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Review of Adam J. MacLeod’s “The Age of Selfies”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Civics, Communication, Humanities, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on August 5, 2020 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Salma Hayek makes headlines each time she posts a selfie on Instagram. I know this because years ago I set a “Google alert” for the name “Hayek” so that I wouldn’t miss new articles about the great economist and legal theorist Friedrich Hayek. Now, for better or worse, Salma Hayek updates from around the Internet appear in my inbox every morning. We truly live in the Age of Selfies.

That’s the title of the latest book by my colleague, Adam MacLeod, a professor of law at Faulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery, Alabama. The Age of Selfies is a quick read with a straightforward argument about the importance of reasonable, principled disagreement to our civic discourse, institutions, and education. Underlying our passionate disagreements about fundamental principles, MacLeod suggests, is an abiding agreement about the reality of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and error. We quarrel over political issues, he claims, because we hold sincere beliefs about what is or is not moral, presupposing that morality is not only existent but knowable. Most of us, anyway, reject nihilism. Effective, constructive disagreement is, therefore, possible among those who realize this central commonality that holds together otherwise incompatible convictions.

“That many of us speak and act as if moral and political questions have right and wrong answers,” says MacLeod, “indicates that, for all of our fractious disagreement, a consensus is emerging that there is moral truth—right and wrong—about questions that occupy our public discourse.” You would be correct if you guessed that the New Natural Law (an Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to jurisprudence popularized by John Finnis and Robert P. George) rests beneath the surface of this seeming optimism. To oversimplify, the new natural lawyers exposit that practical reasoning enables us to recognize and pursue ends that are intrinsically good and desirable, and that, moreover, fulfill our rational nature as human beings (“every person you encounter,” explains MacLeod, “is an agent of reason and reasoned choice”). It is only a small step, from there, to propose that sensible human beings of good faith can reason together to achieve workable peace and productive civility regarding even controversial matters involving, say, marriage or abortion.

Are the new natural lawyers correct about human nature? Is the human capacity for reason overstated? Do the horrors of the French Revolution caution against the Cult of Reason? What if David Hume was right that reason is the slave of the passions? What if the mind is inherently limited, its memory only partial and selective and its understanding of truth necessarily circumscribed? What if we see only through a glass darkly even if we follow the light of the world? What if many philosophical positions are merely pre-textual rather than genuine? What if they are expounded solely and perversely for political power or personal gain? What if their very terms reject compromise, dissent, or negotiation? What if most people are unreasonable and irrational, motivated more by passion and emotion than by logic and good sense? What if the ordinary response to conflict is anger and outrage rather than patient contemplation? What if hubris is more common than humility? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but, whatever they are, they could diminish the force of MacLeod’s arguments.

Yet they are great and hopeful arguments, predicated against the fashionable notion that what “we” are is simply “a collection of selfies, which are carefully crafted, externally projected images of individual self-constitution.” A person identifies himself or herself—or itself or they or whatever—with community brands (and the concepts they entail) without subscribing or adhering to the principles, doctrines, or teachings that define and govern that community. So, for instance, one can, today, identify as both a Muslim and a Christian even if those two religions are by their own tenets mutually exclusive. Who are we, the naysayers, to criticize this apparent contradiction if it feels authentic to the person professing it?

When people argue over the meaning of a guiding externality—a religious text, a statute, the language of a constitution, a novel—their interpretive differences are rooted in a common source (the document under consideration). MacLeod calls this common source a “neutral ground.” In a sense, MacLeod’s book is, more or less, an attempt to supply “neutral ground” where it is currently lacking, pointing out where people of differing viewpoints agree about the primacy and reality of morality itself.

When people argue, however, over internalities—that is, purely subjective preferences, emotions, or feelings—there is no common source, no independently measurable basis for assessing the validity or invalidity of the views a person embraces. The fact that a person holds them is supposed to suffice by itself. “The fundamental problem is that, on the whole,” MacLeod submits, “young people have made their moral reasoning thoroughly personal.” Accordingly, “[w]hat matters most to them—the only thing that matters to some of them—is that they are true to themselves.”

The ultimate wrong, according to someone who thinks along these lines, is to be judgmental or discriminating or otherwise unaccepting of the allegedly authentic identity of another. The supposedly non-judgmental person nevertheless believes that some actions are not okay, are out of bounds, or, to employ moral vocabulary, wrong. To condemn a person as judgmental is, after all, to express a judgment, to call someone else wrong. Relativism isn’t at play. To deem someone else’s judgment wrong is to suggest that a different judgment is right.

What is to be done about this muddle? This question is a variation on what MacLeod dubs “The Practical Question”: “What shall I do?” Every thinking human being must ask The Practical Question to act to fulfill an objective. For starters, we can stop treating the past as a monolithic category of horrible wrongs and mine it for the good, the beautiful, and the useful. Rather than dismissing all history outright, wrestle with it, search out examples and analyze tensions and contradictions. For an audience of teachers and students, this means working through disagreement and accommodating diverse viewpoints for the sake of clarity and understanding—not because each view is equally strong or valid but because the test of its strength or validity depends upon its being studied, weighed, and refuted.

The nature of rights and duties, the meaning and idea of truth, the concept of sin, the power of indifference—these and other subjects prompt MacLeod into showing that dialogue and conversation break down when, instead of enumerating reasons and arguments in favor of some belief, an adherent simply cites internal preferences as a sort of trump card to end debate. He celebrates private ordering and pluralism as key to self-governance and community harmony absent unwarranted state coercion or government compulsion. “We can,” he avers, “lower the stakes of our public controversies, lower the temperature of our civic discourse, and avoid zero-sum contests over totalizing plans of action if we will simply allow the plural domains of society to do their work.” Such diversity recalls the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity.

MacLeod’s urgent refrain-of-musts will echo in the thoughts and prayers of sensitive, conscientious readers: “If we are going to get anywhere in our discourse, then we must move beyond stereotypes and personal attacks. We must stop attributing to each other the worst motivations. We must instead seek to understand the reasonable, even admirable, motivations of people with whom we disagree.” This seems, and, I daresay, feels right.

And who knows? Maybe Salma Hayek, browsing her daily Google alerts, will discover her name in this very review, read The Age of Selfies, and then use her celebrity to promote practical reasoning about fundamental rights. A man can dream anyway. 

Review of Marcus Witcher’s “Getting Right with Reagan”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities on July 29, 2020 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here at the Alabama Political Reporter. 

I am, as they say, a “Reagan Baby.” This fact used to stun people. “How can someone born in 1983 be a full grown adult?” they would ask. “Where has the time gone?” they wondered.  

Things have changed; years have passed. These days my undergraduate students have no memory of 9/11, let alone any realistic notion about what quotidian life was like in the 1980s, which, for them, is that strange and distant era of big hair, synthesizers, neon clothing, and bad films.

Marcus M. Witcher’s cleverly titled Getting Right with Reagan, recently released by the University Press of Kansas, sheds light on this transformative period, in particular on its leading political figure, the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Having written much of this book as part of his doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Alabama, Witcher (himself a Reagan Baby who’s now a Reagan scholar) argues that Reagan was not the stalwart conservative that Republican iconography and mythology have made him out to be. Rather, this telegenic, charismatic movie-star-cum-president was also conciliatory and pragmatic, appeasing Democratic politicians to transform aspirational public policy into operative legislation.

Republicans under 40 might be surprised to learn that Reagan’s conservative contemporariesjournalists especially, didn’t believe a Reagan Revolution had ever occurred, or that if it had, then it hadn’t accomplished what its proponents desired in terms of large-scale, long-term effects.

So why do conservatives today celebrate the coalition-building Reagan as their purist standard-bearer? Why are Republican presidential primary debates held, symbolically, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library? Why are Republicans obligated to pay lip-service to Reagan to demonstrate their conservative bona fides and party loyalty?

Witcher supplies five principal reasons. The first is that future Republican presidents, namely the Bush father and son, were not sufficiently conservative. They expanded the federal government in domestic areas such as education while adopting the foreign policy of a Woodrow Wilson rather than a Robert A. Taft. The second is that, in Witcher’s words, “fortuitous historical events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, … made [Reagan’s] policies appear prescient.”

The third reason is that the recession following the 2008 financial crisis resulted in conservative nostalgia for the more prosperous 1980s. The fourth is less about remembering and more about overlooking: “Social conservatives have forgotten how frustrated they were with Reagan during the 1980s for his inability to pass a right-to-life amendment and a school-prayer amendment.”

Finally, Reagan’s withdrawal from politics after he left the White House repaired his reputation. He was no longer a partisan target. The same might be said of George W. Bush, whose popularity has risen, even among Democrats, during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

Witcher traces evolving perceptions of Reagan over the last 40 years. Readers looking for hero worship or biographical accounts of Reagan’s everyday experiences in the Oval Office should consult a different book. Those who are curious about Reagan’s role in the historical development of the conservative movement and its practical adjunct, the Republican Party, will find here the definitive study, one that implicitly raises grave questions about the future of conservatism during its present state of fracture and division.

Witcher’s claims are not without critics. For example, Paul Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College, referring to Witcher’s rendering of Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, writes, Witcher sticks to an old argument about Reagan that appears to have staying power among liberal Reagan scholars who will not let go despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.”

My astute friend Don Devine, who served in the Reagan Administration as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, has, in a convivial context, quarreled with Witcher. I was fortunate to witness firsthand a constructive, unplanned, and unexpected debate between doctors Devine and Witcher over cocktails in the hallway of a reception during a recent Philadelphia Society meeting. Both men are, shall we say, vocal in their opinions. And both stood their ground regarding their differing interpretations of the Great Communicator.

Getting Right with Reagan is admirably researched, with well over a hundred pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. But it reads, mercifully, like popular, highbrow entertainment, free of the pedantic jargon and convoluted syntax that so often mire scholarship published by university presses.

Witcher will become a faculty member in the history department at Huntingdon College this August. He is at work on future projects about American conservatism and will, I suspect, contribute to Montgomery’s intellectual scene, and maybe even improve its mediocre political discourse.

We all, critics and adherents alike, have much to learn about conservatism: what it is, why it is, and where it’s headed. If we can make sense of how Reagan became a figurehead of the mainstream Republican establishment, perhaps we can understand, if only a little better, our current political moment, with all its rancor and tumult.

Russell Kirk on Higher Education

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, higher education, History, Humanities, Imagination, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 12, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal 

Russell Kirk isn’t known as a policy wonk. The Great Books, not the mathematical or statistical models of economic technicians, were his organon of choice. He devoted essays to broad, perennial themes like “the moral imagination,” “liberal learning,” and “the permanent things.”

Read his numerous columns about higher education, however, and you might come away with a different impression, one of Kirk as a political strategist with a strong grasp of educational policy.

Kirk wrote on a wide variety of issues involving higher education: accreditation, academic freedom, tenure, curriculum, vocational training, community colleges, adult education, college presidents, textbooks, fraternities and Greek life, enrollment, seminaries, tuition, teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, student activism, British universities, urban versus rural schools, boards of trustees, university governance, the hard sciences, grade inflation, lowering academic standards, libraries, private versus public schooling, civics education, sex education, school vouchers, university presses, and more.

One of his go-to subjects implicates several of those issues: federal subsidies. He believed that federal money threatened the mission and integrity of universities in numerous areas.

For starters, he believed that federal subsidies—and, it must be added, foundation grants—created perverse incentives for researchers, who might conform to the benefactor’s “preferences” and “value judgments.”[1] Recalling the proverb that “[t]he man who pays the piper calls the tune,”[2] he cautioned against financial dependency on outside influences, which, he worried, could impose ideological conditions on grants to advance or purge particular viewpoints.

Moreover, the grantors, whether they were foundations or the government, would, he believed, quantify the value of their funded work according to measurable outcome assessments that were “easily tabulated and defensible.”[3] The intrinsic value of reading Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, or Euripides, however, is not easily assessed in instrumental terms.

More fundamentally, Kirk viewed federal involvement in higher education as a step toward the centralization and consolidation of power at the expense of local variety. He foresaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education long before it occurred.[4] Fearing the growth of an “educationist hierarchy” or an “empire of educationism” corrupted by “sinecures” and “patronage,”[5] he favored small, private, liberal-arts colleges, which, he believed, flourished when they committed to mission and tradition.[6]

“The American college—the small liberal arts college—is worth preserving,” Kirk wrote, “but it can be preserved, in our time of flux, only if it is reformed.”[7] Kirk’s reform was reactionary, not progressive.[8] It rejected the popular focus on vocation and specialization and sought to train “men and women who know what it is to be truly human, who have some taste for contemplation, who take long views, and who have a sense of moral responsibility and intellectual order.”[9] Even if they can’t be calculated precisely, these vague-yet-discernable qualities of literate people are beneficial to society writ large, in Kirk’s view. In other words, there’s an appreciable difference between literate and illiterate societies.

Kirk decried the alarming escalation of tuition prices. In 1979, he wrote, “Attendance at colleges and universities is becoming hopelessly expensive.”[10] Forty years later, the costs of attending college have risen exponentially. Kirk opposed federal aid or scholarships to students,[11] but not, from what I can tell, for the economic reason that the ready availability of federal funding would enable universities to hike tuition rates to artificially high levels. Perhaps, even in his skepticism, he couldn’t conceive of university leadership as so systematically exploitative.

We continue to hear echoes of Kirk’s observation that the typical college student “oughtn’t to be in college at all: he has simply come along for the fun and a snob-degree, and his bored presence reduces standards at most American universities.”[12] Elsewhere, he claimed that “[w]e have been trying to confer the higher learning upon far too many young people, and the cost per capita has become inordinate.”[13] The question of why students attend college is closely related to that of the fundamental purpose of college.

Uncertainty regarding the point of higher education—whether it’s to develop the inquisitive mind, expand the frontiers of knowledge, equip students with jobs skills, or something else entirely—seems more pronounced today in light of technological, economic, and population changes. Moreover, it remains true that “most of the universities and colleges are forced to do the work that ordinary schools did only a generation ago.”[14] Shouldn’t higher education accomplish more than remedial education? Doesn’t it have a greater end?

Kirk certainly thought so—at least if higher education were properly liberal. “By ‘liberal education,’” he explained, “we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education.’”[15]

Kirk’s surprising wonkishness, and his facility in policy debates, always submitted to this overarching goal: Defending order against disorder, in both the soul and the larger polity.[16] “The primary purpose of a liberal education,” he said, “is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake.”[17]

The aspiration of policy wasn’t policymaking. Kirk’s short-term strategies serviced a paramount objective: Namely, to seek wisdom, virtue, truth, clarity, and understanding. You can’t simply quantify the value of that.

[1] Russell Kirk, “Massive Subsidies and Academic Freedom,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1963), 608.

[2] Ibid. at 607.

[3] Ibid. at 611.

[4] Russell Kirk, “Federal Aid to Educational Bureaucracy,” National Review, Vol. 10 (February 25, 1961), 116.

[5] Russell Kirk, “The Federal Educational Boondoggle,” National Review, Vol. 5 (March 15, 1958), 257.

[6] See generally Russell Kirk, “The American College: A Proposal for Reform,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1957), 177-186.

[7] Ibid. at 177.

[8] Ibid. (“our age seems to require a reform that is reactionary, rather than innovating”).

[9] Ibid. at 182-83.

[10] Russell Kirk, “More Freedom Per Dollar,” National Review, Vol 31 (April 13, 1979), 488.

[11] Russell Kirk, “Federal Scholarships,” National Review, Vol. 2 (November 24, 1956), 18.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Russell Kirk, “Who Should Pay for Higher Education?” Vol. 23 (May 18, 1971), 534.

[14] Russell Kirk, “Federal Education,” National Review, Vol. 4 (December 28, 1957), 592.

[15] Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” in The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by George A. Panichas (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 398.

[16] Ibid. at 400.

[17] Ibid.

St. George Tucker’s Jeffersonian Constitution

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Civics, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty. 

One could argue that there are two basic visions for America: the Hamiltonian and the Jeffersonian. The former is nationalist, calling for centralized power and an industrial, mercantilist society characterized by banking, commercialism, and a robust military. Its early leaders had monarchical tendencies. The latter vision involves a slower, more leisurely and agrarian society, political decentralization, popular sovereignty, and local republicanism. Think farmers over factories.

Both have claimed the mantle of liberty. Both have aristocratic elements, despite today’s celebration of America as democratic. On the Hamiltonian side we can include John Adams, John Marshall, Noah Webster, Henry Clay, Joseph Story, and Abraham Lincoln. In the Jeffersonian camp we can place George Mason and Patrick Henry (who, because they were born before Jefferson, could be considered his precursors), the mature (rather than the youthful) James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John C. Calhoun, Abel Upshur, and Robert Y. Hayne. The Jeffersonian Republicans won out in the early nineteenth century, but since the Civil War, the centralizing, bellicose paradigm has dominated American politics, foreign and monetary policy, and federal institutions.

St. George Tucker falls into the Jeffersonian category. View of the Constitution of the United States, published by Liberty Fund in 1999, features his disquisitions on various legal subjects, each thematically linked. Most come from essays appended to his edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

Born in Bermuda, Tucker became a Virginian through and through, studying law at the College of William and Mary under George Wythe, whose post at the law school he would eventually hold. On Tucker’s résumé we might find his credentials as a poet, essayist, and judge. He was an influential expositor of the limited-government jurisprudence that located sovereignty in the people themselves, as opposed to the monarch or the legislature, which, he believed, was a surrogate for the general will in that it consisted of the people’s chosen representatives.

Tucker furnished Jeffersonians with the “compact theory” of the Constitution:

The constitution of the United States of America . . . is an original, written, federal, and social compact, freely, voluntarily, and solemnly entered into by the several states of North-America, and ratified by the people thereof, respectively; whereby the several states, and the people thereof, respectively, have bound themselves to each other, and to the federal government of the United States; and by which the federal government is bound to the several states, and to every citizen of the United States.

Under this model, each sovereign, independent state is contractually and consensually committed to confederacy, and the federal government possesses only limited and delegated powers—e.g., “to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations.”

Employing the term “strict construction,” Tucker decried what today we’d call “activist” federal judges, insisting that “every attempt in any government to change the constitution (otherwise than in that mode which the constitution may prescribe) is in fact a subversion of the foundations of its own authority.” Strictly construing the language of the Constitution meant fidelity to the binding, basic framework of government, but it didn’t mean that the law was static. Among Tucker’s concerns, for instance, was how the states should incorporate, discard, or adapt the British common law that Blackstone had delineated.

Tucker understood the common law as embedded, situated, and contextual rather than as a fixed body of definite rules or as the magnificent perfection of right reason, a grandiose conception derived from the quixotic portrayals of Sir Edward Coke. “[I]n our inquiries how far the common law and statutes of England were adopted in the British colonies,” Tucker announced, “we must again abandon all hope of satisfaction from any general theory, and resort to their several charters, provincial establishments, legislative codes, and civil histories, for information.”

In other words, if you want to know what the common law is on this side of the pond, look to the operative language of governing texts before you invoke abstract theories. Doing so led Tucker to conclude that parts of English law were “either obsolete, or have been deemed inapplicable to our local circumstances and policy.” In this, he anticipated Justice Holmes’s claim that the law “is forever adopting new principles from life at one end” while retaining “old ones from history at the other, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off.”

What the several states borrowed from England was, for Tucker, a filtering mechanism that repurposed old rules for new contexts. Tucker used other verbs to describe how states, each in their own way, revised elements of the common law in their native jurisdictions: “modified,” “abridged,” “shaken off,” “rejected,” “repealed,” “expunged,” “altered,” “changed,” “suspended,” “omitted,” “stricken out,” “substituted,” “superseded,” “introduced.” The list could go on.

The English common law, accordingly, wasn’t an exemplification of natural law or abstract rationalism; it was rather the aggregation of workable solutions to actual problems presented in concrete cases involving real people. Sometimes, in its British iterations, it was oppressive, reinforcing the power of the king and his agents and functionaries. Thus it couldn’t fully obtain in the United States. “[E]very rule of the common law, and every statute of England,” Tucker wrote on this score, “founded on the nature of regal government, in derogation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind, were absolutely abrogated, repealed, and annulled, by the establishment of such a form of government in the states.”

Having been clipped from its English roots, the common law in the United States had, in Tucker’s view, an organic opportunity to grow anew in the varying cultural environments of the sovereign states. In this respect, Tucker prefigured Justice Brandeis’s assertion in Erie Railroad Company v. Tompkins (1938) that “[t]here is no federal general common law.” Tucker would have agreed with Brandeis that, “[e]xcept in matters governed by the Federal Constitution or by acts of Congress, the law to be applied in any case is the law of the state.”

In fact, summarizing competing contentions about the Sedition Act, Tucker subtly supported the position that “the United States as a federal government have no common law” and that “the common law of one state . . . is not the common law of another.” The common law, in Tucker’s paradigm, is bottom-up and home-grown; it’s not a formula that can be lifted from one jurisdiction and placed down anywhere else with similar results and effects.

By far the most complex essay here is “On the State of Slavery in Virginia,” which advocated the gradual extirpation of slavery. With admirable clarity, Tucker zeroed in on the hypocrisy of his generation:

Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of Liberty, and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcilable hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst we adjured the God of Hosts to witness our resolution to live free, or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained.

Despite his disdain for the institution of slavery, Tucker expressed ideas that are racist by any measurable standard today—for instance, his notion that slavery proliferated in the South because the climate there was “more congenial to the African constitution.”

On the level of pure writing quality and style, Tucker had a knack for aphorism. “[T]he ignorance of the people,” he said, “is the footstool of despotism.” More examples: “Ignorance is invariably the parent of error.” “A tyranny that governs by the sword, has few friends but men of the sword.”

Reading Tucker reminds us that for most of our country’s formative history the principal jurisprudential debates were not about natural law versus positivism, or originalism versus living constitutionalism, but about state versus federal authority, local versus national jurisdiction, the proper scale and scope of government, checks and balances, and so forth. To the extent these subjects have diminished in importance, Hamilton has prevailed over Jefferson. Reading Tucker today can help us see the costs of that victory.

El Why Liberalism Failed de Deneen ataca una versión falsa del liberalismo

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Modernism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 2, 2019 at 6:45 am

This post originally appeared here at Mises.org. 

Sólo los audaces titulan un libro Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen, el Profesor Asociado de Ciencias Políticas David A. Potenziani Memorial de la Universidad de Notre Dame, ha hecho precisamente eso, proponiendo que tal fracaso ha ocurrido realmente y estableciendo la expectativa irrazonable de que él pueda explicarlo. Su premisa operativa es que el liberalismo creó las condiciones para su inevitable desaparición, que es una ideología autoconsumidora y autodestructiva que sólo tiene unos 500 años. (p. 1) «El liberalismo ha fracasado», declara triunfante, «no porque se quedara corto, sino porque era fiel a sí mismo. Ha fracasado porque ha tenido éxito». (p.3)

Deneen no define el término liberalismo, que no está en su índice a pesar de que se encuentra en todo el libro. Tengo la certeza de que uno de los revisores del manuscrito pre-publicado recomendó su publicación a los editores de Yale University Press, siempre y cuando Deneen definiera el liberalismo de manera convincente y luego limpiara sus descuidadas referencias a él. Deneen ignoró este consejo, dejando el manuscrito como está. Su genealogía del liberalismo es aún más problemática a la luz de esta negativa a aclarar.

Deneen presenta una aparente paradoja, a saber, que el liberalismo, bajo la bandera de la libertad y la emancipación, produjo su opuesto: un vasto, progresista y coercitivo Estado administrativo bajo el cual los individuos se han vuelto alienados, amorales, dependientes, condicionados y serviles. «El proyecto político del liberalismo», afirma, «nos está moldeando en las criaturas de su fantasía prehistórica, que de hecho requería el aparato masivo combinado del Estado moderno, la economía, el sistema educativo y la ciencia y la tecnología para convertirnos en: seres cada vez más separados, autónomos, no relacionales, repletos de derechos y definidos por nuestra libertad, pero inseguros, impotentes, temerosos y solos». (p.16)

En esta línea se oyen ecos de Sartre, y el existencialismo recomienda un cierto individualismo: la libertad del agente racional, que ha sido empujado a la existencia sin elección ni culpa propia, a querer su propio significado en un mundo absurdo y caótico. Pero el existencialismo es una especie de individualismo diferente de la que motivó a Hobbes, Locke y Mill: los principales objetivos de la ira de Deneen. Es cierto que a Mill no le gustaba la conformidad dogmática con la costumbre, pero es una costumbre, incluso se podría decir que es una posición conservadora. Hay que mantener o conservar, después de todo, un modo crítico de abordar cuestiones difíciles sin suponer que ya se han encontrado todas las soluciones adecuadas. Cada época debe revisar sus enfoques de los problemas perennes. Hay muchas cosas que no le gustan desde una perspectiva cristiana, pero sus desagradables conclusiones no necesariamente se derivan de su método de indagación o de su apertura a examinar de nuevo los rompecabezas y los problemas con los que nuestros antepasados lucharon.

El liberalismo clásico o libertarismo al que se adhieren los individualistas cristianos promueve la paz, la cooperación, la coordinación, la colaboración, la comunidad, la administración, el ingenio, la prosperidad, la dignidad, el conocimiento, la comprensión, la humildad, la virtud, la creatividad, la justicia, el ingenio, y más, tomando como punto de partida la dignidad de cada persona humana ante Dios y ante la humanidad. Este individualismo prospera en culturas fundamentalmente conservadoras y no cuadra con la caricatura de Deneen de una caricatura de una caricatura de un individualismo «liberal». Este individualismo conservador, una criatura del liberalismo clásico, aboga por la libertad a fin de liberar a los seres humanos para que alcancen su máximo potencial, cultivar una ética y una moral generalizadas y mejorar sus vidas e instituciones mediante el crecimiento económico y el desarrollo. ¿Y quién puede negar que la economía de mercado con la que está vinculada ha dado lugar, en todo el mundo, a mejores condiciones de vida, avances tecnológicos y médicos, descubrimientos científicos, curiosidad intelectual e innovación industrial?

Deneen desea rebobinar el tiempo, recuperar la virtuosa «autogestión» de los antiguos que, según él, se basaba en el «bien común». (p. 99) Ve en la antigüedad un arraigo social que se alinea con el cristianismo tal como lo ejemplifican en el mundo moderno las comunidades amish (p. 106-107) Su celebración de las artes liberales tradicionales adopta, dice, «una comprensión clásica o cristiana de la libertad» (p. 129) que enfatiza las normas y localidades situadas, las culturas arraigadas y las continuidades institucionales. Esta, sin embargo, es una curiosa visión de la antigüedad, que contradice los rasgos anticristianos del pensamiento clásico y antiguo, ensalzada por Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand y Julius Evola, que valoraban los elementos paganos de «la antigua alabanza de la virtud» (p. 165) y menospreciaban el mundo moderno por ser demasiado cristiano.

A Deneen no le interesan los liberalismos, es decir, la multiplicidad de conceptos que vuelan bajo la bandera del liberalismo. Prefiere casualmente agrupar variedades de enfermedades genéricas (desde la agricultura industrializada hasta el enamoramiento con el STEM, la diversidad, el multiculturalismo, el materialismo y la autonomía sexual) como productos del único enemigo común de todo lo bueno que los períodos clásico y medieval tenían para ofrecer. Luego le da un nombre a ese enemigo: liberalismo. Nos sumergiría, si no en la antigüedad, en el tribalismo medieval, en períodos en los que los acusados eran juzgados por la prueba o el combate, cuando los juramentos de sangre y el parentesco, en lugar de la confianza, la buena voluntad o el intercambio económico, determinaban las lealtades y lealtades de uno.

No es correcto que el liberalismo «requiera la liberación de toda forma de asociación y relación, de la familia a la iglesia, de la escuela a la aldea y a la comunidad». Por el contrario, el liberalismo libera a la gente de la coerción tiránica e institucionalizada que les impide disfrutar de las asociaciones y relaciones locales, incluidas las de las familias, las iglesias, las escuelas y las comunidades. El liberalismo bien entendido empodera a la gente para que se agrupe y defina su experiencia según sus propias costumbres y costumbres. Gracias al liberalismo, el propio Deneen goza de la libertad de criticar al gobierno en rápido crecimiento que cada vez más intenta imponerle normas y reglas contrarias a las suyas.

Extender el individualismo que caracterizó al liberalismo clásico al progresismo del siglo XX y a la política de identidad moderna, como hace Deneen, es un error. La política de identidad moderna trata sobre el colectivismo en nombre de la autodefinición, la autoconciencia y la autoconstitución, sobre la elección de qué comunidades (Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, los Socialistas Demócratas de América, los neonazis, etc.) abrazan lo físico (por ejemplo, lo étnico o lo racial), lo ideológico (por ejemplo, lo pannacionalista, marxista, ecosocialista, feminista, anarcosindicalista, supremacista blanco), o características normativas (por ejemplo, justicia social o igualitarismo) en torno a las cuales se forman asociaciones de grupo.

La verdad es que el individualismo prospera en comunidades morales y virtuosas, y que el bien común y las asociaciones de grupos florecen en sociedades que reconocen y comprenden el valor y la dignidad inherentes de cada individuo. De la interdependencia y el fortalecimiento mutuo de la libertad y el orden, del individuo y de la sociedad, Frank Meyer proclamó que «la verdad se marchita cuando la libertad muere, por justa que sea la autoridad que la mata; y el individualismo libre, desinformado por el valor moral, se pudre en su centro y pronto crea las condiciones que preparan el camino para la rendición a la tiranía.1 Para aquellos que insisten en que el individualismo es antitético a la creencia religiosa, que es en sí misma indispensable para el conservadurismo y el bien común, M. Stanton Evans declaró, «la afirmación de un orden trascendente no sólo es compatible con la autonomía individual, sino con la condición de la misma; […] una visión escéptica de la naturaleza del hombre [es decir…] una visión escéptica de la naturaleza del hombre», como intrínsecamente defectuoso y propenso al pecado] no sólo permite la libertad política sino que la exige».2

En una sociedad libre, los empresarios y productores miran a los demás, a las comunidades, para determinar las necesidades básicas que deben satisfacerse. El interés personal racional que motiva la creatividad y la inventiva consiste fundamentalmente en servir a los demás de manera más eficiente y eficaz, en generar recompensas personales, sí, pero recompensas personales por hacer la vida mejor y más fácil para los demás. El Adam Smith de La Riqueza de las Naciones es el mismo Adam Smith de La Teoría de los Sentimientos Morales. Los seres humanos están conectados tanto para cuidar de sí mismos, proteger sus hogares y a sus seres queridos, como para sentir y sentir empatía por los demás. La beneficencia y la generosidad son aspectos principales del individualismo liberal que Deneen calumnia.

La «segunda ola» del liberalismo, en el paradigma de Deneen, es el progresismo. Sin embargo, el progresismo moderno y el Partido Demócrata no tienen casi nada que ver con el liberalismo clásico. Curiosamente y, me atrevo a decir, perezosamente, Deneen desea conectarlos. Sin embargo, no puede trazar una clara línea de conexión entre ellos, porque no la hay. La supuesta conexión es la supuesta ambición de «liberar a los individuos de cualquier relación arbitraria y no elegida y rehacer el mundo en uno en el que prosperen aquellos especialmente dispuestos al individualismo expresivo». (p. 143-44) ¿Debemos interpretar esta afirmación en el sentido de que Deneen preferiría que nuestras relaciones e interacciones fueran arbitrariamente coaccionadas por un poder central en una sociedad cerrada en la que los individuos subordinados siguen habitualmente las órdenes incuestionables de los superiores establecidos?

F. A. Hayek dijo una vez que, «hasta el ascenso del socialismo», lo opuesto al conservadurismo era el liberalismo pero que, en Estados Unidos, «el defensor de la tradición estadounidense era un liberal en el sentido europeo».3 ¿Está Deneen tan inmerso en la cultura estadounidense que no puede reconocer esta distinción básica? Deneen premia el bien común y colectivo que se manifiesta en las comunidades locales, culpando al interés propio racional de la supuesta tendencia universalizadora del liberalismo a erradicar las venerables costumbres y normas culturales. Pero parece confundido por la taxonomía norteamericana en la que ha caído el liberalismo y haría bien en revisar las obras de Ludwig von Mises, quien explicó: «En Estados Unidos, “liberal” significa hoy en día un conjunto de ideas y postulados políticos que en todos los aspectos son lo opuesto de todo lo que el liberalismo significó para las generaciones precedentes. El autodenominado liberal estadounidense apunta a la omnipotencia del gobierno, es un enemigo resuelto de la libre empresa y defiende la planificación integral por parte de las autoridades, es decir, el socialismo».4

Una comparación de la teoría política especulativa de Deneen y su narrativa abstracta de la decadencia con la de Larry Siedentop, profundamente histórica e ideológicamente neutra, Inventing the Individual (Belknap/Harvard, 2014), revela fallas críticas en el argumento de Deneen, comenzando con la proposición de que la clave del individualismo para el liberalismo tiene apenas 500 años. Siedentop menoscaba la imagen común de una Europa medieval asediada por la pobreza y la superstición, la monarquía y la tiranía, la corrupción generalizada y la muerte temprana de la que supuestamente nos rescataron el Renacimiento y, más tarde, la Ilustración. Siedentop ve, en cambio, el ascenso del cristianismo —mucho antes del medievalismo— como la causa del ascenso del individualismo liberal, que, de hecho, tiene sus raíces en las enseñanzas de San Pablo y de Jesucristo. Mientras que Deneen teoriza que el individualismo es reciente y anticristiano, Siedentop traza su historia actual como claramente cristiana, trazando sus características concretas a lo largo del tiempo a medida que proliferaba y sustituía a las antiguas culturas y costumbres paganas que carecían de una comprensión estructural de la dignidad y primacía de la persona humana.

Siedentop atribuye el individualismo liberal al cristianismo; Deneen trata el individualismo liberal como contrario al cristianismo. Ambos hombres no pueden corregir, al menos no completamente.

Caminando hacia atrás en algunas de sus grandes afirmaciones, Deneen reconoce en sus páginas finales que el liberalismo, en ciertas manifestaciones, ha existido por más de 500 años y que tiene mucho en común con el cristianismo:

Mientras que el liberalismo pretendía ser un edificio totalmente nuevo que rechazaba la arquitectura política de todas las épocas anteriores, se basaba naturalmente en largos desarrollos desde la antigüedad hasta la Baja Edad Media. Una parte significativa de su atractivo no era que se tratara de algo totalmente nuevo, sino que se basara en reservas profundas de creencia y compromiso. La antigua filosofía política se dedicaba especialmente a la cuestión de la mejor manera de evitar el surgimiento de la tiranía, y la mejor manera de lograr las condiciones de libertad política y autogobierno. Los términos básicos que informan nuestra tradición política —libertad, igualdad, dignidad, justicia, constitucionalismo— son de origen antiguo. El advenimiento del cristianismo, y su desarrollo en la filosofía política de la Edad Media, ahora muy descuidada, puso de relieve la dignidad del individuo, el concepto de persona, la existencia de derechos y deberes correspondientes, la importancia primordial de la sociedad civil y de una multiplicidad de asociaciones, y el concepto de gobierno limitado como el mejor medio de prevenir la inevitable tentación humana de la tiranía. El atractivo más básico del liberalismo no era su rechazo del pasado, sino su dependencia de conceptos básicos que eran fundamentales para la identidad política occidental. (págs. 184 a 85)

Perdóneme por estar confundido, pero pensé que Deneen se había propuesto criticar el liberalismo y trazar su fracaso, no exaltarlo ni defenderlo, y ciertamente no vincularlo a un antiguo linaje asociado con el cristianismo. Este pasaje representa la desorganización en el corazón del libro de Deneen. El liberalismo no tiene la culpa del estado administrativo masivo y sus redes de agentes y funcionarios que coaccionan a las comunidades locales. Deneen es parte del problema que describe, defendiendo formas de pensar y organizar el comportamiento humano que socavan su esperanza de que se reaviven los valores tradicionales y los lazos familiares o de vecindad a nivel local.

Deneen expresa sus opiniones con una certeza tan enloquecedora que parece altivo y tendencioso, como un manqué celosamente anti-libertario con un hacha que moler. Carece de la delicadeza y la caridad con que los eruditos razonables de buena fe se acercan a sus oponentes ideológicos. No tiene en cuenta la posición de quienes, como yo, creen que el individualismo liberal es una condición necesaria para el florecimiento de las comunidades locales, el cultivo de la virtud y la responsabilidad, la formación de instituciones mediadoras y asociaciones políticas de abajo hacia arriba, y la descentralización y difusión del poder gubernamental. Simplemente no puede entender la posibilidad de que el individualismo liberal cree un vehículo para la preservación de las costumbres y el patrimonio, la unidad familiar y los vínculos sociales a nivel local.

«El estatismo permite el individualismo, el individualismo exige el estatismo» (p. 17), insiste Deneen con pocas pruebas más allá de sus propias teorías ahistóricas especulativas, irónicamente dado su llamado a «formas locales de resistencia más pequeñas: prácticas más que teorías». He aquí una propuesta alternativa: el individualismo liberal y los lazos comunitarios que genera se protegen mejor en una sociedad cristiana que es solemnemente consciente de la falibilidad de la mente humana, de las tendencias pecaminosas de la carne humana y de la imperfección inevitable de las instituciones humanas.

Leyendo Why Liberalism Failed, uno podría salir cuestionando no si Deneen tiene razón, sino si es lo suficientemente culto en la historia del liberalismo como para juzgar esta amplia y centenaria escuela de filosofía que surgió del cristianismo. Qué impresión tan desafortunada para alguien que escribe con tanto estilo sobre tendencias y figuras tan importantes! La realidad, creo, es que Deneen es erudito y culto. Su descripción tendenciosa del liberalismo es, por lo tanto, decepcionante por no poner en evidencia su erudición y su aprendizaje, por promover una visión idiosincrásica del liberalismo que, en última instancia, podría socavar el compromiso clásico y cristiano con la libertad que desea revitalizar.

  • 1.Frank Meyer, «Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism», en What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), pág. 12.
  • 2.M. Stanton Evans, «A Conservative Case for Freedom», en What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), pág. 86.
  • 3.F.A. Hayek, «Why I Am Not a Conservative»The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Editio, Vol 17, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek(Routledge, 2013), p. 519.
  • 4.Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (1927) (The Foundation for Economic Education y Cobden Press, 2002) (Ralph Raico, trans.), pgs. xvi-xvii.

Review of Stephen Budiansky’s “Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.”

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on September 25, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in Los Angeles Review of Books.

Do we need another biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served nearly 30 years as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and nearly 20 years before that on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court? He has been the subject of numerous biographies since his death in 1935. We have not discovered new details about him since Harvard made his papers available to researchers in 1985, so why has Stephen Budiansky chosen to tell his story?

The answer may have to do with something Holmes said in The Common Law, his only book: “If truth were not often suggested by error, if old implements could not be adjusted to new uses, human progress would be slow. But scrutiny and revision are justified.”

Indeed, they are — both in the law and in the transmission of history. Holmes has been so singularly misunderstood by jurists and scholars that his life and thought require scrutiny and revision. Because his story is bound up with judicial methods and tenets — his opinions still cited regularly, by no less than the US Supreme Court as recently as this past term — we need to get him right, or at least “righter,” lest we fall into error, sending the path of the law in the wrong direction.

A veritable cottage industry of anti-Holmes invective has arisen on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. No one, it seems, of any political persuasion, wants to adopt Holmes. He’s a giant of the law with no champions or defenders.

For some critics, Holmes is the paragon of states’ rights and judicial restraint who upheld local laws authorizing the disenfranchisement of blacks (Giles v. Harris, 1903) and the compulsory sterilization of individuals whom the state deemed unfit (Buck v. Bell, 1927). This latter decision he announced with horrifying enthusiasm: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For other critics, he’s the prototypical progressive, decrying natural law, deferring to legislation that regulated economic activity, embracing an evolutionary view of law akin to living constitutionalism, and bequeathing most of his estate to the federal government.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than tendentious caricatures. Budiansky follows Frederic R. Kellogg — whose Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Legal Logic appeared last year — in reconsidering this irreducible man who came to be known as the Yankee from Olympus.

Not since Mark DeWolfe Howe’s two-volume (but unfinished) biography, The Proving Years and The Shaping Years, has any author so ably rendered Holmes’s wartime service. Budiansky devotes considerable attention to this period perhaps because it fundamentally changed Holmes. Before the war, Holmes, an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, gravitated toward abolitionism and volunteered to serve as a bodyguard for Wendell Phillips. He was appalled by a minstrel show he witnessed as a student. During the war, however, he “grew disdainful of the high-minded talk of people at home who did not grasp that any good the war might still accomplish was being threatened by the evil it had itself become.”

Holmes had “daddy issues” — who wouldn’t with a father like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the diminutive, gregarious, vainglorious, and sometimes obnoxious celebrity, physician, and author of the popular “Breakfast Table” series in The Atlantic Monthly? — that were exacerbated by the elder Holmes’s sanctimonious grandstanding about his noble, valiant son. For the aloof father, the son’s military service was a status marker. For the son, war was gruesome, fearsome, and real. The son despised the father’s flighty ignorance of the on-the-ground realities of bloody conflict.

Holmes fought alongside Copperheads as well, a fact that might have contributed to his skepticism about the motives of the war and the patriotic fervor in Boston. His friend and courageous comrade Henry Abbott — no fan of Lincoln — died at the Battle of the Wilderness in a manner that Budianksy calls “suicidal” rather than bold. The war and its carnage raised Holmes’s doubts regarding “the morally superior certainty that often went hand in hand with belief: he grew to distrust, and to detest, zealotry and causes of all kinds.”

This distrust — this cynicism about the human ability to know anything with absolute certainty — led Holmes as a judge to favor decentralization. He did not presume to understand from afar which rules and practices optimally regulated distant communities. Whatever legislation they enacted was for him presumptively valid, and he would not impose his preferences on their government. His disdain for his father’s moralizing, moreover, may have contributed to his formulation of the “bad man” theory of the law. “If you want to know the law and nothing else,” he wrote, “you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”

Budiansky’s treatment of Holmes’s experience as a trial judge — the Justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in those days presided over trials of first instance — is distinctive among the biographies. Budisansky avers,

[I]n his role as a trial justice, Holmes was on the sharp edge of the law, seeing and hearing firsthand all of the tangled dramas of the courtroom, sizing up the honesty of often conflicting witnesses, rendering decisions that had immediate and dramatic consequences — the breakup of families, financial ruin, even death — to the people standing right before him.

Holmes’s opinions as a US Supreme Court Justice have received much attention, but more interesting — perhaps because less known — are the salacious divorce cases and shocking murder trials he handled with acute sensitivity to evidence and testimony.

Budiansky skillfully summarizes Holmes’s almost 30-year tenure on the US Supreme Court, the era for which he is best known. He highlights Holmes’s dissenting opinions and his friendship with Justice Louis Brandeis, who was also willing to dissent from majority opinions — and with flair. For those looking for more detailed narratives about opinions Holmes authored as a Supreme Court Justice, other resources are available. Thomas Healy’s The Great Dissent, for example, dives more deeply into Holmes’s shifting positions on freedom of speech. Healy spends a whole book describing this jurisprudential development that Budiansky clears in one chapter.

Contemptuous of academics, Budiansky irrelevantly claims that “humorless moralizing is the predominant mode of thought in much of academia today.” He adds, “A more enduring fact about academic life is that taking on the great is the most reliable way for those who will never attain greatness themselves to gain attention for themselves.” Harsh words! Budianksy accuses the French historian Jules Michelet of rambling “on for pages, as only a French intellectual can.” Is this playful wit or spiteful animus? Is it even necessary?

Budiansky might have avoided occasional lapses had he consulted the academics he seems to despise. For instance, he asserts that the “common law in America traces its origins to the Middle Ages in England […] following the Norman invasion in 1066,” and that the “Normans brought with them a body of customary law that, under Henry II, was extended across England by judges of the King’s Bench who traveled on circuit to hold court.” This isn’t so. Writing in The Genius of the Common Law, Sir Frederick Pollock — “an English jurist,” in Budiansky’s words, “whose friendship with Holmes spanned sixty years” — mapped the roots of the common law “as far back as the customs of the Germanic tribes who confronted the Roman legions when Britain was still a Roman province and Celtic.” In other words, Budiansky is approximately one thousand years off. Rather than supplanting British customs, the Normans instituted new practices that complemented, absorbed, and blended with British customs.

The fact that Budiansky never mentions some of the most interesting researchers working on Holmes — Susan Haack, Seth Vannatta, and Catharine Wells come to mind — suggests willful ignorance, the deliberate avoidance of the latest scholarship. But to what end? For what reason?

It takes years of study to truly understand Holmes. The epigraph to Vannatta’s new edition, The Pragmatism and Prejudice of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., aptly encapsulates the complexity of Holmes’s thought with lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Budiansky recognizes, as others haven’t, that Holmes was large and contained multitudes. Holmes’s contradictions, if they are contradictions, might be explained by the famous dictum of his childhood hero, Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Holmes was consistently inconsistent. His mind was expansive, his reading habits extraordinary. How to categorize such a wide-ranging man? What were the defining features of his belief? Or did he, as Louis Menand has alleged, “lose his belief in beliefs”? Budiansky condenses Holmes’s philosophy into this helpful principle: “[T]hat none of us has all the answers; that perfection will never be found in the law as it is not to be found in life; but that its pursuit is still worth the effort, if only for the sake of giving our lives meaning.”

Holmes was intellectually humble, warning us against the complacency that attends certainty. Driving his methods was the sober awareness that he, or anyone for that matter, might be incorrect about some deep-seated conviction. During this time of polarized politics, self-righteous indignation, widespread incivility, and rancorous public discourse, we could learn from Holmes. How civil and respectful we could be if we all recognized that our cherished ideas and working paradigms might, at some level, be erroneous, if we were constantly mindful of our inevitable limitations, if we were searchers and seekers who refuse to accept, with utter finality, that we’ve figured it all out?

Teaching Humbly and Without Malice

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Politics, Western Philosophy on September 4, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here at Law & Liberty.

Russell Kirk has been dead now for over a quarter of a century, yet he remains the subject of student conferences across the United States and of the recent bestselling biography by Bradley J. Birzer. And, wonder of wonders, he’s out with a new book.

Actually, it’s a new edition of a 1957 book. Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism in fact was originally called The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatisma swipe at George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928). This invigorating primer on the history and characteristics of American conservatism is of course suitable for female and male audiences alike, hence Regnery’s revision of its title.

In 12 brisk chapters, Kirk addresses the following themes: the essence of conservatism, religious faith, conscience, individuality, family, community, just government, private property, power, education, permanence, and change. He concludes with the question: “What is the Republic?” His answer: “a commonwealth in which as many things as possible are left to private and local management; and in which the state, far from obliterating classes and voluntary associations and private rights, shelters and respects all these.”

Anyone familiar with Kirk will recognize in the opening chapter the “chief principles” of conservatism that in The Portable Conservative Reader (1982) and The Conservative Mind (1953) he condenses into six “canons.” These involve a recognition of moral laws derived from God, a celebration of variety and diversity over coerced uniformity, the pursuit of justice, the protection of private property, a skepticism of power and centralization, a reverence for custom and tradition, and the rejection of utopianism or political programs predicated on a belief in the perfectibility of man.

Combining a Disposition to Preserve with the Ability to Reform

At a time when conservatism stands in need of definition and direction, this book remains strikingly relevant. “We need to undertake,” Kirk admonishes his readers, “the conservative task of restoring in our generation an understanding of that freedom and that order which have expressed and encouraged our national genius.” Decades have passed since he penned these lines, yet the task remains.

Freedom and order aren’t the only seemingly incompatible concepts that Kirk reconciles. He balances liberty with duty and charity, and clarifies how conservatives can be both individualistic and communitarian at once. He explains why conservatives may embrace permanence and change without contradiction: Progress—“genuine progress”—develops “within the framework of tradition.” Moreover, “grand principles endure” while “their application . . . alters.” A conservative thus “combines a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform.”

Kirk targets, as well, the canard that conservatism is the greedy defense of capitalism, that the man or woman espousing conservative views is “a monster of selfishness” who is “morally impure, ruthless, and avaricious.” This caricature is still with us, though few thinking people would accept it as true anymore. After all, the Left dominates corporate America, Silicon Valley, Big Tech, Hollywood, higher education, and the mass media—with certain obvious exceptions. Commonsense conservatism, by contrast, flourishes in rural, agrarian America, in the heartland, in Southern states, in flyover territory, among blue-collar workers—not among the wealthy elites or rich CEOs. The idea that a small group of Randian, egomaniac “fat cats” controls American society is simply ridiculous. Were he alive today, Kirk wouldn’t have needed to refute such silly stereotypes.

He warns that “very powerful forces are at work to diminish the influence of the family among us, and even to destroy the family for all purposes except mere generation.” If he only knew. His treatment of the family seems dated by current standards—not because he embraced old-fashioned views but because the threats to the family that he predicted turned out to be greater than he could have imagined. He could not, for instance, foresee the redefinition of marriage that occurred through judicial opinions.

What, according to Kirk, is the purpose of formal education? Is it to equip students with the skills they need to excel in the workforce? To ensure that a democratic citizenry is sufficiently informed to refine and improve governing institutions? To bring about opportunities for historically marginalized or disenfranchised peoples? No. “The purpose of education,” he says, “is to develop the mental and moral faculties of the individual person, for the person’s own sake.” One doesn’t need to attend a university or earn a degree to fulfill this goal.

He Teaches Humbly and Without Malice

In our era of shouting pundits and social media sniping, Kirk’s mild manner, Victorian prose, and relaxed tone are charming reminders that, even when the stakes are high, we can be civil and reasonable toward detractors. He eviscerates sacred cows—for example, the notion of equality that, if instantiated, would lead to a “boring” world “in which everyone was the same”—cleverly yet with goodwill. The most egalitarian among us would entertain his controversial argument about equality because he does not provoke, incite, or inflame the passions. He teaches humbly and without malice.

Equality and diversity—ideals commonly associated with the Left—are, Kirk reminds us, incompatible to the extent that equality requires an eradication of the beautiful and remarkable distinctions that make each human being unique. The conservative is the true advocate of diversity, he points out, for it is the conservative who “desires to see the rich, invigorating, interesting variety of a society,” not to “pull everyone down to a dead level of equality.” Our equality before God and the law admits of natural and inevitable inequalities between people. Any other form of equality is the enemy of diversity.

If you believe the chief end of inquiry is to cultivate “human dignity, human personality, and human happiness,” and to understand and appreciate “the relationship between God and man,” then you’re a Kirkian conservative. All the weight of history, the entire strength of civilized society, depends on these for the preservation of freedom and order, which complement rather than oppose each other. In them, with God’s grace and providence, we put our hope for the future.

On Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 28, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here in the Journal of Faith and the Academy. A later version appeared here at Mises Wire.

Only the bold would title a book Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, has done just that, proposing that such failure has actually occurred and setting the unreasonable expectation that he can explain it. His operative premise is that liberalism so called created the conditions for its inevitable demise—that it is a self-consuming, self-defeating ideology only around 500 years old. (p. 1) “Liberalism has failed,” he declares triumphantly, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” (p.3)

Deneen doesn’t define the term liberalism, which isn’t in his index even though it’s littered throughout the book. I have it on reliable authority that one of the peer reviewers of the pre-published manuscript recommended publication to the editors at Yale University Press, provided that Deneen cogently defined liberalism and then cleaned up his sloppy references to it. Deneen ignored this advice, leaving the manuscript as is. His genealogy of liberalism is all the more problematic in light of this refusal to clarify.

Deneen presents a seeming paradox, namely that liberalism, under the banner of liberty and emancipation, produced their opposite: a vast, progressive, and coercive administrative state under which individuals have grown alienated, amoral, dependent, conditioned, and servile. “[T]he political project of liberalism,” he claims, “is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, and science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” (p.16)

One hears in this line echoes of Sartre, and indeed existentialism recommends a certain kind of individualism: the freedom of the rational agent, having been thrust into existence through no choice or fault of his own, to will his own meaning in an absurd and chaotic world. But existentialism is a different species of individualism from that which motivated Hobbes, Locke, and Mill: chief targets of Deneen’s ire. It’s true that Mill disliked dogmatic conformity to custom, but that is a customary—one might even say conservative—position to take. One must preserve, or conserve, after all, a critical mode for undertaking difficult questions without assuming to have already ascertained all suitable solutions. Every age must rework its approaches to perennial problems. There’s plenty of Mill to dislike from a Christian perspective, but his unlikable conclusions do not necessarily follow from his method of inquiry or openness to examining afresh the puzzles and issues with which our ancestors struggled.

The classical liberalism or libertarianism to which Christian individualists adhere promotes peace, cooperation, coordination, collaboration, community, stewardship, ingenuity, prosperity, dignity, knowledge, understanding, humility, virtuousness, creativity, justice, ingenuity, and more, taking as its starting point the dignity of every human person before both God and humanity. This individualism prospers in fundamentally conservative cultures and does not square with Deneen’s caricature of a caricature of a caricature of “liberal” individualism. This conservative individualism, a creature of classical liberalism, advocates liberty in order to free human beings to achieve their fullest potential, cultivate widespread ethics and morality, and improve lives and institutions through economic growth and development. And who can deny that the market economy with which it is bound up has, throughout the globe, given rise to improved living conditions, technological and medical advances, scientific discovery, intellectual curiosity, and industrial innovation?

Deneen wishes to rewind the clock, to recover the virtuous “self-governance” of the ancients that, he believes, was predicated on “the common good.” (p. 99) He sees in antiquity a social rootedness that aligns with Christianity as exemplified in the modern world by Amish communities.(p 106-107) His celebration of the traditional liberal arts adopts, he says, “a classical or Christian understanding of liberty” (p. 129) that emphasizes situated norms and localities, embedded cultures, and institutional continuities. This, however, is a curious take on antiquity, one that flies in the face of the anti-Christian features of classical and ancient thought extolled by Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and Julius Evola, who valued the pagan elements of “the ancient commendation of virtue” (p. 165) and disparaged the modern world as being too Christian.

Deneen is not interested in liberalisms, i.e., the multiplicity of concepts that fly under the banner of liberalism. He prefers casually to lump together varieties of generic ills (everything from industrialized agriculture to the infatuation with STEM, diversity, multiculturalism, materialism, and sexual autonomy) as products of the one common enemy of everything good that the classical and medieval periods had to offer. He then gives that enemy a name: liberalism. He would plunge us back, if not into antiquity, then into medieval tribalism, into periods in which the accused were tried by ordeal or combat, when blood oaths and kinship rather than trust, goodwill, or economic exchange determined one’s loyalties and allegiances.

It isn’t correct that liberalism “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community.” (p. 38) On the contrary, liberalism frees people from the tyrannical and institutionalized coercion that prevents them from enjoying local associations and relationships, including those in families, churches, schools, and communities. Liberalism properly understood empowers people to group themselves and define their experience by their own customs and mores. Thanks to liberalism, Deneen himself enjoys the freedom to critique the rapidly growing government that increasingly attempts to impose on him standards and rules at odds with his own.

Extending the individualism that characterized classical liberalism to twentieth century progressivism and modern identity politics, as Deneen does, is misguided. Modern identity politics is about collectivism in the name of self-definition, self-awareness, and self-constitution, about choosing which communities (Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, the Democratic Socialists of America, neo-Nazis, etc.) embrace the physical (e.g. ethnic or racial), ideological (e.g., pan-nationalist, Marxist, ecosocialist, feminist, anarcho-syndicalist, white supremacist), or normative characteristics (e.g. social justice or egalitarianism) around which one forms group associations.

The truth is that individualism thrives in moral, virtuous communities, and that the common good and group associations flourish in societies that acknowledge and understand the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. Of the interdependence and mutually strengthening nature of freedom and order, of the individual and society, Frank Meyer proclaimed that “truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”1 To those who insist that individualism is antithetical to religious belief, which is itself indispensable to conservatism and the common good, M. Stanton Evans stated, “affirmation of a transcendent order is not only compatible with individual autonomy, but the condition of it; […] a skeptical view of man’s nature [i.e., as inherently flawed and prone to sin] not only permits political liberty but demands it.”2

In a free society, entrepreneurs and producers are looking to others, to communities, to determine basic needs to satisfy. The rational self-interest motivating creativity and inventiveness is fundamentally about serving others more efficiently and effectively, about generating personal rewards, yes—but personal rewards for making life better and easier for others. The Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations is the same Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Human beings are wired both to look out for themselves, protecting their homes and loved ones, and to feel for, and empathize with, others. Beneficence and generosity are principal aspects of the liberal individualism that Deneen maligns.

The “second wave” of liberalism, in Deneen’s paradigm, is Progressivism. (p. 142) Yet modern progressivism and the Democratic Party have almost nothing to do with classical liberalism. Curiously and, I daresay, lazily, Deneen wishes to connect them. He cannot draw a clearly connecting line between them, however, because there isn’t one. The alleged connection is the supposed ambition “to liberate individuals from any arbitrary and unchosen relationships and remake the world into one in which those especially disposed to expressive individualism would thrive.” (p. 143–44) Should we take this assertion to mean that Deneen would prefer our relations and interactions to be arbitrarily coerced by a central power in a closed society where subordinated individuals habitually follow the unquestioned commands of established superiors?

F. A. Hayek once stated that, “[u]ntil the rise of socialism,” the opposite of conservatism was liberalism but that, in the United States, “the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.”3 Is Deneen so immersed in American culture that he cannot recognize this basic distinction? Deneen prizes the common, collective good as manifest in local communities, blaming rational self-interest for the allegedly universalizing tendency of liberalism to stamp out venerable customs and cultural norms. But he seems befuddled by the American taxonomy into which liberalism has fallen and would do well to revisit the works of Ludwig von Mises, who explained, “In the United States ‘liberal’ means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by authorities, i.e., socialism.”4

A comparison of Deneen’s speculative political theory and its abstract narrative of decline with Larry Siedentop’s deeply historical, ideologically neutral Inventing the Individual (Belknap / Harvard, 2014) reveals critical flaws in Deneen’s argument, starting with the proposition that the individualism key to liberalism is merely 500 years old. Siedentop undercuts the common portrayal of a medieval Europe gripped by poverty and superstition, monarchy and tyranny, widespread corruption and early death from which the Renaissance and, later, the Enlightenment allegedly rescued us. Siedentop sees, instead, the rise of Christianity—long before medievalism—as the cause of the rise of liberal individualism, which, in fact, has roots in the teachings of St. Paul and Jesus Christ. Whereas Deneen theorizes individualism as recent and anti-Christian, Siedentop traces its actual history as distinctly Christian, mapping its concrete features over time as it proliferated and supplanted ancient pagan cultures and customs that lacked a structural understanding of the dignity and primacy of the human person.

Siedentop attributes liberal individualism to Christianity; Deneen treats liberal individualism as inimical to Christianity. Both men cannot correct, at least not fully.

Walking back some of his grand claims, Deneen acknowledges in his final pages that liberalism, in certain manifestations, has in fact been around longer than 500 years and that it has much in common with Christianity:

While liberalism pretended to be a wholly new edifice that rejected the political architecture of all previous ages, it naturally drew upon long developments from antiquity to the late Middle Ages. A significant part of its appeal was not that it was something wholly new but that it drew upon deep reservoirs of belief and commitment. Ancient political philosophy was especially devoted to the question of how best to avoid the rise of tyranny, and how best to achieve the conditions of political liberty and self-governance. The basic terms that inform our political tradition—liberty, equality, dignity, justice, constitutionalism—are of ancient pedigree. The advent of Christianity, and its development in the now largely neglected political philosophy of the Middle Ages, emphasized the dignity of the individual, the concept of the person, the existence of rights and corresponding duties, the paramount importance of civil society and a multiplicity of associations, and the concept of limited government as the best means of forestalling the inevitable human temptation toward tyranny. Liberalism’s most basic appeal was not its rejection of the past but its reliance upon basic concepts that were foundational to the Western political identity. (pp. 184–85)

Forgive me for being confused, but I thought Deneen had set out to criticize liberalism and chart its failure, not to exalt or defend it, and certainly not to tie it to an ancient lineage associated with Christianity. This passage represents the discombobulation at the heart of Deneen’s book. Liberalism is not to blame for the massive administrative state and its networks of agents and functionaries that coerce local communities. Deneen is part of the problem he describes, championing ways of thinking and organizing human behavior that undercut his hope for the reawakening of traditional values and familial or neighborly bonds on local levels.

Deneen airs his opinions with such maddening certitude that he comes across as haughty and tendentious, as a zealously anti-libertarian manqué with an axe to grind. He lacks the delicacy and charity with which reasonable scholars of good faith approach their ideological opponents. He does not entertain the position of those who, like me, believe that liberal individualism is a necessary condition for the flourishing of local communities, the cultivation of virtue and responsibility, the forming of mediating institutions and bottom-up political associations, and the decentralization and diffusion of government power. He just can’t grasp the possibility that liberal individualism creates a vehicle for the preservation of custom and heritage, the family unit, and social bonds on local levels.

“Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism,” (p. 17) Deneen insists with little proof beyond his own ahistorical speculative theories—ironically given his call for “smaller, local forms of resistance: practicesmore than theories.” (pp. 19–20) Here’s an alternative proposition: liberal individualism and the community bonds it generates are best protected in a Christian society that is solemnly mindful of the fallibility of the human mind, the sinful tendencies of the human flesh, and the inevitable imperfection of human institutions.

Reading Why Liberalism Failed, one might come away questioning not whether Deneen is right, but whether he’s even sufficiently well-read in the history of liberalism to pass judgment on this wide-ranging, centuries-old school of philosophy that grew out of Christianity. What an unfortunate impression to impart for someone who writes with such flair about such important trends and figures. The reality, I think, is that Deneen is erudite and learned. His tendentious depiction of liberalism is thus disappointing for not putting his erudition and learning properly on display, for promoting an idiosyncratic take on liberalism that could ultimately undermine the classical and Christian commitment to liberty that he wishes to reinvigorate.

  • 1.Frank Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 12.
  • 2.M. Stanton Evans, “A Conservative Case for Freedom,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 86.
  • 3.F. A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition, Vol 17, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek(Routledge, 2013), p. 519.
  • 4.Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (1927) (The Foundation for Economic Education and Cobden Press, 2002) (Ralph Raico, trans.), pgs. xvi-xvii.

Philip Levine and Allen Mendenhall on “Meet the Authors”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 29, 2019 at 6:45 am

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Suzie Wiley and Allen Mendenhall on “Writers on Writing”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 22, 2019 at 6:45 am

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