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« Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part Two | Main | Jess »

January 22, 2004

Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part Three

Our conversation with the traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb continues. This is part three of three. (Part one is here; part two is here.) You're encouraged to leave questions and comments -- Jim has generously agreed to respond in our comments thread.


2Blowhards: I think that, while many people are sympathetic to the critique conservatives make of liberalism, many of them are also suspicious of what conservatives would like to replace liberalism with. They fear stuffiness, intrusiveness, bossiness. Conservatives are often accused of wanting to legislate morality, for example. Is that wrong?
These concerns are based on the modernist idea that society is basically something rationally administered from above. On that view social order is forced on people from outside, so the natural response is to want as little of it as possible. Conservatism though stands or falls on the idea of tradition, on the ordering of social life by things that grow up somewhat autonomously and with their own standards and then become part of how people understand themselves and their world. Legislation can support those things but it can't be the main factor. So it's not basically a matter of forcing things on people but how man can live naturally as a social animal and how to get there. If such ideas make no sense then conservatism makes no sense. I'd be a libertarian if I thought that.

2B: Among my own beefs with leftists is their enthusiasm about government. They seem to see the political dimension not just as one aspect of society but as its determining factor -- the skipper of the ship, steering it in very specific directions. And of course they like dictating outcomes, sigh. How does the conservative see the role of government?
Tradition is only relevant if you expect things more or less to run themselves without constant central direction. So you can't really be conservative unless you favor limited government. In general, I'd say conservative governments have less of a tendency toward tyranny than liberal or leftist governments. A government that accepts things that have grown up and become authoritative among its people won't look at itself as a power above society. That makes it less likely to be abusive in some gross way. It's harder to give a positive conservative doctrine of government, since it develops so differently in different times and places. In America conservatism emphasizes particular traditional expressions of limited government, federalism and law. What's good in America or Switzerland may have to be modified in China or Finland. The background and conditions are quite different.

2B: Conservatives speak up for tradition. But what do they do when, say, progressive taxation or affirmative action -- policies they disapprove of -- have become traditions? How to distinguish between real and false traditions? Can there be any trustworthy way to do this?
Particular traditions have to be consistent with the well-being of tradition in general. So something as rationalizing and homogenizing as affirmative action can't be conservative no matter how established it becomes, because it undermines so radically the possibility of the informal autonomous communities the health of tradition requires. There's a section in my Conservatism FAQ (here) that touches on the point.

2B: I was surprised to learn that many conservatives view the market almost as warily as Marxists do: it's dangerous and it can be hard to control, yet it can bring many benefits. Are conservatives in fact free-marketers?
Conservatives on the whole prefer free markets to bureaucratic control. They don't object though to particular restrictions on markets -- tariffs to encourage greater local cohesion, or suppression of businesses like narcotics and pornography that disrupt public morality. There's the broader problem that technological advances dissolve personal and local arrangements and make it easy to replace them with bureaucratic and market institutions. People watch TV and eat at McDonald's instead of getting together and providing their own food and entertainment. Children are raised by daycare workers, schools, and MTV. I don't think there's a way to regulate business to keep those things from happening. Something else has to provide the necessary resistance.

2B: You often speak and write about a ground of experience that a political system needs to be based in or on. I have no trouble with the concept of a ground of existence myself, though I tend to gab on about how we live on several levels at once, which is probably just mystical art-babble. But many people are uneasy acknowledging such a thing. And God knows the liberals will attack anyone who asserts that a ground level of existence exists. How to get people to acknowledge this aspect of life?
The basic point is that not everything can be defined and nailed down. The articulate always depends on the inarticulate, judgment on intuition, and so on. More concretely, rational political arrangements always rest on pre-rational and pre-political connections. That's why the modernist idea that it's possible to construct a society doesn't work. Political authority depends on general acceptance of some broader system of authority that can't be altogether stated or demonstrated. There has to be a sense that the political system is part of a larger moral reality that precedes it.

2B: What are some of the elements that do go into it? History, culture, family, habit ...
All those things help define and support people's sense of moral reality. That's the problem with multiculturalism, by the way. It's an attempt to get rid of the particularities that define moral reality for people, or at least to confuse the particularities and eliminate their social importance. What's left is rational bureaucracy and markets, which are somehow supposed to be enough to support public life. They aren't, and what you get is unprincipled rule by some small elite.

2B: What do you see the role of the arts and of culture more broadly to be in a conservative society?
In a conservative or non-modernist society the arts and culture would be evolved rather than constructed. As such, they would help integrate our surroundings with our needs and understandings. They would make the world we build for ourselves more habitable and pleasant. On a different plane, they would accept that we live in an order of things that goes beyond us. They would make what's good, beautiful and true concrete in everyday life and connect the everyday with things that transcend it.

I should add that "the good, beautiful and true" sounds very solemn, and integrating us with things sounds a bit alarming, but those expressions include most things that get us out of our rut, open up the world to us, make us happy for no special reason and so on. The good, beautiful and true are living, open-ended and surprising. In a non-modernist society the arts would break up the closed circle of desire, power and immediate practical function in which modernity imprisons us.

2B: What's the place of religion in conservative thought? And how do liberals see religion? What's wrong with the way they see it? My own hunch is that they make their own religion out of "tolerance" ...
Every society is based on some understanding of things that's too overarching and fundamental to be altogether articulate. That understanding lies behind all social institutions, including government. In a complex society that understanding has to take a definite and institutional form. If it doesn't then it won't be able to assert itself, and particular activities and institutions will lose their relationship to the underlying common understandings needed to maintain coherence and public acceptability. They'll go off in specialized directions and become generally incomprehensible, or they'll become a battleground for warring ideologues and get captured by someone with an ax to grind. Therefore the need for organized public religion.

Liberals of course reject all that. They think that everything can be made perfectly rational so we don't have to worry about unstated common understandings except as prejudices to be done away with. The result is that liberal dogma, which can't be proved either and has problems of its own, becomes the religion. You can't say "Merry Christmas," but every college has to have all sorts of observances around Martin Luther King day.

2B: Tradition can be great, God knows, but it can also become suffocating. Can't tradition also hem people in? What allowances does conservatism make for adaptation and evolution?
Conservatism and tradition aren't about themselves, they're about the world. So from that point of view, they open up and don't close in. They're ways to truth that make it possible to have a view of things with breadth, depth and solidity that doesn't claim to be all-inclusive and isn't limited to things that are immediately practical and demonstrable.

Still, your question is how tradition can adjust to new knowledge and changed conditions. There's no single answer, since tradition applies mostly where it's impossible to formulate and demonstrate unique answers. In general, though, tradition is a collection of practices, attitudes and symbols more than general propositions. Some are much more fundamental than others and all need some degree of interpretation. So normally there's flexibility when needed. That's especially true in the case of traditions that have managed to last a long time among civilized people.

2B: How to reconcile tradition, habit and settled ways with the need to take productive part in the modern world? I sometimes dream that there must be some way of accepting modernism in some realms (economics) while shutting it out of others (private life). But modernism is a hard force to control. Once set loose, it seems to run riot.
Where there's a will there's a way. Some sort of resolution is clearly possible. For example, everyone could imitate the strictly orthodox Jews or the Amish. Then we would all retain our traditions while operating in a cosmopolitan free-market environment with no government controls on science, technology, industry or commerce. I would hope some less extreme solution is possible, maybe some combination of national boundaries, local control, social conventions, publicly accepted religion and whatnot, so that coherence can be maintained without things becoming too divided and inward turning. What works will prevail. Right now though each of us has to find his own way. It's an odd period we're living through.

2B: Are there economists whose thinking you find especially simpatico? I'm thinking of Wilhelm Roepke, for instance.
I've learned from a variety of people, from Adam Smith and Hayek to Marx. You learn from people you don't agree with, of course. Roepke's ideas seem interesting, but I haven't read much of him as yet.

2B: It seems to me that the conservative view of things should be simpatico with evo-bio ways of seeing things -- the value of evolved forms, etc. Yet I notice in your writing that you don't approve. Why is that?
I don't think I've said a lot about evo-bio. I do have a problem with the radical Darwinist view that everything can be understood as the bottom-up self-organization of simple forms. That doesn't account for obvious features of the world as we know it, consciousness and objective good and evil for example. People talk about emergent qualities but it's not clear to me that explains anything. So to the extent the concept of evolution claims to offer a comprehensive theory of everything based on very simple mechanistic principles I don't see why I should accept it. It doesn't give a way to account for everything that exists or everything important about human beings. I don't question though that it's useful in a more limited role.

2B: Can liberalism/modernism be beaten back by newer and better scientific discoveries and arguments?
I think they can show it's not self-sufficient. But for that demonstration to be of use to us it must be possible to define and discuss the things beyond rationalism and treat them as authoritative to at least some extent. I don't think natural science can do that for us.

2B: I know you've embraced Catholicism. For whatever reason, Christianity doesn't do much for me. But Vedanta (here)? Now that I can see the point of.
To my mind the problem with Eastern religions is that unless there's a God who is personal and does particular things that we can know about then this world and the transcendent aren't effectively integrated with each other and both become rather illusory. They become foreign to our life as a whole, which is necessarily tangled up in both.

2B: I think what pleases me about Vedanta is probably what you object to in it -- that vaporous quality.
Yes, I think so. I'm much more political and scientific. You like complete freedom to pick and choose. In a critic that can be useful. It brings out issues and promotes conversation.

2B: What possessed you to devote so much time to your thinking, your writing, and your website?
I've always been something of a skeptic, but you can't help but act one way or another and you can't act rationally without a view on how things are. So the attempt to think things through has always been very important to me. Also, it seems to me that the way intellectual life is set up today -- the importance of academic certification and expert consensus for example -- distorts it, so someone who approaches general questions from an independent non-expert perspective can add something. I've hoped to do that. Then there are the rewards of the activity itself -- figuring out what the issues are, trying to formulate answers that work, finding unexpected connections, and so on. It's a fascinating business. There are other draws, of course: the connections with other people I've established, and the thought that in some way I might be advancing good things and helping block bad things.

{End Part Three of Three}

You're encouraged to visit Jim's blog Turnabout (here), as well as to explore the writing Jim makes available on his website (here). 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).

posted by Michael at January 22, 2004


What a fascinating and thought-provoking interview! I have found myself pondering Mr. Kalb's observations at odd times the past couple of days. Regarding his comparison of the left's belief in a rationalist re-ordering of society vs. the traditionalist conservative approach, I'd be interested in his views on slavery, the civil rights movement, etc. I have no doubt that he would find slavery, racial discrimination, etc., morally repugnant. But American history records many who defended such institutions and practices as "traditional," and for decades this was likely the view of a majority of the population. Some traditions need to die, and for those suffering under them, the need is urgent. Putting aside contemporary controversies such as affirmative action and the Confederate flag, how can widely accepted and institutionalized injustices be addressed? Surely it is not acceptable to simply wait for the old order to die out, but those who fought against it were seen as a radical minority at the beginning.
Please don't misunderstand me. I am basically a conservative, and the looney left alternately infuriates and amuses me. I guess what I'm asking is whether Jim's perspective mainly addresses the last forty years or so. At times it seems it does, but the principles he discusses sound more far-reaching.

Posted by: John Lawton on January 22, 2004 3:30 AM

I've commented on the general issue of social reform in general and slavery in particular several times on previous days, and won't repeat everything I've said. See in particular my exchanges with Simon Kinahan on the first day. One point is that traditions can conflict -- not all of tradition favored slavery -- and tradition is not in any event a closed self-contained system that can't take into account other sorts of authority. Another is that slavery was in some ways quite an unusual situation that should not be a general model. Still another is that if moods, attitudes, interests, practices and whatnot are shifting so that there's political support for legislation they're also shifting so that informal arrangements get re-evaluated, re-interpreted and renegotiated in daily life. The latter sort of event is quite normal in the development of tradition. It means that past habits get carried forward to the extent people still find they can live with them, but that procedure suits human life better.

"Discrimination" can cover a great many different things, from a racist lynching to leaving Kwanzaa songs out of a Christmas songfest. It's not sensible to consider all equally urgent. The mere existence of race as a social category evidently constitutes discrimination because it means some sort of distinction is made. A problem with an overly ideological and legislative response is that it's very hard for it to make distinctions. If it declares all discrimination illegal because it's the cause of huge social problems then it's going to have to ferret it out or infer its existence from the existence of the social problems themselves. The result is the affirmative action regime we have today and seem likely to be stuck with forever. It's far from obvious that regime is good for communal relations or the overall well-being of minorities let alone other people.

Degree of state involvement for example is a very important distinction. It's not equally burdensome when the law says that black and white workers can't share sanitary and dining facilities (which makes it expensive for any employer to hire both) and when a particular employer preferentially hires one or the other. The latter might either cut the employer off from good workers and hand his competitors a free advantage or promote a more cohesive and therefore productive workforce and so benefit the particular employer. Either way it's not clear why it would create a particular burden on one race as long as there are many competing employers, free entry, mobility of capital and labor, and all the other things economists like that on the whole tend to be true of modern economies.

Perhaps such things help explain why black economic progress was faster before than after the 60s. In any event they suggest doubts about the unique virtue of the path that was actually chosen. (A helpful book on these issues is Forbidden Grounds by Richard Epstein, a University of Chicago law professor who I think is one of the most intelligent and penetrating of libertarians.)

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 22, 2004 8:33 AM


I'm surprised to hear your skepticism about "emergent properties" of evolutionary systems. Such properties are simply behaviors, responses, etc. that are non-reducible: the behavior of the organism, for example, can not be expressed as a that of a collection of independent cells, since the organism's behavior "emerges" from the interaction of its constitient parts. Isn't that what you have been talking about in social terms?

Posted by: jimbo on January 22, 2004 9:03 AM

I find aspects of all of these tendencies attractive, and have until now never seen them layed out so clearly. I am a centrist, I find. Thanks for helping me sort that out.

Traditions, wide swaths of them, anyway, are attractive and lend a clear structure to human experience. It seems to me that tradition is valuable, but only if you elect into it, and electing in requires an exercise of the mind that Mr. Kalb is calling rationalist - the assertion of individual choice and desire. Without the choice to elect in or out, tradition is tyranny. Would Mr. Kalb agree that a healthy tradition has an active rationalist life within it?

Since Eastern religions came up, I wanted to mention that we chant a sutra that lists the qualities of a good seeker of the Buddha Way: contented, easy to support, not busy, not demanding, does not despise anyone, and so on. One of those qualities is liberal. (I wish I knew what the original Japanese word was.) Buddhism, which in some ways is conservatism itself, nevertheless insists that the tradition not be excessively valued.

Posted by: Franklin on January 22, 2004 9:28 AM

It makes sense to me to understand some things, for example the wetness of water, as emergent properties. The wetness of water is a physical property that can't be attributed to particular water molecules but you can go through the steps and see how it arises ("emerges") from the physical properties of molecules. The same doesn't seem to be true of the relationship between consciousness and the brain, or between objective values and human propensities to act (or whatever objective values might be thought to emerge from). In the latter cases the term "emergent" doesn't seem to tell me much. (There's a helpful discussion of mind-body issues here.)

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 22, 2004 9:39 AM

It's hard to imagine the Western tradition in health without an active life of reason within it. The basic point is that other things have to be authoritative as well, and that freedom, however good it may be, can't be the ultimate standard for politics and morality.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 22, 2004 9:48 AM

"The same [emergent properties] doesn't seem to be true of the relationship between consciousness and the brain, or between objective values and human propensities to act (or whatever objective values might be thought to emerge from). In the latter cases the term "emergent" doesn't seem to tell me much."

Jim, I'd recommend you read, if you haven't yet, Pinker's "How the Mind Works" (I concede the arrogance of the title), Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" (2nd ed.), and Axelrod's "The Evolution of Cooperation."

Pinker lays out many good reasons to believe that consciousness is an emergent property of our brains. Yes, we are still a few decades from a mechanistic-reductionist explanation of consciousness, but given the scientific revolution's success over the past few centuries in rolling back "gods of the gaps," I would bet the mechanistic-reductionist explanation will be found.

As for the idea that objective good and evil cannot be an emergent property, one of the later chapters in Dawkins ("Nice Guys Finish First") summarizes Axelrod's work. Specifically, there are many situations where, despite the egotism of individual actors, the best strategy for the individual is "nice tit for tat:" one always cooperates unless the other has just taken advantage of that cooperation, in which case one reciprocates but thereafter returns to cooperation. "An eye for an eye," in Old Testament terms. But do note this strategy does NOT require consciousness--it's observed throughout the animal kingdom. Genes that promote this behavior have been selected for in evolution.

A general moral rule of "be nice to others but punish them if they are mean to you" seems universal across human societies (though "nice," "mean," and "punish" have different meanings in different societies) and can be viewed, in light of Axelrod's work, as being part of the genetic heritage of all humans. Granted, this isn't objective good and evil in a metaphysical sense, but given our current inability to change our genetic heritage, it seems close enough.

Posted by: Raymund on January 22, 2004 12:07 PM

It is easy enough to explain any particular human value through evolution. Or at least explain a possible method of its evolution, if the actual historical details are lost. It is also easy enough to explain any particular human conviction about what he considers absolute value through evolution. Or a society's conviction.

Consciousness is another issue entirely. It seems impossible to explain consciousness not just by evolution, but rather through any mechanical theory at all. Perhaps it is impossible through any intelligible theory. Metaphysics (of the religious or philosophical model) seems unlikely to provide the answer any more than science. Which probably makes understanding of consciousness a natural limitation on reason. If the day ever comes that physics can explain consciousness, then we can begin to talk about its possible evolution. (Or creation.)

Posted by: Thrasymachus on January 22, 2004 12:09 PM

Can I take a swing at a couple of questions here? My understanding of these things is shallow, but I look forward to Jim's tweaks and corrections.

* "Tradition" -- There seems to be a tendency to think of it as a static thing, and as a thing that's imposed. The conservative view is different than that. On the first point, it's an ever-evolving thing. ("How do traditions reform and refresh themselves?" -- that's a question the interesting conservatives have spent a lot of time thinking about. Burke even writes at length about the proper way for a revolution to be conducted. He thought the Frenchies were doing a terrible job with theirs, but that there do indeed come times when something like a revolution might be needed.) On the second, it isn't monolithic, and it isn't imposed. It's multidimensional and we exist inside it inevitably. Language, habits of thought and behavior, institutions -- all these (and much more than we'll ever know) are given to us. The conservative is led to conclude from all this that a posture of modesty and gratitude towards tradition is appropriate and wise, while the two delusions of the "liberal" (using the word in Jim's sense) is that this multidimensional web of existence can somehow be stepped outside of (and thus be comphrended totally and consciously), and that large-scale, consciously-devised schemes (whether matters of science, politics, traffic engineering, whatever) can be imposed back on existence without doing damage.

* "Rationalism" -- Some of us are taking this to mean "making use of reason," and are concluding that conservatives (who dislike "rationalism") have something against the use of reason. But what the word means (from the conservative point of view) is something quite different. It's the tendency to use reason as an Ultimate Authority, and to impose large-scale conscious-reason-based schemes on society with no regard for local customs, personal preferences, established ways of doing things, etc. Conservatives like reason fine (hard to come up with a better thinker than Oakeshott, for instance); but they do think it can be misused, overused, and abused.

Looking forward to Jim's corrections here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 22, 2004 12:16 PM

Thanks so much, Mr. Kalb, for taking the time and energy to do this. It classes up our 'blog.

I must say, however, that on a very rushed inspection, my intuition here is that you're using "tradition" here as a generalized synonym for, er, being a Roman Catholic. You've linked "tradition" with "the good, the true and the beautiful" without providing much of an explicit connection or dealing with traditions that aren't good, true or beautiful. You're also not doing much arguing for why the good, the true and the beautiful have any particular intersection. Not that I doubt you can make a good fist at these things, just that it makes me sense a certain religious factor hovering in the background that presumably supplies all of these missing links. I mean, if your "tradition" doesn't ultimately have a divine sanction at the center of it, I'm not sure I see a lot of your points holding up. In fact, my feeling (obviously, without far more back and forth I couldn't be more sure that it's more than that) is that you're being rather "picky" about what you're counting as tradition--and my guess is that's because you has to reconcile your notion of "tradition" ultimately with Catholicism--i.e., the divinely sanctioned real yardstick of virtue. Which does NOT constitute a criticism if I'm right (and especially not if I'm wrong!)

What I'm driving at is an observation that most modernism is an attempt to take means (logic, thought, 'rights,' equality before the law) and substitute it for 'ends' (meaning, purpose, social goals). I think those of us who question modernism have all sensed that means are rather inadequate as goals and that it is not only possible but necessary to latch onto some genuine goals at this point in history. And since most of our mental apparatus is pretty useless in the goals department, we've got to look someplace else--to religion, for want of a better word.

Anyway, thanks again for putting up with us.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 22, 2004 1:52 PM

For me (as for Thrasymachus and the author of the mind/body discussion I linked) the difficulty of reducing consciousness to brain processes, or showing that the two are the same or the former is an emergent property of the latter, is that the two seem to be of such different kinds that the claim that one is the same as the other becomes baffling. It's a metaphysical and not physical problem. I have the same kind of problem with attempts to identify objective good (or for that matter objective truth, beauty, logical consistency and other nice evaluative expressions) with a winning game strategy. It's always possible to say "well yes it works, but is it really good, beautiful, true, logically valid, etc.?" Still, it pays to look at concrete attempts to do something even if you're convinced that in principle the thing can't be done and can't even be made comprehensible. So thanks to Raymund for the references.

Also thanks to Michael Blowhard for his summary. I was going to add that an additional point is needed to make the whole thing coherent and then discovered that Friedrich was already on to the issue. The ultimate reason we take tradition as authority is that we think it's a way of knowing things that we need but are otherwise unavailable to us. That requires an attitude of trust toward the community whose traditions they are, that the community is somehow reliably in touch with the reality of things. On some issues of course we can just say "well, the community has survived, so it can't be too far off." But on a point like authority -- and if we don't feel tradition as authority it can't play its necessary role -- survival isn't enough. To be authoritative we have to understand tradition as in touch with goodness -- with a principle of what we should do that is independent of success. And that is a religious requirement. One way of putting it is that in my view a life in accordance with reason -- a life
coherently ordered by reference to things worthy of acceptance as final standards -- requires tradition, and tradition to be adequate requires a religious understanding of things.

Thanks very much to Michael for the questions, to the Two Blowhards for the forum, and to everyone for the questions and comments.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 22, 2004 2:30 PM

Mr Kalb,

Thank you again for doing this. It has been really interesting. I am still interested in the question of changes in tradition. I think (and you seem to agree) that Michael described the possibility of traditions changing very well.

What worries me rather is that you endorse the idea of the state supporting traditions, which might sometimes mean enforcing traditional behaviour. If tradition itself is sometimes in a state of flux, it seems there is the possibility of the state enforcing old traditional behaviour against the emerging tradition. The public acceptance of the idea that tradition should be the basis for social life would make the probability of such errors much greater, I would think. The potential risk seems to me very similar to the current problem of liberal governments trading off one freedom for another.

To me, this is a reason to take an interest in evolutionary reasoning as a way of explaining how traditions emerge and evolve. This is again making tradition an object of rational study, but it might produce a methodology that avoided making it an object of technocratic manipulation.

Posted by: Simon Kinahan on January 22, 2004 3:41 PM

Jim (& Michael),

As far as I can see, it all comes down to this question:

"What's the place of religion in conservative thought? And how do liberals see religion? What's wrong with the way they see it? My own hunch is that they make their own religion out of "tolerance" ..."

and Jim's answer to it:

"Every society is based on some understanding of things that's too overarching and fundamental to be altogether articulate... Liberals of course reject all that. They think that everything can be made perfectly rational so we don't have to worry about unstated common understandings except as prejudices to be done away with."

I agree very strongly with the first part of this answer-- & disagree with the second part even more strongly... For the simple reason that the American "tradition" is liberalism, and I think both of you greatly underestimate its' power to "bind society together" (which is the function of re-ligion)...

As a person who despises soft-minded "multy-culty" attitudes even more than Jim does (at least Jim can use these people as straw men), I'm very interested in this question...

I'd like to challenge Jim to read my paper
on the "Enlightened Romantic" tradition in America!

I will be very glad to respond to any criticisms he might have...


Posted by: David Fiore on January 22, 2004 3:55 PM

Great interview, great comments.

I believe there’s a central concern informing a number of the questions and criticisms of Jim Kalb’s use of “tradition.” I would gloss the concern as a difference between heuristic conservatism (conservative as a means) and moralized conservatism (conservatism as an end).

One version of ‘heuristic conservatism’ goes like this: Habit and tradition contain valuable implicit knowledge, and human reason is fallible; thus appreciation of the achievements of existing institutions/habits should counterbalance the desire to transform and improve them.

Most people hearing this point (like most people who read Oakeshott’s essay “On Being Conservative”) agree immediately. A conservative temperament is essential to certain activities (friendship, leisure), and has obvious benefits as an approach to laws and general codes of conduct.

For politics, then, we’d expect a heuristic, temperamental conservatism to provide important rules of thumb. “Prefer modest, incremental reform to massive transformation,” would be one. “Avoid basing any policy decision on a rationalizing philosophy that would have seemed crazy to people twenty years ago” would be another.

The appeal of a conservative temperament changes, however, as temperament hardens into something like ideology. Sometimes, Jim Kalb acts as if an orientation towards tradition gives useful substantive answers to policy questions – towards local organization, towards pluralism, against the use of force to moralize, against affirmative action, to cite some examples. [Indeed Kalb makes the very strong claim that “something as rationalizing and homogenizing as affirmative action can't be conservative no matter how established it becomes, because it undermines so radically the possibility of the informal autonomous communities the health of tradition requires”]

This seems to me clearly incorrect, or if correct, correct only within the confines of certain traditions. There’s nothing inherently anti-traditional about centralized bureaucracy, using government force to shape the character of citizens. Nor is there anything essentially progressive about granting perquisites to certain classes on the basis of race, or using state power to compel certain aspects of social homogeneity. Maybe certain ways of reaching the conclusion will seem anti-conservative – and perhaps we have arrived at racial preferences in hiring or a powerful central bureaucracy through unjustified rationalism – but the policies themselves could easily be traditional, and justified by elements of our tradition.

Some of the things Kalb says makes me think he would readily grant this point (tradition understood as a means, not an end, etc…), but at other times it seems like he wants to use substantive elements of our own tradition – a focus on local control, and unwillingness to coerce agreement on matters like religion – to boost the appeal of a conservative heuristic.

Ok, enough. Let me pose two questions for Jim and for the group:

1. Do we agree that conservative rules of thumb could often support centralized state power, the use of force to compel social homogeneity? If not, why not?
2. When faced by a venerable institution that seems deeply flawed, might not someone who acknowledges the value of the conservative heuristic nonetheless decide that the institution needs to be razed to the ground, not tinkered with?

Posted by: baa on January 22, 2004 4:33 PM

I want to add my voice to the chorus of thanks for this fascinating discussion.

And if can add my own bit of terribly trendy technospeak to the mix: Santa Fe institute types often talk about evolutionary systems existing "on the edge of chaos". What many researchers of what are generically called "complex adaptive systems" have found is that such systems reach maximum stability when the parameters of the system are right on the knife edge between an "ordered" state (i.e., stricting repeating loops) and "chaos" (a state in which no pattern ever repeats). Indeed, when the parameters of the system are themselves allowed to "evolve", they tend to move spontaneously toward the "edge of chaos" condition.

In biological evolution, we can see this in such things as the advent of DNA-based sexual reproduction: sex provides a "randomizer", a way for novel patterns to be generated from the old, while the error-correcting nature of DNA allows for minimization of harmful mutations, and the preservation of useful patterns. Too much order prevents the organism from evolving in reponse to a changed environment, while too much novelty leads to harmful mutation and death.

In a social context, "tradition" is the equivilent of DNA - the means to ensure that what has been learned is not lost to succeeding generations. Methods of innovation, like the scientific method or market capitalism, (or in the political realm the common law) is like sexual reproduction, a means of "innovation within the system". I might add that one reason for the West's historical success has been its "evolution of the parameters" toward the edge of chaos condition: unlike, for example, Confucianism, which venerates ancestors to the point of dismissing all innovation, or classical Islam, which had in the Koran an immutable and inflexible blueprint for society, post reformation Christendom was able to successfully innovate and learn from other cultures within its traditional social structure.

Of course, modernism in all its forms - buildings designed with a "clean sheet of paper", judges abandoning precedent to apply abstract legal theories from the bench - has moved us well into the chaotic side of things, and we can see the strains bulding up over the last few generations. Eventually, a society that is "closer to the edge" - perhaps a reformed China, or maybe some small part of the West that emerges from the wreckage - will take over predominance. Evolution, after all, is only "stable" over the long term...

Posted by: jimbo on January 22, 2004 6:07 PM

I can't resist adding to Jimbo's comment the observation that traditional artistic forms (songs and dances, picture genres, story genres, poetic forms, housing and building and town types, etc) are the DNA of the arts. They're also like the elements of language -- they're what enable you to speak, and to say what you have to say. So: DNA/genes/whatever equal traditional artistic forms equals language. They're what we're given to work with.

Seems silly to throw 'em away, or trash 'em, or see them as somehow ... a letdown. Let alone as things that prevent us from expressing ourselves or realizing our potential. Why not work with them instead? Imagination and energy move things to the edge of chaos and provide the froth, while the given forms provide guarantees that things won't go too far wrong. And, even if imagination innovation fail (as they often do), traditional forms will prevent the result from being a disaster. What's wrong with routine work, as long as it's human and pleasing?

And hence Christopher Alexander, Nikos Salingaros, Jane Jacobs, Frederick Turner, and thank heavens more and more others every day.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 22, 2004 6:20 PM

To Mr. Kinahan: Every state prescribes some things, supports some things in ways that fall short of prescription, is indifferent to some things, discourages some things in various ways, and forbids some things. The attitude it takes in each case depends on the understanding of man and the world that guides it. I can't think of what it should look to in forming that understanding other than the complex of traditions and understandings of the society it governs. Sometimes those things will be erroneous or the various understandings will change. I'm not sure what to do about that. The same is true of every conceivable source of guidance.

You seem to suggest a science of predicting the future trajectory of the habits and understandings of a society. That sounds to me rather like the science of predicting the price of stocks. In a way, it's almost as if I were to try to substitute a psychological prediction of what I'll want to do tomorrow for actually making up my mind what to do. It seems odd. Do try to construct such a science if you have some thoughts how to do it. Sometimes things that seem odd at first somehow pay off. Attempts by the government to attemtp to apply it would worry me though. Among other things, it seems at odds with the notion of government that is answerable to the people.

To Mr. Fiore: I'll read your paper but not right now. Thank you for the invitation. For my own theory of the relation between liberalism and tradition look here. The bottom line is that America has been a compound of explicit liberalism and implicit nonliberal traditions. The former has steadily eaten up the latter and now the balance has been lost so there are big problems.

To baa: My concern in regard to these issues is what tradition needs to operate as a system of accumulating and organizing knowledge. The general problem with central control is that it consciously sets explicit rules, normally (in modern times, anyway) derived by some rationalized process. Tradition in contrast tends to operate more through implicit rules that grow up unseen and through the actions and reactions of those on the spot. So too much central control risks killing the ability of tradition to make its specific contribution to life.

I certainly agree that some amount of centralized state power is consistent with the health of tradition and may well be a good idea for one reason or another. As to affirmative action and multiculturalism, it seems that in principle they destroy the possibility of cultural tradition. To the extent a cultural community exists with its own tradition they insist that it be mixed at every level of detail with every other cultural community and thus that its traditions be deprived of all authority and applicability.

And I agree that destruction of an institution could sometimes be the
best thing.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 22, 2004 6:44 PM

Just to clarify: Jim, you seem to view the genesis of traditions as a sort of ideological survival of the fittest, and that we can therefore trust attitudes and methods that have (pardon the cliche; I plead tradition) stood the test of time to be basically sensible and effective. Is this a fair description of your stand? I want to make sure I'm not misunderstanding you before I say anything else.

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 23, 2004 11:09 AM

Marxism and Pluralism are not the same thing. In fact, they're practically polar opposites. I'd say that a degree of capitalism is absolutely necessary in terms of freedom for puralism to exist, and it's pretty obvious from the examples of the Marxist societies we've been unfortunate enough to watch, that Marxism is utterly about cracking down on freedom of religion and freedom of speech, the values that make pluralism possible.

Posted by: Ben on January 23, 2004 12:48 PM

To Nicholas Liu: that's certainly a lot of what I'm saying.

To Ben: Agreed that Marxism is non-pluralist. You might look at what I say about communism in the Q&A, that it's an attempt to combine liberalism with fascism -- liberation of the individual with group unity and self-assertion. The latter aspect is non-pluralist. Of course, for a Marxist in a liberal society it might seem a good strategy to press pluralism for the sake of reducing social cohesion and so improving the prospects for radical change.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 23, 2004 1:26 PM

Okay, here's a question, then: if the authority of traditions stems from their having stood the test of time, what is the rationale behind appealing to people to respect existing traditions? By your reasoning, shouldn't valuable traditions be able to take care of themselves?

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 23, 2004 1:36 PM

Suppose here at 2Blowhards it becomes customary to be civil because people find that while it requires restraint it means that discussions are more pleasant and productive. In fact, it becomes a tradition, part of what makes 2Blowhards the kind of place it is and a good place to visit. Then someone starts being rude because there are some participants he thinks are jerks and he's tired of holding it in. People tell him "Don't do that, it's not what we do, that's not the kind of place this is." Does Mr. Liu believe those people are being silly because if civility is so great it can look after itself?

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 23, 2004 2:41 PM

Good points Nicholas!

This is a daily concern in Quebec, where tradition has become such a fragile thing that "language police" and draconian schooling laws are required to control the damage... When "tradition" goes on the defensive, it's called "reaction"--and we know where that leads, don't we?


Posted by: David Fiore on January 23, 2004 2:42 PM

Jim, I do not believe that, but it seems to me that I would have to believe that if I accepted your assumptions. I take it you disagree; please explain why.

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 23, 2004 3:06 PM

Mr. Kalb,
I've never seen you mention (either here or on your websites) the work of the Scottish philsopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who has written extensively about traditions in the context of moral philosophy. MacIntyre's thought seems, at least superficially, to be very similar to yours. His position is Catholic (Thomist), he stresses the particularity of communities, and he seems to realize that mainstream conservatives aren't really all that conservative. One of the chapters to his book "After Virtue" is titled "Fact, Explanation, and Expertise", something that would be very much at home on your website.
Anyway, are you familiar with MacIntyre, and if so, could you offer any comments on his work?

Posted by: Damon on January 23, 2004 3:23 PM

David, Nicholas -- What Jim's done us the favor of doing is explicating conservatism, a political tradition that it seems (to me, at least) too many people don't understand very well. He's done a great job of this -- I can't imagine a better Conservatism 101 seminar. So I don't think it's fair to ask him to debate its virtues too. If you're in the mood to do that, great, but let me suggest starting with a reading of, say, Jim's Conservatism FAQ (a link to it's on the posting), or maybe The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia (a link to it's on the first posting in this series). Conservatism's a political philosophy that's been hammered out by tons of good minds over hundreds of years, and you're likely to have a good time wrangling with it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2004 3:31 PM

Good question about MacIntyre. I read him some time ago, was generally sympathetic, and haven't returned to him since. I couldn't say why without rereading him.

I don't understand Mr. Liu's latest point well enough to explain what I disagree with.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 23, 2004 3:40 PM

I would have liked to see more specifics, more examples. Our "traditions" include slavery, racial segregation, gender role stereotyping, industrial pollution, child labor, homophobia. Conservatives fought to maintain these traditions and continue to fight for some of them. The "liberals" Mr. Kalb denigrates opposed them, in some cases with the support of government action. Come down out of your ivory tower and reveal the specific policies about real issues that your philosophy advocates. Comparing "merry Christmas" to Martin Luther King is simply puerile.

Posted by: terry on January 23, 2004 3:52 PM

Just a bit about emergent properties and behaviors. Geese migrating in that neat V pattern, always holding it's shape, seems complex. But it is the result of only one or 2 simple rules. Simulations of similar, seemingly complex phenomena, have shown that wildely complex behavior can result from the simultaneous application of very few rules operating in a system. (Someone mentioned the Santa Fe Institute above, where much of this type of artificial life simulation research has been done).

In light of that, I have no problem whatsoever with the thought that human consciousness has arisen from the very many complex structures of the human brain. I have little doubt that a reductionist mapping of the brain, that will enlighten us much more about how consciousness funcions in us, will emerge in the next decade or 2.

Cellular automata produce amazing patterns with only one rule: how much greater the complexity that emerges from billions of neurons?

At that point Nietzche's quip that God is Dead will actually be true.

Posted by: David Mercer on January 23, 2004 3:53 PM

Michael, I have read the FAQ. If it's unfair to ask Jim to debate the rationale behind conservatism further, I trust he will say as much. If on the other hand what you mean is that you don't want people to get into that here, I'll respect your wishes, of course.

Jim, I think I may have gotten ahead of myself. Backtracking a little: why does the persistence of an institution in time indicate that said institution contains something of value?

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 23, 2004 4:03 PM

Actually, I realise this was covered in the FAQ. Sorry. That says:

'It is a network of commonly accepted attitudes, beliefs and practices that evolves through strengthening of things that work and rejection of things that lead to conflict and failure. It therefore comprises a collection of habits that have proved useful in a huge variety of practical affairs, and a comprehensive and generally coherent point of view that reflects very extensive experience and thought.'

If the survival of a tradition indicates value, shouldn't the value of a tradition ensure survival? (That is a somewhat imprecise way of putting it, but I can think of no better at the moment.) If not, why, and how is that internally consistent?

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 23, 2004 4:18 PM

To terry: You can look in the comments for various discussions of the particular example of slavery. My views on other specific topics and policies can be found in my weblog and in my writings generally. Since 2Blowhards is not primarily a political forum I think they put the interview here more as a manner of general interest than as a springboard for general political discussion. So if you're interested in pursuing these questions I'd suggest looking on my sites and then posting comments, questions, denunciations of whatnot as comments on my blog or entries in my discussion forum.

To Mr. Mercer: Simple algorithms give rise to very complex patterns, but I don't see any grounds for saying that very complex patterns are the same as consciousness. I don't even know how to understand the claim that they're the same. For a detailed discussion of the issues, see the Chalmers piece I linked.

To Mr. Liu: I still don't understand. I described the informal enforcement by social pressure of a particular tradition, a tradition of civility in a discussion forum. If social pressure didn't work there might be something more formal -- the uncivil participant might get barred from the forum for example. All that seems perfectly normal to me. Is the point that such a tradition doesn't need any sort of enforcement because if it's good it'll survive on its own?

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 23, 2004 5:36 PM

If I understand Mr. Liu, the question is "Can a tradition be bad and yet endure?"

It seems to me that the answer is obviously yes, and that Mr Culbreath was on the right track a day or two ago, when he observed that conservatives don't venerate a tradition simply because it is a tradition, but because it is judged good with reference to some transcendent standard.

I also think it needs to be said that good traditions don't necessarily endure, and that this is the cause of the air of sad resignation which characterizes so many conservatives.

Posted by: Charlie on January 23, 2004 9:42 PM

Jim: 'I described the informal enforcement by social pressure of a particular tradition, a tradition of civility in a discussion forum. If social pressure didn't work there might be something more formal -- the uncivil participant might get barred from the forum for example. All that seems perfectly normal to me.'

I agree that it is perfectly normal. However, the basis for enforcing that tradition wouldn't come from the fact that it is a tradition, surely? It would come from the fact that the majority of users want a cordial environment in which to discuss things, that the blowhards pay for this webspace and thus have a right to determine what goes on it, and so on. I don't see how the fact that it's 'always been like this' comes into the picture at all.

'Is the point that such a tradition doesn't need any sort of enforcement because if it's good it'll survive on its own?'

If your basis for believing that the value of such a tradition is indicated by its persistence in time, then yes, shouldn't it? If there were no such direct relationship between the value of an institution and its survival, wouldn't it then be a mistake to believe that an institution's growing up naturally and surviving (so far) is an indication that it has merit?

Charlie: 'If I understand Mr. Liu, the question is "Can a tradition be bad and yet endure?"'

More like 'Is there any relationship between a tradition's value and its survivability, really?'

'It seems to me. . . that Mr Culbreath was on the right track a day or two ago, when he observed that conservatives don't venerate a tradition simply because it is a tradition, but because it is judged good with reference to some transcendent standard.'

That seems to me to be the case, too. In fact I can't help but think that the whole issue of tradition only really comes into play in influencing to an extent how strongly a traditionalist will push for a certain thing, *after* deciding that the thing is good based on totally unrelated criteria. There should be less emphasis, then, on tradition, and more on what these other criteria are.

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 23, 2004 11:22 PM


I understand what you're saying (re: this excercise being concerned with explicating conservatism, rather than proselytizing in its' favour)--but what I've disputed, in the main, is Jim's contention that "multiculturalism" is a liberal problem... I see things differently. I see "identity politics" as arch-conservative John C. Calhoun's theory of "concurrent majorities" sprung hideously to life (and I think I see this more clearly than Jim does, because I happen to live in Quebec, which, it has often been noted, occupies an eerily similar position--vis-a-vis the federal government--to the Antebellum South. I've elaborated on some of this at my blog.

I feel I should add--I would not have bothered continuing to challenge Jim on this point if I didn't get the feeling that he is arguing in good faith. This has been a very useful excercise...

Thanks to you both!

Posted by: David Fiore on January 24, 2004 4:41 AM

To Mr. Liu: Of course it is always possible to present arguments for particular traditionalist positions, and those who favor them normally have some sense of what goods they support and how. The problem is that it's always possible to present arguments for any position whatever, and everything anyone proposes always seems good to the proposer. How forceful an argument appears depends on various preconceptions that normally prevent people from seeing the force of opposing arguments. Arguments that seem extremely clear and forceful often lead to catastrophic results because they are based on subtly flawed or incomplete premises that have become widespread for one reason or another. The more incomplete and skewed the premises and the more oversimplified the result the more clear and forceful the argument is likely to seem.

Some sort of reality check is needed. In the natural sciences we have experiment, in the social world we have tradition. Hence the point of the argument "we've done it this way for a long time and things could be worse." Naturally others can always redefine the way things have been as total catastrophe. The traditionalist objection to that move is that if it's allowable to redefine as catastophe something that people in many places over a long period of time have on the whole found satisfactory or at least tolerable then the possibility of a reality check has been lost and there's no limit on what might be done politically. The last century offers examples.

There's also the point that rational conclusions don't affect conduct as reliably as settled habits, expectations and understandings. We get the former through argument and the latter through tradition. Hence the importance to social order -- to avoidance of the war of all against all -- of loyalty to tradition.

To Mr. Fiore: We've had an exchange on this topic at your blog and I agree there's no need to continue at this point. And yes, I do think that conservatism is less irrational and violent than liberalism and other forms of modernism and in the long run prevails over them. Its understanding of human life is better.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 24, 2004 7:29 AM

Jim, would you agree that a tradition's age establishes a presumption in its favor, but that this is a presumption which might be overcome by other considerations?

Posted by: Charlie on January 24, 2004 1:40 PM

My first post here. Thanks, Mr. Kalb, for an enlightening and entertaining interview. I, like MB, have been a non-PPP thus far in my life, and so your definitions and principles are definitely things that I had not heard expressed in your remarkably clear fashion. For that I am grateful. A point that bothers me is that it seems that for a person to be a true conservative would mean that he/she would also contain liberal tendencies, since liberalism is a natural part of the human makeup, just as it seems to me that a true liberal would contain conservative tendencies, since part of what people want is conservatism. I guess my value is balance more than freedom or tradition. It still is not obvious to me that tradition is to be valued more than freedom, but that does not make me anti-tradition any more than not valuing race more than what it is makes one racist, as I think Mr. Kalb pointed out before. Conservatism seems to be an adult worldview, trying to accept what is and learning to live with those limits, whereas liberalism is a more adolescent worldview, in trying to test those limits to see if they really are limits, trying to improve by dint of material. And I guess I don't see that adults are necessarily more correct than adolescents. The adult viewpoint is more likely to last, to show itself in line with the good the longest, but the adolescent viewpoint can show what of the new is good. Both are required for a living tradition, just as both are required for a living freedom. I believe Mr. Kalb is still too conservative to be a true conservative, but in spite of that, maybe even because of that, he still is obviously good, someone you can't dismiss, someone you can learn from. Ultimately, what is good may not only be beyond tradition, beyond freedom, but even beyond my beloved balance. I hope I'm not being too non-logical. Oh well.

Without tradition, there can be no stability.
Without freedom, there can be no growth.
Too much tradition, and there is stagnation.
Too much freedom, and there is insanity.

Thanks again.

Posted by: platocave on January 24, 2004 1:48 PM

One more thing: right now, balance dictates a more conservative view in America since it is currently skewed, not horrendously but skewed nonetheless, in a liberal direction. And I think America, indeed, is starting a pendulum swing back that way, "naturally being driven" that way. Naturally and being driven at the same time.

Posted by: platocave on January 24, 2004 1:54 PM

To Charlie: That's one way of putting it, and I don't disagree with it. The formulation seems to view tradition too much from outside, though, as if we were disembodied deciders with no history, social location or settled way of understanding things who deal with life by going through lists of considerations and weighing pros and cons.

One aspect of tradition I probably haven't emphasized enough in this discussion is that it forms the background and structure of our understandings. It is through it that we recognize what things are and so begin to be be able to know how to deal with them. A man's recognition of his wife as a wife, for example, depends on the whole tradition of his society related to marriage, the family, and the relations of the sexes generally. Ditto for all human relations except maybe some extremely abstract universal human solidarity. That seems like a whole other discussion, though, not one to start at the end of a long string of comments!

Thanks for the question -- you've suggested an aspect of the situation I need to think about and develop more.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 24, 2004 3:30 PM


There's just one final point to be made here.

Whether you realize it or not, you are a structuralist of Foucaultian proportions, and, like all structuralists, there is a massive flaw in your reasoning:

if "tradition"/structure were anywhere near as strong a determinant of human consciousness as you say it is--we would not be able to have this conversation at all. you would be as blind to the real nature of "tradition" as you claim that I, and any other liberal "rationalist" is.

Do you have an answer?

Unless you do, you'd better pack it in.


Posted by: David Fiore on January 24, 2004 5:52 PM

Good point, Mr. Fiore, my language was over-enthusiastic in my last comment. My belief that tradition is essential but not the only constituent of our knowledge of things should be enough I think to save me from cultural solipsism.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 24, 2004 10:51 PM


Fair enough.


Posted by: David Fiore on January 24, 2004 10:54 PM

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