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« Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part One | Main | Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part Three »

January 21, 2004

Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part Two

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


2Blowhards: What was it like going through Yale Law when you did in the '70s, having the convictions you do?
My convictions were a lot less concrete at the time, although I did find the place ideologically pretty alien. I just didn't believe in any of it. I responded by taking myself out of the loop as much as possible and doing a lot of legal history. The place was flexible enough that on the whole I could enjoy it.

2B: We've been mighty abstract so far. What might be a conservative way of thinking about and approaching a concrete, in-the-news type topic?
How about immigration? On a conservative view the key to immigration would be cultural and political coherence. America isn't just a legal framework or a means to an end, it's the American people and their common life over time. The American people isn't simply an aggregate, it's a complex unity. So even though America can absorb new citizens, without a generally stable population there will be problems because it won't have the coherence and specificity to be a concrete object of loyalty. It will be an ideological proposition rather than a country. I'd rather have a country to love than an ideological proposition to sign on to. I should add that without a stable population there can't be the common habits, understandings and loyalties that are needed for the American people to deliberate and act in a somewhat sensible way. Self-government becomes impossible. Which may be one reason American elites like wide-open immigration and ordinary Americans don't.

2B: In one of your online papers, you distinguish between liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism. Jeremy Shearmur once talked about how, in his view, there are three main political traditions: conservatism, liberalism (subdivided into market liberalism, ie. Republicans, and welfare liberals, ie., Democrats), and socialism. Is that a taxonomy you can live with? Does it conflict with yours?
I don't object to Shearmur's taxonomy. It's a little different from mine but not really at odds with it. There are different ways of sorting things out. I mostly sort out politics by looking at ultimate standards of what's good and bad. So when I say "liberal" I mean a tendency that makes equality and satisfaction of individual preferences the standards for what's good. On that line of thought welfare state liberalism and ideological libertarianism are variations of the same thing. Both are basically concerned with satisfying individual preferences and both take all preferences as equal in worth. They contrast with conservatism because conservatism says the human good is more complicated than everyone getting what he wants.

In the paper you mention (here) the emphasis is on methods more than goals. I say there that a "leftist" is someone who favors bureaucracy, a "libertarian" is someone who favors markets, and a "conservative" is someone favors tradition -- that is, who favors accepting institutions that have grown up more or less on their own terms. Leftists and libertarians in their different ways want to make everything completely rational and systematic, and conservatives reject that idea.

If you apply these classifications to American politics, then the Democrats are mostly left/liberals with very little tolerance for conservatism, while the Republicans are mostly libertarian/liberals who market themselves to some extent by appealing to conservative themes like religion, family, patriotism and whatnot -- things people want to live by that don't reduce to bureaucracy or contract.

A basic problem with conservatism in America is that in a country as big and complex as ours conservatism has to have a strong bias in favor of limited government and decentralization. Centralizing things here means rationalizing them on simple principles. People with ambitions in national politics like expanding the influence of national politics. The result is that American politics has taken on a tendency toward centralization and therefore rationalism in Oakeshott's sense.

2B: Conservatism and libertarianism are both generally viewed as right-wing. Can you spell out the main differences between them from the conservative point of view? What, in your view, are libertarianism's shortcomings?
They're both viewed as right-wing because centralized bureaucratic control is the main engine of social rationalization at present. From a theoretical standpoint ideological libertarianism is just another form of rationalism and not at all conservative. As a practical matter though it's mostly an ally of tradition because it opposes the main current enemy, the PC social-services state. The shortcoming of ideological libertarianism is that it says that a very few simple principles are enough for the whole of government and social life. Depending on circumstances that shortcoming can cause serious problems. In practice of course things get complex. People who call themselves libertarians sometimes have a strong streak of philosophical conservatism. They might find libertarian terms a better way to explain their case to the American people and even themselves. That kind of fusionist position can work to the extent the political disputes that matter don't involve government functions that conservatives want to keep and libertarians don't.

2B: Is liberalism the opposite of conservatism? Or is radicalism the opposite of conservatism?
I'd say that modernism is the opposite of conservatism. Liberalism and radicalism are both forms of modernism -- liberalism is an individualistic form and radicalism an aggressive form.

2B: What about communism?
It's a radical attempt to combine liberalism, which makes individual preferences the standard of the good, with fascism, which makes group preferences the standard. So it's supposed to achieve both the liberation of the individual and the unity and power of the group, and it's very aggressive in its way of doing so. A lot of people have been drawn to it because it combines the appeal of liberalism -- the ideal of everyone getting to do what he wants -- with the appeal of fascism -- comradeship, struggle, great events, smashing the opposition and so on. The combination doesn't make sense, and in practice communism is the same as fascism.

2B: Conservatism seems comfortable with certain words and ideas that many present-day Americans find hard to digest: inequality and prejudice, for example. What's the conservative view of these two words?
I think the conservative view is that it makes no sense to take inequality and prejudice as the central issues of politics and base a whole theory of things on the idea that they're evil and have to be rooted out. Society can't function without differentiation and we can't think or act without preconceptions. So if those things are natural and necessary, how can the attempt to extirpate them be the key to a good society? It's often good to reduce some inequalities and prejudices, but the idea that simply as such they're an ultimate evil makes no sense.

2B: Perhaps what underlies a lot of people's fears of the word conservatism is their fear that it has something to do with racism, and maybe even fascism. Does it?
I think conservatism is less antiracist than liberalism, in the same way liberalism is less anticommunist than conservatism. In each case there's a sense that there are real evils to be condemned but the condemnation often extends to things that don't deserve it and becomes a sort of generalized devil theory. People end up looking for commies or racists under every bed.

Conservatives think traditions and attitudes and institutions that just grow up are important to how people live. That makes them less suspicious than liberals when people with a particular history like to live with others who share that history and the things that grow out of it. It's conservative to think that we aren't always remaking ourselves from scratch, that background matters.

As always, there are complications. Mainstream conservatives in America today insist they're the real antiracists. A big reason is that the left has been promoting minority ethnic assertiveness as a way of unsettling majority habits and understandings. There's also the argument that if background matters then personal responsibility doesn't apply, and the government should step in to rearrange the situations people get themselves into. So ideas like colorblindness and rugged individualism function in a conservative way in America now, and conservatives adopt them. I should add that conservatives normally have a genuine respect for individuals and their differences, so if the choice is ideological racism or ideological antiracism they'll usually go for the latter. I do think though that antiracism is fundamentally a less natural ideal for conservatives than for liberals.

As to fascism, the view that conservatives are really fascists or proto- fascists is an illusion that it's natural for liberals to fall into. Liberals look at social order as something constructed to advance someone's purposes, so if you reject liberalism, which is the view that social order should be constructed to advance the purposes of everyone equally, it seems that the point must be to get your own way and ride roughshod over everyone. That's a sensible line of thought if you're a social constructivist and you think the basic political issue is whose interests get advanced. Not everyone thinks that way. Someone might think that society can't be constructed, or that the basic question is not who gets what he wants but what's good and bad and what the public interest is. If the latter is the way you think, then rejecting liberalism doesn't make you a fascist or anything close to it.

2B: I sometimes look at computers, ads or the new Times Square and think, well, gee, there it is: the revolution has arrived. I know that in your view too the liberal revolution is with us, here and now. Can you explain what phase of liberalism you see us as having arrived at now? And why is that a problem?
I think the liberal revolution matured in the '60s and early '70s. After that it could be taken for granted that society is a human construction that should be constantly reconstructed for the sake of individualistic freedom, equality, and efficiency. That's why things like a public role for religion, more-or-less traditional family relations, and various informal social distinctions came to seem illegitimate and wrong. Limitations on government like "states' rights" became disreputable. Everything had to be changed.

That has created lots of problems. Liberal individualism dissolves connections, so government and people become disconnected. The people lose interest in politics and their rulers become manipulative and ideological or self-seeking. The sexes and generations don't connect, so society doesn't reproduce. There are fewer children and they're less well-off. Educational standards go down. Young people out of school fail to establish themselves and start families.

The revolution was supposed to be for the sake of the individual and private life. It turns out that it dissolves those things. Formal institutions take away the serious functions of private life, and what's left are purely personal relationships that become fleeting and insubstantial. Practical ties that make us irreplaceable to each other are done away with and we become interchangeable units of production and consumption. The only way most of us can matter individually is to claim victimhood. So the system puts individual satisfaction first but doesn't satisfy much of anyone.

The most basic problem is that the stated goals of liberalism necessarily contradict themselves. "Equal freedom" means we have to be kept from oppressing each other. There's no limit to the demand and nothing to counterbalance it. If you take it seriously as a final standard then guardians have to be appointed to supervise us in all things and keep us from infringing each other's equality and freedom. The result is gross inequality and universal suppression. PC and compulsory re-education programs, "diversity training" and so on, are examples. No doubt we'll see bigger and better examples.

2B: I don't think it would hurt to spell out a little more explicitly what you've got in mind when you refer to the fundamental contradiction within liberalism. I take it that you're referring to the old conundrum -- in an egalitarian regime, how do you enforce egalitarianism? But perhaps I'm wrong.
That's not wrong, but I think in liberalism freedom is more basic than equality so I'd formulate it as the impossibility of enforcing freedom. In order to set everyone free you have to abolish all the despotisms of social life. Since man is social, though, that requires total control of everything anyone does. Otherwise people will somehow impose on each other.

2B: Media conservatives often seem oblivious to sensual and aesthetic pleasures. I've floated the idea that a part of leftism's appeal is that it's attractive. People are convinced as much by aesthetics and emotions as they are by arguments. Is this a fact of life that conservatives simply have to live with? Or should conservatives learn how to package and present what they're selling more appealingly?
I think political commentators generally are oblivious to sensual and aesthetic pleasures. I've often thought that the fact I spend more time thinking and writing about politics than Southern Sung landscapes or whatever must show that I lack something important. Still, in the case of conservatism you've got the problem that liberalism is based on the immediate promise of pleasure -- of giving people what they want -- while conservatism is not. Conservatism has a more complicated idea of what's good. I think that the conservative pitch has to be that pleasure doesn't work as a primary goal, at least not as a general thing. As Dr. Johnson said, "Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment" (here). Most pleasures are a side effect of something else.

So I think that what conservatives have to present is an ideal of a way of life that's known to be good, the sort of thing liberals write off as "nostalgia," with pleasure as an aspect but not the main point. Conservatism has to rely on love of fairly concrete ideas of what's good -- God, country, neighborhood, family, traditional ways and so on -- and not on seduction by pleasure. There's evidence, by the way, that conservatism is not anti-pleasure, anti-beauty or anti-happiness. Conservatives are on the whole happier than leftists (here), the advance of liberalism hasn't done much for the fine arts, traditional foods are better than rationalized productions (here), and there's more sexual pleasure within than outside marriage (here).

{End Part Two 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 21, 2004


I think the problem I'm having here is that tradition seems to be its own justification, and that whatever is traditional is necessarily good. (If you think I'm misrepresenting you on this point, of course, feel free to shout at me.)

Let's say (to use a slightly extreme example) we have a Taliban-esque society. Men do all the work, have voting rights, and are forced to maintain beards of a minimum length. Women have no voting rights (nor much in the way of rights at all), and are not permitted to be seen in public unless covered from head to foot in a burqa. Let's assume for the sake of argument that this is a much longer-lived situation than the actual Taliban regime was, and that this has been the way of things for a thousand years or so.

What I want to ask is, do you think tradition can be suitable justification for this situation? I'm not personally convinced that it can. It strikes me that to seriously justify this situation as being for the good, you'd have to come up with a number of explanations for why women shouldn't be allowed to vote or go out wearing something less all-covering than the burqa, or why men should have to grow their beards to a certain length. Just saying "that's how it's always been" doesn't strike me as adequate; tradition in this case (at least as I see it) is not so much a justification as it is an excuse.

However—as I said, if you think I'm misreading you, please feel free to correct me. As for this point:

I think political commentators generally are oblivious to sensual and aesthetic pleasures argument from me :)

Posted by: James Russell on January 21, 2004 2:06 AM

As informing as this interview is, I'm still left with one big question. As ideas may be clear and sound, but there's always reality.

So, is it possible to talk about political ideas without taking into regard they apply to a political system discussed that may be rotten to its core? Say, because congressmen need to make so much money for their re-election campaigns, they can be bought?

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 21, 2004 3:59 AM

To James Russell: Tradition has its own authority. You can if it helps think of it as a sort of legislative decision of the community as a whole. The members of the community vote over time through the actions and responses they find fitting to form the particulars of tradition and cause it by their acceptance to become socially authoritative. Tradition therefore reflects endless experience regarding what seems right and turns out well in various circumstances, much more experience than any of us could hope to accumulate or analyze. It's normally stupid to disregard it. That doesn't mean that every tradition is binding in conscience in every case any more than every formal piece of parliamentary legislation is. Traditions can point in different directions, there are authorities other than tradition, and when there are conflicts we have to work things out as best we can based on an ultimate commitment to the good, beautiful and true.

Taleban rule wasn't likely to last a thousand years, so they're a bad example. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) suggested that kind of purity would normally last 30 years or so. The situation in Iran seems to bear that out. They were a radical sectarian group within a radical reformist movement (Wahhabbism) within a religion (Islam) with strong antitraditional features. A religion that intends to put a single comprehensive code of law (the Shari'ah) covering all relations of life into effect everywhere, by armed conquest if necessary, is not altogether friendly to tradition. For more tradition-friendly viewpoints see Confucius ("Among the means for the regeneration of mankind, those made with noise and show are of the least importance") and Christ ("The kingdom of God cometh not with observation"). Force and violence are part of life, and of every social order, but they are less typical of tradition than of other means of governing.

To ijsbrand: you're right that when you're making actual decisions you have to look at the actual facts and take them very seriously. Still, we can't do everything at once. General principles are also important, and at times we should think about them and talk about them. That's what we're doing here. If good general principles have no application to current politics because everything's rotten to the core then current politics are in big trouble and probably won't be here for long.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 21, 2004 9:19 AM


Thanks Michael and Mr. Kalb for presenting this interesting interview.

Mr Kalb:

I’m interested in where you place Friedrich Hayek in your taxonomy. Hayek is a big fan of tradition, (One of my favorite Hayek quotes is “Man is good neither by nature nor by reason, but by tradition.”), but is careful to distinguish himself from what he calls conservatives.

The terminology can get quite confusing. Hayek calls himself a liberal in the traditional meaning of the word, clearly different from your usage more modern usage. I can’t quite pin down whether the term conservative means the same for you as for Hayek.

My question is, what is your view of Hayek’s postscript to the Constitution of Liberty ‘Why I’m not a Conservative”? Here is a quote from it that highlights some of the confusion:

“The difference between liberalism [Hayek’s] and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American, but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.”

Do you consider Hayek's liberalism equivalent to your conservatism? If not, how do the concepts of liberty and freedom fit into your conception of conservatism?

Posted by: Paul Mansour on January 21, 2004 11:39 AM

It's a while since I've read Hayek, but based on recollection I'd consider him a libertarian -- that is, a liberal -- with subordinate conservative elements that in the long run aren't enough to sustain his position. It seems to me that if you make freedom the ultimate standard for government then a process of dissolution starts and something like the present state of affairs is the natural outcome. There's a definite ultimate standard, freedom, so the traditions on which Hayek's favored society depend are put in question and have to defend themselves by reference to that standard. Since nobody understands just how tradition works (as I think Hayek himself observes) they can't defend themselves convincingly, so they get undermined and eventually collapse. I go into some related issues in my piece Liberalism: Ideal and Reality ( ).

As to freedom, I think it's a good both in itself and because it makes other goods possible (e.g., development of human faculties and exercise of personal moral responsibility). So I'm happy it has a high place in American and Western tradition. I don't see how it can be considered the ultimate good though. It can't matter much intrinsically unless there are things intrinsically worth choosing. But then the goodness of those things, as well as the freedom to choose them, must be part of what's ultimately good.

Liberals and libertarians argue that the status of freedom as the highest political good doesn't prejudice other nonpolitical goods. I'm not impressed by the argument. Government demands life and death loyalty, and the laws order the whole of social life. So I don't see how the highest good recognized by government can be different from the highest good with general social recognition. Since man is social the latter in turn becomes generally accepted as authoritative in private life. It seems to me that what's happened with liberalism in the West bears out that view.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 21, 2004 12:58 PM

I should add: tradition requires a certain degree of freedom to work because it's not something centralized or administered but depends on local autonomy to allow local experience to solidify into tradition. We go more into that tomorrow.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 21, 2004 1:03 PM

"there's more sexual pleasure within than outside marriage"

I have trouble with believing that one.

Posted by: daniel on January 21, 2004 2:52 PM

The most coherent argument/example I can think of for conservatism is driving a car. Out here in Utah there are places where you may drive as fast as you want or or are able to drive, but even at Bonneville there are rules. They do not restrict your freedom to kill yourself by doing something stupid, but they try to see that you do it in a vehicle that will not kill you spontaneously, and that you don't kill anyone else in the process.

In other places your life quite literally depends on tradition. Everyone is assumed to agree to and abide by the same traditions: we stop on red, yield to pedestrians, keep to the right, refrain from left turns where posted, and so on. Accepting and abiding are essential if you intend to drive in downtown Salt Lake City or on I-15. One driver out of thousands who decides to innovate can, and frequently does, kill people or tie up traffic for hours.

These traditions have grown out of long experience, and are codified in law. We try mightily to educate our young in these traditions. They are old and honorable, but thay are not immutable. There was a time when right turn on red was permitted only rarely. The energy crisis of the '70s got people thinking about the quantity of fuel that was wasted by drivers waiting for the light to change so that they could turn right, and the tradition was changed. Most drivers today probably think it's always been that way.

This is an easy example because the value of the tradition, and the consequences of discarding it, are readily seen. The trick is to defend other traditions, equally or more valuable, in a way that is equally easy. I value private property, heterosexual marriage, two-parent families, and the necessity of immigrants adapting to our ways rather than vice-versa, not solely because they are traditional, but because they are traditions rising out of generations of trial and error. It's easy to propose to modernize them, but how do the modernizers propose to undo the damage if the new way doesn't work and no one honors those who remember the old way?

Posted by: Jim Taylor on January 21, 2004 4:14 PM

Some questions for Mr. Kalb:

You are always careful to point out that traditionalist conservatism is not a monolith of opinion. Indeed, there are many established traditions that find themselves radically opposed to other established traditions. The intense divisions within Christianity are a case in point.

1. How do you respond to those who say, "Liberalism is the only public philosophy that enables opposing traditions to live in peace with one another"?

2. If your answer is that various traditions should live separately rather than together, how might this be accomplished in the United States? Isn't it rather a pipe dream?

3. Is there a sense in which liberalism and tolerance are legitimate components of the Western Christian tradition?

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 21, 2004 4:22 PM

Mr Kalb,

I agree with your descriptions of conservatism and liberalism. I am curious, however, about how you see them related to another political distinction which is related, but, I think, different.

I almost all democracies, historically all the way back to Rome and Athens, you see the emergence of two political factions. One of these factions draws its support from the poorer, less powerful part of the population, and the other from the established elite. Let us call them the Left and the Right, to distinguish them from conservatism and liberalism as philosophical positions. The party of the left typically wants to acquire and distribute resources to its supporters. The party of the right typically resists this. The party of the right usually wants to preserve existing social structures, whereas the party of the left wants to enhance the power of democratic assemblies at their expense.

So, for example, in Athens in the time of the Peleponesian wars you have a aristocratic faction that admires the Spartans, even to the point of treason and wants to do away with the navy, the city walls and democracy. In Rome you have a succession of rebellions by the plebeians demanding land from conquests be distributed to them, that their role in lawmaking be enhanced, and that they are protected from the adverse consequences of millitary service. There are more modern examples too, obviously.

At times, both sides have produced extremely radical "reform" movements that have not hesitated to assassinate their opponents, institute terror, and abuse the constitution. On the right these have tended to want to put things "back" into some idealised state. So, for example, the Spanish dictator Franco saw himself restoring Spain to a pre-republican state in which the Church and landownership were respected.

My question is: how does the right, in the sense described above, relate to conservatism in your sense. Obviously the right does tend to admire conservative values, but it would seem hard to fit someone like Franco or Sulla into your description of a conservative.

Posted by: Simon Kinahan on January 21, 2004 4:34 PM

This is wrong-headed stuff man...

As I noted on my blog, Jim is harkening back to an era in American history that just never existed, and he's no different in this respect from gonzo thinkers like the "Southern Agrarians"...

I know that Louis Hartz's claim that conservatism cannot exist without a connection to feudalism and ethnic solidarity is hard to refute--but why not try Jim?

You give away the game when you argue that:

"Liberal individualism dissolves connections, so government and people become disconnected. The people lose interest in politics and their rulers become manipulative and ideological or self-seeking. The sexes and generations don't connect, so society doesn't reproduce."

So you're saying Andrew Jackson wasn't "self-serving"? Alexander Hamilton wasn't "manipulative"? How far back do we have to go? Right out of history, basically, into Jim Kalb-land...

Just "going with what works" would have kept women in the kitchen, slaves on the plantations, and a whole lot of people working ungodly hours to support the upper social strata... What kind of leverage do we have to work to alleviate these abuses without rationalist principles?


Posted by: David Fiore on January 21, 2004 5:06 PM

To Mr. Culbreath:

1. I say that liberalism is one of the opposing traditions, and the peace secured by letting it run the show is the same as the peace secured by giving any other particular tradition uncontested control over everything. I go into this issue in a couple of recent entries to my blog, here and here.

2. That's what limited government, federalism, freedom of association, local control and rights of property are for. Not to mention majority rule. Also, for that matter, national boundaries and limits on immigration. All those traditional rightwing American things.

There are a variety of practical methods to help maintain peace when people have irreconcilable differences. Those methods should be used. The mistake of liberalism is to try to elevate them into universal principles guaranteed if enforced rigorously to dissolve all conflicts, supposedly without affecting essentially the outlooks that are in conflict. That can't be done, and the attempt becomes tyrannical because it has to insist that every outlook turn itself into a clone of liberalism.

3. Freedom and tolerance are indeed legitimate components of the Western Christian tradition. My basic point is that they can't be understood as the supreme goods of that or any other workable tradition. They have a role as part of a more encompassing and authoritative human good.

To Mr. Kinahan: Another very interesting question! I'd say that traditional class struggle between rich and poor is somewhat at right angles to the distinction I draw, which is something specific to the modern (post 17th c.) world. It also seems to me that the connection between conservatism in my sense and the classical Right in your sense has rather eroded at least since the '60s, when the romanticized working class became the evil bigoted hardhats. Contemporary liberalism stands for principles of central control and removal of restraints on desire, which from the standpoint of people with lots of money and influence is not all that bad. (Hilaire Belloc and others would trace an alliance between liberalism and predatory wealth going back to a much earlier time.)

To Mr. Fiore:

1. I don't know what period I'm harking back to, the discussion so far has mostly been quite general.

2. I haven't read Hartz. No doubt there are some kinds of conservatism that react to the overthow of feudalism and make no sense in America. Still, life goes on. At some point the liberal critique and transformation of inherited social relations will progress until it becomes relevant to America and a true form of conservatism becomes possible here. I say that's what's happened.

3. There have always been manipulative and self-serving men in public life. Still, things do change and it makes no sense to claim otherwise. It's hard to imagine a public debate today featuring something like The Federalist for example. At one time actual serious arguments were presented to voters. That seems less manipulative than focus groups and soundbites.

4. Things change because conditions and interests change and informal contracts and understandings get renegotiated and reinterpreted. Why suppose it all has to be reasoned out formally and imposed on people by some central regulator? Why suppose things work out better if it's done that way?

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 21, 2004 6:02 PM


thanks for the response, but listen--can you really cite an instance in which real social change occurred prior to the Reformation/Enlightenment? And if you can't, then how can you argue against the need for rationalist principles as political guidelines?


Posted by: David Fiore on January 21, 2004 7:37 PM

I agree that the liberalism's putting the goal of individual fulfillment before responsibility is actually a false path to happiness and a problem for society today.

But I can't help agreeing with Dave that Mr. Kalb's conservatism and appeal to tradition are the arguments that justified slavery and segragation in the past--I don't think it likely these evils would have changed without rational liberalism.

Also regarding Mr. Kalb's #3 above, I think slogans like "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" are analagous to the soundbites of today. Unserious arguments and personal attacks (1828 election--Andy Jackson a bigamist, JQ Adams a Pimp for the Czar while ambassador) are things that go back to our earliest days and were noted in British electoral politics of the period as well. If anything I think things are better today--perhaps partly due to rationalism and liberalism.

Posted by: Lily Toppenish on January 21, 2004 8:16 PM

The revolution was supposed to be for the sake of the individual and private life. It turns out that it dissolves those things. Formal institutions take away the serious functions of private life, and what's left are purely personal relationships that become fleeting and insubstantial. Practical ties that make us irreplaceable to each other are done away with and we become interchangeable units of production and consumption. The only way most of us can matter individually is to claim victimhood. So the system puts individual satisfaction first but doesn't satisfy much of anyone.

I've never heard it put so well or so succinctly.

Posted by: Astonished on January 21, 2004 8:22 PM

don't forget the "John Adams" is a fat dictator blasts by the Jeffersonians, and the Whigs immortal (and very successful) "Log Cabin n' Hard Cider Campaign."


Posted by: David Fiore on January 21, 2004 8:34 PM

On the matter of "tradition" --

Whenever you see that word, your thinking will almost always be far more effective if you read "habit".

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 21, 2004 9:51 PM

Hey Billy Beck

Well said!

Posted by: laurel on January 21, 2004 10:01 PM

I am a gay man who has found himself emigrating into rightie-ness over the last several years. My initial impetus for this sometimes Through-The-Looking-Glass trek was the painful realization that my very lefty diversity friends and egalitarian victimist colleagues were looking and sounding more and more like the theocratic thugs of the Pat Robertson variety: neither group could really value individuals and neither group could actually tolerate difference. In both groups a voracious selfrighteousness is all too frequent.

I started out trying to be a Libertarian, but the idea of a single principle ruling political life produced abstractions and absurdities. So I have been investigating conservative political thinking. Much of it is religious in character --which I both respect and value-- but a lot of it is pretty overtly hostile to people like me. One thinker I have found to be both rigorous and nondogmatic is John Kekes, an avowedly secular conservative. He describes liberalism as founded on the dominance of autonomy and on a groundless faith in the goodness of human nature. However, he makes a careful conservative case for pluralism precisely because of tradition, not in spite of it. I wonder if Jim Kalb or others who are more familiar with the wider landscape of conservative thought have any appreciations or critiques of Kekes?

Posted by: Stephen Manning on January 21, 2004 10:16 PM

To Mr. Fiore: all over the world throughout time there have been vast social changes. I suppose one of them most of us would approve of would be the disappearance of slavery in Europe before the twelfth century.

To Mr. Manning: Alas I can't help you on Kekes.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 21, 2004 10:53 PM

"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."

What's even more glaring, to me, is that "tradition" in no way addresses the root cause of any conclusion that any given value is "good, true, [or] beautiful". In fact, the essential premise of an ethical argument from "tradition" is quite insulting because it really implies in general that people walking the earth today are not competent to distinguish values that their forebears did. On that logic, there is no way to explain any sort of ethical progress, such as, for instance, American emancipation of black slaves.

Look; this is all rubbish. The fact of the matter is that ethical competence is a strictly individual matter. That's because values are not some disconnected parlor game that we conduct for our social amusement. They are necessarily -- metaphyisically -- connected to the very conduct -- the execution -- of each individual human life itself. At the bottom-end of the process, people either learn what values are and conduct their lives in order to acquire and keep them, or they die. This is something that happens uniquely and solely within the bounds of each individual life (as a matter of epistemology -- the word "learn" is crucial).

What confuses people who refer to the matter as "tradition" is that they mistake the concurrence of the processes taking place among innumerable entities whose nature (identity) demands it, for something far larger than what it really is, and they project it across many generations. It's almost a rampant anthropmorphosis: reifying what is necessarily an individual's trait into an element of a concept (e.g. -- "society") that simply does not, in its nature, bear out the contention.

Friedrich: "...most modernism is an attempt to take means (logic, thought, 'rights,' equality before the law) and substitute it for 'ends' (meaning, purpose, social goals)."

Yes. And I blame Pragmatism. It's been said that Pragmatism is the only original American contribution to philosophy. Within range of some historical quibbles, I say that is the damned truth. It was the triumph of "process" (start listening to the ascendance of that word over the past decade or so -- these thing take time) over teleology, and, because of that, nothing about today's ethical myopia (necessarily transmuted into political warfare) surprises me.

"More speed, less direction. No brakes, why steer?"

Reality is having its way.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 22, 2004 2:39 PM

Billy Beck raises an important point: many moderns find tradition *insulting*. That is, tradition offends their pride, since they imagine themselves competent to understand the world all by their own rational little selves, and they resent any "tradition" telling them they can't always have their own way. This kind of hubris is also what traditionalists find repulsive about moderns.

But the idea that our forebears "distinguished values" for themselves, setting tradition in motion, is not quite right. Our forebears did not decide, on an individulist and rationalist basis, what kind of tradition to establish. The source of tradition is a combination of experience, nature, and revelation. Tradition matures through suffering, tragedy, and disasterous setbacks: what we know as tradition today is often the result of our ancestors learning the hard way. When we fail to learn from their tradition, we are destined to repeat their bitter experiences.

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 22, 2004 3:31 PM

It's not about "pride", Jeff. It's about efficacy. My job is to live my life. I'm the one who bears that responsibility from day-to-day, hour-to-hour. Not you, or anyone else, either living now, or dead and gone. Whether I am "competent to understand the world all by [my] own rational little sel[f]" is strictly my affair, and not yours or anyone else's. "Tradition" is utterly worthless to me, next to that imperative.

And that does not mean that I am not interested to learn valuable things from people who lived before me, which is the dichotomy that you're setting up. That is simply ridiculous, but I'm not going to do it that justice, here.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 22, 2004 3:59 PM

Billy Beck, you chose to say that tradition was insulting -- and a normal person is not insulted by something just because it isn't efficacious.

Furthermore, it isn't true that you, and only you, are responsible for you, and only you. Others (i.e., your ancestors) are responsible for you, and you, in turn, are responsible for others. Everything you do, everything you say, and even everything you think, whether alone or here in a public forum, will impact someone else at some point.

And because your actions will impact others, others of us are responsible for containing the damage.

As a citizen of what can still be described as Western Christendom, you have been given an inheritance: you can piss it away if you like, or you can strive to be worthy of it, and even contribute to it.

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 22, 2004 4:29 PM

"Billy Beck, you chose to say that tradition was insulting..."

I most certainly did not. Those are your words. Not mine. If you want to argue with what I say, then you would do well to read it, sir.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 22, 2004 4:32 PM

Granted, you wrote "an ethical argument from tradition is quite insulting". Ethical arguments are an important application of tradition, but of course they are not the sum total of tradition. Still, it doesn't seem to me that your statement is substantially different from saying that "tradition is insulting", at least in practice.

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 22, 2004 4:42 PM

Friedrich, I have a question for you: why did you take your comment down? (Is that, indeed, what happened? I'm presuming.)

Above, I quote something that you wrote in that now missing comment, and I'm going to quote it again: ""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.""

This is crucial. Reverence for tradition, per se, has no way of analyzing any given tradition for its value to humam life. Again -- to cite an obvious example that many people would rather not examine: one would have a hell of a long way to go in order to convince an antebellum American black man that he should live with a "tradition" at the daily work of ruining his life, simply on the premise that it's that way things have always been, that "his rational little self" is inept to conclude otherwise, and that "the damage" of "everything he thinks, says, or does" must be "contained" by everyone else.

And guess what: tradition be damned if that man was the only person on the planet who had concluded that the traditional institution of slavery was wrong, he would be right.

So much for "others".

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 22, 2004 4:44 PM

For my part, Billy Beck, I agree with you that a means of distinguishing between good and bad traditions is critical. Tradition, if it excludes other kinds of authority (revelation, conscience, etc.) is indeed inadequate. Our own inherited public tradition, which can be described as Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian if you like, elevates both revelation and conscience to an extraordinary degree, and has proven itself to be quite versatile in dealing with problems such as slavery.

But leaving individuals to decide things for themselves, apart from the authority or context of tradition, pits Billy Beck the Individual Abolitionist against Billy Bob the Individual Slave Owner, and the only possible resolution is power, not consensus.

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 22, 2004 4:57 PM

There can be no "consensus" with someone who advocates slavery. I don't know how to break it to you, but that that's what caused the war.

Yes: sometimes, that is the only alternative.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 22, 2004 5:44 PM

Actually, there *can* be consensus with someone who advocates slavery. If such a person shares a traditional Christian worldview with abolitionists, then appeals can be made to that shared tradition that are utlimately persuasive.

It is right to be against slavery -- but it is pretty much useless to be against slavery without the support of an authoritative tradition.

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 22, 2004 6:10 PM

"Actually, there *can* be consensus with someone who advocates slavery."

Not for a person who advocates freedom, Jeff. That's what the context was. And you might think it "useless" for a single black man (as in: the one in my previous remarks) to be against slavery "without the support of an authoritative tradition", but I'm here to tell you the facts of life, son: millions of them were just exactly that. They were against it, and they lived their whole lives without "support" or "consensus" on their side -- the luxuries of 21st century neurotics who cannot find their own minds -- but those people knew, and they were correct, whether or not they died hanging.

That might be "useless" to someone like you, but that doesn't matter. To paraphrase Garrison: history bears testimony that they were right -- "useless" or not.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 22, 2004 6:28 PM

Slaves had the support of an authoritative tradition on their side, whether they knew it or not. Their advocates could -- and did -- appeal to that tradition (justice, charity, free will, the unity of the human race, etc.), and today there is a strong consensus among Western Christians that slavery contradicts these religious precepts and is an intolerable evil.

Moderns, on the other hand, can offer nothing but their own opinions. Can you tell anyone why slavery is bad? Can you tell anyone why freedom is good? By what authority do you make such judgments? Do you presume to change society based merely upon the authority of your own reasoning?

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 22, 2004 6:54 PM

"Slaves had the support of an authoritative tradition on their side, whether they knew it or not."

(cackle) A bloody fat lot of good it did them. They died in droves, for generations.

"Can you tell anyone why slavery is bad?"

You bet I can, even if you can't.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 22, 2004 7:11 PM

Sounds like a good test case. I'll let you go first ...

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on January 22, 2004 7:32 PM

I never try to convince a cynic, Jeff.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 22, 2004 11:05 PM

"I never try to convince a cynic, Jeff."

Ah, a snifter of irony before bed. Thanks, gents.

Posted by: Matt on January 23, 2004 12:21 AM

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