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« Adventures in Rightie Thought | Main | Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part Two »

January 20, 2004

Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part One

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I wrote yesterday about how, despite being a non-PPP (Predominantly Political Person), I got interested in rightwing thought, and about how eye-opening and stimulating I found my adventures to be. I also wrote a bit about how helpful I found the online writing of the traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb. Today, 2Blowhards is pleased to kick off a three-part q&a with Jim.

Jim has one of the most remarkable web presences I'm aware of. While many first-class writers are putting their fleeting and incidental thoughts up online, Jim has given his online writing the kind of commitment, work, and care that most writers save for books; even his blogwriting is more considered and measured than what we're used to. With his papers, his blog, and his discussion board, Jim has put together a resource that's quite the equal of a first-class book. (It's in fact quite a lot better than many on the subject that I've looked at.) How lovely that his work, offered in this form, also offers the benefits of electronics, being updatable and responsive.

It's also, of course, freely available. I'd gab a bit about how I see a connection between the modest voice, the searching and undogmatic mind, and the deep convictions that Jim shows in his thinking, and the helpfulness and openness that he demonstrates by making such substantial work available online. But I might get a little misty-eyed, so I won't. I'll sum up by saying that I find Jim's work, among other things, a fascinating combination of firmness and flexibility -- which isn't a bad way, come to think of it, to describe a prime conservative virtue.

Jim grew up in the Northeast. He studied math at Dartmouth, law at Yale, and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin; he did a stint with the Peace Corps in Afghanistan; and he worked for an insurance company in Boston. He was a Wall Street lawyer for quite a while, but for the last few years has mostly been reading, writing, and maintaining his blog and websites. Jim is married, has three college-age children, and, as he says, "enjoys artsy and outdoorsy things."

When I asked Jim where his interest in politics came from, he volunteered this answer: "I became interested in politics because I came from a politically active family (Republican party politics, libertarianism, mainstream feminism) and wondered what it all meant. Puzzling over that meant puzzling over culture, philosophy and religion too. Eventually I became a traditionalist conservative and a Catholic convert, although looking back that's really where my sympathies always were. "

Fast Blowhardish note: In publishing this interview, I'm not trying to convert anyone to conservatism. A non-PPP I am and will always be. My agenda here is simple. It's to present a topflight mind whose work I've enjoyed, and to coax readers into taste-testing some unfamiliar but fascinating thoughts. I can't imagine not getting a great deal out of the encounter.

I also want to urge visitors to explore Jim's websites. His main page, here, lists dozens of pieces. Let me suggest beginning with his brilliant Conservatism FAQ (here), and his essays Traditionalism and the American Order (here), and PC and the Crisis of Liberalism (here). Be sure too to visit Turnabout, Jim's blog, here. It's one of the best-written and most thoughtful ongoing shows I've run across on the web.

Jim has agreed to take part in our Comments threads today and over the next few days, so please feel free to comment and question. I'm sure we can all agree that a civil conversation will prove much more valuable and enjoyable than skirmishes or confrontations. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about conservatism, a subject many lefty, let alone lefty-arty, people know shockingly little about.

Many thanks to Jim Kalb.


Part One of Three

2Blowhards: Can you explain what you mean when you write about (and criticize) "liberalism"? The way you use the word will be unfamiliar to many people.
Jim Kalb: By "liberalism" I mean the form of political modernity that's triumphed. Modernity is the attempt to base everything on human thought and purpose rather than tradition and religion. If you apply that to social life then society becomes something for people to reconstruct in the interests of whatever goals they happen to have. Naturally, different goals are possible, so the real question becomes whose goals count. If it's group goals that matter then the whole enterprise boils down to group self-assertion and you get fascism. If it's goals of the individual, you get liberalism. So liberalism is basically the view that society should be understood as a kind of conscious arrangement or machine that should be reconstructed and adjusted continuously to give people what they want, as much and as equally as possible.

2B: I find the terms "rationalism" and "rationalists" (in the Oakeshott sense) very handy. Do you? Can you explain what they mean?
Kalb: I don't use them a lot, but the things they refer to are very important and I talk about them all the time. In politics "rationalism" is the attempt to remake the world so it is rational in terms of a few simple standards. What's behind it, I think, is the idea that the order in society should be something we put there and can understand completely. Anything else -- anything unstated or inherited or simply natural -- is a kind of slavery. In order to be acceptable everything has to be planned and controlled. An expression like "technocracy" covers the same ground and seems more descriptive, so I probably use it more.

Also, I'm focused on finding out where rationalism comes from. It seems to me people are rationalists because they don't like the idea that they have to trust something outside themselves that they can't fully grasp. I think it's productive to discuss things from that broader perspective, so I also use terms that reflect it, like "self-contained" as opposed to "transcendent."

2B: I always found Hume's view of reason agreeable. He seemed to see it as a terrific tool, but as nothing but a tool, and appropriate only for certain kinds of tasks and chores. The French always seem to make the mistake of looking to reason for 'way too much. But I blab. How do conservatives see reason?
Kalb: Hume is more skeptical than most conservatives are. There's a tendency today to interpret reason in a very restrictive way, as formal logic together with scientific observation and theorizing. If you do that then reason becomes very limited in its scope, and Hume's comments become very sensible. Most conservatives I think tend to avoid Hume's skepticism by accepting a broader understanding of reason that includes whatever has to do with being reasonable, with dealing with the way things are and coming to sensible conclusions. They're likely to view Pascal's intuitive mind as well as his mathematical mind (here), and even his recognition of the need to make commitments where proof is lacking, as part of reason.

2B: I like to suggest to people that we need to get over our fear of the word "conservative" because we're all conservative to some extent. We have to be in order to survive. How and why did people get scared of the word?
Kalb: As you say, to function at all everyone has to accept things that are traditional or anyway not chosen. It's all a matter of degree. People should be thinking about the role different ways of thinking, including conservative ways of thinking, play in dealing with the world. Once they do, the conservative case is mostly made. The point of modernism is that there's going to be one clear theory of everything. If you admit that conservative ways of thinking have some permanent value then the modernist dream of a single system of ever-more-perfect rationality falls apart. Greater acceptance of tradition becomes the coherent way to go forward.

I think the ultimate reason people are afraid of conservatism is that they don't want anything to touch them. It's frightening to think that we don't make the world and can't control it, that we have to accept and trust things that lie outside of us that we don't understand completely. After all, the world can seem very threatening, and it's nicer to think that there are experts somewhere who understand things and take care of everything for us. Also, telling people they just have to accept some things makes them worried someone's going to put something over on them. The conservative answer is that there's a kind of cumulative implicit consensus we can look to, but someone has to discern and interpret the implicit consensus so it's hard to get rid of the worry altogether.

2B: I find many media conservatives (Bill O'Reilly, etc) unappealing -- gloating bullies who like to use ridicule and tell people, "Tough, kid, suck it up." To what extent to such people represent the kind of conservatism you discuss?
Kalb: They are indeed conservative, since what makes their views what they are is that they choose some things that are inherited or natural at the expense of liberalism -- that is, at the expense of a direct attempt to maximize the equal satisfaction of individual preferences. They're not thoughtful, though, so they can't explain why they reject the liberal program in favor of something else. The result is that their conservatism takes on an aggressive and arbitrary quality, at least in style.

2B: What's the typical urban person's nightmare version of "a conservative"?
Kalb: A self-satisfied but inwardly fearful person who wants to suppress everything that differs from what he is. At the extremes, an incipiently violent bigot. Naturally, I don't think that's a true picture. I think modernism is much narrower and more intolerant than conservatism. It's hard for me though to characterize conservatives as a group. They differ as much as anyone else. To take a broad sociological view, in the pro-Bush red states crime rates tend to be quite a bit lower and rates of charitable giving higher than in the pro-Gore blue states. That's rather at odds with the nightmare image. I think it's a reflection of the tendency for life to be more settled and local and for many ordinary ties to be stronger in the conservative red states. I think it's important for someone tempted by the nightmare version to see conservatism as a very natural human possibility. There's a lot of conservatism in all societies, and most societies have been extremely conservative by current Western standards. It can't be reasonable or right to reject almost the whole human race.

2B: So what is conservatism?
Kalb: It has a negative and a positive aspect. On its negative and theoretical side, it's a rejection of political modernity. It says that the project of basing society on human thought and purpose can't work. One reason it can't work is that purposes and thoughts need a social setting to make sense. If our purposes and thoughts need a setting they don't also construct the setting. It has to be something that already exists that we're entitled to take for granted.

A reason liberalism in particular can't work is that the goals of individuals conflict, so by themselves they don't give rise to any kind of order. If you try to base social order on giving individuals what they want you have to claim that everyone really wants the same thing, or that you've got some neutral way to give everyone what he wants equally. The first claim is obviously false, and the second claim can't work unless the only things people want are things like consumer goods and private indulgences that don't essentially affect other people. That's not what people are like, though. So in either case you end up telling people what they have to want. The individual who chooses his own values can't really be the standard.

2B: What's the positive side of conservatism?
Kalb: On its positive and more practical side, conservatism is an attitude of trust toward basic features of the social world, an attempt to make sense of social life and carry it on by reference to inherited habits and understandings. It's based on a sense that loyalty is a good thing, that what's worked for a long time probably has something to it, even though what that thing is can be difficult to articulate without some thought.

2B: What do these definitions have to do with the kind of liberalism and conservatism we read about in the news?
Kalb: In the case of liberalism I think the fit's pretty good. It's a mature philosophy that's won its battles, so it can present itself in a clear and straightforward way. Slogans like "social welfare," "inclusion," "equal freedom" and so on are very much in line with my definition.

In the case of conservatism it's more complicated. Conservatives don't trust logical systems, and they like to go with what's settled and seems to work. That takes away from coherence, especially once anti-conservative views have become established in society. You get people who call themselves conservatives and claim to be the real egalitarians or revolutionaries, for example.

Another problem is that people who are in the business of providing explanations -- academics, journalists, various experts -- are almost always modernists. A big reason for that is that attempts to reconstruct society on rational principles give people who write and explain things a much bigger role in the scheme of things.

Anyway, the result is that liberal views become the accepted background of public discussion while conservative views seem odd, contradictory, and generally hard to make sense of. A conservative is always someone who rejects at least part of the liberal campaign to reconstruct society in the interests of equal freedom. The specific things conservatives resist and the reasons they give vary and usually don't form a logical system. So the point and justification of their views can become quite obscure.

2B: You speak as if the non-logicality and the nonsystematic quality of conservatism is a plus. How can this be so?
Kalb: The nonsystematic quality is only comparative. Like other people, conservatives try to think in an orderly way. What they come up with seems non-logical in contrast to modern rationalism. Still, the question is how to deal with reality as it is. If you try to be true to how things are you don't end up with a single method that gives the right answer for everything. From that point of view the less tidy quality of conservatism is a plus.

2B: Even so, isn't it a terrible drawback, if only from a p-r point of view? It leaves you open to criticism as "the stupid party," no?
Kalb: It has some drawbacks. Conservatives often get confused about their own views and can't explain themselves. Unlike modernists, they can't promise clear solutions to everything. Also, people today think organized expertise is the only kind of knowledge you should pay attention to, and that's an anti-conservative view. Organized expertise is an attempt to put knowledge in clear usable form so that whoever is in charge can control things. Conservatism says that can't be done to any great extent in social affairs. The result is that conservatism is seen as stupid and ignorant almost by definition. It rejects expertise as a final authority.

2B: It seems to me that people often have a hard time understanding conservatism because they want a program that can be explicitly spelled-out. And that's not what conservatism is.
Kalb: That's right. The conservative tendency is to take social practices on their own terms and work with them. Conservatism lets religion be religion, commerce commerce, family life family life and so on. It sees connections but doesn't try to make everything a simple rational system. Of course, that tendency requires a setting that allows for it. When that's attacked conservatism becomes much more well-defined and decisive. If there's a modernist revolution going on, an attempt to reduce everything to a few simple standards like equality and utility, then the conservative program is "let's not have this modernist revolution." That can be quite a clear program, even if it mostly looks negative and obstructionist to people who don't see the point.

{End Part One of Three}

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at January 20, 2004




Comments

Speaking as something of a political science novice:

the form of political modernity that's triumphed

First question, then: what other forms of political modernity do you recognise?

Posted by: James Russell on January 20, 2004 3:00 AM



Second question: when faced with "nightmare conservatives" and goons like Bill O'Reilly, what does a "thinking conservative" make of them? What Michael said in his previous post about the irrational prejudice against conservatives on the part of the left is true, but it's equally undeniable that similar prejudice exists against liberals on the part of the right. (Cf. large swathes of the right-leaning blogosphere for whom the word "liberal" often appears to be less a definition of a political position than it is an accusation or swearword.) I'd be interested to know more about what you think about the likes of O'Reilly and the image of conservatism they project (which from my perspective is not always a bright one)...

Posted by: James Russell on January 20, 2004 3:17 AM



No questions here, just a simple hello.

And an observation: All philosophies are personal. No one can ever adopt another's, for no one can ever tell for certain what another believes. At worst one can only adopt a perversion, a parody of the other's philosophy, and so live by a corruption of another's thought.

In any case, welcome. Mike and Fred are good guys overall, even though clueless of a number of aspects of modern life.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 20, 2004 7:48 AM



To James Russell: I said that fascism is the main alternative form of political modernity. That's an unusual analysis but it's mine and I like it. Later on Michael and I connect it to more conventional classifications. We also discuss what one does with variations and mixtures like communism, socialism and libertarianism, which are also modernist.

Media conservatives are like media anything else -- you can watch them if you like, agree with them in some ways but not in others, admire some and think others are jerks, etc. I can't talk about them much because I almost never watch them. I saw O'Reilly on TV once, for less than 5 minutes. My impression of him was pretty much in line with Michael's comment.

Stupidity and partisan abuse are found everywhere. Such is life.

To Alan Kellogg: Up to a point. If you can't know what other people believe though it becomes very hard to know what you believe yourself because you can't discuss your beliefs with others and discover what they really amount to.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 20, 2004 9:02 AM



Interesting discussion. What bothers me is its overriding generality, which leaves it open to straw-man argumentation. If the liberal or modernist is defined in general terms rather than by specific policies advocated, he can be torn down by philosophical jiu-jitsu. The only fact I can find in this entire interview is that crime rates are lower in states that voted Bush. Mississippi has a lower crime rate than New York? Okay, so what? Comparison of 'red' and 'blue' states from "a broad sociological view" is likely to illuminate nothing. Where's the beef?

Posted by: donbosco on January 20, 2004 10:11 AM



Mr. Kalb,

One cannot know another's philosophy, another's mind completely and without error. The best one can do is arrive at an approximation of what another believes, and even then one's own beliefs will 'muddy the waters'. The problem comes when one is convinced he knows fully and completely what another believes, and acts on that misapprehension.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 20, 2004 10:34 AM



The Q&A do get into a few more specifics later on, but admittedly not a great many.

The point of the discussion is to present a very general way of viewing politics etc. and why some people find it persuasive. Obviously it's not going to convince anyone who doesn't think about the issues and decide that what I suggest is useful to him based on his own thoughts and experiences. It's an interview and not a treatise. All I can do is try to make myself clear and suggest particular considerations and lines of thought that people can pursue or not.

I agree there are problems with grandiose theorizing. By itself it doesn't answer specific questions. It can leave out important points, fail to apply to anything real, pack all the conclusions into unstated premises, etc. Still, other kinds of discussions have problems too. Anecdotes prove nothing. History can be told any number of ways. Statistics are abstracted from life and need to be interpreted. And if an advocate collects those things together he can produce any picture he wants.

We do have fundamental ways of looking at things that affect where we come out on particular issues. It's very hard to prove such things because they're too big to stand back from and grasp clearly as a whole and compare to each other. All we can do I think is discuss them piecemeal and try to understand things the best we can.

(All of which seems to align me with Mr. Kellogg, on this point at least!)

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 20, 2004 10:56 AM



"A reason liberalism in particular can't work is that the goals of individuals conflict, so by themselves they don't give rise to any kind of order. If you try to base social order on giving individuals what they want you have to claim that everyone really wants the same thing, or that you've got some neutral way to give everyone what he wants equally."

and

"On its positive and more practical side, conservatism is an attitude of trust toward basic features of the social world, an attempt to make sense of social life and carry it on by reference to inherited habits and understandings. It's based on a sense that loyalty is a good thing, that what's worked for a long time probably has something to it, even though what that thing is can be difficult to articulate without some thought."

No wonder most people feel liberal about some things and conservative about others!!

I DO think that inherently I have that something's-wrong-here feeling when I read "...what's worked for a long time probably has something to it, even thought what that thing is can be difficult to articulate without some thought." (A) "worked for a long time" seems to beg the question: for whom? If it has valuable because it has "worked" then how has it "worked" and "for whom"---otherwise I think you are making the same point as liberals, which is that everybody wants the same thing! I mean, slavery worked for a long time...for some. White men being the only legal property holders worked for a long time...for some. (B) "...even though what that thing is can be difficult to articulate without some thought." Either (A) it's not REALLY so difficult to articulate, the answer is: "It's worked well for ME" and parties in question don't want to admit that or (B) everybody who adheres to conservatism better give it some thought!

Based on these definitions of "conservative" and "liberal" which generally seem pretty accurate, it would appear that the Republican Presidents of the past three decades have been quite liberal, and that, in truth, Mr. Clinton was quite conservative!

Posted by: annette on January 20, 2004 1:06 PM



Mr. Kalb,

Yesterday, Kevin Phillips was on Book TV, discussing his newest -- American Dynasty. During the question period, he was asked: what conservative values would he put up against those of the Bush persuasion? He listed the following as noble and traditional conservative values:

Lincoln's "Labor is more important than capital."

McKinley's refusal to allow corporate lobbyists near him.

T. Roosevelt's promotion of inheritance tax.

Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex.

Does your view of conservatism recognize any of the above items as being traditionally worthy of support, as exemplifying common-sense truth?

Posted by: Tim Buck on January 20, 2004 1:22 PM



Mr. Kellogg wrote:
"One cannot know another's philosophy, another's mind completely and without error."

That is true, it seems to me, but the implicit assumption may be that one can know the implications of one's own philosophy completely and without error. Clearly that isn't so. Human history is filled with utterances of "what could it hurt?" followed by "how was I supposed to know?"

Annette wrote:
'Based on these definitions of "conservative" and "liberal" which generally seem pretty accurate, it would appear that the Republican Presidents of the past three decades have been quite liberal, and that, in truth, Mr. Clinton was quite conservative!'

I agree with this except for the bit about Clinton. In fact the effectiveness of many recent Republican presidents has been in their ability to harness consverative trust in the social order, the basic goodness of an America founded on equality, etc. Those are in fact appeals to liberal principles. The modern republican is a manifestation of what happens to conservatives when liberalism becomes the dominant social order that is to be conserved.

Posted by: Matt on January 20, 2004 1:24 PM



These 2 articles deserve a second reading, and I'm setting aside some time later today to do that.

On a first scan, these bits stand out:

2B: I like to suggest to people that we need to get over our fear of the word "conservative" ...

From this I have to assume that the message is intended for a liberal audience. (What "fear" otherwise?)

2B: I find many media conservatives (Bill O'Reilly, etc) unappealing -- gloating bullies ...

"Many"? Read, for example, the crowd at NRO. Bill Buckley and John Derbyshire as "unappealing, gloating bullies"? Hardly.
Counterexamples from the extreme left would be more unappealing. Such as the extremely unappealing Michael Moore.

2B: What's the typical urban person's nightmare version of "a conservative"?

So the "typical urban person" is a liberal? Our "nightmare vision" of left-wing liberals is perhaps just as extreme.

2B: You speak as if the non-logicality and the nonsystematic quality of conservatism is a plus...

It'll take a second reading to respond to Kalb's thesis that "conservatism is non-logical" (I note that he did not use "illogical".) My thesis is that the liberal philosophy - particularly as embraced by its extreme factions - is not only non-logical, but illogical.

I've long held that the problem with simple categorizations like "conservative" and "liberal" is that there are far too many attributes in the political/economic spectrum to allow everyong to fit into one of two boxes. Almost everybody has a "laundry list" of what he thinks a "conservative" or "liberal" is, and when someone says, "I'm a liberal", the other pulls out his laundry list and says, "OK, then you must necessarily agree with all these positions."

Annette understands this:

"No wonder most people feel liberal about some things and conservative about others!!"


Posted by: Mike on January 20, 2004 1:54 PM



Another comment on a comment, if you'll indulge me, though Mr. Kalb might have something to say on this too.

Annette wrote:

'(A) "worked for a long time" seems to beg the question: for whom? If it has valuable because it has "worked" then how has it "worked" and "for whom" '

The question makes no sense to this traditionalist conservative, at least if "worked for whom" means "worked for what particular individuals". Traditionalist conservatives reject the sort of radical individualism that itself rejects the transcendent (by "transcendent" I simply mean moral wholes which transcend their parts).

Without the transcendent, though, no social life is possible at all in the long run (for example, nobody will willingly fight and die for something unless that something transcends the self).

As to the "how" question, there is nothing wrong with asking it unless the subtext is "if you can't say how explicitly then the tradition ought not have authority over people who want to do otherwise".

Posted by: Matt on January 20, 2004 2:01 PM



"As to the "how" question, there is nothing wrong with asking it unless the subtext is "if you can't say how explicitly then the tradition ought not have authority over people who want to do otherwise"."

Yikes! Then there IS something wrong with asking it? Even asking it, not even acting on it? This sounds as if it could have been written by Komander Stalin---who was a dictator more than he was conservative or liberal.


"The question makes no sense to this traditionalist conservative, at least if "worked for whom" means "worked for what particular individuals". Traditionalist conservatives reject the sort of radical individualism that itself rejects the transcendent (by "transcendent" I simply mean moral wholes which transcend their parts)."

But...what I notice neither you or Mr. Kalb have noted is...so what is "transcendent"? Anything which is traditional and seems to work pretty well? (and I don't mean that sarcastically, it's a genuine question). It seems that that should be easily defined.


Posted by: annette on January 20, 2004 2:27 PM



Mike wrote:
'I've long held that the problem with simple categorizations like "conservative" and "liberal" is that there are far too many attributes in the political/economic spectrum to allow everyong to fit into one of two boxes.'

People do arrive at their preferred policy positions from a basic understanding of things, though, and different understandings can arive at the same policy; so I don't think an attempt to categorize by lists of policies will work. The reasons Pat Buchanan has for opposing the Iraq war aren't the same as Michael Moore's.

It seems sufficient to me to view a liberal as someone who thinks that legitimate politics primarily exists to provide a neutral playing field for the free exercise of equal rights (I acknowledge some differences between this and Mr. Kalb's definition, though I think they may amount to the same thing). Anyone who thinks that is a liberal, although liberals may disagree with each other over how to bring it about. I also think that this view of politics is incoherent.

Posted by: Matt on January 20, 2004 2:28 PM



Annette says:
"Yikes! Then there IS something wrong with asking it?"

Something wrong in the sense of the question being rationally incoherent, yes; not verbotten in an authoritative sense but in a rational sense. The premeses of the question itself assume the invalidity of the subject matter. "Have you stopped beating your wife" and all that.

"so what is 'transcendent'?"

Those moral wholes which are greater than ourselves as autonomous individuals; wholes of which we are only a part, not that devalue us as individuals but from which we derive (at least some of) our value. Part of the point to traditionalist conservatism though (at least my own traditionalist conservatism) is that there are things worth fighting for which are nevertheless not easy to turn into fully explicated raw material subject to manipulation.

Posted by: Matt on January 20, 2004 2:37 PM



To Annette: I don't think the "who benefits" question goes as deep as it looks. There are lots of things that really don't work at all. The Third Reich lasted 12 years before it was destroyed by its own violent nihilism. Communism had a run of 70 years before it collapsed -- as Hayek predicted -- of the innate irrationality of its own decision-making process. While it was with us it killed 100,000,000 innocents. (See the Black Book of Communism.) More moderate forms of socialism have also been abandoned because they're too inefficient to sustain themselves -- costs rise without limit, while production goes nowhere much. Now we have advanced liberalism, the surviving form of political modernity. That has its own problems, softer than those that destroyed the others but likely to be just as deadly. If the Europeans stop having children and make up for the shortfall by importing Muslims, which isn't far from what they're doing, then the future of Europe will be neither European nor liberal.

I should add that attempts to change the distribution of social benefits and burdens have been much less successful than expected. Quite often the attempts make things worse because they try to enforce a simple set of concepts as a replacement for the complex arrangements people work out to understand things and deal with them. Charles Murray's Losing Ground is the classic study, but most intelligent liberals admit the point today. So politics is not basically a matter of arguing over who gets how much of an assured steam of goodies. Lenin said that the basic issue in politics is "Who Whom." He was wrong.

I agree that recent Republican presidents haven't been particularly conservative. Nor was Clinton.

"Transcedent" refers to things that can't be reduced to other things oriented toward them. For example, truth transcends the evidence for truth because it's not simply a matter of the evidence, which could be misleading. Goodness transcends our desires, which might be misdirected. Reality transcends our knowledge, which is partial.

To Tim Buck: a thoughtful conservative could support such statements. There's nothing particularly conservative about corporate lobbyists or military-industrial complexes. Mostly it depends on circumstances, though. What's are in play, and what's on offer? The meaning of a statement like "labor is more important than capital" is unclear apart from a specific dispute. Inheritance taxes are often anti-conservative since they tend to be confiscatory and interfere with family continuity. You have to know just what the issue is, though.

To Mike: you're right I didn't say conservatism is illogical. It seems to me liberalism and other forms of modernity try for total rationality in human affairs, which is impossible, so they end up going bonkers. I do believe enough in logic though to think that fundamental principles are very important, so that conservatism and liberalism do have a certain coherence and it's harder than one might think to pick one position from column A and two from column B and end up with something that makes sense.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 20, 2004 2:55 PM



Then wouldn't a true conservative not have passed laws in the first place about who could vote or who could own property, etc.? You immediately get into guarding "individuals" with that. So, it was quite liberal to ever define that.

Posted by: annette on January 20, 2004 4:08 PM



I think I'll withhold any comments until I have read the entire interview; for now I just feel a need to sheepishly own up to this pretty-darned-close description of the vision I get at times:

"2B: What's the typical urban person's nightmare version of "a conservative"?
Kalb: A self-satisfied but inwardly fearful person who wants to suppress everything that differs from what he is. At the extremes, an incipiently violent bigot."

Gulp. Guilty as charged.

Except, of course, when the vision is an accurate portrayal....

Posted by: Dente on January 20, 2004 6:01 PM



Mr Kalb,

As I expected, I found the interview very interesting and enlightening. I found it (and the parts of your website I have read) to be one of the clearest present-day explanations of conservative ideas I have come across. I look forward to the other two parts.

Somewhat to my surprise, I find myself in agreement with a lot of what you have to say. In particular, I agree that tradition includes a lot that is valuable, that people are all at least somewhat conservative, that technocracy and expertise can't be the final arbiters and with your basic descriptions of liberalism and conservatism.

However, there is still a lot to be said for political modernism. A lot of what passed for tradition in 1700 does seem to have just been entrenched privelege, and a lot of the changes wrought since then has done a lot of good and apparently little harm. The abolition of slavery, for instance. Presumably you would agree that some of these changes have been for the good, although perhaps you'd disagree with crediting them to modernism.

Which reminds me of something I found unsatisfactory when reading Hayek: he distinguishes (I'm paraphrasing) good change, which is organic and bottom-up, from bad change, which is rationalist, imposed and top-down, and, like you, speaks highly of tradition. But if people respect tradition too much, good change, which might be necessary to accomodate (for example) technological change could be harmfully delayed. Popper makes a similar distinction, although he is explicitly in favour of technocratic "social engineering", of which most people are rightly suspicious, even though the status quo doesn't present many alternatives.

We need to examine traditions and discover whether they're still appropriate to our ultimate values and change them if they are not. Sometimes we can do that in a local, gradual, non-deliberate way, which I think you might approve of. But larger changes (the abolition of slavery, for instance) have such sweeping consequences they need some higher level coordination. Do you think changes contrary to tradition can be good ? If so, which kinds of changes ? and how can large-scale changes come about ?

Posted by: Simon Kinahan on January 20, 2004 6:36 PM



Annette wrote:
"Then wouldn't a true conservative not have passed laws in the first place about who could vote or who could own property, etc.? You immediately get into guarding "individuals" with that. So, it was quite liberal to ever define that."

I don't know where Annette got the notion that conservative politics doesn't care about actual individuals at all (quite the opposite, it is liberal politics that makes the lives of actual individuals intolerable); but it doesn't seem to be from anything written here.

Posted by: Matt on January 20, 2004 7:26 PM



Mstt---first of all, could I ask that you leave that "tone" at home? I'm someone who is honestly trying to understand what you and Mr. Kalb are saying---whether I agree or not---and, quite frankly, ya ain't being very clear. (Mr. Kalb said, about some conservatives, "They're not thoughtful, though, so they can't explain why they reject the liberal program in favor of something else." It's the "something else" that you guys aren't 'splainin' very well).

I got that impression from Mr. Kalb's own quote about liberalism: "If it's goals of the individual, you get liberalism. So liberalism is basically the view that society should be understood as a kind of conscious arrangement or machine that should be reconstructed and adjusted continuously to give people what they want, as much and as equally as possible." See..he presents that as if it a difference from "conservatism." The individual. Unless what he's saying (or what your saying) is that individuals COUNT---but only certain ones. That's why SOME get to be property owners.

BTW---your explanation of transcendance didn't help me out at all.

Posted by: annette on January 20, 2004 7:41 PM



Good questions from Mr. Kinahan and I thank him.

I suppose what I'm trying to work toward, to speak very grandly, is an inclusive understanding of human reason -- the constellation of things by which we understand the world and make sensible decisions -- that takes our limitations seriously and so recognizes that there are basic truths we need but can't fully grasp and must therefore be approached from the standpoint of tradition. So my argument is not with reason in all its aspects but with the modernist project of hyperrationality. Since I reject that project I view tradition as authoritative -- as something that knows more than I do, especially about things like the nature of the good life -- and not as an interesting array of possibilities that I can choose from as I please or experts advise. That makes me a conservative.

I don't deny that one aspect of tradition can come in conflict with others and force us to choose or that there are important aspects of human reason that have considerable autonomy with respect to tradition and can lead us to modify or break with some aspects of it. The ultimate concern after all is with the good, beautiful and true rather than tradition itself. There's no formula for recognizing and dealing with such cases though and they shouldn't be taken as the models on which we form our idea of how we normally should act.

I'm not sure the example of slavery tells as much as you suggest. It disappeared in Europe without higher level coordination. The same I think would have happened in America. By 1865 and even more thereafter general conditions of Western life and culture had become inhospital to slavery in all sorts of ways -- that's why everyone suddenly decided it was so horrible and why it was the South's Peculiar Institution. Social institutions tend to disappear in multiply inhospitable environments. To look just at economics, under modern conditions slavery is not a productive way of organizing labor. If someone owned slaves today I think it would pay him to sell the efficient ones their freedom -- they'd work harder and smarter for their freedom than for their master so there'd be more money to go around -- and set the inefficient ones free as economically unprofitable.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 20, 2004 7:47 PM



A note to Annette: the passage you quote distinguishes liberalism from fascism, not from conservatism. The distinction from conservatism is that liberalism likes the modernist attempt to reduce everything to a simple principle like "individual preferences" while conservatism does not. That doesn't suggest conservatism doesn't care about individual preferences, only that it doesn't think that all politics and morality should be reduced to them.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 20, 2004 7:57 PM



"The ultimate concern after all is with the good, beautiful, and true rather than with tradition itself."

Mr. Kalb has said it well. Annette and others might find it helpful to think of it this way: conservatism, unlike liberalism, is not self-referential. Conservatives don't do "X" because "X" is conservative; conservatives do "X" because "X" is deemed good by some legitimate non-ideological standard. Whereas liberals tolerate conservatives because tolerance is in accord with Liberalism, conservatives tolerate liberals because tolerance is in accord with their religion and social customs.

In other words, liberalism is something that has *authority* for the liberal. The conservative, on the other hand, does not appeal to an authoritative "conservatism", but to religion, tradition, custom, convention, et al. That's why Mr. Kalb and others seem reluctant to get too specific about conservative *action*: to say that "conservatives would do X" is to take a stand for a concrete and specific tradition beyond conservatism itself.

Those asking questions in this thread really want to know, "What would America look like if conservatives ran the country? Would there be slavery? Would women get to vote? Would people be allowed to have any fun? Etc." The problem here is that conservatism, as a philosophy, is not sufficient to provide answers to these sorts of questions. Neither does it claim to be.

So where does conservatism lead? If conservatism does not lead to a specific, concrete, religious tradition and worldview, then it is a dead end. Some popular media personalities have succeeded in making conservatism into a quasi-religion, but this is the negation of genuine conservatism. Ultimately, the conservative has to look outside of his political philosophy for direction.

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 20, 2004 9:33 PM



Annette wrote:
"Unless what he's saying (or what your saying) is that individuals COUNT---but only certain ones. That's why SOME get to be property owners.

BTW---your explanation of transcendance didn't help me out at all."

The former perception is in all likelihood related to the latter difficulty.

Individuals count, but not in isolation from the things that transcend them, in which they participate, and upon which they depend (generally not as a matter of choice): country, people, family, Church, the good, the true, the beautiful, and ultimately God. In fact because man is a social animal he _can't_ be taken as an individual in isolation from these things without dehumanizing him.

I am not at all sure what the comment about the unpropertied "not counting" means. Property isn't what makes one human. If the idea is that unless everyone is the peer of everyone else then the situation is unnacceptably dehumanizing then every actual situation that has ever existed has been unnacceptably dehumanizing. No two people (propertied or not) are ever equal in their actual rights to actual things, and it seems to me that an insistence that they ought to be is one of the dehumanizing forces of liberal modernism.

Posted by: Matt on January 20, 2004 11:16 PM



Mr Kalb,

Thank you for your reply to my questions. That definitely helped clarify your position. It also clarifies to me where we differ: For me, traditions are human creations, but non-deliberate ones, whose benefits, harms and interactions with other traditions and with nature no person might be aware of. It seems you have the additional possibilities that they might be given by God or by nature.

I am sure you are familiar with the experience when some previously-mysterious tradition reveals its role, or part of its role, in social life to your rational understanding. To my mind, we need develop an ability to do something similar collectively: develop an understanding of the role our traditions play. Once we have started to do that, it may become clear that there are changes that can be made to the traditions that would improve their effectiveness in furthering our values. Hopefully in that way we can avoid in the future some of the damage that has been done by hyperrationalism in the 20th century.

Obviously this is a modernist view that tries to obtain some of the benefits of conservatism, rather than a conservative one.

Regarding the specific example of slavery: you are correct that native slavery in Europe itself was largely eliminated quite early, probably with the arrival of the Black Death, and you are almost certainly right that slavery in industrialised countries is uneconomic (it does persist unofficially elsewhere, regrettably). However, there were black slaves in Britain into the 19th century, and (as I am sure you know), slaves were used in Britain's Carribean colonies much as they were in the South Eastern USA. The British Empire abolished slavery and the slave trade earlier than the USA did (1833 and 1807 respectively). That was the result of a deliberate campaign by religious Dissenters and liberals (much the same people at the time), which was strongly resisted by the planters and traders. Obviously it is impossible to know what would have happened had that campaign never existed, but I suspect it would have taken much longer for slavery to die out in both Britain and the USA.

Posted by: Simon Kinahan on January 21, 2004 3:33 PM



It seems to me that traditions can reflect aspects of how things are that are beyond our grasp and evidently likely to remain so. Some traditions can be rationally understood but others are going to remain mysterious. Even when we understand the function of traditions they serve as a reality check for rational understanding, and their social force gives stability to rules of conduct that could in theory be justified without them.

I suppose the point of all that is that respect for tradition is important. Making tradition the object of technical manipulation rather takes away from that. How much of it do we want to do? And who's going to do the technical manipulation?

I'm surprised there was slavery in Britain into the 19th c. I thought Lord Mansfield had held in the previous century that if someone brought a slave into England the slave became free because the laws of England did not recognize the institution. I don't know what the situation was in Scotland.

On slavery the basic question in this connection is how widely the example should be applied. People try to apply it to everything. When it was abolished in the last century in Western countries slavery was an anomalous institution that only existed in a few places. To me it looks like something that one way or another was going to go. Does it make sense to take something -- a conscious and planned approach to social reform perhaps -- that worked well in the case of a single anomalous institution that only existed in a few places and needed to be specifically provided for in the law to exist at all and apply it to much more generalized and pervasive social conditions?

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 21, 2004 11:39 PM



I don't think we can say slavery was an anomaly existing in only a few places in the 19th century. It involved millions in Brazil and elsewhere in S. America, Cuba, Haiti, etc., as well as the US and the British Caribbean. I believe Western liberal ideals were instrumental in abolition in both North and Latin America (Haiti of course being a special case). It may also be useful to consider the abolition of serfdom in Russia, also in the 19th century, also involving millions, and also revolving around similar arguments between liberals and traditionalists.

In the 20th century the best and archetypal example is the end of segregation and the Jim Crow laws--enforced from above and outside by the federal government.

But I agree all social changes are not necessarily analogous to these.


Posted by: Lily Toppenish on January 22, 2004 2:33 AM



It seems to me that contemporary Liberalism is a form of secular religion, that is why the description of the "nightmare version of "a conservative" as "a self-satisfied but inwardly fearful person who wants to suppress everything that differs from what he is. At the extremes, an incipiently violent bigot." very much like what it must be for a liberal. The fear comes from the image of nakedly facing the unknown with neither a god nor traditions for support, merely the cold faith in math and an assumed constant speed of light.
WRT Slavery: a very very early form of social contract; we see from it that once a means to sustain human survival begins to show signs of threatening that very survival, it begins to be dispensed with -- those that are slow to that recognition suffer for their delay no matter their belief systems. Social changes cannot be "imposed" like laws and enforced, by governments, they are changes in the realities of interaction over which 'we' have no control. Societies act on their own shifting cumulative priorities, always. Else, we would not be here at all.

Posted by: Dexter Massoletti on April 27, 2004 7:10 PM






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