Where Movement Conservatism Went Wrong–And How to Fix It

by Joseph Baldacchino on August 12, 2011 · 42 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

Burke

In the wake of the 2008 elections the Republican Party looked to be on its last legs. Not only had Barack Obama triumphed in the presidential race, picking up the electoral votes of such previously “red” states as Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, but the Democrats had widened the majorities they had gained while taking over both houses of Congress two years earlier. Flush with victory, the Democrats, perhaps understandably, interpreted the 2008 election returns as a mandate for their “progressive” policy agenda, which they proceeded to enact into law with gusto, helping in the process to increase the total public debt outstanding from $10.6 trillion on Inauguration Day 2009 to $13.6 trillion a scant 22 months later.

Then came the mid-term elections of 2010, and the liberal ideological consensus that had seemed so palpable turned out to have been a mirage. Not only did the GOP garner the biggest mid-term gain in House seats achieved by either party since 1938, winning 56 percent of the 435 seats in contention, but the GOP also won an even larger 65 percent of this year’s thirty-seven Senate races. Perhaps even more impressive were Republican gains in the state houses, where they are poised to dominate the congressional redistricting process for the coming decade by controlling 29 of the 50 state governorships and at least 57 of the 99 state legislative chambers.

Will the apparent mandate for a pronounced rightward turn in matters of public policy prove any more lasting or substantial than the one in favor of progressivism that went a-glimmering in the 2010 election? If recent American history is any guide, the answer to this question is: Not very likely. Consider the elections of the past 30 years.

Certainly, 1980 seemed at the time to signal a sea-change in the nation’s ideological allegiances. Not only did Ronald Reagan, the undisputed leader of the conservative movement, sweep to victory over the liberal Democratic White House incumbent, Jimmy Carter, but he also brought in on his coattails Republican control of the Senate, marking the first time the GOP had won a majority of either congressional chamber since 1952. The Democrats, who had controlled the House consistently since 1954, resumed control of the Senate in 1986.

The next significant change occurred in 1992 when the Democrats, led by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, regained the White House after a twelve-year absence. A seemingly more seismic shift in the opposite direction came just two years later when Republicans, spearheaded by Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.), gained simultaneous control of both the House and Senate for the first time since the election of 1952.

Though Clinton was reelected in 1996, the Republican congressional ascendancy that began in 1994 continued with only a minor interruption until the 2006 off-year election. In that year, as mentioned, the Democrats regained control of the House: a victory that presaged the Democrats’ sweep of the White House and both houses of Congress in 2008.

Based on the foregoing thumbnail history, the political contests that were most worthy of the label “redefining” or “wave” elections during the past three decades occurred, except for that of 2010, at fourteen-year intervals in 1980, 1994, and 2008. It should be noted that in each of these contests the party that triumphed was the beneficiary of disgust in the electorate with the record of the party in power. Reagan’s 1980 election was in large part a reaction to the economic and foreign policy failures of Jimmy Carter, most notably inflation and interest rates in double digits and the Iranian hostage crisis.

In 1994 the Republicans benefited from the Clintons’ overreaching on national health care and from years of entrenched corruption in the Democrat-controlled Congress, exemplified by scandals involving House Speaker Jim Wright (Tex.), who resigned in 1989, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.), who was forced to relinquish all leadership posts in 1994 before going down to electoral defeat in that same year. By 2008, amidst the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, even many Republicans were worn down by the George W. Bush Administration’s many domestic and foreign policy lapses, which provided a ready audience for Obama and the Democrats’ siren song of “change.”

On this evidence, neither major party can lay claim to the support of a stable majority either for its espoused policy prescriptions or for demonstrated political competence. Rather, the nation has become polarized between ardent devotees of Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left. Elections are determined by a group in the middle that oscillates between the two sides to register dissatisfaction whenever the status quo becomes sufficiently difficult to tolerate. If the most recent “wave” election suggests anything new at all, it may be that the oscillations are becoming more frequent and more pronounced.

Yet Republican leaders in Washington, D.C., have assured us in the wake of their 2010 congressional gains that their victory will not lull them into a false sense of security. The GOP, they insist, recognizes that it is on probation. The Democrats won in 2008 because the Bush Administration failed to live up to conservative principles, and the public will turn against the Republicans again if they don’t mend their ways. But this time will be different, they assure us, because Republicans have understood the public’s message, and this time, under the watchful eye of “Tea Party” activists, Republicans will do the public’s bidding.

“Across the country right now,” explained incoming Speaker John Boehner on election night, “we are witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government, and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people, because, for far too long, Washington’s been doing what’s best for Washington, not what’s best for the American people. Tonight, that begins to change.”

How credible is such rhetoric? At first blush it may seem marginally more plausible than the Democrats’ explanation that the voters would have approved their programs if only they had understood them. But, in fact, not only American government but American society in general have grown increasingly dysfunctional over the past half century. Deep down, many serious observers know this, but few, regardless of political persuasion or walk of life, want to face the depressing reality. To do so would require difficult changes in the way we live. Instead of accepting the necessary pain, we are tempted to look away from the actual situation. We create imaginative visions that paint our dominant desires and inclinations in the best light and excuse us from mending our self-indulgent ways.

Barring difficult efforts of will, the human tendency is to pick and choose parts of reality that would justify sticking to our favored mode of existence. We come up with ideas and slogans—even entire ideologies—that present as actual historical reality not the world as it is but the world as we would like it to be, this in order for us to be able to live as we please. So, when politicians wax eloquent about “conservative principles” no less than when they speak glowingly of “progressive ideals,” the question must be asked: Are they addressing the real world in all its complexity or are they presenting an imaginative dream that advances hidden motives?

All humans are more or less prone to hiding inconvenient truths—from others, certainly, but perhaps most significantly from themselves. The reason is ultimately moral laziness. We know only too well our own weaknesses, but we shrink from the hard inner work that morality and happiness require. As Irving Babbitt observed, all humans want to attain happiness on the cheap—to reap the fruits of the spirit without exerting spiritual effort. This tendency toward escapism has become increasingly common in modern Western society. The pre-modern West—heavily influenced by classical and especially Christian culture—taught that man is born with obligations not only to self but to his fellow members of society: in Jesus’ words, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

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.

Are the Republicans right? Will adhering to “conservative principles” begin to correct the serious problems now besetting American society and thereby provide what is “best for the American people”? Clearly, that depends on what is meant by “conservative principles.” The think tank intellectuals and hired guns are ready with glib answers. Conservatism means “liberty” or “freedom.” It means “limited government.” It means “constitutionalism,” “free markets,” “private property.” But these are general terms, which can each have very different—even opposite—meanings. Whether the mentioned ideas are good or bad depends upon what is meant and the purposes served in each instance.

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.”

Contrary to much influential modern thought—Jean-Jacques Rousseau being the most conspicuous example—goodness does not flow spontaneously from human impulses but requires sustained moral effort and supporting cultural and political institutions. Burke recognized the extent to which in England and Europe the latter had been painstakingly developed over centuries. 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.

For Burke and other traditional conservatives, liberty understood as equally appropriate to all conceivable circumstances is not only irrational but dangerous. Concerning the abstract liberty promoted by the French Jacobins and their supporters, Burke wrote: “I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman . . . . But I cannot . . . give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions . . . on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in . . . metaphysical abstraction. . . . Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? . . .

“I should, therefore,” Burke continued, “suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with the solidity of property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too, and without them liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long.”

Similarly, John Adams, in an October 18, 1790, letter to his cousin Samuel Adams, wrote: “‘The love of liberty,’ you say, ‘is interwoven in the soul of man.’ So it is, according to La Fontaine, in that of a wolf; and I doubt whether it be much more rational, generous, or social, in one than in the other, until in man it is enlightened by experience, reflection, education, and civil and political institutions.”

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. It needs to be understood that in a time of precipitous moral decline freedom may actually become positively destructive of the higher purposes of society. Imagine historical circumstances in which captains of finance have, because of a general moral decline, become unscrupulous, caring little about the welfare of their customers, employees, or society at large. In such a situation, a mentality of unmitigated greed might become pervasive. On the other hand, freedom may become something altogether different where economic and cultural elites embody and expect high standards.

Yet, 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.

They agreed with Babbitt that freedom, property, constitutional government, and similar rights derive their immense value not primarily from their usefulness to the self-indulgent selves that divide men and women one from another but from their usefulness to the higher or universal self that wills what is good for its own sake and is the basis of community. Indeed, Babbitt held that American liberties owed their very existence to the classical and Christian moral and religious heritage.

But other influential movement founders held the opposite view. 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.” 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.

Movement conservatism was thus divided from its beginning on the central issue of man’s moral nature and its relation to politics and liberty. Yet, by the mid-1960s, serious theoretical argument had given way to an ostensible consensus, dubbed “fusionism.” This ideological position, whose leading exponent was Frank Meyer himself, has been summarized as holding that “virtue is the ultimate end of man as man,” but that individual freedom is the “ultimate political end.” Indeed, according to Meyer’s relatively mature, “fusionist” position, the “achievement of virtue” was none of the state’s business, hence not a political question at all.

Despite its label, Meyer’s “fusionism” never achieved a genuine philosophical synthesis of Burkean conservatism and the ideology of classical liberalism or libertarianism. A genuine synthesis would have been impossible, for the two opposing positions are based on contradictory assumptions. For traditional conservatives, the notion that freedom can exist in the absence of moral restraint flies in the face of all historical experience.

Adam Smith, who is widely regarded as the father of economics, noted in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example, that “upon the tolerable observance” of such duties as politeness, justice, trust, chastity, and fidelity “depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for these important rules of conduct.” 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.” Hence, for traditional conservatism as represented by Burke, by Smith in important respects, and by the American constitutional framers, the advancement of political liberty in any meaningful sense necessarily entails the simultaneous advancement of an ethic of individual restraint and responsibility in support of the common good. Success in the first is impossible without success in the second. To suggest otherwise, according to traditional conservatism, would be absurd.

Yet Meyer’s fusionism does precisely that. He elevates 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.”

Remove the effects of society on human life for but an hour, a Burke or a Smith would respond to Meyer, and he would recognize soon enough the part of reality he had missed.

A telling measure of morality’s lack of significance in Meyer’s fusionism is that it paralleled the place accorded to religion by many avid secularists: religion is all right as a private matter, but it has no legitimate place in public life. According to Meyer, the constitutional framers shared his preference for separating morality and politics, but this would have come as startling news to George Washington, among others, who said in his Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

In the end, all that separated Meyer’s fusionist position from libertarianism was the superimposition of a few traditionalist-sounding rhetorical flourishes. In respect to their practical import for how Americans participate in private and public life, the two positions were identical. Such was the considered opinion of the late libertarian scholar and activist Murray N. Rothbard, as expressed in the Fall 1981 issue of Modern Age. Yet, beginning in the mid-1960s, large numbers of Americans who would have been reluctant to embrace libertarianism that was labeled as such found themselves able to do so when it was newly packaged, with the assistance of Meyer and his fusionist allies, as “conservatism.”

As George Nash observed in his 1976 history of American intellectual conservatism, “rather surprisingly, by the mid-1960s the tumult began to subside. Perhaps, as Meyer remarked, the disputants had run out of fresh things to say. Certainly, they had other topics on their mind—the rise of Senator Goldwater, for instance. And, as the dust settled, many conservatives made a common discovery: that Meyer’s fusionism had won. Quietly, with little fanfare, by a process [Meyer] later called, ‘osmosis,’ fusionism became, for most National Review conservatives, a fait accompli.”

What Nash here reports as a victory for fusionism may have been such in practice but certainly not in theory. A major and festering moral and philosophical problem had been swept under the rug. This could happen because those most directly involved had much less interest in philosophical stringency than in issues of practical politics.

Ironically, in 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.”

Leveling against libertarianism criticism that could have applied equally to Meyer’s fusionism, Kirk wrote: “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.”18

As noted previously, fusionism, too, made Mill’s principle sacrosanct, denying any legitimate place in politics for promoting moral restraint. The ability of every individual to act without regard for the common good was elevated to the highest end of conservative politics. All of conservatism’s subsidiary political goals—limited government, free enterprise, private property, minimal taxation—became similarly associated with the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest.

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. “If you believe in the capitalist system,” Rush Limbaugh explained in a September 2009 television interview, “then you have to erase from your whole worldview what does somebody need. It’s not about need. . . . it is about doing whatever you want to do.”

In contrast with the one-sided emphasis on freedom characteristic of movement conservatism since the 1960s, traditional conservatism views both government and limits on government as necessary responses to man’s flawed moral nature. Because men are not angels, as Madison observed, government is needed to help restrain their passions. But since governments are made of fallible men and not angels, governments also must be limited: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Similarly, Burke instructed: “To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience: and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; and only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraints in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.”

Unfortunately, what America has lacked during much of its history and increasingly so is “free government” such as advocated by the framers, Burke, Babbitt, Kirk, and other traditional conservatives. Instead, 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.”

Because guided by abstract generalizations rather than historical reality, ideologues of both types are blind to the changing proportions of liberty and restraint appropriate to actual circumstances. The assumption of power by either group, therefore, inevitably heralds trouble. The response of the electorate almost invariably has been to displace one set of rascals with its opposite number only to have the process repeat itself ’ere long.

What about the most recent election? Does the latest shift in favor of “conservative principles” signal a departure from the long-established dysfunctional pattern? To reiterate what was stated tentatively above: The answer depends on what is meant by conservative principles. Almost certainly more dysfunction is on the way. Is there a way to get out of this cycle? One necessary step is to face complex reality and to break the morally and philosophically lazy habits that stand in the way of understanding the prerequisites of liberty.

Some who think of themselves as libertarians may object to the argument here offered that they do recognize that liberty needs moral, cultural, and institutional supports and that liberty is not an end in itself. Such libertarians may be closer to the traditional conservatives than they realize. Their “libertarianism” does in fact suggest the kind of philosophically tenable rapprochement between liberals and conservatives that Meyer’s “fusionism” clearly failed to achieve.

Joseph Baldacchino is president of the National Humanities Institute and editor of Humanitas.
This article was originally published by the National Humanities Institute in Epistulae No. 11, December 2, 2010.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Médaille August 12, 2011 at 9:08 am

Excellent analysis. It seems to me that those who assert “There is no such thing as society” must also assert “There is no such thing as family.” Those who claim that “society is a myth” must also hold that their own name is a myth, since ordinarily we do not name ourselves. In fact, they must regard their own being as mythical, since we do not make ourselves, but are called into being by the ready-made community of the family. Being is not a choice, it is a gift, as is nearly everything important about our lives. The whole point of the political, social, and economic orders is to safeguard these gifts, grow them, and pass them on.

But this requires more commentary than a combox allows. WARNING: LONGER ARTICLE ON THE WAY!

avatar Marion Miner August 12, 2011 at 9:44 am

Mr. Baldacchino,

I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of your essay; however, I must have missed the “how to fix it” section. What do you suppose is the solution, from a political standpoint, to the moral laxity of our society?

Great name, by the way. Makes me think of Rome.

avatar Zach August 12, 2011 at 10:41 am

@Marion

That is precisely the point of the article–there really isn’t a simple political solution to our moral laxity because such a solution would fall into the same reductionistic trap Mr. Baldacchino condemns. (Though I might be misreading you)

At this very late point in the game, I think the real solutions will start in our personal relationships (our families, neighbors, and friends)–not in sweeping reform bills passed by Congress.

If the author is giving a solution (or a path towards the solution) for our moral laxity, he puts it very well in the following paragraph–it starts off with self-knowledge and ends with Christ:

“All humans are more or less prone to hiding inconvenient truths—from others, certainly, but perhaps most significantly from themselves. The reason is ultimately moral laziness. We know only too well our own weaknesses, but we shrink from the hard inner work that morality and happiness require. As Irving Babbitt observed, all humans want to attain happiness on the cheap—to reap the fruits of the spirit without exerting spiritual effort. This tendency toward escapism has become increasingly common in modern Western society. The pre-modern West—heavily influenced by classical and especially Christian culture—taught that man is born with obligations not only to self but to his fellow members of society: in Jesus’ words, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.””

avatar David August 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm

The beginning of a fix is for conservatives to refuse admittance of fusionism. It was created by libertarians to seduce conservatives into an alliance against a clear and present danger of communism abroad and progressive anti-federalism at home. We may need to maintain a necessary alliance at the stage of national politics, but it should be upfront and clearly understood that we are making strange bedfellows indeed. Even if prudence requires us to maintain that unfortunate pact, everywhere we speak at every venue, on every blog, in the media, in our writings and our think tanks, in every facet of our public life, we must make the unequivocally clear statement that libertarians are not conservatives and in fact cannot be; and they should, in all honesty and the long term health of our relationship stop abusing the term. Period, no exceptions. If they refuse, conservatives should abandon the relationship en masse. It’s time to be done with the charade. If they will come clean, we can go back to the table and see what work we can get done together.

avatar Marion Miner August 12, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Zach,

I think you’re right about what the real solution is.

Genuine cultural transformation (or reversion) takes a lot of time. There’s a long road ahead.

I may have dived into the article wrongheadedly, assuming that the author was going to be speaking in political terms. And I absolutely agree that attempting to correct cultural deficiencies by political means is a recipe for disaster. This combination of assumptions put me on guard at the outset of reading the article, and the lack of any political resolution (other than to call attention to the impossibility of conservative coalition with libertarianism) left me feeling like I’d come up short somewhere at the end.

I still feel that the subject of the article is somewhat unclear, but I enjoyed it and agreed with its general thrust. If all else fails, I can read quotations of Burke and Smith all afternoon.

avatar JonF August 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Minor quibble: Florida was not a “red” state. Bill Clinton won it after all. And we all know how close Al Gore came to winning it in 2000. Florida (along with Ohio, New Mexico and Iowa) has long been one of the true swing states, an on-the-fence purple hue.

avatar j. blum August 13, 2011 at 12:15 am

“Imagine historical circumstances in which captains of finance have, because of a general moral decline, become unscrupulous, caring little about the welfare of their customers, employees, or society…” Yes, imagine. Had these captains anything to do with said decline?

avatar John Zmirak August 13, 2011 at 12:25 am

If we had elites with a wholesome, honest, grounded view of the Common Good–one based in tradition, philosophy, and natural science–then it MIGHT be worth granting the State some power to promote that, even at the expense of individual rights. However, the higher one goes up in the cultural food chain, the WORSE are people’s views on the Common Good, the more infected by modern liberal humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and relativism. This INCLUDES Christian circles, and the Catholic hierarchy, and (on non-infallible matters, which includes most things) can touch the papacy as well. (Think of Paul VI on foreign aid and taxes, John Paul II on immigration and the death penalty, Benedict XVI on a world state). Thus one’s local pastor is more likely to be reliable than one’s bishop, or cardinal, and both of them are surely better than a national episcopal conference. My NIGHTMARE is that Communitarianism is employed by these toxic elites to enforce the “secular theocracy” against which Paul Gottfried rightly warns. I will side with gun-nuts, potheads, extropians, Randians, and autistic teenagers wielding zip guns against “paternalists” who want to grab my freedom, my money, and my life (“benevolent” interventionism) in service of their patched-together crazy-quilt of “values.” Better anarchy in the streets than this kind of anarcho-tyranny.

avatar JonF August 13, 2011 at 7:26 am

I can’t conceive of how humanitarianism can be considered an “infection”. If it is then may that plague spread far and wide. And the Catholic Church may have its sins, but its ancient and thriving tradition of performing secular works of mercy is a light that shines in the current darkness, not a thing to regret. Jesus did not promise us a theology quiz on Judgment Day; he did mention something about checking up on how well we cared for our own.
I detect in the above poster’s complaint a cafeteria Catholic who eats only from the rightward tables of our Lord’s banquet. But those tables on the left side of the Kingdom are not optional either.

avatar j. blum August 13, 2011 at 10:03 am

Perhaps by “humanitarianism,” the good and agitated Dr. Zmirak means the christological heresy denying Our Lord’s divinity rather than charitable benevolence?

avatar John Médaille August 13, 2011 at 10:43 am

Of course, there can’t be any conflict between “humanism” and Christianity; there can only be a misunderstanding of one or the other, or perhaps of both. “Christian humanism” is a mere redundancy; there is no other kind of Christianity. John Zmirak is right to identify relativism as the culprit, because such relativism is the ultimate in individualism; relativism always means “relative to what I want”; it is ego write large.

However, the answer to individualism is not more individualism, and certainly not “personal interpretation” of scripture or tradition, which is merely the “religious” adaptation of individualism. The tactic of the liberal Catholics has always been to claim that this teaching or that is “non-infallible.” But increasingly, this is becoming the tactic of the conservatives as well when Holy Mother the Church needs to admonish them. The statements made by the Popes are not a matter of mere personal opinion, but the application of a consistent magisterial tradition that goes back not merely to 1891, but to Scholastic and Patristic theology as well. (The early Fathers could give you an earful on these topics, an earful that would make ideologues of the left and right angry, just as it made the powers of their own day angry.) We do not escape our duties in obedience merely by finding a parish priest who agrees with our politics.

It seems to me that we are judging the Church by our politics, rather than the other way round.

avatar JD Salyer August 13, 2011 at 4:21 pm

For those perplexed by Zmirak’s use of the term “humanitarianism,” I might point out that the English language has these clever little things called “adjectives”, which are sometimes attached to nouns so as to clarify meaning.

avatar JonF August 14, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Yes, there’s a couple of throw-away adjectives with “humanitarianism” in the original poster’s comment– but they are essentially menaingless. “Modern”? Well anything we do in there here-and-now is by definition modern. Absent a time machine we cannot perform 18th century humanitarianism because this is not the 18th century: we have only 21st century people to minister to.
As for “liberal”, the poster employs it as contentless slur word, (much as “sociliast”, “fascist”, and “fundamentalist” are oft employed by people too lazy or too devious to critique their targets openly). But he is talking not about a political party, about the Roman Catholic Church, which is bigger than any one nation or age of the world. In what sense is Rome’s praiseworthy provision of various sorts of charity and service “liberal”? Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless etc. ought not be subject to whiny snarks about liberalism. Indeed, for those who complain thus I wonder who they would have stood next to when the Pharisees griped about Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

avatar JD Salyer August 15, 2011 at 10:40 am

Part of the problem here may be that you don’t, so far as I can tell, have the benefit of knowing who Zmirak is. Regardless of what one thinks of him he’s certainly not a cookie-cutter Republican, or even libertarian.

http://takimag.com/article/mapquest_to_serfdom#axzz1V6ogW0uU

I won’t speak for the man, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t oppose performing corporal works of mercy, not even on the Sabbath. He may even endorse giving away one’s cookies to one’s kindergarten classmates, though I’m not sure at all what he’d say about one seeking to confiscate and redistribute everybody else’s.

What he does oppose (I suspect) is the tendency to identify physical suffering as the worst possible evil, and the tendency to regard the alleviation of suffering in the here-and-now as a priority which trumps all others. Per Catholic doctrine such a view is a heresy, and it is one held by a great many Catholics today.

On the other hand I do agree with Mr. Medaille’s key point, in that a Catholic should never get too swept away vis-a-vis “siding with” anybody. Not with libertarians, not with Republicans, not with “movement” conservatives, not with humanitarian liberals.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 15, 2011 at 10:56 am

nor, for that matter should we so easily embrace any religion’s championing of any particular party. Faith and Patriotism is a dangerous brew. Fanaticism is the default state, abandoning the love that should imbue both.

avatar JonF August 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Re: What he does oppose (I suspect) is the tendency to identify physical suffering as the worst possible evil, and the tendency to regard the alleviation of suffering in the here-and-now as a priority which trumps all others. Per Catholic doctrine such a

“heresy” strikes me as rather strong word, which ought be reserved for deliberate and serious theological errors. I am coming at this with a Orthodox perspective where “heresy” is in more limited use as I suggest here. (Simple “error” is applied to other, well, errors). And yes, physical suffering is not the greatest evil (that would be eternal damnation) but it is not far down the scale of evils, and we have it both from Christ’s own words and from the vast tradition of the Church both East and West that the elimination of the woes of this world is incumbent upon all Christians who wish to enter the Kingdom.

On a somewhat larger topic which is lurking here, none of us should ever be so comfortable in our opinions that we are immune to challenge by the Church’s teaching. That applies to liberals who merrily dismiss what the Church has to say on topics like abortion, but also to conservatives who elide right over all that stuff about justice and the poor since it is not consonant with the modern day suburban GOP. And while bishops are not infallible, one should never dimiss their teachings with a hand wave because they do not cohere with one’s politics (or gut prejudices). Bishops who depart from Tradition, trample on Reason or defile Charity are likely to be in error, but one must make that case fully and in detail, not just counsel others “Don’t listen to your bishop because he’s probably wrong”, which is what the original poster was saying.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins August 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm

It would serve many brands of socialism, just as well as it serves cultural conservatism, to cite those who “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.” This is particularly true of those who enter into commercial enterprise, where “my own business” could not exist without suppliers of raw materials, and purchasers of end product, not to mention the infrastructure to connect with each. In the case of anything larger than a sole proprietorship with one employee, it also could not exist without the complex relationship with wage laborers, and the families they are responsible for (that is, if you think FAMILY is of some substantial importance).

Ultimately, the communist approach to socialism failed because it so enshrined the human capacity to sacrifice for a greater good, that the collective BECAME and end in itself — which lends some credence to the notion that only individuals count.

This leaves us, then, with the sober truth that individuals cannot thrive without a community (even hermits need alms, and the relative peace that reduces the chances of being mugged), therefore individuals must make sacrifices for the good of the entire community, but the authority exercised by communal institutions are valid ONLY to the extent that they benefit ALL or MOST of the individuals, in the long run at least, in the short run at least to some extent.

I would add that CIVIL communities have done very badly to enshrine any given spiritual canon as mandatory for all individuals, but individuals with a sound moral code that usually is inspired by religious faith with a reasonably humanitarian content makes for much healthier civil communities.

avatar Rob G August 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm

~~“heresy” strikes me as rather strong word, which ought be reserved for deliberate and serious theological errors~~

Liberal humanitarianism of the type being complained about does have its root in a serious theological error — the denial of the fall of man.

avatar JonF August 16, 2011 at 5:44 am

Re: Liberal humanitarianism of the type being complained about does have its root in a serious theological error — the denial of the fall of man.

Well, maybe. But secular people deny more than just the fall of man– they often deny God entirely (or relegate him to a minor supporting role). To the extent however that they urge us to deeds of justice and charity they are following the Christian ethic, even if they are unclear or in denial of the underlying theological reasons for doing so. But good is good no matter who does it, or why.

avatar Rob G August 16, 2011 at 9:44 pm

To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, humanitarianism without the source of true charity, Christ, leads to the gas chambers.

avatar Carl Eric Scott August 17, 2011 at 7:44 am

Mr. Baldacchino writes a fine and nuanced essay, in which I learn new things about American conservatism’s history despite a few quibbles.

But David’s thinking that it will strike a great blow against the menace of fusionism (which gave us Reagan’s election and such!) if conservatives all swear to “never call libertarians conservatives” is a archetypal instance of the errant overemphasis on the power of theoretical consistency/correctness that pervades FPR.

And David seems to be one of the few FPRers who forthrightly admits and plainly understands the necessity of prudential alliance by conservatives with libertarians in the foreseeable short term!

Look, everything that is “libertarian” according to McWilliams and Deneen, and everything presented by the most theoretical libertarians, I loathe indeed. But then I pick up a book by a self-described libertarian con-law scholar Richard Epstein, and I encounter a subtle mind able to teach me a great deal about the law. A mind conservative in the most profound sense about certain common law traditions. (I suspect the same thing would happen to me with the best of their economics books, if I read them.) Or then I meet various Americans who use libertarian-like phraseology, such as many T-partiers, and I realize they are decent folks with a lot of solid sense, even more decent than many of those Tocqueville described in the Self-Interest Rightly Understood chapter, and persons who would never endorse the nuttery expounded by Nozick and A. Rand, or even the nominalism expounded by Locke.

So may I be allowed to rejigger Burke a bit?

“I should, therefore,” Burke continued, “suspend my congratulations on the new political philosophy of the Front Porch Republic until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with the solidity of property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners.”

Do note, the key word in this comment is: “overemphasis.”

avatar sdf August 17, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Carl,
You apparently haven’t been in many Evangelical churches of late. Fushionism (and the election of Reagan and such) has filled what forty years ago had been a void of political and economic thought and created a group of Christians whose idea of conservatism is formed far more by Rush Limbaugh, Ayn Rand, and Grover Norquist than the tradition of the Faith or of the Republic. So long as the Libertarians hold the bullhorn, determine the actual policy pursued by the GOP, and preach their ideology as “conservatism” this will be the case. I’m far more concerned with the health of Christianity and the salvation of souls (what else will actually save this country) than I am in political power. As I said in a related thread, Libertarian policy goals often overlap with conservative–and even Christian–ones. Working together is smart and necessary when that is the case. But fushionism has proved to be a one-way street and fundamentally destructive of conservatism. Work together, yes, but recognized that we are strange bedfellows indeed and make extremely clear to actual conservatives that their underlying philosophy/ideology is fatally flawed, if not outright evil, and to be rejected and resisted.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins August 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm

sdf, are you suggesting that Rush Limbaugh, Ayn Rand, and Grover Norquist are LIBERTARIANS? All have an antipathy to government, but none have a genuine commitment to universal liberty.

Many libertarians fail to distinguish themselves from anarchists, but it the two are distinct, then libertarian governance must be based on some foundation of laws, constitution, or social compact. The practical ramifications of the breezy pronouncements from any of the above lead to dictatorship of those individuals who amass and wield power — in modern society, generally accumulation of capital, and all that control of capital can buy.

As a strict constructionist of the First Amendment, I cannot follow any of the calls to rest good governance or liberty on Christ. It may indeed be healthy for the republic if its citizens are devout Christians who practice the highest calling of their faith — but there is nothing in the framework of governance which incorporates that faith or any faith as an essential building block. Rather, the practice of religion, per se, is granted unprecedented protection from state interference.

The finest conservative visions implicitly assume that all citizens have substantial property, and the independence that comes with it. To get there, we must either enslave those without property, which has many precedents in human history, or, distribute property with some semblance of equality, or, have an open-ended supply of free land for the propertyless to appropriate.

Each of those options being unavailable or unacceptable, we are left with the necessity for government to infringe the liberties of substantial concentrations of capital, in order to protect the mass of the citizenry. In turn, the less enlightened owners of capital complain about the government “oppressing” them in the free use of their property — call it “Kerr-McGee libertarianism,” a kind Ayn Rand is particularly useful to justify. For most of us, that isn’t liberty at all.

avatar JonF August 19, 2011 at 6:33 am

Re: To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, humanitarianism without the source of true charity, Christ, leads to the gas chambers.

Anyone who does the work of Christ knows Christ– not consciously perhaps (the conscious mind is overrated in matters of religion), but at some level of their soul, else they would be incapable of doing His work.

avatar Christopher Manion August 19, 2011 at 9:45 am

Turgot’s “humanity” is different from the Christian sense. “la masse totale de l’humanite” is the totalitarian justification for millions of individual human beings. Its logical conclusion is Koestler’s Rubashov, who sees man as “one millionth of a million men.”

As for Babbitt : “As Irving Babbitt observed, all humans want to attain happiness on the cheap—to reap the fruits of the spirit without exerting spiritual effort.”

The author, and Babbitt, are correct, but I believe it was Christ who said it first: “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”(Luke 9:23 )

avatar T. Chan August 19, 2011 at 1:08 pm

“Anyone who does the work of Christ knows Christ– not consciously perhaps (the conscious mind is overrated in matters of religion), but at some level of their soul, else they would be incapable of doing His work.”

The work of Christ can be done by those who are invincibly ignorant, but it is possible only through grace. The external act in itself is not sufficient to imply the supernatural presence of Christ.

avatar D. Carkuff August 19, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Okay, there is a lot here, most of it amounts to a very complicated way to describe some very fundamental principles and differences. If you start with first principles things become more plain and obvious. The central, overriding principle in libertarianism is self ownership. If you accept the principle of self ownership you must reject the notion that men must be governed by other men if they can not govern themselves. Who appoints these governers as the arbiters of what constitutes decent behavior? And haven’t all of those who have ever governed others served as nothing other than stellar examples of the unfitness of any men to govern other men. If the argument is that men are not fit to govern themselves, how on God’s green earth can they possibly be fit to govern others? Or is it just that special class human who is fit to govern other humans? That self appointed class of the enlightened – you know “the right people” in power that the progressives are always longing for. It is, simply, idiocy.

And certainly nobody in here is dim enough to suggest there is some mechanism by which the best among us attain governing power over others. Frankly, anyone who advocates the Edmund Burke view is nothing more than a friend to tyrants everywhere. The divergence occurs at the very first principle – self ownership. If you don’t accept that – and you don’t if you hold Burke’s view – then you are no friend to liberty. Buckley once said that the reason we have free speech is so there can be “good” speech. Of course, it would be Buckley and people like him, the smart, decent people, who would make that determination. If you believe than any man or group of men has any business governing the lives of other men, then I have no time for you.

avatar Matt Weber August 19, 2011 at 6:28 pm

I agree mostly with John Zmirak. Burke is right on this over the fusionists, but Burke came from a decent era where the corruption that characterizes our age hadn’t yet set in. We can no longer assume that the elites of society have the common good in mind–they don’t, and so they ought not to have any more power than they do now. So libertarian anti-government impulses are right for our age, if only accidentally so.

Going forward, conservatives and liberals need each other, and we also want smart leftists who can see clearly what is going on in America today. We don’t all have to agree on the solutions; agreeing on the problems would be a sufficient start.

avatar Matt Weber August 19, 2011 at 6:29 pm

–Meant to say “conservatives and libertarians” need each other, not “conservatives and liberals”

avatar Rob G August 20, 2011 at 10:32 am

“The divergence occurs at the very first principle – self ownership. If you don’t accept that – and you don’t if you hold Burke’s view – then you are no friend to liberty.”

Depends on your definition of liberty.

avatar nate-m August 20, 2011 at 2:23 pm

As far as the ‘Christian Faith’ and ‘Government’ goes….

The Bible specifically states we should keep out of politics. Especially political office. Christianity is above that and God is in control completely irrespective of whatever paltry and temporary institutions man decides to put into place.

As long as the government does not actively tries to stomp out Christianity or any such nonsense then it’s to be tolerated and obeyed. It’s that ‘Give unto Caesar’ thing. Not because government institutions are holy or deserve respect, but because it’s far more important for you to be credible and available in a community to bear witness.

In this way government is irrelevant. God is in control. You are not going to ‘save souls’ through legislation or any such BS. That is just arrogance.

avatar Lew Glendenning August 21, 2011 at 2:40 am

Silly argument which couldn’t exist without someone’s need to push for religion and other social-conservative values.

Perfect political freedom will leave everyone free to adopt their own social norms. Being rational mammals of the great ape family, we will continue to be part of families, extended families, tribes and communities, as these have been our social environment for millions of years and solve many of the problems of a complex and hostile world.

avatar Publius August 22, 2011 at 2:26 am

“Burke is right on this over the fusionists, but Burke came from a decent era where the corruption that characterizes our age hadn’t yet set in.”

Really? Corruption, inequality, slavery, torture, greed, murder, etc., didn’t exist in Burke’s age?

The sum-total of vice and corruption has almost certainly been more or less constant since the Fall. I have never seen any empirical evidence that natural human tendencies and flaws have on the net either increased or decreased over time. What has changed is how that corruption is manifested.

Starting from that assumption, any conservative, and especially any conservative grounded in a Christian anthropology, should be absolutely skeptical of any government program aimed at moral reform -if by moral reform is meant changing the “net” amount of sin. Only Christ can reduce sin and He does it personally.

We cannot control the amount of sin. We can control how it is channeled -i.e. the plumbing. In many cases we can divert it underground from less explicitly destructive arrangements to arrangements that provide a surface calm (though moral corruption may be just as rife). What I’m saying is that I doubt the war-ravaged Somalian village is by nature more evil than the placid American suburb -on sum, the individuals in both probably have the same tendencies to good and evil, and in the final reckoning, God will see into their hearts and distinguish the genuinely moral from those who merely did not express their evil on the surface.

In the meantime, it is worth aiming at institutions that try to “put the devil to the plow” -that is, take man’s natural problematic instincts- and channel them in such a way that they minimize harm. A free market, for example, harnesses much competitiveness that would in other arrangements lead to violence towards production. The rapacious consumer tycoon might not be that different from the African warlord, but the consumer tycoon at least channels his greed (not by his own intent) to produce goods that people want, while the warlord merely destroys.

There’s a difference between moral tendencies and the results of those tendencies. Moral tendencies are beyond society’s power to reform on a collective basis and any human policy that tries to re-engineer moral tendencies is doomed to failure. The net social results of those tendencies, however, can vary temporally from poverty and destruction to peace and prosperity, depending on policies taken.

Seeing as only the latter concerns the political sphere, I see no role for moral policy in the political sphere except insofar as it informs the goals toward which that policy is aimed (i.e. the only place for public morality is in preferring peace to war, production to destruction, life to death, etc.)

avatar Mike August 22, 2011 at 1:44 pm

“Some who think of themselves as libertarians may object to the argument here offered that they do recognize that liberty needs moral, cultural, and institutional supports and that liberty is not an end in itself.”

Maybe that’s because the “argument” was a straw man to begin with. Libertarianism (the non-aggression principle) is a social ethic, not a complete moral system. Like the Golden Rule, it is a simple universal social ethic aimed at the mutual respecting of rights. It’s not trying to tell you how to get to heaven or how to be a saint.

Even in Christian morality, “do unto others” and “do not do unto others” is a pretty basic rule, more a less a default position. It’s not the be-all and end-all of the moral life. Like the Golden Rule, the libertarian non-aggression principle is designed to foster a peaceful and prosperous civil society composed of people of various religious and moral persuasions.
We avoid useless and unfruitful conflict in society by agreeing not to use force against one another except in the case of self-defense (defense of person or property). What better rule is there for a society which is not homogeneous?

For libertarians, toleration of immoral yet non-coercive behavior means the application of morality to the person being offended by such behavior. It is not about bad behavior or values, but what are the moral limits to *our* actions in response. We ask the question, “What right do I have to use force against this person? And if I believe I have such a right, then do others also have this right to force me to conform to their morality?”

Jesus was being a libertarian when he stopped the stoning of the adulteress. He was being a priest and the model Christian when he said, “Go and sin no more.” He was NOT justifying or “tolerating” (in the moral sense) adultery, yet He was clearly overriding the previous theocratic laws. No longer would virtue be externally imposed, but come from an internal conversion of the heart. As a moral agent, each person must have the freedom to act according to their own will and conscience. If people are not free, they cannot be moral. To interfere with that freedom is immoral itself unless – and this is where people differ – one has the right to do so in a specific instance.

So when do we have the right to use force against our neighbor? Remember that your answer to this question will mean that you also will be subjected to the same rule, and the person applying it to you may not be of your particular persuasion. Libertarians would generally say “only in the case of force or fraud.” That is, only when a crime is committed against person or property. As you can see, that is simply a social/legal rule. Nothing more. It distinguishes between vice and crime where almost every rational person would once they understand the question. It doesn’t tell you how to be sexually pure or how to fulfill the duties of your station in life, or how to help the poor. It keeps the peace. It protects people and property from the initiation of force. Libertarians want people to agree to not *initiate* force against each other.

It is my wish that more writers would try harder to make the proper distinctions. Then they actually might have something worthwhile to say – perhaps even contribute to a valid intellectual discussion instead of the usual cliched “libertarian equals libertine” nonsense.

~Mike

avatar Red Phillips August 22, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Sorry I’m a little late to this party, but I just became aware of this article.

JonF, I agree with JD that it might help if you actually knew who John Zmirak is before pronouncing him a cafeteria Catholic. May I suggest you Google his name and start from there.

Also, I highly doubt that Mr. Zmirak intended “modern” as simply a denotation of time, especially when used in a phrase like “modern liberal humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and relativism.” Here I suspect the author essentially means something like post-Enlightenment, not the year 2011.

avatar Terry Taylor August 22, 2011 at 7:38 pm

The author is correct in emphasizing the importance of “context,” but there is some confusion about the meaning and purpose of freedom in the context of human society. Neither freedom nor morality are ends in themselves. They are the means to living a healthy, fulfilling, happy human life. The same applies to a civilized society: it is the means to multiplying the productivity and enjoyment of every person who participates. In a civilized society, freedom refers to the right to direct one’s own life…but nobody else’s. That is the brilliant morality combined with moral restraint our Founding Father’s built into our Constitution. There can be no such thing as “a free society” without laws that prohibit the initiation of force against a fellow human being, and there can be no such thing as “the common good” without laws that prohibit sacrificing the good of some individuals to the supposed good of other individuals. And while it is true that (whether living alone or in a society) a person can try to do anything he wants, reality has harsh consequences for someone who does not attend to his or her actual needs for survival, fulfillment, and happiness. And if we want to take advantage of the division of labor that a civilized society makes possible, we must produce products and services that other people need and want to better their own lives. This voluntary exchange for mutual benefit creates a benevolent community in which no one “sacrifices” to some abstract “public good” but rather creates the public good through enabling the private good of every participant.

avatar Matt Weber August 22, 2011 at 8:51 pm

“The sum-total of vice and corruption has almost certainly been more or less constant since the Fall. I have never seen any empirical evidence that natural human tendencies and flaws have on the net either increased or decreased over time.”

Human nature has remained pretty constant over time, yes. But the ability, and even the will, to resist that nature in the name of the higher good has been diminishing in the West for a long time. These days, we are told that the fulfillment of our immediate desires is what life is for. People in the past failed, but we don’t even try anymore.

avatar David August 23, 2011 at 10:12 am

So we have seen an exhausted thread here which represents the exhausted FPR, a mere symptom of the exhausted conservative movement (or at least I am exhausted and so all the light that passes through my eyes is colored so).

By exhausted, I do not mean without vibration; there is still momentum, movement, agitation, excitation, but there is no light from the heat, no illumination of a path forward, no cohesion. And this is as it should be, in fact, it must be.

For conservatism isn’t. It cannot be. You cannot have a coordinating movement of persons from different communities; especially those so fluid as to require a base democratization, a pandering to those who have free association available to them as a weapon, and a distortion of the social contract which can only come about by a man believing he has no debts if he is not paying usury.

It is the truth that Fusionism is a lie and a repulsive lie at that. It was fabricated out of what was believed to be a political necessity, and existential threat to both man and state that was represented by militant, totalitarian communism. But that is only the beginning, for other words used in FPR are also lies. Christianity is one of them.

As fond as I am of the Roman Church, there are those who could articulate with subtly I cannot (and possibly without offense) why my Orthodox brethren and that body remain divided. Certainly each Protestant in this forum has heard at least one sermon in their lifetime on such a topic, even in the most adoring forms of insipid Anglican Romantic cucumber circles.

Moreover, though some of you also work, as I do, in what is called “Higher Education” this too is a lie. My institution’s mission statement, while not presupposing the inferiority of your institution in any explicit way, necessarily stands in opposition to many of the institutions represented here.

I live in a marginally above standard community, economically and aesthetically, which has no center whatsoever. Not only can it not defend itself against the loss of its nature, it whores out what little germination of community can be found to those who would only sleep within the confines of its borders; preferring to work, Church, shop and perform other acts of life far out of its memory.

The only thing I can admit is that I see no hope of anything better except for each to share in correspondence, as was the tradition in a more civilized age, between one another the essential matters of necessary research into the essential and diverse natures of human community and foster it where and as we can as all men hope toward God’s salvation.

We are not, nor should we see ourselves as, prophets of a better age. Even as the golden headed Nebuchadnezzar himself was only a king, his state built by conquering blood, upon brutal slavery and maintained by the subjugation of God’s people.

We are rather poets, who having (I hope) fasted and prayed, scrawl out some meaning in words, some code that can be passed among the faithful whom we neither know nor know of. This will bear the fruit that all poetry does, reflecting the reader upon themselves, convicting the soul.

We are not right, nor righteous. We are fell creatures of this age. But that which we are, we are. This is why the conservative movement went wrong, because it is no movement at all, but a voice crying out, make straight the path! I do not know the way, though I have witnessed what seems to me to be the way in the lives of men and women I might dare call holy or good.

I don’t think to speak of myself, but of those who seem to see clearer than I do–here and elsewhere.

I have no interest in political machinations. In the success or failure of tyrants who would rule in my name as opposed to ruling in the name of my enemies. I would have no enemies, though I am sure this poem of a post will remind a few that they believe I am theirs.

For the totalitarian instinct is in the right, the left and all points between. And a man who refuses to join the glittering unholy army of self-ascribed righteousness is as much a foe as the ones they march to meet on the battlefield. In fact worse, for he appears to be an infection within the ranks themselves and a traitor to the cause.

Damnation to Brutus yes? Cassius still? And Judas yet in the maws of Hell’s coldest fiend. Would you but know the nature of such a condition you would not seek it for a single man, but open your heart to each man you chance upon to meet as we go about our plans to rule a world with rulers who cannot rule even themselves.

I am tempted even now to curse those who would seek to form an ideology, or movement, even within the ephemeral walls of this astral realm off bits and bytes; but rather, knowing their sin is also in my heart tenfold; I ask for God’s providence to guide us both and have mercy on our souls.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins August 23, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Roman Church, Orthodox Church, Protestant…

Christianity, like Islam, and even Judaism, remains divided, because any unity would be a false unity. There are too many ways, even within the scriptural discipline of a given faith, that men and women think about, interpret, apply, and reverence what they believe. The only universal church possible would either by utterly totalitarian, or so loose in its definition that the entire diversity of which humanity is capable would be accepted within its canon.

avatar Question Everything August 24, 2011 at 8:38 pm

“We avoid useless and unfruitful conflict in society by agreeing not to use force against one another except in the case of self-defense (defense of person or property).”

But we may just as easily create useless and unfruitful conflict in society by using proxies to defend our selves and our property.

I seem to recall some anti-federalists warning us about liberty and standing armies.

avatar Terry Taylor August 26, 2011 at 11:17 am

Proxies are useful when they do their appointed division-of-labor job of DEFENDING each person’s right to conduct his/her own life as he/she sees fit (as in protecting us vs. Hitler’s expansion); but your point is well taken: what is to protect us against our power-seeking proxies? Constitutionally, the minute our proxies take it upon themselves to be the violators of our right to direct our own lives, we can take it upon ourselves to oust those proxies via education, the voting booth, or outright rebellion. And that depends on the integrity and action of you and your fellow citizens to CLAIM their inalienable right to their own individual lives and to be willing to shoulder that responsibility for themselves. If you live in a society of citizens who are willing to resign their lives to the will of their proxies in order “to be taken care of,” then it behooves you to withdraw from that society, if at all possible.

avatar Owen Jones February 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Just a couple of comments. First of all, Burke was pretty much known as a liberal until Russell Kirk. Burke had one foot in the classical world and one in the enlightenment. He defined government as existing to make it possible for people to pursue their own destiny — a very modernist, Enlightenment idea.

As for community, don’t discount the role of solitaries and contemplatives in creating community, or a paradigm for community, because the essential community, as well as the prior one in both in substance and in time, is the interior one. A man first has to have all of his parts working in harmony and functioning in a healthy manner (in the classical sense of health). And it has always been the solitary and the ascetic who has been the exemplar for the rest of us.

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