The Laptop Expert


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Much has been typed about the Laptop Expert in the Information Age. I will not take too much of your time, but I felt that it was my duty to contribute to the conversation, mostly because I find it relevant to what I’ve been discussing, namely authority and individualism. Remember, however, that this blog is opinion, is in no way authoritative, and I reserve the right of the wise to admonish me.

Knowledge, as they say, is power. Someone also said that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Instant global communication via the internet especially (and of course through other, more primitive means of communication such as a telephone or radio) has made it possible for the greatest number of people in the history of the world to know things. We hail this as perhaps the greatest achievement of mankind; the dissemination of information at high speed is a sign of civilization second only to universal access to birth control.

However, having a knowledge of facts (and of course the media we consume isn’t necessarily all about fact) isn’t enough to become an authority on something. To become an authority on something, we need to learn from an authority what these facts mean, have the leisure to digest the facts and compare the facts with other facts or truths (and to do so with other people), and finally, have a generally well-disciplined and trained mind. In our fast-paced world, the need for an external authority is rejected, we don’t have any time for leisure, and we are too often assaulted by the excess of knowledge (or pseudo-knowledge) at too early an age to have a truly well-formed mind.

Instead, we believe ourselves competent to comment on any subject we come across on the Internet because ultimately we are our own authority and the more people who will listen to us will only cement that idea in our brains. We think that efficiency in knowledge (finding as many fact as possible in the least amount of time) is a value, thus short-circuiting our natural need for contemplation and the integration of new knowledge into our system of thinking. Finally, we have made the democratization of knowledge and information so thorough and complete that we insist on our children having the same access to the information and the ability to express themselves in this immediate and individualistic way regardless of the development of their minds.

Who needs teachers when we have the internet and our own reason to guide us? Why spend time thinking through something with other people when Someone On the Internet is Wrong? If we don’t say something now the time will have passed. Why would we need to form our minds before taking in all this knowledge and information? After all, as I said, knowledge is power and if we are to create a society of perfect equality, everyone needs access to the same information and knowledge, lest some have more power than others.

And yet, without someone or something to guide our devouring of knowledge in pursuit of power, we will become immoderate in our consumption. We will become fat and bloated with our sense of power and entitlement. And ultimately, as in all systems, there will be those that use it better than others, thus creating a natural hierarchy and natural authorities. Are there bloggers we read daily? Do we trust some news agencies over others? Are there journalists we turn to when something important happens?

And yet, through social media we insist on the validity of our own opinion on every subject. Perhaps the global economy of information has created more equality, maybe it hasn’t. Could it be, though, that regardless it has contributed to the conflict that individualism breed? Could it be that we need less information to be more truly free and more truly human?




Pluralism and the Common Good


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One of the accompanying principles of the libertarian philosophy is pluralism. If it is our belief that each individual is free to pursue happiness according to his own perception of the good, it is natural to assert that having a variety of opinions, beliefs, and practices in society is a good, as long as no one is harming anyone else. For now, we shall set aside the question of whether liberalism as a common principle even makes sense and take up the question of whether and in what way pluralism contributes to the common good.

There are, in any act, the principles that support the act and the act itself, the “doing of the thing.” In more common parlance, there is theory and there is practice. This is true in any discipline whether it be architecture, history, or politics. Before building a building, there must be design intent and before there is design intent, there must be principles of design. If these principles of design are faulty, the building will be, in essence, unbuildable, or if buildable structurally unreliable. Before writing the history of something, we must first study that subject and in order to study properly, we must have an idea of what is relevant and what is not, what is within the scope of the subject and what is not. Before we enact laws and policies, we must first know that the laws are good and therefore must have principles of the good in mind.

Thus, there are two kinds of pluralism which we can encounter in the different disciplines: pluralism of principle and pluralism of practice. Let us imagine, for an instant, what the implications of pluralism or the lack thereof would have in these two areas of human action. Is pluralism possible in all aspects of human action? Is it productive? Is its good?

It is certainly possible for there to be multiple principles within a discipline. In architecture, for example, the three classical principles are firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (strength, usefulness, and attractiveness.) However, throughout history there have been architects who have different opinions on the value of each of these principles. Some think that usefulness is the most important; buildings needn’t last as long as they serve some purpose. Others think that strength is the most important; buildings are a perennial statement of some ideal that needn’t have a purpose other than that. Still others think that attractiveness is the most important; buildings are art, primarily.

There are other principles of architecture that spring from these three and there are even a greater number of opinions as the principles become more and more specific. This plurality of opinions exists, but is it productive? While in some sense, a variety of principles can lead to the flourishing of the building culture, an attempt to use many principles in the design of a building can lead to confusion and incoherence in a building. A building cannot be designed, let alone built, if the architect is trying to do too many things at once. It is more productive to have a small set of principles to adhere to so as to produce a clear and buildable structure.

However, as I said, having buildings that are each designed with different principles will not inhibit the architectural profession. Pluralism can, in fact, be productive when the principles are distributed between projects and not forced into competition within a single design. This would seem to indicate that there are some contexts in which a pluralism of principles is productive. It is, as an architect might say, a matter of scale.

Now, whether a pluralism of principles is good is another question entirely, unless you hold a utilitarian viewpoint, in which case, we will get back to productivity and the matter of scale.

In order for a pluralism of principles to be good, each principle must be good in and of itself as well as good in relation to the other principles at play. Once again, we find an overarching principle of the “good” to be necessary for any discussion of pluralism.  If we are going to embrace any sort of pluralism, we have to know which kind to choose.

For example, a dietary pluralism is good insofar as it furthers the health of the body and mind. Eating a variety of foods is good, but it has to do proportion and priority. If ice cream is given priority, it is not a healthy pluralism. (Now, if you only eat ice cream, that’s not pluralism, but it’s still unhealthy.) Even “poisons” can be consumed in small doses, as in homeopathy, for good health. However, to eat toxins and food equally is to embrace an unhealthy pluralism of diet.

The same can be said of political or social pluralism. We must not give every social principle equal weight, nor indeed can we entertain every social principle at all. There are some social principles that are harmful to society and there are some that are directly contradictory to other social principles such that they cannot be held simultaneously within the same group of people without causing division. Social principles have practical implications and this division in principle will always lead to division in practice.

As I have said, it is a matter of scale. The more general a principle, the harder it is for pluralism without strife. As principles become particularized, it is easier for a society to hold them side-by-side and even use them in cooperation with each other. Having a multiplicity of perspectives on a particular situation can help realize its full implication, and often there are more than one possible course of action to address the situation. The other side of this coin is that the less particular a situation is, the more general the principles need to be and thus pluralism has less of a place. However, any sort of judgement about what action to take will always appeal to a principle that is outside the pluralism of perspectives.

There is an inherent hierarchy of ideas when talking about justice in society. Some principles are more universal than others; some can be used in concert with others while some are contradictory. Without a common sense of justice, pluralism will result in the discord of opposing principles and ultimately will result in an unjust society. Consensus is praised when it comes to practical social questions, and indeed, in order to accomplish anything, agreement must be reached. Ultimately, however, consensus in universal principles is what will ensure justice.

A Little Thought on Authority


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In discussing the Libertarian philosophy, a few things have becomes clear. First, liberty is not absolute. Not only are we unable to do certain things (a natural limit to freedom), we also insist that there are things we may not do (an imposed limit on our freedom.) Second, this imposed limit on our freedom must be based on a universal code of justice. It is impossible to resolve conflicts or promote cooperation between individuals and groups without accountability to some common conception of the good. Third, the principles that determine this common good must appeal to a common authority. If there is no common authority accepted by all, there is very little chance of cooperation and conflict and partisanship is almost inevitable.

This is all very well and good, but where are we going to find this “universal code of justice,” these “principles,” this “common authority?”

In order to implement any sort of code of justice that is common to all, we must first have an understanding of human nature. We must also have an understanding of what justice means. We must then be able to articulate our understanding into principles to be implemented as a binding and universal code from which we can determine appropriate use of our will. By whose authority, then, do we understand human nature and justice?

We could appeal to democratic authority. In other words, we can determine the answers to these questions by means of a simple vote. Whatever a majority of the voters holds to be true shall be considered true. There are a couple of issues with this. Although the minority may agree to enact policy based on the principles of the majority, there is no guarantee against abuse. The majority opinion could in fact reflect the interest or good of that particular majority of people or of all the individuals in the majority, but it is impossible to say that it also reflects the interest or good of all. In order to show that it does reflect the interest and good of all and is not just an imposition of majority opinion, the majority would have to appeal to an authority beyond just the majority will. It is also clear that in no body of knowledge is democracy used to determine the truth of something. Biologists do not take a poll to determine what the makeup of our blood is. Historians do not ask at the nearest pub who won the Battle of Waterloo.

If the sciences depend on expert opinion to determine the validity of a claim, should we not look to the experts to help us understand human nature and justice? But who are these experts? The understanding of human nature and justice has traditionally been the purview of the philosophers. Even if we believe that the “hard” sciences can tell us all we can know about human nature, that in itself is an act of philosophy and thus we have become philosophers. Not good philosophers, but philosophers nonetheless.

We must then depend on philosophers to study and explain human nature and justice and what the principles on which on our communities should be built. Our Founding Fathers in America depended on philosophers. In fact, politics is always formed by philosophy of one kind or another. In every society, there are the “experts” or the “wise” which are given respect and often reverence for their obligation to provide the society with the principles by which it is governed.

Even philosophers, however, disagree on human nature. Not all philosophers are equal in either understanding or articulation. We have some philosophers believing that religious practice is essential to human nature regardless of whether the accompanying religious belief is true or not. We have others who believe that religious practice is a contingent aspect of human nature the conditions for which have long passed. Still others believe that it is necessary to understand the nature of the divine reality in order to understand human nature.

Which is true? How can we know who is the greatest of philosophers? By what standard or authority are we to judge them? Is there something beyond the philosophers to which they are held accountable? Is there an ultimate authority that is authoritative on its own merits? If not, is it possible to have a universal code of justice? Is it possible to have principles of the common good? If there is no ultimate authority, some sort of unassailable rationality on which the authority of the philosophers is based doesn’t that leave us with only our own reason and will on which to depend? Still, we have already found that the libertarian, relativist philosophy (which also depends on philosophers for its articulation) is insufficient to meet the needs demanded by justice and human nature.

Until very recently, all, or most, philosophers believed in some sort of unassailable rationality that underpins reality and most saw this rationality as a being, whether personal or impersonal. The philosophers who do not believe in a rationality which pervades reality are those who believe that nothing has meaning and everything is absurd. It is a despairing philosophy and not very helpful in the practical considerations of politics and society.

Ultimately, then, this Rationality is the authority by which we must judge the philosophers and thus judge our principles and policies. We must give assent to the philosophers who give the most compelling account of this Rationality. Where will this lead us? Who can say, but not all of us are able to study reality to the depth that the expert does. We must, ultimately, believe something someone else says. We can not work out all answers ourselves; we have neither the time nor the single-mindedness to pursue the questions. We must trust those who have dedicated their lives to understanding this Rationality. If we do not, we stand on very shaky ground.


Liberalism and Partisanship


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One of the most popular criticisms of the current American political climate is that it is too partisan; no one seems to be able to agree on anything. In my post on Economic Independence, I pointed out that the two sides of the argument both held that the economic freedom of America from foreign influence was a goal worth pursuing. It was, in short, a shared value from which they could argue to a particular course of action. They were able to have a proper debate with rigourous rhetoric on both sides because there was a common understanding of economy and the common good.

Today there is none of that. Today, there is not even agreement on the value of America, let alone its economy. The Founding Fathers were adamantly against partisan politics, but in fact this is what their liberalism has wrought. There is no possibility of debate on issues of the common good and human nature as long as the libertarian philosophy is assumed.

Let me explain. The libertarian philosophy claims that the individual is free to pursue happiness unencumbered by the interference of others. Strong libertarians deny any obligation an individual has to any group of people apart from what he has agreed to in order to pursue his own good. Right away there is a tension between the idea of a common or shared good that belongs to everyone and the idea of the individual good. But of course, the libertarian might say, as long as a group is in agreement, all members should be able to be free to pursue their own good. And this is where it gets tricky. All individual goods being met is not the same as a shared good, and in order for any sort of meaningful debate to take place, there has to be a good in mind that is shared between all parties.

For example, if two men find a cow walking aimlessly down the road, they might ask “What should we do with this cow?” Right away, there is the shared assumption that they should do something with the cow. Some men who encountered the cow might think otherwise. Their shared assumption might be that they shouldn’t do anything with the cow. However, if one of the men thinks one way and one thinks the other way, it is impossible to hold the debate “What should be done with the cow” until both parties are agree that something should be done.

If a nation asks “How should we define marriage for the 21st century?” and there are some who believe that we shouldn’t define marriage for the 21st century any differently than we have before and some who believe that it is imperative that a new definition be made, there is no common goal, no common value, therefore no proper debate. The first debate, “Should we redefine marriage at all?” must be had before any sort of debate about the nature of such a redefinition.

But of course, that debate is impossible without first having shared values about what is good for the community, what is good for children, what is good for those who are married etc. Those debates, furthermore, presuppose that there is some way of definitively knowing the answer to these, which implies the need for an authority. Ultimately, then, none of these debates can occur properly if there is not agreement on the authority to which the people can appeal.

The libertarian authority, ultimately, is the self. Unless one side is willing to take the other side as an authority, while the libertarian philosophy holds sway, there can be no productive debate. This might explain why Catholics, who traditionally were against the libertarian philosophy, have come to accept its authority for the sake of avoiding constant conflict.

It seems, however, that finally libertarianism has reached its natural end: endless conflict. No longer are people willing to cede authority to anyone else, for to do so would be illiberal. Instead, we have an obsession in this country with “defining ourselves” and anything which conflicts with our self-definition is to be defeated at all costs. The new dogma is that everyone must accept everyone else as their own authority about the meaning of their life.

Here’s the catch. Not everyone believes in this dogma.

Because not everyone believes in this dogma and the authority which proclaims it, there can be no shared principles and values from which to have a debate. We are forced to either agree to work from someone else’s principles or we are doomed to perpetual stalemate.

If we look at the political climate these days, is this not what we see? It is clear that not everyone agrees on policy decisions, but this is primarily because they do not agree on what our goals should be. They can not agree on what our goals should be because they do not have a shared vision of the nature humanity, individually and communally. They do not have a shared vision of the nature of humanity because they have different authorities, ultimately themselves, on which to base this vision.

Ultimately, the libertarian philosophy can only lead to partisanship, and bitter at that.  Any dissent is seen as illiberal or even more an actual attack on the rights of people to define their own meaning. Thus, we have legislation enacted because of the loudest or most popular opinion without actually thinking about said legislation. The government has become merely an arbiter of rights, deciding which person must bow to the other’s authority.This means that the authority granted to one person over the other is granted by an authority outside either of them, showing once again the self-contradiction of the libertarian philosophy.


Economic Independence and Localism


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One of the early debates about the governing and growth of America was how best to promote and protect economic independence. Surprisingly, both major viewpoints involved direct government action whether in the form of tariffs, subsidies, or other incentives. It was so important to the Founding Fathers that we not depend on imports or lending from other nations but instead produce our own goods and provide our own labor. To both Hamilton and Jefferson, this is what constituted a free economy, one that was independent of foreign pressure.

How our ideas of a free economy have changed! Instead of seeing it as a network of mutually beneficial (and nationally beneficial) industries that must be preserved in order to maintain a healthy and free civic order, we now see it as a system of allowing any economic unit the freedom to do with its money what it wishes, no matter the effect on the civic or moral realm. A free market philosophy tells us that industries go where the greatest profit can be found and that restriction on trade results in less economic movement and therefore less economic growth.

If I recall correctly, the health of a national economy is not how measured by how many economic connections a nation has made globally but GDP, Gross Domestic Product. I am no economist, but it seems to me that the more our production and services are outsourced via a “free” market the worse our economy becomes. As our economy worsens and we depend more and more on foreign credit and imports, the less free America becomes.

This is of course only relevant if we believe that a nation is more than just an agreement by individuals to coexist for the benefit of each. If the freedom of corporations and individuals to make money in whatever manner they wish is more important to us than the general economic and civic health of our cities and nation, then we should indeed embrace a free market philosophy.

I argue instead that ensuring the general political welfare, including economy, of our cities and families is a more important consideration than the ability of certain economic actors to do with their money whatever they will. We are not men with rights but no obligations. We can not ensure the rights of the people without acknowledging that we as individuals and as a society have an obligation toward them. A political and economic philosophy that denies this is unsustainable, for we can not receive that which is not first given and if we ought to receive something, then someone ought to give it.

A truly independent economy is one that is self-supported and self-sustaining through the regular exchange of goods according to the goals and needs of a community. If we examine this more closely, however, we will see that although we call it an independent economy relative to other communities or outside forces, there are two ways in which all economies are necessarily dependent.

One, not all communities have the resources to provide for all the needs of its members. An exchange between communities then becomes necessary. This is the basis of trade, namely that one person or group has something that another needs or wants. This establishes an interdependent economy and it can take many forms depending on the resources of the various communities. Sometimes it results in the assimilation of one community into the other to more effectively serve the needs of the members.

And secondly, within a community, this interdependency is more pronounced. In a family, each member must cooperate in order to make the household run well and for interactions with other families to be peaceful and cooperative. Each family, each group, and each individual in a community must cooperate in order for the safety of the members and so that the common goals and needs of the members are met.

This cooperation, which is both easier and more effective on a local level, is what makes an economy self-supported and self-sustaining. The freedom that a community experiences when it is self-supported and self-sustaining is the basis for civic order, but it not an autonomous freedom nor is it a freedom absolutely. In order for an action or initiative to be both truly human and effective, it must be ordered. Ordering requires authority and accountability. In other words it requires a plan, someone to communicate the plan, and an agreement to work according to the plan. Our freedom, then, must always submits to some authority and in all human activity, an authority inevitably arises.

And this is why the Founding Fathers weren’t economic libertarians. They knew that if our goal was economic independence, there had to be a plan and thus some authority to which to submit. Of course the nature of that authority, its scope, is the next question and one which divided the Founding Fathers.

The Consistency of Libertarians


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1280px-American_progressWhen discussing liberty, we are bound to encounter that strange strand of political thought often called “libertarianism.” It is usually associated with the political right and the distrust of taxation and other government intervention into the economic realm. In reality, America has fostered an almost universal libertarian spirit and if we want to talk about wings of politics, both left and right have breathed it in.

Libertarianism could be thought of as “soft individualism.” It is not strict Randian Objectivism that exults in the pure expression of the individual will with no restrictions. Libertarians like to talk about rights and harm. As long as we are not harming someone else, we have a right to act in our interest; a sort of mutually agreed individualism that depends on social consensus.

But of course this where things get sticky because no one actually sees this through. Objectivism is a more consistent philosophy and thus much easier to oppose. Libertarianism, tainted as it is by the natural human tendency to believe in a universal moral/ethical code, is never pure. To be uncharacteristically pragmatic, pure libertarianism, pace Locke, just can’t work. We can not each have only our own interest in mind; we can’t each have our own morality or else there is no morality. Humans have an innate instinct for justice and without a universal code of conduct, there would be no justice, no accountability. Perhaps to a hardened objectivist, this is just something we have to accept. There is no crime if each person is supposed to follow his own will. In the end, the strong will survive and the weak will be overcome. Finally humanity will achieve perfection through strength.

Of course to most people besides eugenicists like Ayn Rand, Margaret Sanger, and Adolf Hitler, this view is abhorent; no less to libertarians. In order to avoid the objectivist mistake, libertarians decide to make distinctions: There are some areas in which a moral code is appropriate in order to make human society more humane. However, the other areas are to be left alone so that we can properly go about expressing our God-given liberty.

On the right, a moral code is imposed in the area of sexuality. The thinking is that as long people obey the rules about sex, all other things, especially economic considerations, will work themselves out. On the left, a moral code is imposed in the area of finance. Not all uses of money are equal and the government must regulate business so as to avoid corruption. However, we must let people have their liberty in the area of sexuality. At least these are the perceptions and they explain why there is such bitter partisanship in American politics.

These are the perceptions, but not the realities. As the inconsistencies of both “sides” are revealed to their adherents, they are soon abandoned to the universal American creed: consent. As long as two or more people who are legally able to consent consent to an activity, the activity is acceptable. With this creed comes convoluted and ever-changing rules about what indicates consent and who is legally able to consent. This libertarianism requires a universal code governing it so that we don’t slip into abusive individualism where coercion and might make right.

This is the great inconsistency in libertarian thinking. If we try to act as individuals for our own interests and seeking after happiness without interference, we will soon encounter people whether in opposition to our pursuits or else as potential cooperators for a mutual interest. The fact that we must deal with other humans means that we need a system of justice and accountability if we do not wish to go down the path of pure individualism. Thus, we get the strange and unsettling conflict at universities between freedom of personal expression and…freedom of personal expression. This culture of conflict is, in fact, unsustainable. One or the other “freedom” will be squashed in deference to the other, but instead of one side squashing the other, it is an authority, whether the government or the administration of a university, that must be utilized to enforce justice.

We can not escape from the fact that human justice is ultimately social and communal in nature. It demands that we care not just about ourselves but about how the actions of the members of the community affect the community and everyone in it. When we try to fight against this by embracing some sort of libertarian justice, we find ourselves unable to follow through.

Yet instead of turning toward a consistent moral justice that treats each human as a moral agent with social obligations and an eternal and spiritual purpose or toward pure individualism, we instead decide to wallow in our confusion and inconsistency. We think it will foster equality and freedom, but in fact it is deepening the divide between us and can only lead to violence and tyranny.



A little thought on Liberty


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Liberty is highly praised in the United States (and indeed all over the Free West.) In some reckonings, it is second only to life. In others, it is the most important…thing.

What is Liberty precisely? It is not an action that we undertake, like pursuing happiness/property, nor is it something given or done to us, like material or spiritual goods. Liberty is a potential. It is a state of suspension between what we can do and what we do. Our abilities define our liberty and our liberty allows us to act on those abilities.

The question on my mind is this: Do we have a “right” to liberty and what does that mean?

First of all, as I’ve said, liberty is not an action, it is a state of potential action. How we proceed with that potential is a different thing entirely. Our wills may be free, but when we’ve chosen an action, we are no longer free with respect to that action. We can not both do and not do that action simultaneously. Thus, if we believe we have a right to do what we will, that is not a right to liberty, that is a right to act on our abilities, whatever they may be. Frank Castle, in Daredevil, was mighty good at killing people, but a right to liberty does not mean Frank Castle has a right to act on his ability.

Secondly, then, not all of our abilities are good (whatever metric of good you subscribe to. If you don’t subscribe to a metric of good, please disregard what I’m saying.) Therefore, although we have the liberty to act according to these abilities, that is a liberty that should not be nourished and should certainly not be enshrined as a right. Every day, across the country and around the world, people who might otherwise have certain abilities are prevented from acting on them either by physical confinement, social pressure, or material coercion. These people are not “at liberty” with respect to these abilities. When people use their liberty (their abilities) to act against the good, either their ability to do those things must be taken away or they must learn to control that ability within the confines of good action. Without these principles, our whole system of justice would fail and we would be unable to protect people against evil actions.

Thus, liberty is not an absolute right, but is subservient to the good. We may have the ability to do many things, but we do not have to right to do all those things, nor must we preserve unfettered all those abilities. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. And maybe it’s even better not to be able to do some things. The risk may be too great.

These principles bring at least two questions to mind. The first is “what standard of good are we using? What is a virtuous action and what is not? Is there even such thing as a universal good?” As I said, no matter what metric of the good we are using, these principles still apply, but they are applied in different ways.

For an individualist, the highest good is the assertion of his or her will. This would seem to be liberty par excellence, being able and in fact encouraged to act on all of your abilities. To an individualist, however, a group does not have the authority to act against his abilities, although perhaps he might say that an individual does. In the former case, he believes that the group (which is really just a bunch of individuals agreeing to work together to him) should not be allowed to interfere with his liberty. But of course, all the other individuals have agreed to act in a certain way and are thus just fulfilling their own abilities (which of course can increase if they are working together.) This conflict of liberties (which is even more pointed when it is just two individuals in conflict) can only lead to violence as there is no common measure of resolution. The only way it can be resolved is by one convincing the other that his way is better or by one of them killing the other. Either way, it is an act against so-called liberty. In the former case, the one man agrees not to act on his ability because he has been convinced that it is bad. In the latter, he is dead.

Individualism, then, automatically leads to the strong acting on their abilities, and the weak agreeing to it out of fear of death. More often then not, individualism goes hand in hand with eugenics. It is better, it is said, to be rid of the weak who distract and weaken the strong from fulfilling their liberty.

Individualism, and what I might call creeping individualism does not properly understand liberty because it does not understand the good. However, it still inherently asserts that not all actions are equal and that not all abilities should be acted upon. Individualists just have a funny way of going about limiting liberty.

Which leads me to the second question about liberty: what is the proper way to limit liberty? In what circumstances should we take away people’s abilities and in what way? When should we use education to shape consciences and when should we use coercion and physical restraint? Once again, these questions are related to our metric of the good.

I am not here going to lay out an agenda or platform for a proper approach to criminal and moral justice here in the United States. I will say that in keeping with the Church’s insistence on subsidiarity and solidarity, the smallest competent social unit should be responsible for limiting and channeling liberty. It should ever take into consideration the emotional and spiritual situation of the person involved and should always start with the hope of the person achieving both earthly and heavenly happiness.




Progress and Conservation


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308146_294050350608491_234818142_nE. Milco has an insightful thought at The Paraphasic about the reality of conservative despair.

I made the point in my first post that we are all conservatives of something or another. We are all trying to preserve something. I asked what we are all trying to preserve. Now I’d like to ask why.

Are we trying to preserve a set of principles or social realities because they are comfortable and we feel unsafe without them? Are we trying to merely shore up our little bastion of intellectual security so that we can feel superior to those outside of the fold?

In architecture, there have been many forms of preservation of buildings and monuments. At certain times in history, existing buildings and monuments were often torn down to give way to newer and better buildings. This was especially true if there was a regime change or a city was conquered; each leader had his own vision for the city. It was a revolutionary way of doing architecture in that it was constantly changing and indeed developing.

Early Christianity made a habit of preserving existing buildings for their use. It may be that it was cheaper to do this as opposed to tearing down and building again, but in many cases it was based on the thought that existing structures can be reformed to support new forms, a sort of architectural “grace builds on nature.”

Throughout the Christian period, as wealth grew, more and more new buildings were built and eventually humanity reached a point at which they wished to “reach back” to old forms and resurrect them for a new age of humanity. This may seem like a strange reactionary progressivism, but as I said, we are all trying to conserve something. These progressive architects used antiquity as a cornerstone for their progressive movement and this was another form of preservation within a progressive agenda.

Eventually, however, progressivism led to radical progressivism that rejected even any sense of “preservation of forms” that had been present, an unmoored progressivism. Ironically, this era also saw the greatest “preservation movement” where old buildings that had been preserved because of the quality of construction or because they had been repurposed were now “protected” buildings.

While this is certainly a kind of “conservatism,” I believe it is related to Milco’s idea of conservative despair. These buildings are being preserved out of the fear of losing them. We were never afraid to lose the well-built everyday buildings in previous eras because we could always build more, and maybe even better. Now we despair of doing so, and I believe rightly so. We have lost much of the art of building that was once passed down from generation to generation, always developing, always secure. I believe this is also true of our social and political life.

Conservatives have become fearful of losing any sort of structural norms and identities which once tied together society because of a so-called “progressive” agenda. This leads them to enshrine certain ideals and structures as “inviolable” and in doing so, lead to their petrification. This is what happens when buildings, and ideas, are merely preserved and not used. They become more a burden than anything, and despite our best efforts begin to decay. We can not bury our cultural possessions like the foolish servant in the gospel and expect to make any return on them.

The early Christians had it right, and in fact, as Milco says, Christianity has never been a religion or a way of life that is static. In order to keep the buildings of the rotted Roman Empire, they did not just make them into museums that needed a yearly maintenance budget. They used them in new ways so they would not fall into disrepair. But, they did not just attach the new to the old as many modern museums do in adding wings to existing older structures. They did not act against the integrity of the building. And most of all, they did not keep all structures. Some were too old, some were associated with too much evil. Some things need to be replaced.

But now we get to the meat of it all again. What does need to be replaced, and what needs to be used in new ways if we are to conserve a good social ethic and a proper political arrangement not as a dead letter to be admired, but as a living developing, indeed progressing thing? The Christian does not fear the past but nor does he fear the future because his grounding in the life and teaching of Christ is so sure that it can be “ever-new.” What the Christian, and I’d dare say everyone else, must fear is stasis. Milco, in his post, mentions “Acedia’s plea” to be left alone. This is the danger of despairing conservatism, that it wants to be left alone in order to preserve something. That is a sure way to kill whatever is being preserved.

Abandoned buildings collapse, libertarian and individualist conservatism is self-defeating because it is self-absorbed. Radical conservatism is rooted conservatism which is firmly planted in a place of nourishment, but because of this and the light and refreshment it receives from venturing outside, it grows and does not stay underground. This growth allows it to be even more open to the light and thus will continue to grow. Yes, we are in danger of being uprooted if we let our growth run wild, but is not the greater danger staying in the dark out of fear until we grow weary of life?

This is not the life of a Christian and it is certainly not the foundation for any sort of social order. We need lively growth from new ideas and old ideas reconsidered, never forgetting what needs to be preserved and what needs to be disposed of and why.

A little thought on economy


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Οικονομια (oikonomia) is a Greek word meaning “the rule of a household.” This referred first and foremost to the management of the wealth and property of a ancient Greek family. This is where we get the word “economy.”

Of course, it did not stop there, for it is not only families that have wealth and property; states do as well. If a state is ruled by a monarch, the royal treasury belongs to the king and his family, as does the responsibility to care for the needs of the people from said treasury. In modern nation-states where the government is typically representative, the treasury does not belong to one man and his family, but to all families within the state, though it is only through representatives that these families exercise their responsibility to the needs of the people.

Every nation has an economy bolstered by production and trade. The labour of the people is the backbone of the economy for as we know, where there is no work, there is entropy. However, modern times have seen economies that use speculation, printing of money, and bureaucratic services to make the money move (which is apparently the sign of a healthy economy.) However, not even these economies can escape the unavoidable dependence on labour and production.

As technology develops and global connectivity grows, the markets, both labour and speculative, grow too. No longer are the major speculators and major corporations dependent on local production and trade because global communication and transportation has made it possible to find labour anywhere and move products and communicate services over vast distances.

We have all experienced this. We would generally, however, prefer to talk to those offering services to us in person and know who it is who is working for us and that they are not being treated badly. We would also prefer to work close to home ourselves and not have to uproot our families and move because our employer has decided to move. However, we don’t always get what we want.

This open, constantly moving economy has consequences. The idea is that a larger economy will result in more available wealth to be moved around. And of course it does, but it also means that that wealth can be moved almost anywhere in the world with no major loss. If the wealth of our family is tied to a job dependent on a state and national economy that answers to national and international corporations, those corporations are essentially in charge of the treasury of nation and state and are therefore responsible for the people. However, these corporations can find labour and conduct services anywhere and are not dependent on local markets for clientele. This means that the providers of services and products have no incentive to stay in one place or another. Because of this, they hold the people hostage insofar as they have the power to threaten evacuation for any reason.

Recently, we have seen major corporations, providers of jobs and services, threaten to boycott states (and thus to dramatically damage their economies) because of social and political values held by the people of the state. The ability of the people to maintain traditions, customs, and values is compromised by their dependence on a fickle and disinterested master. Globalization has taken proper political and social agency from the members of communities and given it to a small group of men and women disconnected from any of the communities they supposedly serve.

Not only is this completely antithetical to the idea of popular sovereignty so dear to the American people, more importantly it is anti-human. If our political and social agency is taken away, our participation in truly human flourishing is diminished. This can only result in tyranny and abuse. A diminished humanity is just one step toward dehumanization and ultimately dehumanization leads to slavery, torture, and death.

When, however, the providers of labour and services are local and production serves local needs first, our values and traditions are developed and maintained, unhindered by fear of outside reprisal and the threat of dehumanization. Our economies should truly be “rule of a household” with all the responsibility that entails.


What are we trying to Conserve?


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pilgrimage-of-grace-bannerIn the previous iteration of this blog, updated last more than two years ago, I asserted that we are all Liberals in America. In fact, that’s true. What’s even more alarming is that we are all conservatives. Each of us, even the most ardent of progressives and radicals, look back longingly, even if just to the last election cycle, for something to preserve about our lives. No one unmoors himself completely from history.

What each of us is trying to conserve is the operative question. Some long for the days of optimistic progressivism symbolized by the Obama campaign. Some long for the prosperous 90s, marred only by irrelevant personal scandals. Some long for the days before Facebook, Youtube, the Internet, cell phones. Some long for the spirited age of the civil rights movement. Some long for the Old South. Some long for the days when the original liberal spirit enlivened the American people and compelled them to break with their brothers across the sea and embark on an Adventure about which we have not heard the end, though it may come soon.

Just as we are all liberals in America because of this philosophical and political patrimony, our conservatism is a particularly limited one, indeed a particularly progressive conservatism. Americans tend to think back to our Founders (always capitalized) and ascribe to them both political genius and moral strength. So much so that any political theory, social order, or religious philosophy that came before is immediately suspect. Monarchies are oppressive and unjust, nobility is a construct that must be torn down, the people are no longer chattel slaves but have finally come into their own as their own sovereigns. We in America have been given, finally, the system to end all systems. In point of fact, it will probably end itself.

This limited conservatism, and any conservatism that sees some point of of human development as a point of departure from all of human thought and culture before it, will very likely squeeze the life out of our brittle society. We do not have a broad conservatism because we do not truly believe in the value of history. We only see it as a warning about what we might become. We do not have a deep conservatism because we do not truly believe in the foundations of society and culture. We are always asking ourselves to remake everything. We do not have a strong conservatism because we do not believe in any binding truths and realities. Instead, we depend on a scientific system based on skepticism to show us what is true and what is false.

We must look to something much older, much more enduring than America if we are to have a more radical conservatism. Our beliefs must be based on something more universal than the philosophy of the enlightenment that sought to break itself from history. If we are to be truly human conservatives, we must know what it is to be human. This means knowing our history and being able to recognize the good and the true in all eras and in all systems. But most of all, we must have something or someone to tell us what it means to be human and what all of this means. Without that, we are left with our present faults and shortcomings on which to depend, and this is a liberalism that is tyrannical.

What is true liberty, equality, and fraternity? We fear to explore that question further than our narrow liberalism teaches because we would find that the answer would be demanding. We might have to step outside of the comfort of our rights and privileges. We might have to respond to our obligations. Not obligations based on mere human contract, contingent and fleeting, but obligations based on the demands of our human nature. A radical conservatism seeks to conserve whatever is good and true, despite the cost.

Liberalism both classical and progressive can not give a proper account of human nature and thus can not truly promote human flourishing toward a common good. Only one way of life has given a comprehensive and enduring account of the human condition and human history and that is the Christian Faith. Without an acknowledgement of God’s part in history, our politics are limited in addressing the full need of the human race. The temporal good — living a happy and fulfilled life — is ordered toward a spiritual good, eternal bliss. Without this, our idea of the temporal good will skew toward the utilitarian and the materialistic, where humans are seen as dispensable, useful tools toward an abstract good.

The good of humans is not abstract, but is the fulfillment of all of our needs, both physical and spiritual. Our society should be concerned with this, first and foremost, and it should be the foundation of our policy, our social action, and our own individual lives. Our conservatism should be about conserving all that aids in the flourishing of each and every person. Any conservatism that breaks from this will fall into violence, as man is pitted against woman, child against mother, rich against poor.

Man was made to cooperate for survival, not compete. The divisions sewn by our liberal conservatism work against our human nature and create an inhuman politics. Is it any wonder that all of our main candidates for president support the mass murder of children and civilians or the destruction of peoples?

Let us look to God so that in our theology, we may better understand ourselves and so better serve each other toward our common good. This faith in God is the ultimate conservatism, depending not on the passing and temporal but on the eternal, preserving our link to the Author of Life who sustains our lives, our families, our nations, our world. This is true conservatism and in it we can find true liberty.