is the opiate of the masses, but the dope of Big Government.
Dennis Prager was complaining one day about how the Left ridicules the Right. He sounded a bit indignant. He went on to say that he does not employ ridicule. But why doesn't he? He didn't say why, but I will for him: Because he is a gentleman who exemplifies the good old conservative virtue of civility. And because he is a bit naive.
Prager's behavior, in one way laudable, in another way is not, resting as it does on an assumption that I doubt is true at the present time. Prager assumes that political differences are more like intellectual differences among gentlemanly interlocutors than they are like the differences among warring parties. He assumes that there is a large measure of common ground and the real possibility of mutually beneficial compromise, the sort of compromise that serves the common good by mitigating the extremism of the differing factions, as opposed to that form of compromise, entered into merely to survive, whereby one side knuckles under to the extremism of the other.
But if we are now in the age of post-consensus politics, if politics is war by another name, then it is just foolish not to use the Left's tactics against them.
It is not enough to be right, or have the facts on your side, or to have the better arguments. That won't cut it in a war. Did the Allies prevail over the Axis Powers in virtue of having truth and right on their side? It was might that won the day, and, to be honest, the employing of morally dubious means (e.g., the firebombing of Dresden, the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the same sort of means that the Axis would have employed had they been able to. One hopes that the current civil war doesn't turn bloody. But no good purpose is served by failing to understand that what we have here is a war and not minor disagreements about means within the common horizon of agreed-upon assumptions, values, and goals.
Have we entered the age of post-consensus politics? I think so. I should write a post about our irreconcilable differences. For now a quick incomplete list. We disagree radically about: the purpose of government; crime and punishment; race; marriage; abortion; drugs; pornography; the interpretation of the Consitution; religion; economics.
Take religion. I have no common ground with you if you think every vestige of the Judeo-Christian heritage should be removed from the public square, or take the sort of extremist line represented by people like Dawkins and A. C. Grayling. If, however, you are an atheist who gives the Establishment Clause a reasonable interpretation, then we have some common ground.
London Karl sent me to The Mad Monarchist, not that he agrees with it. Apparently, there is no position on any topic that someone won't defend. But we've known that for a long time. Descartes said something to that effect.
Is anarchism the opposite of monarchism?
Anarchism is to political philosophy as eliminative materialism is to the philosophy of mind. That is to say, it is an untenable stance, teetering on the brink of absurdity, but worth studying as a foil against which to develop something saner. To understand in depth any position on a spectrum of positions you must study the whole spectrum.
Study everything. For almost every position on any topic contains some insight or other, even if it be only negative. The monarchist, for example, sees clearly what is wrong with pure democracy. If there are any positions wholly without value, then they are still worth studying with the philosophical equivalent of the pathologist's eye and the philosophical equivalent of the pathologist's interest.
An important but troubling thought is conveyed in a recent NYT op-ed (emphasis added):
Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good. The virtues taught in our secular and religious schools are incompatible with the virtues one must practice to safeguard those same institutions. The power of the lion and the cleverness of the fox: These are the qualities a leader must harness to preserve the republic.
The problem as I see it is that (i) the pacific virtues the practice of which makes life worth living within families, between friends, and in such institutions of civil society as churches and fraternal organizations are essentially private and cannot be extended outward as if we are all brothers and sisters belonging to a global community. Talk of global community is blather. The institutions of civil society can survive and flourish only if protected by warriors and statesmen whose virtues are of the manly and martial, not of the womanish and pacific, sort. And yet (ii) if no extension of the pacific virtues is possible then humanity would seem to be doomed in an age of terrorism and WMDs. Besides, it is unsatisfactory that there be two moralities, one private, the other public.
Consider the Christian virtues preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They include humility, meekness, love of righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, love of peace and of reconciliation. Everyone who must live uncloistered in the world understands that these pacific and essentially womanish virtues have but limited application there. (I am not using 'womanish' as a derogatory qualifier.) You may love peace, but unless you are prepared to make war upon your enemies and show them no mercy, you may not be long for this world. Turning the other cheek makes sense within a loving family, but no sense in the wider world. (Would the Pope turn the other cheek if the Vatican came under attack by Muslim terrorists or would he call upon the armed might of the Italian state?) This is perfectly obvious in the case of states: they are in the state (condition) of nature with respect to each other. Each state secures by blood and iron a civilized space within which art and music and science and scholarship can flourish and wherein, ideally, blood does not flow; but these states and their civilizations battle each other in the state (condition) of nature red in tooth and claw.
The Allies would not have been long for this world had they not been merciless in their treatment of the Axis Powers.
This is also true of individuals once they move beyond their families and friends and genuine communities and sally forth into the wider world.
The problem is well understood by Hannah Arendt ("Truth and Politics" in Between Past and Future, Penguin 1968, p. 245):
The disastrous consequences for any community that began in all earnest to follow ethical precepts derived from man in the singular -- be they Socratic or Platonic or Christian -- have been frequently pointed out. Long before Machiavelli recommended protecting the political realm against the undiluted principles of the Christian faith (those who refuse to resist evil permit the wicked "to do as much evil as they please"), Aristotle warned against giving philosophers any say in political matters. (Men who for professional reasons must be so unconcerned with "what is good for themselves" cannot very well be trusted with what is good for others, and least of all with the "common good," the down-to-earth interests of the community.) [Arendt cites the Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, and in particular 1140b9 and 1141b4.]
There is a tension between man qua philosopher/Christian and man qua citizen. As a philosopher raised in Christianity, I am concerned with my soul, with its integrity, purity, salvation. I take very seriously indeed the Socratic "Better to suffer wrong than to do it" and the Christian "Resist not the evildoer." But as a citizen I must be concerned not only with my own well-being but also with the public welfare. This is true a fortiori of public officials and people in a position to influence public opinion, people like Catholic bishops many of whom are woefully ignorant of the simple points Arendt makes in the passage quoted. So, as Arendt points out, the Socratic and Christian admonitions are not applicable in the public sphere.
What is applicable to me in the singular, as this existing individual concerned with the welfare of his immortal soul over that of his perishable body, is not applicable to me as citizen. As a citizen, I cannot "welcome the stranger" who violates the laws of my country, a stranger who may be a terrorist or a drug smuggler or a human trafficker or a carrier of a deadly disease or a person who has no respect for the traditions of the country he invades; I cannot aid and abet his law breaking. I must be concerned with public order. This order is among the very conditions that make the philosophical and Christian life possible in the first place. If I were to aid and abet the stranger's law breaking, I would not be "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" as the New Testament enjoins us to do.
Indeed, the Caesar verse provides a scriptural basis for Church-State separation and indirectly exposes the fallacy of the Catholic bishops and others who confuse private and public morality.
Many prominent liberals now consider verifiable ID requirements at polling places to constitute voter suppression. And of course their use of 'suppression' is normatively loaded: they pack a pejorative connotation into it. Voter suppression, as they use the phrase, is bad. Well then, do these liberals also think that requiring drivers to operate with valid licenses to be driver suppression in that same pejorative sense? If not, why not?
After all, to require certification of age and of minimal driving knowledge and skills limits the number of drivers just as an ID requirement at the polls limits the number of voters. But for either limitation to amount to suppression in a pejorative sense, the limitation would either have to be injurious or arbitrary or unnecessary or in some other way bad.
But obviously both forms of certification are necessary and reasonable and in no way bad and the discrimination they involve is legitimate. (See articles below if you really need arguments.)
So why do liberals label legitimate voting requirements as voter suppression? Because they want to make the polling places safe for voter fraud. They need people, citizens or not, alive or dead, to 'vote early and vote often' if they are going to win in close elections. If it is not close, they can't cheat; but if it is close then cheating is justified by the end, namely, winning. Or so they believe.
You won't understand the Left unless you understand that they lack the qualms of those of us brought up on 'bourgeois' morality, most of which is contained in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For a leftist, there is nothing wrong with lying and cheating if those are means judged necessary to achieve their end, namely, the victory of the Left and the destruction of the Rght. So they want as many potential leftists voting as possible regardless of citizenship status, age, or criminality.
You can bet that if actual or potential conservatives were involved in voter fraud, liberals would call for standards of ID to be ramped up to 'proctological' levels.
What I have just done is explain why liberals maintain the absurd view they maintain. It is perfectly comprehensible once you grasp that the point is to enable voter fraud. The arguments why their view is untenable are found in the some of the articles listed below.
The best proof of this to date is the bitter wrangling and the wastage of time, effort, and money over Obamacare. This fight will continue until Obamacare is repealed or gutted. In the long and nasty process, the political climate in this country is bound to become ever more toxic. Way to go, liberals, way to go!
Big government leads to big trouble as we fight endlessly, acrimoniously, and fruitlessly over all sorts of issues that we really ought not be fighting over. The final clause of the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution enshrines the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." So the more the government does things that grieve us, by intruding into our lives and limiting our liberties, the more we will petition, lobby, and generally raise hell with the government and with our political opponents.
If you try to tell me how much soda I can buy at a pop, or how capacious my ammo mags must be, or how I must speak to assuage the tender sensitivities of the Pee Cee, or if you try to stop me from home-schooling my kids, or force me to buy health insurance, then you are spoiling for a fight and you will get it. Think of how much time, energy, and money we waste battling our political enemies, working to undo what we take to be their damage, the damage of Obamacare being the example du jour.
So if you want less contention, work for smaller government. The smaller the government, the less to fight over.
A Pond away, the American-born Janet Daley of The Telegraphsee things with exceptional clarity. Concluding paragraphs:
Economic freedom, as well as political liberty, is being traded in at a startling pace even in the US, where it was once the be-all and end-all of the American dream. US citizens are discovering that their president’s flagship health-care programme is going to force them to buy the sort of health insurance that he believes they should have rather than the (cheaper, less comprehensive) kind they had chosen for themselves. They may have been willing to take their chances with minimal coverage that would pay only for catastrophic events, but the government says no. In its paternalistic wisdom, it will insist (by law) that they pay for everything it thinks is desirable, whether they want it or not.
The principle of the ideological struggle with communism — that the power of the state was an inherent danger from which the individual must be protected — is being lost to memory. Government is always the custodian of virtue now, holding out against the wicked, self-serving forces of profit and private interests. It is as if we have learnt nothing from the history of the 20th century about which values and beliefs actually delivered a life that was worth living — and how much vigilance is required to preserve them.
Why write an article on a subject you know nothing about? This is a question that Amia Srinivasan might usefully have asked herself. She is a Prize Fellow in philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford, one of the most prestigious academic positions in the academic world; and her webpage at Oxford includes several papers of outstanding merit. You would never guess that she is a serious philosopher, though, from her article “Questions for Free-Market Moralists” in The New York Times, October 2013. The “free-market moralist” she has principally in mind is Robert Nozick, the author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). If Srinivasan has read this book at all, the experience appears to have passed her by.
For Dworkin, the meaning of religion consists in “two central judgments about value” that he believes religious people -- theists and some atheists -- regard as objectively true. First, “each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.” Second, “what we call ‘nature’ -- the universe as a whole and in all its parts -- is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder.”
If this is what Dworkin maintains, then his characterization of religion leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. This is obviously NOT what the meaning of religion consists in on any adequate understanding of religion. Religion cannot be reduced to axiology. True, the religious will accept that there are objective values and disvalues. But such acceptance, even if necessary for being religious, is not sufficient.
All or most of the following are beliefs essential to anything that can be legitimately called a religion:
The belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order."
(Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute
reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their
instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or
introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents.
So it lies beyond the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via
mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be
ruled out in the form of revelation.
The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good
lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order."
(Varieties, p. 53)
The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes
our adjustment to the unseen order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the
moral height at which he would have ready access to the unseen order. His moral
corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences.
The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by
our own efforts to afford us ready access to the unseen order.
The conviction that adjustment to the unseen order requires moral
The conviction that help from the side of the unseen order is available to bring
about this purification and adjustment.
The conviction that the sensible order is not plenary in point of reality or
value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative. It is a
manifestation or emanation or creation of the unseen order.
In a word, Dworkin's characterization leaves out Transcendence; it leaves out what is absolutely central to religion, namely, the conviction that there is a transcendent dimension, an "unseen order," (see #1 supra) and that adjustment to this order is essential to human flourishing (see #2 supra).
What Dworkin has delivered is a miserable leftist substitute for religion. Being a leftist, he of course cannot value or perhaps even understand the genuine article; but he at least could have had the intellectual honesty not to try to redefine something whose definition is tolerably clear. Berkowitz has it right:
. . . Dworkin redefines religion to conform to his progressive sensibilities. What he presents as the offering of an olive branch to believers may seem to a person of faith, with justice, as a hostile takeover attempt. The steps by which Dworkin appropriates the religious label for his own left-liberal and atheistic outlook provide a case study in how the progressive mind, under the guise of conciliation, seeks to command the moral high ground exclusively and discredit that which differs from it.
"Hostile takeover" is right. Berkowitz also perceptively notes that
Dworkin also overlooks a formidable problem latent in his sanctification of the progressive perspective. If progressivism counts as a religion, then enacting the left-liberal policy agenda would seem to represent an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment.
But of course progressivism is not a religion, but an anti-religious political ideology. Nevertheless, one can and must ask: if it is wrong for the State to impose religion on its citizens, why isn't it also wrong for the State to impose leftist ideology on its citizens as it now doing here in the USA?
Eric Holder's out-of-control Department of (Social) Justice is at it again, this time going after Bobby Jindal's school choice program in Louisiana.
Yet another attack on federalism. This is not a word that wears its meaning on its sleeve, and the average panem et circenses American would be hard-pressed to define it.
Federalism is (i) a form of political organization in which governmental power is divided among a central government and various constituent governing entities such as states, counties, and cities; (ii) subject to the proviso that both the central and the constituent governments retain their separate identities and assigned duties. A government that is not a federation would allow for the central government to create and reorganize constituent governments at will and meddle in their affairs. Federalism is implied by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Federalism would make for less contention because people who support high taxes and liberal schemes could head for states like Massachusetts or California, while the conservatively inclined who support gun rights and capital punishment and border control could gravitate toward states like Texas.
The fact of the matter is that we do not agree on a large number of divisive, passion-inspiring issues (abortion, gun rights, capital punishment, affirmative action, school vouchers, photo ID at polling places, legal and illegal immigration, taxation, wealth redistribution, the purposes and limits, if any, on governmental power . . .) and we will never agree on them. These are not merely academic issues since they directly affect the lives and livelihoods and liberties of people. And they are not easily resolved because they are deeply rooted in fundamental worldview differences. When you violate a man's liberty, or mock his moral sense, or threaten to destroy his way of life, you are spoiling for a fight and you will get it.
I fear that we are coming apart as a nation. We are disagreeing about things we ought not be disagreeing about, such as the need to secure the borders. The rifts are deep and nasty. Polarization and demonization of the opponent are the order of the day. Do you want more of this? Then give government more say in your life. The bigger the government, the more to fight over. Do you want less? Then support limited government and federalism. A return to federalism may be a way to ease the tensions, not that I am sanguine about any solution.
Would that I could avoid this political stuff. But I cannot in good conscience retreat into my inner citadel and let my country be destroyed -- the country that makes it possible for me to cultivate the garden of solitude, retreat into my inner citadel, and pursue pure theory for its own sake.
Political discourse is unavoidably polemical. The zoon politikon must needs be a zoon polemikon. 'Polemical’ is from the Greek polemos, war, strife. According to Heraclitus of Ephesus, strife is the father of all: polemos panton men pater esti . . . (Fr. 53) I don't know about the 'all,' but strife is certainly at the root of politics. Politics is polemical because it is a form of warfare: the point is to defeat the opponent and remove him from power, whether or not one can rationally persuade him of what one takes to be the truth. It is practical rather than theoretical in that the aim is to implement what one takes to be the truth rather than contemplate it. What one takes to be the truth: that is the problem in a nutshell. Conservatives and leftists disagree fundamentally and nonnegotiably.
Implementation of what one takes to be the truth, however, requires that one get one’s hands on the levers of power. Von Clausewitz held that war is politics pursued by other means. But what could be called the converse-Clausewitz principle holds equally: politics is war pursued by other means.
David Horowitz, commenting on "Politics is war conducted by other means," writes:
In political warfare you do not just fight to prevail in an argument, but rather to destroy the enemy's fighting ability. Republicans often seem to regard political combats as they would a debate before the Oxford Political Union, as though winning depended on rational arguments and carefully articulated principles. But the audience of politics is not made up of Oxford dons, and the rules are entirely different.
You have only thirty seconds to make your point. Even if you had time to develop an argument, the audience you need to reach (the undecided and those in the middle who are not paying much attention) would not get it. Your words would go over some of their heads and the rest would not even hear them (or quickly forget) amidst the bustle and pressure of everyday life. Worse, while you are making your argument the other side has already painted you as a mean-spirited, borderline racist controlled by religious zealots, securely in the pockets of the rich. Nobody who sees you in this way is going to listen to you in any case. You are politically dead.
Politics is war. Don't forget it. ("The Art of Political War" in Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey Spence 2003, pp. 349-350)
The proprietor of After Aristotleagrees with me that polemics has no place in philosophy. But he has a question for me: "Do his [my] statements about philosophy apply also to political philosophy?"
My answer is that if polemics has no legitimate place in philosophy, then it follows that it has no legitimate place in political philosophy. I am assuming, of course, that political philosophy is a species of philosophy in general, an assumption that strikes me as plainly true.
To appreciate my answer bear in mind my distinction between philosophy-as-inquiry and philosophy-as-worldview. When I write 'philosophy,' without qualification, I almost always intend the former. My thesis, then, is that polemics has no place in philosophy-as-inquiry or in any of its branches, however things may stand with regard to the many philosophical worldviews.
The problems of political philosophy are much more likely to ignite human passions than, say, abstruse questions in metaphysics. The misnamed 'problem of universals,' for example, is not likely to be 'taken to the streets.' But polemics is just as out of place in political philosophy as it is in metaphysics.
Addendum (6 August): It may be that the proprietor of After Aristotle had a different question in mind: "You maintain that polemics has no place in philosophy, but you polemicize regularly in political philosophy. But surely what goes for philosophy goes for political philosophy! Are you not being inconsistent?" If that is the question, then my answer is that politics is not the same as political philosophy; that I do not polemicize in political philosophy; and that polemics is not out of place in politics. I wish it were not true, but politics is war conducted by other means. That is clearly how our opponents on the Left view it, and so that is how we must view it if we are to oppose them effectively.
As a cultural warrior, I do battle with my enemies. As a philosopher, I seek truth with my friends.
Liberals support separation of church and state, and so do I. But they have no problem with using the coercive power of the state to impose leftist ideology. Now leftism is not a religion, pace Dennis Prager (see article below), but it is very much like one, and if you can see what is wrong with allowing contentious theological doctrines to drive politics, then you ought to be able to see what is wrong with allowing the highly contentious ideological commitments of leftism to drive politics, most of which revolve around the leftist trinity (Prager) of race, gender, and class. If "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ," as per the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, then it ought to make no law that establishes the quasi-religion of leftism.
This is a large topic, and I have a substantial post in the works. But for today, just one example of what I am getting at.
It is a tenet of contemporary liberalism that opposition to same-sex 'marriage' is 'discriminatory' and that opponents of it are 'bigots.' Now this is both obtuse and slanderous. But liberals have a right to their opinions, even if it is to be wished that they would give some thought to the corresponding obligation to form correct opinions. Be that as it may, liberals have a right to their benighted views, and we ought to tolerate them. After all, we too are liberals in a much older, and a defensible, sense: we believe in toleration, open inquiry, free speech, individual liberty, etc. And we are liberal and self-critical enough to countenance the possibility that perhaps we are the benighted ones.
But toleration has limits.
What we ought not tolerate is the sort of coercion of the individual by the state that we find in the case of the Washington State florist who refused to sell floral arrangements to be used at a same-sex 'marriage' ceremony. This woman has no animus against gays, and had sold flowers to the homosexual couple. But she was not about to violate her own conscience by providing flowers for a same-sex event. As a result she was sued by the Washington State attorney general, and then by the ACLU.
Now do you see what is wrong with that? The state says to the individual: you have a right to your religious and philosophical beliefs, but only so long as you keep them to yourself and don't allow them to be expressed in your relations with your fellow citizens. You may believe what you want in the privacy of your own mind, but you may not translate your beliefs into social or political action. But we are free to translate our leftist 'theology' into rules and regulations that diminish your liberty. What then becomes of the "free exercise of religion" spoken of in the First Amendment? It is out the window. The totalitarian state has taken one more step in its assault on the liberty of the individual.
The totalitarian state of the contemporary liberal says to the individual: you have no right to live your beliefs unless we allow you to; but we have every right to impose our leftist beliefs on you and force you to live as we see fit.
Here are some home truths that cannot be repeated too often:
We are not the property of the state.
Our rights and liberties do not come from the state, but are logically antecedent to it, inscribed as they are in the very nature of things.
We do not have to justify our keeping of what is ours; the state has to justify its taking.
Just minutes before ambling by your place and seeing your link to Brooks, I had run across this riposte. It's worth a look, I think.
This administration has aggressively sought to hollow out all the mediating layers of civil society that stand between the atomized citizen and the Leviathan (those civil associations having been discussed by Tocqueville as by far the most important part of American life). I think Brooks is right that the "solitary naked individual" can easily feel himself alone against the "gigantic and menacing State", but it can go the other way too: the radically atomized individual -- for whom the traditional embedding in civil society, with its web of mutually supportive associations and obligations, no longer exists -- is left with only the State as friend, protector, and provider. This was creepily evident in, e.g., the Obama campaign's horrifying Life of Julia slideshow, in which a faceless female goes from childhood to dotage with, apparently, no human interactions whatsoever, and subsisting entirely upon the blessings that flow from the federal behemoth.
In the article I linked above, the author points out that our natural embedding in civil society is a lever for the totalitarian State to use to compel obedience; Brooks, on the other hand, seems to see civil society and State as almost the same thing, and appears to argue that loyalty to the former should entail obedience to the latter. He speaks of "gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world", but he makes the gradation seem very gentle indeed, if not downright flat.
Response. We agree that disaster looms if the Left gets its way and manages to eliminate the buffering elements of civil society lying between the naked individual and the State. We also agree that the State can wear the monstrous aspect of Leviathan or that of the benevolent nanny whose multiple tits are so many spigots supplying panem et circenses to the increasingly less self-reliant masses. To cite just one example, the Obama administration promotes ever-increasing food stamp dependency to citizens and illegal aliens alike under the mendacious SNAP acronym thereby disincentivizing relief and charitable efforts at the local level while further straining an already strapped Federal treasury. A trifecta of stupidity and corruption, if you will: the infantilizing of the populace who now needs federal help in feeding itself; the fiscal irresponsibilty of adding to the national debt; the assault on the institutions of civil society out of naked lust for ever more centralized power in the hands of the Dems, the left wing party. (Not that the Repubs are conservative.)
I grant that a totalitarian State could make use of familial and other local loyalties as levers to coerce individuals as is argued in the Jacobin piece. But that is not a good argument against those local loyalties and what go with them, namely, respect for well-constituted authority and a defeasible presumption in favor of traditional beliefs and practices. Besides, it is precisely the strength of the institutions of civil society that will serve as a brake on the expansion of federal power.
In general, arguments of the form 'X is ill-advised because X could be misused' are unsound due to probative overkill: they prove to much. Most anything can be misused. Blogger buddy and fellow Arizonan Victor Reppert argued against Arizona Senate Bill 1070 on the ground that cops could use it to harass Hispanics or people who look Hispanic. Here is part of my response:
A certain distrust of law enforcement is reasonable. Skepticism about government and its law enforcement agencies is integral to American conservatism and has been from the founding. But we need to make a simple distinction between a law and its enforcement. A just law can be unjustly applied or enforced, and if it is, that is no argument against the law. If the police cannot be trusted to enforce the 1070 law without abuses, then they cannot be trusted to enforce any law without abuses. Someone who thinks otherwise is probably assuming, falsely, that most cops are anti-Hispanic racists. What a scurrilous assumption!
At this point one must vigorously protest the standard leftist ploy of 'playing the race card,' i.e., the tactic of injecting race into every conceivable issue. The issue before us is illegal immigration, which has nothing to do with race. Those who oppose illegal immigration are opposed to the illegality of the immigrants, not to their race. The illegals happen to be mainly Hispanic, and among the Hispanics, mainly Mexican. But those are contingent facts. If they were mainly Persians, the objection would be the same. Again, the opposition is to the illegality of the illegals, not to their race.
You write, "Brooks, on the other hand, seems to see civil society and State as almost the same thing, and appears to argue that loyalty to the former should entail obedience to the latter." I've read Brooks' piece about four times and I don't get that out of it.
The issue underlying the Snowden case is a very difficult one and may be irresolvable. Perhaps it can be formulated as finding the correct middle position between two extremes. On the one end you have the alienated, deracinated, twentysomething cyberpunk loyal to no one and nothing except some such abstraction as the common good or the good of humanity. On the other end end you have the Blut-und-Boden type who uncritically respects and accepts every form of authority from that of his parents on up though the mediating associations of civil society to the the authority of der Fuehrer himself. At the one extreme, the hyper-autonomy of the rootless individual, full of excessive trust in his own judgment, who presumes to be justified in betraying his country. At the other extreme, the hyper-heteronomy of the nativist, racist, xenophobe who justifies his crimes against humanity by saying that he was following orders and who invokes the outrageous "My country right or wrong."
In between lie the difficult cases. The brother of the Unabomber turned him in, or 'ratted him out' depending on your point of view. I say he did right: familial loyalty is a value but it has limits. I have no firm opinion about the Snowden case or where it lies on the spectrum, but I am inclined to agree with Brooks. It's bloody difficult!
If anyone is interested in my debate with Reppert over AZ SB 1070 from three years ago, it unfolds over three posts accessible from this page.
People complain of the undue influence of special interest groups in Washington, D. C. Government itself, however, is a special interest group. For it profits those who work for it, and those who, while not working for it, depend on it for their livelihood, having been made dependent on it by policies and gimmicks that create dependency, a dependency that government then exploits for its own expansion. The services to the rest of us that government at all levels provides are costly, frequently substandard, sometimes nonexistent, often unnecessary, and sometimes positively injurious.
Every one of us comes into the world endowed with a material and cultural inheritance that we have not earned and can never justify. There are no "takers" and "makers" in our society. All of the takers are makers, and all of the makers are takers. And quite often those who start out with, or end up with, the most stuff have worked considerably less industriously than those who start out and end up with the least.
It is this fact that constitutes the real justification for Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program slogan: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need."
The first sentence expresses a conjunction of two claims. The first is perfectly obvious. I did not earn my good eyesight or any of the material and cultural benefits that accrued to me upon birth. The same is true of all of us. The second claim, however, is not obvious. The claim that I can never "justify" unearned benefits presupposes that they need justification. It is not at all clear that unearned benefits need justification, or even what 'justification' in this context means. It is true that I didn't do anything to deserve my good eyesight, my intelligence, my being born in Southern California, etc. But I have a right to my natural and cultural endowments despite my not having earned them. It is my right to my two eyes that makes it wrong for the state to take one of my eyes and 'redistribute' it to a sightless person.
Wolff's first sentence, being a conjunction of a truth and what is arguably a falsehood is itself arguably a falsehood. However his argument proceeds, it will be arguably unsound.
As for the second and third sentences, it is trivially true that all takers are makers, and vice versa. Charles Manson is a maker and Bill Gates is a taker. But no substantive juice can be squeezed from a trivial truth such as this. In particular, one cannot validly infer from it the socialist "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need."
Nor can the utility of the taker-maker distinction be impugned by hammering on the trivial truth. To put it mildly, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are much more makers than takers, whereas Manson is much more a taker than a maker.
Wolff is essentially just reiterating the Obama "You didn't build that!" riff, to which I respond:
1. It is true that we have all been helped by others and that no one's success is wholly a matter of his own effort. "No man is an island." No one pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. But of course no conservative denies this. Not even libertarians deny it. What Obama is doing is setting up a straw man that he can easily knock down. He imputes a ridiculous view to the conservative/libertarian and then makes the obvious point that the ridiculous view is ridiculous.Wolff is doing the same thing.
2. Not everyone is lucky enough to have great teachers, but most of us have had some good teachers along the way. Sure. But there is no necessary connection to Big Government. I went to private schools: elementary, high school, college, and graduate school. And my teaching jobs were all at private schools. Obama falsely assumes that only government can provide education. That is not only a false assumption but a mendacious one as well. Obama is certainly aware that there are alternatives to public education such as home-schooling and private schools. There is also autodidacticism: Eric Hoffer, the 'longshoreman philosopher,' didn't even go to elementary school. A relative taught him to read when he was very young but beyond that he is totally self-taught. Of course, he is a rare exception.
There is also the question whether the federal government has any legitimate role to play in education even if one grants (as I do) that state and local governments have a role to play. It is simply nonsense, though in keeping with his Big Government agenda, for Obama to suggest that we need the federal government to provide education. It is also important to point out that the federal Department of Education, first set up in the '60s, has presided over a dramatic decline in the quality of education in the U. S. But that is a huge separate topic.
3. With respect to roads and bridges and infrastructure generally, it is ridiculous to suggest that these products of collective effort are all due to the federal government or even to state and local government. Obama is confusing the products of collective effort with the products of government effort. It is a silly non sequitur to think that because I cannot do something by myself that I need government to help me do it. One can work with others without the intrusion of government. He is also confusing infrastructure with public infrastructure. The first is a genus, the second a species thereof.
4. How did the Internet begin? This from a libertarian site: "The internet indeed began as a typical government program, the ARPANET, designed to share mainframe computing power and to establish a secure military communications network." So the role of the federal government in the genesis of the Internet cannot be denied.
But what do we mean by 'Internet'? Those huge interconnected mainframes? That is the main chunk of Internet infrastructure. But don't forget the peripherals. For the blogger to use that infrastructure he first of all needs a personal computer (PC). Did Big Government provides us with PCs? No. It was guys like Jobs and Wozniak tinkering in the garage. It was private companies like IBM. And let's not forget that it was in the USA and not in Red China or the Soviet Union or North Korea that PCs were developed. Would Jobs and Wozniak and Gates have been motivated to do their hard creative work in a state without a free economy? Did any commie state provide its citizens with PCs? No, but it did provide them with crappy cars like the Trabant and the Yugo. Germans are great engineers. But Communism so hobbled East Germany that the Trabant was the result.
How do you hook up the PC to the Internet? Via the phone line. (Telephony, by the way, was not developed by the government. Remember Alexander Graham Bell and his associates?) To convert digital information into analog information transmissible via phone lines and back again you need a modulator-demodulator, a modem. Who gave us the modem? Government functionaries? Al Gore? Was Obama the mama of the modem? Nope. Dennis C. Hayes invented the PC modem in 1977. In the private sector.
Back in the day we operated from the C prompt using DOS commands. That was before the GUI: graphical user interface. Who invented that? Credit goes to a number of people working for Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft. All in the private sector.
And then there is Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML). Who invented that and with it the World Wide Web (WWW)? Tim Berners-Lee in the private sector. The WWW is not the same as the Internet. The WWW is a huge collection of interconnected hypertext documents accessible via the Internet. The government did not give us the WWW.
Returning now to the blog that I built. I built the blog, but I didn't build the Typepad platform that hosts the blog. Did Al Bore or any other government functionary give us Typepad or Blogger? No. That too is in the private sector.
And then there are the search engines. Did the government give us Google?
Victor Davis Hanson, historian and classicist, puts things in historical perspective. His piece concludes:
History has shown that a government's redistribution of shrinking wealth, in preference to a private sector's creation of new sources of it, can prove more destructive than even the most deadly enemy.
So much wisdom, insight, and erudition can be found in the conservative commentary of men like Hanson, and so little in the febrile and adolescent outbursts of Paul Krugman and his ilk.
There is no wisdom on the Left.
The philosopher in me looks forward to dusk and the owl of Minerva's spreading of her wings. The natural man, however, hopes the end is postponed until after I make my physical exit. Meanwhile, philosopher and natural man live on, fight on, and do what they can.
Support for Obama among 18-29 year olds exceeds that of any other age cohort. Reason Magazine's Nick Gillespie argues that Obama is in the process of "screwing them big time." Gillespie is right. What caught my eye, however, was Gillespie's explanation of why conservatives fail to get the youth vote:
I'd argue that what makes "the conservative message" resonate less among younger people is its, well, conservatism on things such as war, alternative lifestlyes, [sic] drug legalization, and immigration. Younger people are less hung up on the sorts of things that really twist conservatives' knickers. And young people then assume that many of the other things that conservatives espouse - such as generally free markets and open trade - are similarly warped. That conservatives are so inconsistent with their basic message - We want smaller government...except when we're talking about immigrants, the gays, and the ability to kill people overseas! - doesn't help matters, either. Most people surely don't prize consistency as much as libertarians do, but the obvious contradictions at the heart of conservative philosophy are off-putting to anyone with the smallest taste for consistency.
As a philosopher, logical consistency looms large for me. And so you will get my attention 'big time' if you can lay out for me "the obvious contradictions at the heart of conservative philosophy." But if they are obvious, then presumably all you need to do is draw my attention to them.
Unfortunately, public intellectuals, not being logically trained as most philosophers are, have an egregiously spongy notion of what a contradiction is. This is true of even very good public intellectuals such as Nat Hentoff and Nick Gillespie. (Hentoff, for whom I have a very high degree of respect, thinks one is being inconsistent if one is pro-life and yet supports capital punishment. He is demonstrably wrong.)
Ignoring Gillespie's invective and hyperbole, his point seems to be that the following propositions are logically inconsistent:
1. The legitimate functions of government are limited.
2. Among the the legitimate functions of government are national defense, securing of the borders, and preservation of traditional marriage's privileged position.
Now it should be obvious that these propositions are logically consistent: they can both be true. They are not logical contradictories of each other.
It is therefore foolish for Gillespie to accuse conservatives of inconsistency. And to speak of obvious inconsistency is doubly foolish. What he needs to do is argue that the governmental functions that conservatives deem necessary and legitimate are neither. This will require a good deal of substantive argumentation and not a cheap accusation of 'inconsistency.' For example, he can mount an economic argument for open borders. I wish him the best of luck with that. He will need it.
Curiously, Gillespie's own reasoning can be used against him. Suppose an anarchist comes along. Using Gillespie's own form of reasoning, he could argue that Gillespie the libertarian is being inconsistent. For he wants smaller government . . . except when it comes to the protection of life, liberty, and property (the Lockean triad, I call it). Then he wants coercive government to do its thing and come down hard on the malefactors. He's inconsistent! If he were consistent in his desire for limited government, he would favor no government. His libertarianism would then collapse into anarchism.
So by his own understanding of consistency, Gillespie is not being consistent. The same reasoning that he uses against conservatives can be used against him. The reasoning is of course invalid in both applications. It is invalid against the libertarian and equally so against the conservative.
But I like his black leather jacket schtick. It is always a pleasure to see him on the O'Reilly Factor.
Liberals have been calling for a 'conversation' about gun control. The call is both silly and disingenuous. Silly, because it is not as if we haven't been talking about this for decades. So suddenly we need to have a 'conversation'? Disingenuous, because what liberals mean by a conversation is more like: you shut up and listen and acquiesce in our point of view or we'll shout you down! Here is Medea Benjamin of CodePink 'conversing' with Wayne LaPierre:
But suppose, contrary to fact, that our leftist pals were serious about a conversation, no scare quotes. Then we would have to discuss not only gun control for citizens, but for government as well. Fair is fair.
There are foolish and irresponsible and criminal individuals among the citzenry and they shouldn't have guns. But it is equally true that there are foolish and irresponsible and criminal people in government and they shouldn't have guns either.
Besides, quis custodiet custodies? Who governs the government? If we can't govern ourselves, but need government to govern us, then the government, which is composed of the same "crooked timber of humanity" (Kant) as we are, needs some entity to keep it in line. That 'entity' is us, the armed citizenry.
Why do we need to be kept in check, but not them? Come on you feel-good liberals, try thinking for a change. Do you really believe that government is inherently benevolent and composed of angels from above? Do you really believe they can be trusted when we can't? Do you think that they are the parents and we the children? Then you are Chris Rock and and your brain is as 'petrified' as his.
The case against Swedenization, then, is that it threatens a soft and insidious despotism. Unlike the totalitarianism of the USSR, where the evil flowed from the top down, engulfing every aspect of society, the danger posed by social democracy is of social, political, and economic debilitations’ compounding one another. Progressivism began as, and remains, “an alliance of experts and victims,” according to Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard. It gains strength as the experts assert their expertise more confidently and the victims accept their helplessness more compliantly. The kind of robust mediating structures Tocqueville thought essential to the success of democracy in America will not prevail against that alliance. If the experts determine that employer-provided health insurance must include contraception, the objections of religious organizations opposed to some or all forms of contraception are immaterial. The possibility that the republic’s free citizens could initiate financial or employment arrangements to secure contraceptives, rather than relying completely on government directives to their employers, is also ruled out of order.
To which I add:
The aim of the Left is to weaken the once robust "mediating structures" of civil society that serve as a buffer between individual and state. Among these are the family, private charities, voluntary service organizations, private associations and clubs of all kinds, churches and parochial schools, and the private economy. Indeed, the aim is to weaken the mediating structures to the point where the space between individual and state is hollowed out.
The Left is totalitarian, which is why it will brook no competitors such as religion and family.
"One of my New Year’s resolutions is to work harder to persuade ideological friends and foes alike that the way to reduce partisanship and maximize happiness in America is to embrace federalism — the view that we should push as many decisions as possible to the lowest local level feasible."
This old entry, from about a year and half ago, has gained in relevance after Obama's reelection. Here it is again re-titled and revised.
Another fit topic of rumination on this Independence Day 2011 is the question of voluntary segregation or balkanization. Herewith, a few very preliminary remarks.
I have been inclining toward the view that voluntary segregation, in conjunction with a return to federalism, might be a way to ease tensions and prevent conflict in a country increasingly riven by deep-going differences. We need to face the fact that we do not agree on a large number of divisive, passion-inspiring issues. Among these are abortion, gun rights, capital punishment, affirmative action, legal and illegal immigration, taxation, the need for fiscal responsibility in government, the legitimacy of public-sector unions, wealth redistribution, the role of the federal government in education, the purpose of government, the limits, if any, on governmental power, and numerous others.
We need also to face the fact that we will never agree on them. These are not merely 'academic' issues since they directly affect the lives and livelihoods and liberties of people. And they are not easily resolved because they are deeply rooted in fundamental worldview differences, in a "conflict of visions," to borrow a phrase from Thomas Sowell. When you violate a man's liberty, or mock his moral sense, or threaten to destroy his way of life, you are spoiling for a fight and you will get it.
We ought also to realize that calls for civility and comity and social cohesion are pretty much empty. Comity (social harmony) in whose terms? On what common ground? Peace is always possible if one side just gives in. If conservatives all converted to leftism, or vice versa, then harmony would reign. But to think such a thing will happen is just silly, as silly as the silly hope that Obama, a leftist, could 'bring us together.' We can come together only on common ground, only under the umbrella of shared principles. And what would these be?
There is no point in papering over very real differences.
Consider religion. Is it a value or not? Conservatives, even those who are atheistic and irreligious, tend to view religion as a value, asa good thing, as conducive to human flourishing. Liberals and leftists tend to view it as a disvalue, as something that impedes human flourishing. Some go so far as to consider it "the greatest social evil." The question is not whether religion, or rather some particular religion, is true. Nor is the question whether religion, or some particular religion, is rationally defensible. The question is whether the teaching and learning and practice of a religion contributes to our well-being, not just as individuals, but in our relations with others. For example, would we be better off as a society if every vestige of religion were removed from the public square? Does Bible study tend to make us better people?
The conservative will answer no and yes respectively and will feel sure that he is right. For example, as a conservative, I find it utterly absurd that there has been any fight at all over the Mojave cross, and I have utter contempt for the ACLU shysters who brought the original law suit. Of course, I wholeheartedly endorse the initial clause of the First Amendment, to wit, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ." But it is hate-America leftist extremism on stilts to think that the presence of that very old memorial cross on a hill in the middle nowhere does anything to establish Christianity as the state religion. I consider anyone who believes that to be intellectually obtuse and morally repellent.
As for whether sincere Bible study makes us better, isn't that obvious? Will you be so bold as to maintain that someone who has taken to heart the Ten Commandments will not have been improved thereby? If you do maintain this, then you are precisely the sort of person contact with whom would be pointless or worse, precisely the sort of person right thinking people need to segregate themselves from, for the sake of peace.
The leftist will give opposite answers to the two questions with equal confidence. There is no possibility of mediation here. That is a fact that can't be blinked while mouthing the squishy, bien-pensant, feel-good rhetoric of 'coming together.' Again, on what common ground? Under the aegis of which set of shared principles? There can be no 'coming together' with those whose views one believes are pernicious. A man like A. C Grayling holds views that are not merely false, but pernicious. He of course would return the 'compliment.'
If we want peace, therefore, we need to give each other space by adopting federalism and limiting government interference in our lives, and by voluntary segregation: by simply having nothing to do with people with whom there is no point in interacting given unbridgeable differences.
Unfortunately, the Left, with its characteristic totalitarian tendency, will not allow federalism. But we still have the right of free association and voluntary segregation. At least for the time being.
No doubt there are disadvantages to segregation/balkanization. Exclusive association with the like-minded increases polarization and fosters extremism. See here. The linked piece ends with the following suggestion:
Bishop cites research suggesting that, contrary to the standard goo-goo exhortations, the surer route to political comity may be less civic engagement, less passionate conviction. So let’s hear it for the indifferent and unsure, whose passivity may provide the national glue we need.
Now that is the sort of preternatural idiocy one expects from the NYT. Less civic engagement! The reason there is more civic engagement and more contention is because there is more government interference! The Tea Party movement is a prime example. The solution is less government. As I have said more than once, the bigger the government the more to fight over. The solution is for government to back off, not for the citizenry to acquiesce like sheep in the curtailment of their liberties.
You may have noticed the paradox: Civic engagement is needed to get to the point where we don't need to engage civically with people we find repellent.
According to this article, if every Food Stamp recipient voted for Obama, it would account for 75% of his total.
As you know, it is not called Food Stamps anymore. It has been given the snappy new label, at once both a euphemism and an acronym, SNAP: Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. And it is actively promoted.
Liberals will call it part of the social safety net. That metaphor suggests something to keep one from falling to one's death. But it is also a net in the sense of a fishing net, a device that entraps and deprives of liberty. But liberals ignore this aspect of their favorite programs. For self-reliance and the nanny state don't go together. Since the nanny state serves the interests of liberals, self-reliance has to be diminished. Part of the motivation of the liberal is to help the needy. But another part is the lust for power which, to be retained, requires plenty of clients, plenty of dependents who can be relied upon to vote Democrat, thereby voting goodies for themselves in the short term-- and the long-term fiscal and moral solvency of the nation be damned.
Am I opposed to all social welfare programs? No. There are those who truly need help and cannot be helped by private charities. But I am opposed to the current, utterly irresponsible expansion of the welfare state, and for two reasons. One is economic: the expansion is unsustainable. The other is moral: it diminishes and degrades and infantilizes people. "The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen." (D. Prager)
You say you're Catholic and you are going to vote for Obama? Are you stupid? Apart from the fact that the Dems are the abortion party, the Obama administration's attack on civil society is at odds with Catholic social teaching which rests on the principle of subsidiarity. David A. Bosnich, The Principle of Subsidiarity:
One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.
The principle of subsidiarity strikes a reasonable balance between statism and collectivism as represented by the manifest drift of the Obama administration, on the one hand, and the libertarianism of those who would take privatization to an extreme, on the other. By the way, one of the many mistakes Rick Santorum made in his campaign was to attack all government-sponsored education. He was right to question whether the Federal government has any legitimate role to play in education, but to question the role of state and local government in education was a foolish extremism that befits a libertarian, not a conservative.
Subsidiarity also fits well with federalism, a return to which is a prime desideratum and one more reason not to vote for Obama. 'Federalism' is another one of those words that does not wear its meaning on its sleeve, and is likely to mislead. Federalism is not the view that all powers should be vested in the Federal or central government; it is the principle enshrined in the 10th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Whether or not you are Catholic, if you accept the principle of subsidiarity, then you have yet another reason to oppose Obama and the Left. The argument is this:
1. The Left encroaches upon civil society, weakening it and limiting it, and correspondingly expanding the power and the reach of the state. (For example, the closure of Catholic Charities in Illinois because of an Obama administration adoption rule.)
2. Subsidiarity helps maintain civil society as a buffer zone and intermediate sector between the purely private (the individual and the familial) and the state.
3. If you value the autonomy and robustness of civil society, then you ought to oppose Obama and the Left.
Addendum: This just over the transom from an old sparring partner of mine from the early days of the blogosphere, Kevin Kim:
Thank you for your recent post on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which I had never heard of despite years of dealing with Catholics. I had a good chuckle when I read this:
"This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization."
And this from a gigantic, thoroughly hierarchized organization!
But what really burbled to the surface of my mind was the thought that, for a supposedly Catholic principle, subsidiarity sounds remarkably Protestant. Heh.
But isn't it obvious what the Catholic response would be? The church is in the business of mediating salvation. What the church does cannot be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. Nulla salus extra ecclesiam, where the church in question is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church founded by Christ himself on St. Peter as upon a rock and presided over by the Holy Spirit. It might also be argued that the principle of subsidiarity is a secular or temporal political principle and not one that has any bearing on soteriology. For the same reason there is nothing Protestant about it.
Some say that there is no real difference between the two major parties in the USA, the Republicans and the Democrats. The claim is breathtakingly false for so many reasons. The latest example of difference is provided by this DNC video. John Hayward's response is spot on:
Even this benign-sounding apologia for “government is the only thing we all belong to” is incredibly wrong-headed. We most certainly do notbelong to the government. We are all members of the electorate, which is a very different thing. Each of us lives beneath several distinct governments – federal, state, city – empowered to protect our rights, not act as the almighty executor of some “collective will” that exists only in the totalitarian fantasies of liberals. There are very few areas of government action that command anything like overwhelming majority support from Americans, let alone nearly unanimous approval.
To which I add:
There are two extremes to avoid, the libertarian and the liberal. Libertarians often say that the government can do nothing right, and that the solution is to privatize everything including the National Parks. Both halves of that assertion are patent nonsense. It is equal but opposite nonsense to think that Big Government will solve all our problems. Ronald Reagan had it right: "A government big enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take everything you have."
The government is not us as liberals like to say. It is an entity over against most of us run by a relatively small number of us. Among the latter are some decent people but also plenty of power-hungry scoundrels, for whom a government position is a hustle like any hustle. Government, like any entity, likes power and likes to expand its power, and can be counted on to come up with plenty of rationalizations for the maintenance and extension of its power. It must be kept in check by us, just as big corporations need to be kept in check by government regulators.
If you value liberty you must cultivate a healthy skepticism about government. To do so is not anti-government. Too many leftists love to slander us by saying that we are anti-government. It is a lie and they know it. They are not so stupid as not to know that to be for limited government is to be for government.
From a logical point of view, the ‘Government is us’ nonsense appears to be a pars pro toto fallacy: one identifies a proper part (the governing) with the whole of which it is a proper part (the governed).
Academic philosophy too often degenerates into a sterile intellectual game whose sole function is to inflate and deflate the egos of the participants. But this is no surprise: everything human is either degenerate or will become degenerate.
Addendum: 2:45 PM
Long-time blogger-buddy and supplier of high-quality links and comments, Bill Keezer, comments:
Academic anything eventually degenerates either into ego battles or battles for status as grant securers. In addition to tuition inflation the big money-maker for universities is the administration overhead awarded within grants and the supplement to salaries in some cases that allow them to forego raises or to reduce their portion of the payroll.
Government corrupts all that it touches.
I agree with Bill's first point, but not with his second. The source of moral corruption is not government, but the human being, his ignorance, his inordinate and disordered desires, and his free but wayward will. Everything human beings are involved in is either corrupt or corruptible, and government is no exception, not because government is the unique source of corruption, but because government is a human, all-too-human, enterprise.
On my view, government is practically necessary. Anarchism is for adolescents. Some of what government does is good, some bad. Governments in the free world defeated the Nazis; communist governments murdered 100 million in the 20th century. (Source: Black Book of Communism.) Some of what is bad are unintended consequences of programs that were set up with good intentions. Federally-insured student loans made it possible (or at least easier) for many of us to finance our educations. (It is of course a debatable point whether it is a legitimate function of government to insure student loans.) But lack of oversight on the part of the Feds, and the greediness of university administrators coupled with the laziness and prodigality of too many students has led to the education bubble.
What has happened is truly disgusting. The price of higher education has skyrocketed, increasing out of all proportion to general inflation, while the quality of the product delivered has plummeted in some fields and merely declined in others. There are young people graduating from law schools today with $150 K in debt and little prospect of a job sufficiently remunerative to discharge the debt in a reasonable time.
Can we blame the federal government for the education bubble? Of course, if there had been no federally-insured loan program the bubble would not have come about. But there was no necessity that the program issue in a bubble. So we are brought back to the real root of the problem, human beings, their ignorance, greed, prodigality, and general lack of moral and intellectual virtue.
Compare the housing bubble. Government must bear some of the blame through its bad legislation. But no bubble would have occurred if consumers weren't stupid and lazy and greedy. What sort of fool signs up for a negative amortization loan? Am I blaming the victim? Of course. Blaming the victim is, within limits and in some cases, a perfectly reasonable and indeed morally necessary thing to do. If you are complicit in your own being ripped-off through your own self-induced intellectual and moral defectiveness, then you must hold yourself and be held by others partially responsible. And then there are the morally corrupt lenders themselves who exploited the stupidity, laziness, greediness and general lack of moral and intellectual virtue of the consumers. A fourth factor is the corruption of the rating agencies.
So, contra my friend Keezer, we cannot assign all the blame to government. We need government, limited government.
Obama showed his true colors quite unmistakably in his 'You didn't build that" speech. Yuval Steinitz has his number:
The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.
As I said before, it is a classic false alternative fallacy: either you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps or government helps you. This goes together with a straw man fallacy: Obama imputes to his opponents an absurd 'rugged individualism' that they do not espouse.
But most of life is lived somewhere between those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground — the family, civil society, and the private economy — to thrive in relative freedom. Obama’s remarks in Virginia shed a bright light on his attitude toward that middle ground, and in that light a great deal of what his administration has done in this three and a half years suddenly grows clearer and more coherent, and even more disconcerting.
Disconcerting is right. It's an all-out, totalitarian assault on the institutions of civil society. The Left is totalitarian by its very nature and it can brook no competitors: not religion, not the family, not private charities and associations.
This intolerance of nonconformity is even more powerfully evident in the administration’s attitude toward the institutions of civil society, especially religious institutions involved in the crucial work of helping the needy and vulnerable. In a number of instances, but most notably in the controversy surrounding the Department of Health and Human Services rule requiring religious employers to provide free abortive and contraceptive drugs to their employees under Obamacare, the administration has shown an appalling contempt for the basic right of religious institutions to pursue their ends in accordance with their convictions.
It is important to recall just what the administration did in that instance. The HHS rule did not assert that people should have the freedom to use contraceptive or abortive drugs — which of course they do have in our country. It did not even say that the government facilitate people’s access to these drugs — which it does today and has done for decades. Rather, the rule required that the Catholic Church and other religious entities should facilitate people’s access to contraceptive and abortive drugs. It aimed to turn the institutions of civil society into active agents of the government’s ends, even in violation of their fundamental religious convictions.
The idea is to hollow out the space between the individual and the State, to clear it of the institutions of civil society that mediate between individual and state:
Indeed, the president and his administration don’t seem to have much use for that space at all. Even the family, which naturally stands between the individual and the community, is not essential. In May, the Obama campaign produced a Web slideshow called “The Life of Julia,” which follows a woman through the different stages of life and shows the many ways in which she benefits from public policies that the president advocates. It was an extraordinarily revealing work of propaganda, and what it revealed was just what the president showed us in Roanoke: a vision of society consisting entirely of the individual and the state. Julia’s life is the product of her individual choices enabled by public policies. She has an exceptional amount of direct contact with the federal government, yet we never meet her family. At the age of 31, we are told, “Julia decides to have a child” and “benefits from maternal checkups, prenatal care, and free screenings under health care reform.” She later benefits from all manner of educational, economic, and social programs, and seems to require and depend upon no one but the president.
[. . .]
The Left’s disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society — emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise — are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on more rational grounds, the government needs to weaken and counteract them.
The Right’s high regard for civil society, meanwhile, is driven above all not by a disdain for government but by a deeply held belief in the importance of our diverse and evolved societal forms, without which we could not hope to secure our liberty. Conservatives seek mechanisms and institutions to bring implicit social knowledge to bear on our troubles, while progressives seek the authority and power to bring explicit technical knowledge to bear on them.
[. . .]
To ignore what stands between the state and the citizen is to disregard the essence of American life. To clear away what stands between the state and the citizen is to extinguish the sources of American freedom. The president is right to insist that America works best when Americans work together, but government is just one of the many things we do together, and it is only rarely the most important of them.
One of the problems with Romney is that he has no clue as to what the battle is really about. He thinks solely in economic terms. Paul Ryan or somebody should force the affable milque-toast to study Steinitz's piece and then give him a test on it.
ButI'll give Mitt this: his pick of Ryan as running mate was courageous and intelligent.
To say that all individuals are embedded in and the product of society is banal. Obama rises above banality by means of fallacy: equating society with government, the collectivity with the state. Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.
Moreover, the greatest threat to a robust, autonomous civil society is the ever-growing Leviathan state and those like Obama who see it as the ultimate expression of the collective.
(One quibble: Krauthammer's "product of society" is too strong. But even the great stumble on occasion.)
How can Obama be so stupid that he doesn't understand the above? And how could we be so(collectively) stupid as to have elected the incompetent? (Don't blame me: I held my nose and voted for the effete and superannuated McCain.)
Obama commits a grotesque straw man fallacy when he imputes to conservatives and libertarians the view that each of us pulled himself up by his own bootstraps ex nihilo. That goes hand-in-glove with a fallacy of false alternative: either you did it all on your own, or government did it for you. As Krauthammer in effect points out, the institutions of civil society are neither the creation of the individual nor government agencies.
Last year, when Republicans were being accused of 'politicizing' the national debt crisis I made the point that one cannot politicize that which is inherently political:
The Republicans were accused of 'politicizing' the debt crisis. But how can you politicize what is inherently political? The debt in question is the debt of the federal government. Since a government is a political entity, questions concerning federal debts are political questions. As inherently political, such questions cannot be politicized.
If to hypostatize is to illicitly treat as a substance that which is not a substance, to politicize is to illictly treat as political what is not political. Since governmental debt questions are 'already' political, they cannot be politicized.
Then I was criticizing Democrats and liberals. But now I find that some Republicans and conservatives are making the same mistake. They are accusing liberals of politicizing the Aurora massacre. Example here.
But as I said, you cannot politicize what is already political. Now guns are not political entities, but gun laws are, whether federal, state, or local. Whether there should be gun laws at all, and what their content should be are political questions.
Now we all agree that we have to have laws regulating the manufacture, sale, transporting, and use of firearms. So we all agree that we have to have 'gun control.' Gun control is not what I display or fail to display at the shooting range, but is a phrase that refers to gun control laws. Since we all want gun control, we all want (enforceable and enforced) gun control laws, even the dreaded NRA.
It is a liberal lie to say that conservatives are against gun control. It is similar to the liberal lie that conservatives are anti-government. If I am for limited government, then I am for government, whence it follows that I am not against government. (Anarchists are anti-government, but no conservative, and few libertarians, are against government.) Likewise, if I am for laws that prevent the sale of guns to felons, and for other such laws, then I am not against gun control.
By the way, the preternaturally obtuse Bill Moyers got a nice and well-deserved slap-down from Bill O'Reilly the other night for his idiotic remarks about the NRA. Bill Moyers is a one-man argument for the federal defunding of PBS and its affiliates such as NPR. (See National Public Radio Needs Your Support!) Listen to the whole of O'Reilly's speech. He is a moderate on gun control, too moderate perhaps. He is moderate on many issues. Is that why the Left can't stand him?
But I digress. We all agree that we need enforceable and enforced gun control laws. But we don't all agree about the content of these laws. Now that is a political question the answering of which presupposes a political theory, a theory of man in his relation to the state. The gun debate is political from the ground up. It is silly so speak of 'politicizing' it.
Here is what I say. I have a right to life, a right to defend my life, and a right to appropriate means of self-defense. No government has the right to interfere with these rights. This is nonnegotiable. If you disagree, I have to put you down as morally and intellecually obtuse, as beyond the pale of rational debate. I will do my best to make sure that you and your ilk are defeated politically.
What's an appropriate means of self-defense? The tactical shotgun is the most effective tool of home defense. Holmes, the Aurora shooter, had one of those. It looked like a Remington 1070. He misused it for evil ends. That is chargeable to his moral and legal account, not to the gun's. Guns lack such 'accounts.' No gun is a free agent. No gun ever lilled anybody. Killing is an action (action-type); actions are actions of agents. Pay attention, liberals.
There will always be massacres and murders regardless of the stringency of gun laws. Norway.
Can anything be done? Yes. Enforce existing gun laws. Execute miscreants such as Holmes, after a fair trial, in a speedy manner. There could a be a judicial fast-track to expedite the execution of such people within a year, at most. Put limits on the quantities and types of vile and soul-destroying rubbish that HollyWeird liberals dish out. Stop attacking religion, that most excellent vehicle for the delivery of moral teachings. If Holmes had internalized the Ten Commandments as a boy, could he have done what he did? Do you think he would have been less likely to do what he did?
But liberals are morally and intellectually obtuse. So they will fight against all reasonable proposals. A liberal would far rather violate the rights of decent citizens than mete out justice to vicious criminals.
Equality of outcome or result is not to be confused with equality of opportunity or formal equality in general, including equality under the law. It is an egregious fallacy of liberals and leftists to infer a denial of equality of opportunity -- via 'racism' or 'sexism' or whatever -- from the premise that a certain group has failed to achieve equality of outcome. There will never be equality of outcome due to the deep differences between individuals and groups. Equality of outcome is not even a value. We must do what we can to ensure equality of opportunity and then let the chips fall where they may.
I agree that there will never be equality of outcome, but neither will there ever be equality of opportunity, because opportunities at any given moment won't be equal unless outcomes are. And must we do what we can to ensure equality of opportunity? Can does not imply may. Family circumstances, for example, are the biggest determinant of a child's educational success. The State could, as Plato wanted, remove children from their families at birth. That would produce a more level playing field.
As Don Colacho wisely warned, though, "levelling is the barbarian's substitute for order."
BV responds: You say, "neither will there ever be equality of opportunity, because opportunities at any given moment won't be equal unless outcomes are." Your argument appears to be this:
a. There will never be equality of outcome b. There is equality of opportunity if and only if there is equality of outcome Therefore c. There will never be equality of opportunity.
We agree that (a) is true, but I would deny (b). In fact (b) strikes me as plainly false. I enter local road races, but I never win. I don't come close to winning: I am a back-of-the-pack plodder who if he is lucky wins in his age division. So there is no equality of outcome. But there is equality of opportunity: I have exactly the same opportunity to win as the world-class 25 year old who actually wins. In what sense? Well, no one barred me from entering the race; I wasn't forced to pay a higher entry fee; no one verbally abused me before or during the race; no one threw rocks at me; I was not forced to wear weights that would slow me down; obstacles were not thrown in my path; etc. The timing chip even compensated me time-wise for the fact that I could not stand right at the starting line with the top runners.
So I had an equal opportunity qua runner to win, an opportunity equal to that of every other participant. I was not discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, creed, length of hair, or the fact that I insist on wearing the skimpy, slit-up-the-side nylon shorts we wore in the '70s as opposed to those utterly ridiculous, baggy, gangsta-rappa semi-auto concealing, knee-length monstrosities popular now among sartorial know-nothings [grin].
Obviously much depends on the concept of equality of opportunity being employed, and I favor a very 'thin' conception. Clearly, one one can plump for 'thicker' conceptions. But the thicker the conception, the less the contrast with equality of outcome/result. I grant that there is no real chance of me winning any (well-attended) road race. But that is irrelevant. Relevant alone is whether I am being excluded on the basis of irrelevant criteria, such as my sex or the color or skimpiness of my running shorts.
As for ensuring equality of opportunity, I would say that we must do what we can to ensure equality of opportunity in my thin sense. But on your exceedingly thick conception, according to which equality of opportunity is equivalent to equality of outcome, then we, collectively, deploying the awesome coercive power of the State, should not do anything. That's what I meant above when I said: let the chips fall where they may.
As for the liberal-left phrase 'level playing field,' we conservatives should avoid it. If you are a conservative, don't talk like a liberal. It's a metaphor whose application is severely limited.
If we are playing soccer or basketball (and there is no handicapping going on), then there must be a level playing field if there is to be a fair competition. But suppose Tom was born with two good eyes and Sally with none. Should we intervene to right that cosmic unfairness, to 'level the playing field' as between Tom and Sally, by transplanting (if we could) one of his eyes into her head? No.
Tom does not deserve his two good eyes, his intelligence, his height, his being born in the USA, in a good, two-parent, loving family, not in a war zone, not with crack cocaine in his system, etc. But he has a right to his advantages despite not deserving them, and no one and no State has the right to violate his rights.
We are just scratching the surface of a whole cluster of thorny and bitterly controverted questions.
Addendum: Knowland sends use this quotation from John Kekes, The Illusions of Egalitarianism, (Cornell, 2006), p.84: ". . . equal opportunity tends to produce unequal outcome, and equal outcome requires making opportunities unequal by increasing the protection of some at the expense of others."
The answer depends on what counts as science. The so-called 'hard' sciences set the standard. This useful article lists the following five characteristics of science in the strict and eminent sense:
1. Clearly defined terminology. 2. Quantifiability. 3. Highly controlled conditions. "A scientifically rigorous study maintains direct control over as many of the factors that influence the outcome as possible. The experiment is then performed with such precision that any other person in the world, using identical materials and methods, should achieve the exact same result." 4. Reproducibility. "A rigorous science is able to reproduce the same result over and over again. Multiple researchers on different continents, cities, or even planets should find the exact same results if they precisely duplicated the experimental conditions." 5. Predictability and Testability. "A rigorous science is able to make testable predictions."
These characteristics set the bar for strict science very high. For example, is climate science science according to these criteria? I'll leave you to ponder that question. There are branches of physics that cannot satisfy all five criteria. But most of physics and chemistry meets the standard.
Am I suggesting that the only real knowledge is rigorously scientific knowledge? Of course not. Consider the knowledge we find in the first article to which I linked. There is no doubt in my mind that each of the five criteria the author mentions is a criterion of science in the strictest sense. (I leave open the question whether there are other criteria). Now how do we know that? By performing repeatable experiments in highly controlled conditions? No. By making testable predictions? No.
We know that (1)-(5) are criteria of genuine science by reflecting on scientific practice and isolating its characteristics. When we do that we engage in the philosophy of science. Since some of the philosophy of science gives us genuine knowledge about natural science, knowledge that it not itself scientific knowledge, it cannot be the case that all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge.
That all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge is the thesis of (strong) scientism. Therefore, (strong) scientism is false.
(CBS News) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shrugged off criticism of his controversial public health initiatives, saying that "if government's purpose isn't to improve the health and longevity of its citizens, I don't know what its purpose is." [emphasis added.]
Bloomberg most recently put forth a plan to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces from the city's eateries, street carts and stadiums. The proposal has been sharply criticized, in some cases by beverage and fast food companies as a case of government overreach.
He's also been criticized for previous efforts to, among other things, ban smoking in public places and the use of trans-fats in restaurant foods. Some have gone so far as to mock has as being like a "nanny."
But on "CBS This Morning," Bloomberg fired back, saying, "We're not here to tell anybody what to do. But we certainly have an obligation to tell them what's the best science and best medicine says is in their interest.
In this startlingly incoherent outburst, Bloomberg betrays the liberal nanny-state mentality in as direct a way as one could wish. And it is incoherent. He wants to ban large drinks, pop corn, milk shakes and what all else while assuring us that "we're not here to tell anybody what to do." He blatantly contradicts himself. Does the man think before he speaks?
But the deeper problem is that he has no notion of the legitimate functions of government. Apparently he has never heard of limited government. Border control is a legitimate constitutionally grounded function of government. One reason the borders must be controlled is to impede the spread of contagious diseases. So government does have some role to play in the health and longevity of citizens. Defense of the country against foreign aggressors is also a legitimate function of government and it too bears upon health and longevity: it is hard to live a long and healthy life when bombs are raining down.
Beyond this, it is up to the individual to live in ways that insure health and longevity if those are values for him. But they might not be. Some value intensity of life over longevity of life. Rod Serling, for example, lived an extremely intense and productive life. Born in 1925, he died in 1975 at age 50. His Type A behavior and four-pack a day cigarette habit did him in, but was also quite possibly a necessary condition of his productivity. That was his free choice. No government has the right to dictate that one value longevity over intensity.
A government big enough and powerful enough to provide one with ‘free’ health care will be in an excellent position to demand ‘appropriate’ behavior from its citizens – and to enforce its demand. Suppose you enjoy risky sports such as motorcycling, hang gliding, mountain climbing and the like. Or perhaps you just like to drink or smoke or eat red meat. A government that pays for the treatment of your injuries and ailments can easily decide, on economic grounds alone, to forbid such activites under the bogus justification, ‘for your own good.’
But even if the government does not outlaw motorcycling, say, they can put a severe dent in your liberty to enjoy such a sport, say, by demanding that a 30% sales tax be slapped on all motorcycle purchases, or by outlawing bikes whose engines exceed a certain displacement, say 250 cc. In the same way that governments levy arbitrary punitive taxes on tobacco products, they can do the same for anything they deem risky or unhealthy.
The situation is analogous to living with one’s parents. It is entirely appropriate for parents to say to a child: ‘As long as you live under our roof, eat at our table, and we pay the bills, then you must abide by our rules. When you are on your own, you may do as you please.’ The difference, of course, is that it is relatively easy to move out on one’s own, but difficult to forsake one’s homeland.
The nub of the issue is liberty. Do you value it or not?
Familiarity and social proximity have their positive aspects, but they also breed contempt. No man a hero to his valet. Nemo propheta acceptus est in patria sua: No prophet is accepted in his own country. (Luke 4:24) Few bloggers are read by their relatives. Social distance, too, has positive and negative sides. One negative is that people are more ready to demonize and abuse the distant than the near-by. Internet exchanges make that abundantly evident. On the positive side, distance breeds respect and idealization which can taper off into idolization.
What is almost impossible to achieve is justice in our relations with others, near and far, falling into neither favoritism nor contempt, demonization nor idolization. Four extremes to avoid if you would be just.
A. Inordinately favoring one's own; being partial; overlooking or downplaying their wrong-doing. Tribalism. Nepotism. Clanishness. Chauvinism. Racism. Class-identification. Blut und Boden mentality. Example: John Gotti's children thought him a good man despite the fact that his good qualities were overshadowed by his murderous thuggishness.
The conservative is more likely to make this mistake than the liberal.
B. Contempt for one's own; being impartial in violation of duties to kith and kin; treating them exactly as one would treat an outsider, if not better. A vacuousness internationalism that ignores real differences.
The liberal is more likely to make this mistake than the conservative.
C. Demonization of the other, the foreigner, the stranger. Xenophobia. Irrational hatred of the other just because he is other.
Some conservatives are prone to this.
D. Excessive admiration of the other. Idolization of the far away. Idolatry. Romanticization of foreign lands and cultures.
I appreciated your recent posts on "social justice." I agree that the phrase is a mendacious rhetorical device and that conservatives should refuse to use it. But what should we use instead? In one post you asked what's wrong with "plain old 'justice.'" One problem is that the phrase "social justice" has now become so depressingly commonplace that many folk, unaware of this conceptual revisionism, understand "justice" as shorthand for "social justice". So conservatives need their own distinctive qualifier. Fight fire with fire. What would be your suggestion?
One possibility is "natural justice". Not only does it tip its hat toward the venerable natural law tradition, it also communicates the idea that justice is inextricably tied to the intrinsic nature of things (specifically, the nature of human beings) as opposed to being a mere social construction (as, perhaps, "social justice" suggests). And like "social justice" it has the virtue of being unobjectionable on the face of it. To adapt the opening sentence of one of your posts: "How could any decent person be opposed to natural justice?" What would be the alternative? Unnatural justice?
I'd love to read your own thoughts on this, if you're inclined to share them.
I wish I had a worked-out theory and I wish I had a good answer for Professor Anderson. But I won't let the absence of both stop me from making a few remarks. Nescio, ergo blogo.
As a sort of joke I might suggest that 'subsidiarity' be used by conservatives instead of 'social justice.' The trouble with that word, of course, is that it conveys no definite idea to the average person whereas 'social justice' seems to convey a definite idea, one that the average person is inclined to embrace. It sounds so good! Who could be opposed to social justice and a just society? But once one understands what 'social justice' means in the mouth of a leftist, then one has excellent reason to oppose it. The Left has hijacked the phrase and now they own it; it would be quixotic for a conservative to try to infuse it with a reasonable meaning and win it back. Let the Left have it!
Anderson and I therefore agree that we conservatives should never use 'social justice,' or 'economic justice' for that matter. Beyond that, we might take to using 'socialist justice' as an informative and accurate way of referring to what leftists call social justice. But what word or phrase should we use? How about 'local justice'? That's not very good, but at least it points in the the subsidiarist direction. Plain old 'justice' is better. Anderson's 'natural justice' is serviceable. It has the virtue of combating the notion that justice is a social construct. But it doesn't combat the top-down control model of socialists and collectivists. This brings me to subsidiarity.
One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.
The principle of subsidiarity strikes a reasonable balance between statism and collectivism as represented by the Obama administration and the libertarianism of those who would take privatization to an extreme. By the way, one of the many mistakes Rick Santorum made in his campaign was to attack all government-sponsored education. He was right to question whether the Federal government has any role to play in education, but to question the role of state and local government in education was a foolish extremism that befits a libertarian, not a conservative.
I take it that subsidiarity is easily detachable from other Catholic doctrines. Professor Anderson needn't fear that he will be driven in the direction of papal infallibility or Transubstantiation. In any case, Catholics don't own subsidiarity. In the ComBox to this excellent post, we find:
"SPHERE SOVEREIGNTY: A principle of Reformed Christian social ethics, usually associated with the thought of Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper*, that identifies a number of God- ordained creational spheres, which include the family, the state, culture, and the church. These spheres each have their own organizing and ruling ordinances, and each maintains a measure of authority relative to the others. Just social and political structures, therefore, should be ordered so that the authority of each sphere is preserved (see Limited Government and Subsidiarity, The Principle of)."
Subsidiarity also fits well wth federalism, a return to which is a prime desideratum and one more reason not to vote for Obama come November. By the way, 'federalism' is another one of those words that does not wear its meaning on its sleeve, and is likely to mislead. Federalism is not the view that all powers should be vested in the Federal or central government; it is the principle enshrined in the 10th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Permit me to coin 'malaptronym.' If an aptronym is a name that suits its bearer, then 'federalism' is a malaptronym, a name that not only does not suit its bearer, but misleads as to the nature of said bearer. And the same, of course, is true in spades of 'social justice.'
I say we consign it to the dreaded index verborum prohibitorum!
Mitt Romney mentioned federalism in a recent speech but he didn't pause to explain what it means. That was a mistake. Joe Sixpack has no idea what federalism is. He probably thinks it means that more power should be handed over to the federal government. It wouldn't have killed Romney to take 30 seconds and provide a crisp definition.
The same goes for such terms as 'social justice.' They do not wear their meanings on their faces. Pols and commentators need to learn the importance of defining one's terms. Launching into a discussion of socialism, for example, without preliminary clarification of what it is is foolish and unproductive.
But be pithy! Joe Sixpack is a tweeting twit whose attention span is commensurate with the length of his 'tweets.' Do not these tweeting twits fear that their brains will soon be fit only to flit?
How could any decent person be opposed to social justice? Don't we all want to live in a just society? But as Barry Loberfeld points out,
The signature of modern leftist rhetoric is the deployment of terminology that simply cannot fail to command assent. As [George] Orwell himself recognized, even slavery could be sold if labeled "freedom." In this vein, who could ever conscientiously oppose the pursuit of "social justice," -- i.e., a just society?
One of my criticisms of Bill O'Reilly is that he will use the phrase 'social justice' without explaining what it means. He will say something like, 'Obama is for social justice.' The average person who hears that will think, 'Well, what's wrong with that?' This is where the lately lamented (here and here) anti-intellectualism of conservatives comes back to bite them. Too many conservatives fail to realize the importance of defining one's terms before launching into a debate. Of course, I am talking about ordinary conservative folk and their political and talk-show representatives; I am not talking about conservative intellectuals.
Define your terms! This is is such an obvious demand that I feel slightly embarrassed to make it; but given the low level of culture one must make it and make it again.
Walter Block, here, offers a characterization that Mr O'Reilly should be able to wrap his 'no-spin' head around:
First, this concept [social justice] may be defined substantively. Here, it is typically associated with left wing or socialist analyses, policies and prescriptions. For example, poverty is caused by unbridled capitalism; the solution is to heavily regulate markets, or ban them outright. Racism and sexism account for the relative plight of racial minorities and women; laws should be passed prohibiting their exercise. Greater reliance on government is required as the solution of all sorts of social problems. The planet is in great danger from environmental despoliation, due to an unjustified reliance on private property rights. Taxes are too low; they should be raised. Charity is an insult to the poor, who must obtain more revenues by right, not condescension. Diversity is the sine qua non of the fair society. Discrimination is one of the greatest evils to have ever beset mankind. Use of terminology such as "mankind" is sexist, and constitutes hate speech.
From this line of reasoning it follows that “social justice” would have its natural end in a command economy in which individuals are told what to do, so that it would always be possible to identify those in charge and to hold them responsible. This notion presupposes that people are guided by specific external directions rather than internalized, personal rules of just conduct. It further implies that no individual should be held responsible for his relative position. To assert that he is responsible would be “blaming the victim.” It is the function of “social justice” to blame somebody else, to blame the system, to blame those who (mythically) “control” it. As Leszek Kolakowski wrote in his magisterial history of communism, the fundamental paradigm of Communist ideology is guaranteed to have wide appeal: yousuffer; yoursufferingiscausedbypowerfulothers; these oppressors must be destroyed. We need to hold someone accountable, Hayek notes, even when we recognize that such a protest is absurd.
Novak seems to think that there is such a thing as social justice "rightly understood." I am not convinced that right-thinking people should use the term at all. The Left has destroyed it and now they own it. Anyway, what is wrong with plain old 'justice'? How could justice fail to be social? 'Social justice' as currently used carries a load of leftist baggage.
As I have said many times, if you are a conservative, don't talk like a (contemporary) liberal. Don't use question-begging phrases and epithets such as 'social justice,' 'Islamophobe,' and 'homophobe.' Never acquiesce in the Left's acts of linguistic vandalism. If you let them command the terms of the debate, you will lose. Insist on clarity of expression and definition of terms. Language matters.
'Social justice,' then is a term that our side ought to avoid except when criticizing it. Novak, however, thinks that the phrase has a legitimate use:
Social justice rightly understood is a specific habit of justice that is “social” in two senses. First, the skills it requires are those of inspiring, working with, and organizing others to accomplish together a work of justice. These are the elementary skills of civil society, through which free citizens exercise self–government by doing for themselves (that is, without turning to government) what needs to be done. Citizens who take part commonly explain their efforts as attempts to “give back” for all that they have received from the free society, or to meet the obligations of free citizens to think and act for themselves. The fact that this activity is carried out with others is one reason for designating it as a specific type of justice; it requires a broader range of social skills than do acts of individual justice.
Ron Paul made a strong showing in Iowa last night despite his coming in third behind Santorum (second) and Romney (first). But there is no way that Paul will receive the Republican nomination. His irresponsible foreign policy positions alone disqualify him. You may disagree with that, but most agree with me, and that includes the better pundits such as Krauthammer. So Paul's electability is zero. It is too bad because Paul and libertarians generally have many good ideas which serve as correctives to the socialist drift of the country and can help us move back in the right direction towards limited government, self-reliance, and individual responsibility. But libertarians cannot seem to control their tendency towards extremism. This is why the Libertarian Party will always be a losertarian party. Paul had the good sense to join the GOP, but he hasn't had the good sense to rein in the extremism that seems bred-in-the-bone with libertarians.
Paul is right that the the U.S. is overextended abroad, but he can't seem to make the point in a moderate and nuanced way. He has to say, foolishly and irresponsibly, that Iran is no threat. And so he comes across as a crazy old man who cannot be trusted with the power of the presidency. His 19th century isolationism was already outmoded in the 19th century.
The extremism of libertarians is connected with their being doctrinaire. It is good to be principled but bad to be doctrinaire. It requires the subtlety of the conservative mind to understand the difference and the dialectic between the two, a subtlety that is often lost on the adolescent mind of the libertarian who wants nice clear exceptionless principles to cling to.
I'll give an example of how libertarians, most if not all, are extreme and doctrinaire. Individual liberty is a very high value. One of the pillars of this liberty is the right to private property. The defense of private property against collectivists is essential to both libertarian and conservative positions. So far, so good. The tendency of the libertarian, however, is to absolutize the right to private property. He has a hard time grasping that principles and values often butt up against competing principles and values that also have a serious claim on our respect. So he cannot see that well-crafted eminent domain laws are right and reasonable. He cannot see that there is something we can call the common good which is in tension with the right to private property.
A second example is how libertarians typically absolutize the value of liberty while ignoring the claims of such opposing values as security and equality. For more see my post, Liberty and Security.