Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Burkean Take on Our Situation

Some clarity on the origins of the modern debate, which is really--at its core--a battle between Libertarians and Conservatives. What is "too much" or "too little" Government? And how does the Principle of Subsidiarity become even more critical?

(The Left, by the way, is essentially Libertarian. Don't like that assessment? Read on.)

The author, Joseph Baldacchino, is president of the National Humanities Institute and editor of Humanitas.

He reminds us of foundational principles:

For Aristotle, as for Thomas Aquinas, the purpose of politics and law was to further the common good of society which was shared by all in the sense that it was good for its own sake. Differently put, there is a self in man that is more than individual and higher than mere enlightened self-interest whose nature is to foster genuine community among people. But in the sixteenth century a philosophical and moral revolution began. Encouraged by thinkers such as Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes, promotion of the common good was displaced as society’s ultimate purpose by the lesser goal of trying to maximize the satisfaction of conflicting individual and group interests.

Which, not by coincidence, usually has to do with material happines naked.

...Traditional conservatives—from Edmund Burke and John Adams in the eighteenth century to Irving Babbitt and Russell Kirk in the twentieth—supported liberty, property, and restraints on government but not as ultimate ends in themselves. They saw them as conducive to efficient production and other commodious arrangements, but most importantly as means to the higher ends of society, which can be summarized in the term “community.”

If one takes Aristotle and Aquinas seriously, the core of the problem is not "too much" nor "too little" Government:

Government, together with other social structures, is necessary to put restraints on actions and desires inimical to man’s higher potential. How much government is needed and what kind cannot be determined in the abstract, but depends on the character of the people of a specific time and place.

...In other words, when it becomes common for economic actors, be they janitors or heads of hedge funds, to set aside normal moral and cultural restraints when at work, it will undermine not only the quality of their everyday existence but also damage the honesty and integrity on which a well-functioning market and indeed all civilized life depend...

And we now get to the consequences of "character":

...when the conservative movement so powerful in American politics over the past half century was getting its intellectual start in the 1950s, it became apparent very soon that its participants were profoundly at odds concerning the meaning of freedom, which hinges on the fundamental nature of man and society. Along with Burke and most framers of the American constitution—and in keeping with the pre-modern classical and Christian heritage—conservative academics such as Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, and the economist Wilhelm Röpke denounced as reductionism the notion that human beings, who are almost wholly dependent on society for the very attributes that make them human, are ultimately obligated to nothing beyond individual self-interest.

The split in the Conservative movement was present at National Review.

Taking sharp issue with the “New Conservatism” of Kirk, Nisbet, Peter Viereck, and others, Frank S. Meyer, who would become a prime architect of the movement, declared sweepingly in a 1955 article that “all value resides in the individual; all social institutions derive their value and, in fact, their very being from individuals and are justified only to the extent that they serve the needs of individuals.”7 Meyer’s radical individualism, which he attributed in large part to John Stuart Mill, was shared to various degrees by numerous others whose ideas helped shape the early conservative movement, including the economists Ludwig von Mises, Friederich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.

Calling to mind Scott Walker's repeated quotations of the Wisconsin Constitution, we have this:

[Adam] Smith added that social order is not spontaneous or automatic, but is founded on institutions that promote self control, prudence, gratification deferral, respect for the lives and property of others, and some concern for the common good.

Burke, who was an admirer of Smith, similarly wrote: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity . . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”...

IOW, there must be some restraints of "liberty". Another thinker, JPII, phrased it this way: "Liberty is the freedom to do what is right." Extrapolating, that 'freedom' simply cannot be allowed if 'to do what is wrong' is the practice.

Frank Meyer attempted to reconcile his radical individualism with Burke, but as late as 1962, he was still not able to do so. There's a reason for that:

[Meyer] elevate[d] the pursuit of liberty to the highest goal of politics while ignoring freedom’s dependence on moral restraint and its corresponding institutional and cultural supports. True enough, in his overtures for the traditionalists’ support, Meyer pays homage to man’s higher ends, even to religion, yet it is clear from his writings that he remains at a loss concerning what those ends entail. As late as 1962 he was still asserting, for example, the reality of the “rational, volitional, autonomous individual” versus the “myth of society.

What Meyer was attempting to do was to separate religion from governance. Ironically, that is precisely what the Left would like to achieve.

Russell Kirk saw it for what it really was. the same 1981 issue of Modern Age in which the libertarian Rothbard explained that Meyer’s fusionism was actually libertarianism, Russell Kirk posed the question of what conservatism (of the traditionalist or pre-fusionist variety) and libertarianism have in common. His answer was that, except for sharing “a detestation of collectivism”—an opposition to “the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy”—conservatives and libertarians have “nothing” in common. “Nor will they ever have,” he added. “To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of fire and ice.

...“The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle—that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence.” The libertarians, Kirk reported, borrowed whole from John Stuart Mill’s 1859 book On Liberty the principle that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.”

It's interesting that despite the fact he published National Review (and Meyer, of course), Bill Buckley read the Primal Libertarian Authorette--Ayn Rand--out of the Conservative movement. Perhaps Buckley had awakened and smelled that she was brewing.

If society is considered less than real, the highest goal for which the individual can strive is to be able to do as he or she pleases to the greatest extent possible. And since doing as he or she pleases is synonymous with freedom by the fusionists’ definition, it follows that, for them in their heart of hearts, there never can be too much liberty or (which is to say the same thing) too little government. To view the world in the light of such broad generalizations discourages subtlety of mind and attention to the needs of actual historical situations.

The Left (and the Right) flap jaws about "freedom" in Egypt; but what IS the "actual historical situation" there? Can it support "freedom and democracy"? (That's a question, not an implicit denial.)

...the tendency has been for political power and the control of government to lurch back and forth between Big Government “progressives” who are prone always and everywhere to “teach obedience” and Small Government “conservatives” (or libertarians) who are prone always and everywhere to “let go the rein.”

Yup, more or less.

ideologues of both types are blind to the changing proportions of liberty and restraint appropriate to actual circumstances.

The Principle of Subsidiarity teaches that all (governance) issues should be resolved at the lowest possible level; between neighbors, or at a municipality level. County, State, and Federal entities should avoid involvement unless resolution is impossible at lower levels.

It ought to be evident that the principle is derived from the Aristotelian/Aquinian "common good". Given that "the actual historical situation" will differ from place to place and time to time, the low-level solution is that which best takes into account the vagaries inevitably present around any governance-decision; it moderates raw self-interest precisely as does a family.

But as Baldacchino points out, those decisions, too, must be informed by religion and morality. Self-interest is not necessarily congruent with "common good."

And the Common Good is paramount.


John Foust said...

Rand had no affection for liberterarians or -ism.

John Foust said...

Rand had no affection for liberterarians or -ism.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

You're right on two counts-- this is pretty much what I was going for, and no way would I be able to fit a full definition of philosophical libertarians into that comment box!