Porch

Like other readers here at FPR, and across the web, I have been following the Great Salyer/Carter Debate of 2012 with much interest. I thought Mr. Salyer’s original article was outstanding, and in reply, Mr. Carter voiced a number of reservations about the general “Porcher” ethos that I myself have entertained. The ensuing deluge of comments here and elsewhere brought a number of important issues to light. Nonetheless, I do not think the discussion produced as much light as it might have, primarily because I believe that Mr. Carter either missed or avoided Mr. Salyer’s basic thesis right from the beginning. As I understand him, Mr. Salyer wished to argue that Mr. Carter’s objections to the economic theory of Distributism betrayed certain liberal assumptions, and that this kind of betrayal was in fact all too typical of contemporary conservatives, who purport to be combating liberalism while adopting many of its most distinctive principles. I think there is much to Mr. Salyer’s charge, and I wish to give it a little more consideration.

Since the controversy centered, at least initially, on the specific issue of government coercion, let me start there. As I mentioned in a comment on Mr. Salyer’s article, to govern simply means to coerce, in some form or other. This is just a definitional truth. If I am interpreting him correctly (and I certainly don’t wish to speak for him), Mr. Salyer was getting at a point very similar when he wrote: “I myself endorse coercion quite openly, much as I endorse gravity. Yes, tyranny is a nasty business, but then so is falling down a flight of stairs.” One cannot escape governmental coercion without escaping government itself; abuse of such coercion, in the form of tyranny, is of course deplorable, but so is the absence of such coercion, in the form of anarchy. The more candid we are about this fact, the better. The alternative is to escape into quasi-Rousseauistic fantasies about the “general will,” which, as they disguise the authentic exercise of coercion behind a veil of fictional consent, afford all the more scope to the raw imposition of power.

Mr. Carter seems to contrast a democratic regime with a regime of coercion, such as when he writes in the comments: “There is not a hint that he (i.e., Mr. Salyer) prefers democratic means to advance his agenda. If he did he would not need to favor coercion to reach the goals he wants to achieve.” But of course, democracies do not differ from other regimes in the degree of coercion they might exercise; they only differ from other regimes in the mechanisms they employ to determine how and when that coercion is exercised. The extent of that coercion may be quite as broad and inhuman as any power wielded by a monarch. Consider only our own very democratic regime, with its health-code citations for little girls selling lemonade, its militarily-equipped police forces, its President newly authorized to detain any citizen indefinitely on his own suspicion. As Mark Steyn is fond of saying, George III would never have done such things to you. Mr. Carter’s assumption — the assumption he holds in common with a majority of Americans — is that so long as this coercion is directed by duly appointed officials — i.e., those appointed to office with fifty-one percent of the electorate’s vote — it becomes legitimate, and in effect, ceases to be coercion.

All free and rational governments need a concept of legitimate coercion, but it is by no means obvious that our concept of legitimacy is unquestionably correct, that the attitudes and opinions of fifty-one percent of the citizenry ought always and everywhere to direct the exercise of governmental coercion. This has certainly not been a normative principle of Western political thought (for which conservatives used to express a certain degree of respect). Thus Mr. Salyer raises a very serious point when he expresses doubts about the moral probity of “ordinary folk” in modern America, those who, as he puts it, “treat birth-control pills as if they were M&M’s, stand assembled outside Toys’R’Us like ravenous zombies in the wee hours of Black Friday, and think dolls dressed like cheap hookers make nice Christmas gifts for little girls.” Why exactly should we believe that rule by fifty-one percent of such a population will result in the most just and peaceable regime?

Yet, rule they must. In any complex society, the opinion and principles of some portion of the public must be expressed in the laws, to the displeasure of some other portion of the public. Here is where I think Mr. Carter shows himself the most deceived. He writes, again in the comments, “So if someone has the right ‘vision for a proper life’ it’s okay for them to coerce other people into accepting that vision? And how is that not fascism?” It’s not fascism because it’s a description of every single political order that ever was, or ever will be. It’s certainly a description of our own democracy, where a “vision of a proper life” which includes a lack of etiquette, an all-pervasive trash culture, a deceitful public language known as “political correctness,” and the demolition of enormous swathes of our natural landscape for the erection of strip malls and tract housing are imposed on the rest of us which regard these things as horrifying. The reason Mr. Carter doesn’t consider these things to be forms of coercion is because they go forward with the consent of the majority of Americans, and he, like most Americans, is accustomed to thinking of coercion exercised by a majority of citizens as no coercion at all. For this reason, he is able to believe in that most fantastic of liberal chimeras — the neutral state, the state uncommitted to any discrete philosophical positions. James Fitzjames Stephen, the Victorian jurist and polemical foe of J.S. Mill, took especial aim at this fallacious notion in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity:

They found, as everyone who has to do with legislation must find, that laws must be based upon principles, and that it is impossible to lay down any principles of legislation at all unless you are prepared to say, I am right, and you are wrong, and your view shall give way to mine, quietly, gradually, and peaceably; but one of us two must rule and the other must obey, and I mean to rule.

In America, it is the majority that means to rule, and to their views the views of everyone else give way. It is not the case that in America, no one has a “vision of a proper life” imposed on them. It is simply the case that in America, a majority of the people generally gets to choose what that vision looks like. And the rest of us are coerced into accepting it.

Mr. Carter’s comments, then, seem to bear out exactly the accusation that Mr. Salyer made, that submerged in the former’s thinking are certain characteristically liberal assumptions: that the state ought to remain philosophically neutral, that democratic governance is never coercive, that the freedom of individuals in society amounts to the total lack of restriction on their ability to consume as they please. It is certainly the case that authors usually categorized as “conservative” have opposed these ideas strenuously; Edmund Burke alone would provide dozens of quotations against each of those beliefs. So Mr. Salyer’s contention finds some evidence here, that the “creed of Western liberalism” continues to be the insidious measure of our political deliberations, even as conservatives. And to acknowledge this is to recognize how perilous and formidable are the challenges facing conservatives in contemporary America.

The depth of our predicament was ably explored in a fine article called “Freedom and Decency,” published a number of years ago in Mr. Carter’s own publication by their best author, and one of the few great authors of our own time, David Bentley Hart. In his piece, Hart argues that the obvious solution for the obscenity of so much of our “popular culture” is censorship, “against which,” as he writes, “almost every argument in the abstract is predictably fatuous.” Of course, censorship is a form of government coercion, yet Hart dismisses the labeling of such coercion as “fascistic” as a mixture of hysteria and historical ignorance: “were there any historical example of republican freedom weakened or subverted by public and commercial codes of decency, this line of argument might command some force.” The real issue for Hart is the erroneous notion of freedom which underlies the common antipathy to censorship: “what we habitually understand democratic liberty to be — what we take, that is, as our most exalted model of freedom — is merely the unobstructed power of choice.” This sounds an awful lot like the concept of freedom that Mr. Carter is working with, and Hart makes it clear that far too many people who regard themselves as “culture warriors” share it with him. But an authentic understanding of freedom would teach us something far different: “To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which — in the deepest reaches of our souls — we ceaselessly yearn. And whatever separates us from that end — even if it be our own power of choice within us — is a form of bondage. We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.”

Somewhat surprisingly, though, Hart never advocates a regime of censorship for our current society, and his reason is simply that the debauched conceptions of freedom, and their concomitant decadence, have become too pervasive and would likely inform the manner in which that censorship was exercised:

Let me stipulate that, in an ideal situation, the practice of censorship would be undertaken only by persons properly educated and formed, whose decisions would be under some form of collective review. But precisely on this point (alas) I discover an obstacle to censorship that makes a creditable regime of public standards seem so unlikely as to be, for all intents and purposes, a utopian fantasy. For, while it really is not that difficult to recognize irredeemable obscenity when one encounters it, as things now stand it is difficult to say whom — what class of persons — one would care to entrust with a censor’s authority.

Here Hart, with his usual incisiveness, identifies the extreme direness of our situation.  We need some form of coercion to stem the flood of cultural depravity, yet our society produces no trustworthy candidates whom we would wish to exercise such coercion. The many do not have the answers, but neither do the few. Democracy is no solution, but neither is anti-democracy. We must approach the question outside of our comfortable political categories, for the problem before us is not how to deploy the resources of our society to counteract a great evil, but how to generate those resources in the first place.

What Hart’s article serves to demonstrate is just how much tradition-minded persons — the kind of people who believe that freedom really is a matter of “choosing well” — must exercise their imagination in order to preserve sane ideas about the proper relationship in civil society between power and liberty. A humane politics presupposes certain things which our society no longer produces — a reasonably educated citizenry; customs and traditions which bind the community and dignify the individual; relatively stable families; a shared culture. To think about politics solely in terms of the “here and now” of American life in the early 21st century is necessarily to think about politics in the absence of these social elements, and that in turn presents the danger of rendering our political thought stunted, narrow, and warped. This is why I found so trivial and unconvincing the accusations, made in numerous comments, that the authors at FPR advocate an “unrealistic” politics which could never work in “the real world.” Of course “Porcherism” (if there is even such a monolithic thing) has no place in our current political discourse, and little hope of affecting policy any time soon, because the only positions our public discourse admits are varying forms of liberalism. But what the authors at FPR have consistently tried to do — oftentimes in ways I sympathize with very little — is to imagine a politics unmeasured by the “creed of Western liberalism,” and to imagine the ways we might generate the elemental social material out of which to create such a politics. Such work of the imagination is always bound to be dismissed as “utopian.” Until we find it shaping our world.

After all, you know what else is completely unrealistic and unworkable in “the real world?” The present order. Every day brings some new warning out of Europe about the impending financial meltdown on the continent, and the social apocalypse bound to follow. Anybody who does not think this horror show is coming soon to our own shores, where we groan under a debt dwarfing those of the European countries, is miserably deceived, and when these trials do arrive, they are going to have profound effects on our society. So what can be the virtue of restraining our political thought to a set of circumstances that are soon to alter dramatically, perhaps catastrophically? And how “realistic” is it to suppose that any remedy for our condition is to be found in the rehearsal of the same empty political forms of elections, and judicial decisions, and op-ed pieces? Which is the wackier hope for a conservative to entertain at this moment in history: the hope that by returning our focus to our own communities, we might rediscover the basic political instincts eroded by three centuries of liberal dogma; or the hope that an election between Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum can change the disastrous trajectory of this country, even a little bit?

Of course, the communities we inhabit, with all of their complex specificities, will always present limitations to our political conceptions, but the greatest such limitations stem from our own bad thinking. Liberalism is bad thinking, and where its influence is found, the capacity to envision an improved political order is neutered. What the controversy between Mr. Salyer and Mr. Carter illustrated for me is how pervasive liberalism continues to be, even in places reputed to be the redoubts of conservative thought for our age. And it reminded me also of what drew me towards FPR in the first place: because I found that the authors here consistently think about politics in ways that eschew liberal assumptions, even such assumptions as are now mislabeled “conservative.” I write this as one who disagrees with a great deal that is published here, and whose own “lifestyle” conforms very little to the supposed “Porcher” norm (I drive dozens of miles to work, suck down obscene amounts of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and don’t go in much for the work of Wendell Berry). Nor do I put a great deal of stock in the various economic programs espoused by some FPR contributors, which seem to be taken, by both supporters and detractors alike, as the distinctive thing about this website.  I just believe that Western liberal society has reached the point of total exhaustion, and that our only hope now of preserving some form of civil life is a return to traditions of thought jettisoned long ago. It is a discipline in those traditions that I find here, prior to, and thus more important than, any of the specific forms of life that may take shape from such a mental preparation. If I may close with an appropriately agrarian metaphor, I think I see a trying winter ahead of us, and I think it best to lay in our harvest of wisdom and learning now, while we can. And I simply find that the fruits to be gathered here at FPR generally grow richer and more abundantly than they do most anywhere else.

{ 80 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Anymouse January 17, 2012 at 1:21 am

I loved this article. It was very well written, and it is a great additon to this debate. Thank you.

“After all, you know what else is completely unrealistic and unworkable in “the real world?” The present order.”
Excellent point.

avatar Joe Carter January 17, 2012 at 2:55 am

Mr. Signorelli,

I appreciated your article, just as I’ve appreciated all of the responses to my comments and posts. But like many of the others, I think when all is said and done, you agree with me far more than you realize.

The issue has never really been about whether coercion is every justified. I realize that is an interesting debate, but it is not one that I have much disagreement with since—like everyone else—I agree that some types of coercion are necessary. The question under consideration—the one that motivated this entire discussion—is whether people with superior aesthetic judgment should be able to make choices for the rest of us, choices that have always been considered the right of free men and women to choose for themselves.

Rather than address that, though, every response to my posts has included the same three points:

1. Carter thinks that liberal democracy does not lead to coercion.

2. Carter may be a traditionalist and conservative, but he’s thinking like a liberal.

3. Truth be told, I (the writer of the post/comment rebutting my claims) would not want the lifestyle choices that liberalism affords me taken away either, much less have those choices made by an enlightened minority.

Point #1 is simply not true, as I have made clear several times. Point #2 is not as damning as everything thinks since they all (including you, I presume) cede Point #3.

For example, you say: “I drive dozens of miles to work, suck down obscene amounts of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and don’t go in much for the work of Wendell Berry.”

I suspect that it is fair to conclude that you would not want a tiny minority—even if they did have superior aesthetic standards—to say that you should be forced to give up drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee since it is “engaging in evil” and hinders people from making better choices (such as drinking organic, locally grown raw milk). If that is the case, then we really don’t disagree at all. Indeed, we likely both agree that such issues about what beverages to consume are best left to the individuals to determine for themselves. (If we were talking about reinstating the prohibition of alcohol, the attitude toward coercion among FPR readers would be quite different.)

It is one thing to say that the current system is unsustainable and that eventually there will be no Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for anyone and quite another to say that a Porcher elite should be given the power of coercion to determine what people are allowed to drink.

As my friend Mark Mitchell said the other day, “. . . we are all products of liberalism and to probe liberalism is to throw into question many basic assumptions about human flourishing and this translates into questioning many of the life-style decisions we ourselves have made.” I have no problem with that questioning and few qualms about the “life-style decisions” made by Porchers. The problem I have is with someone deciding that it is appropriate to use coercion to force Dr. Mitchell to, say, give up teaching and take another career that is more suitable to a distributist economy.

I’m frequently criticized for pointing out that Porchers who think that buying from the Farmer’s Market is some sort of “return to localism” when what they are really doing is engaging in the most liberal of activities: making consumer choices to express a “lifestyle preference.” When they are honest with themselves, as Mitchell is, most Porchers will admit that they are as liberal as their Pomo-Con neighbor. They may not like it, but that is the cold hard truth that keeps the up at night.

Where I get concerned is where that leads them next. If it causes them to change their habits and to live more in accordance with their beliefs, than they have my admiration and esteem. But if they think that the only way that they can live the life they want is by forcing everyone else to make the same choices that they do, then they have given me reason to be cautious.

Once they start on the road of saying that they know what choices people should make (from the range of choices that free men and women should be allowed to make for themselves) it won’t be long before they are deciding everything else. It’s one thing for the Aesthetic Czar to say that I must drink raw milk instead of Diet Coke. But when they tell me that I must submit to Catholicism rather than my own Reformed evangelical tradition then they have gone too far. And let’s not fool ourselves: when it comes down to it, that is the type of coercion people want to have over their fellow citizens. That is why I used the word “fascistic.” I wasn’t reaching for hyperbole, but for accuracy. I’ve heard too many people say that the Protestant Reformation was the reason we are in the mess we are in today to think that if they were given power I wouldn’t have to submit to their “choices” for proper worship.

Perhaps it’s time we move on past the abstractions and get down to saying what types of coercion we favor. Salyer has made it clear that he is against contraception, large-chain toy stores, and dolls that look like hookers. I suspect his “vision of a proper life” would mean that use coercion to prevent those atrocities. Fair enough. But how much farther would he go? And what happens when we disagree about what choices are necessary for human flourishing?

Is it then nothing more than a power grab? Is it a “might makes right” situation where tyranny is, like gravity, something to be endured? I’m honestly curious because I’d like to know who stands for ordered liberty and who just wants to reshape the world to better suit their vision of a proper life.

avatar JA January 17, 2012 at 7:25 am

There is a trend developing. One of the writers here puts forth a lengthy critique of Mr. Carter based on largely non-liberal assumptions about what constitutes human freedom and a just political order. Mr. Carter then follows this with a post that reiterates a liberal position based upon liberal presuppositions about human nature, political order, etc., without addressing the distance between these various sets of assumptions. The result is a talking past one another, which is strikingly evident in this instance. Mr. Signorelli launches a critique of the liberal state as neutral an of the liberal view of freedom, both of which Mr. Carter ignored in his restatement of his position. Until these assumptions are addressed, these exercises will remain as two ships passing in the night.

Below I list many of the liberal presuppositions that Mr. Carter privileges contrasted with a more traditional view.

1) Mr. Carter has not been able to conceive of political action apart from the absolute state, i.e., the modern state — whether democratic or authoritarian — that monopolizes law, creates markets uninhibited by local control and divorced from social and sacred concerns, establishes massive bureaucracies, and marginalizes the authority of community and family. This is clear when he writes, “Is it then nothing more than a power grab? Is it a “might makes right” situation where tyranny is, like gravity, something to be endured? ” His argument assumes that the the authors here want to seize control of the state in order to enforce an ideological agenda when, instead, they are generally interested in reducing the power of the state — whether it manifests as the market or through bureaucracy — and reinvigorating local communities so that they may govern themselves. “Porchers,” to use the trendy pejorative neologism, do not want to seize the state in a “power grab,” they want to break the state’s hold.

(And on this note, I’m compelled to remark that even if this were not the case — even if the authors here sought to take hold of the machinery of the state for their own purposes — that is NOT fascism. The correct appellation is authoritarianism. Fascism is a form of authoritarianism that mobilizes around the idea of national identity and unity; it is the cult of the absolute state. To instead use fascism is dishonest and unserious, as it is the ahistorical use of a term implemented in order to scare people. It is not fit to use in this manner for polite conversation.)

2) Mr. Carter’s voluntarist view of freedom as personal choice is reasserted without addressing the critique of this view by Mr. Signorelli, who contrasts with a view grounded in a traditional Christian anthropology drawn from Hart’s article, as opposed to Mr. Carter’s view which is grounded in the Enlightenment. As Signorelli and Hart make clear, our current order is one of bondage, not freedom.

Thus, from Mr. Carter’s view, some of the writers here are threatening personal liberty and freedom. However, from the view of these writers, we currently live under a system of bondage, alienation, dispossession, infantilization, and spiritual and moral destitution. This is key: the degree to which a political order is just often turns on questions of philosophical and theological anthropology and ultimate reality. These need to be answered first.

3) Mr. Carter assumes that the liberal state is neutral, largely ignoring the critique of such in this article. This is clear at the end of his post where he contrasts the “ordered liberty” of liberal society with those that follow personal “vision.” In reality, the liberal state not only coerces society by enforcing the ruling of the majority, it enforces a political system that construes people as atomistic individuals in direct relation to the state, which they look to safeguard their rights. This marginalizes community by relegating it to an intermediary role between said individual and state.

From a traditional view, this is not only coercive, but tyrannical as well. Communities are the only way the common good can be sought. The common good is about seeking ends (telos) based upon shared affections and rooted in natural law. With the state assuming society into itself by the monopolization of public space through law, markets, bureaucracy, etc., this is impossible. A separation between the political and the civil (words that used to carry the same meaning) is created with the former referring to machine politics and law, while the latter refers to local society. As has happened in our society, the civil aspect becomes eroded and marginalized as people — now “individuals” uprooted from their communities and lacking any proper sense of space, place, and time — live like the self-interested units they were socially and legally manufactured to be. Without vibrant communities, the pursuit of common ends increasingly is replaced with the machinery of politics, which becomes increasingly divisive as society is ever more fragmented into individuals. If this view is right, we do not have “ordered liberty,” but rather a frightfully dysfunctional and afflicted regime. It is also aesthetically repulsive.

avatar Sam M January 17, 2012 at 10:15 am

If the ships are passing in the night, can’t we steer them with a few really direct questions?

Let’s take Dunkin Donuts coffee. Carter would leave the decision to drink it or not up to the individual, I presume.

What would the FPR response be? There are quite a few options. Should someone in an official government position ban the sale or consumption of such coffee? Should that same person ratchet it back and tax the coffee in order to make it a less attractive choice? Should that same person forget about the coffee and paint with a broader brush by enacting policies to make oil more expensive, so as to make transporting and priocessing it more expensive? Or dialing it back even further, would it suffice to end subsidies and other policies that make oil artifically cheap? or is even that too much, and the preferred position should be to forget economic and industrial policy and use culture (books, preachers, music) to convince the coffee drinker to choose local raw milk?

What about the iPads in the original Salyer article? Is it enough to refuse to have them steered to our individual cabooses? Or are we talking about using moral suasion to convince people to refuse them? Or are we talking about tax policy? Outright bans?

The devil is in the details, as usual.

It does not seem overly authoritarian to chide you neighbor for buying a Chilean apple when they grow perfectly well right here. But it seems a bit much to jail someone for making that choice.

So… what are we actually proposing here? I have no problems chiding. I like chiding! Is that the extent of it, though? I mean this as an honest question.

avatar Mark A. Signorelli January 17, 2012 at 10:25 am

Mr. Carter,

Thank you for your considered response to my article. There’s a lot here, and I doubt I can address all of it without writing another article, but let me try my best.

Yes, we do agree on some things, for instance when you write: “It is one thing to say that the current system is unsustainable and that eventually there will be no Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for anyone and quite another to say that a Porcher elite should be given the power of coercion to determine what people are allowed to drink.” Since reading FPR, I’ve become more aware of how much our basic economy – involving things like food and housing – relies on a precarious system not very likely to last far into the future. It seems prudent then to start thinking about ways to supply these necessities in more stable, if less luxurious ways. However, it is fair to say, as you suggest, that this essentially prudential argument oftentimes gets presented here, and elsewhere, as a moral argument, and I share your skepticism when that happens.

On the other hand, those commenters were right who maintained that there is more coercion involved in our present system than you acknowledge. Take my “choice” to commute long miles to work. As a matter of fact, it is not what I would do if I had the choice; I would prefer to walk to work. But it was my unhappy fate to be born in that never-ending strip mall called New Jersey, a land paved over with highways, where, for the most part, the places of work have largely been built at considerable distance from the places of habitation. In such an environment, I really don’t have much choice but to drive many miles to work; my freedom to choose in this case is clearly impinged by the decisions of developers, politicians (corrupt and uncorrupt), business managers, and suburbanites. And the question is open whether or not such people should be allowed to impinge on the freedom of others.

Nonetheless, I think the real issues, and the real disagreements, in this debate do not lie at this level of specificity, but at the level of political principle. As Mr. Salyer originally argued, a variety liberal premises continue to shape purported conservative thought. This is not meant to sound accusatory; as Mark Mitchell noted, and you have reiterated, we live in a time of liberal dominance, and so we are all probably guilty of subscribing to certain liberal premises in our thought and in our ways of life. It behooves us to be aware of this fact, however, and to give serious thought to the ways our own submerged liberal attitudes might be undermining our ability to effectively contest the institutional dominance of liberal ideology. Along these lines, I would ask you to consider how often the rhetoric you employ, focused on the rights of individuals to choose freely, has been used to advance liberal causes. Take the issue of abortion, which I know must be important to an editor at First Things – isn’t it the case that the common defenses of abortion rely on just this rhetoric? And might it be the case that our inability to change the political status of this issue stems from our acceptance of the liberal assumptions submerged in this rhetoric? Might we not argue more persuasively by attacking the fundamentally liberal conceptions of “individual” and “freedom” wrapped up in this rhetoric?

You seem to think that any attempt to curtail or direct individual freedoms must be undertaken by an “aesthetic elite.” There are several problems with this. For one, it seems to suggest that any form of cultural or intellectual authority is undesirable. This is not a typically conservative belief. We have all lived so long under the reign of liberalism, and grown so accustomed to the loci of such authority being dominated by liberals, that too many conservatives now reflexively resort to “anti-establishment” rhetoric in their efforts to curb the admittedly pernicious influence of liberal institutions. They have lost sight of the good that comes from having sources of intellectual and cultural authority in a society. That is why there is now so much nauseating populism on the right. And that is also why I claimed that conservatives really need to exercise their imaginations in our present circumstances, because we need to argue for certain basic institutions and forms of social order which, in their current decadent state, appear to be the very causes of our woe.

What would a society instituting such proper cultural authority look like? A couple of years ago, I visited Florence on my honeymoon. Looking out from the Piazza Michelangelo, on the far side of the Arno, one could see the most gorgeous city-scape imaginable, with the red terra-cotta tiled roofs punctuated by the spires and domes of numerous cathedrals. I learned later that the red roofs were legislated by the local government of Florence. No man was free there to paint his roof yellow or green. And I bet few men wanted to. There was in Florence (or at least, there had been at one time) a general civic pride which manifested itself in this particular ordinance, an ordinance which obviously has the effect of restricting the “aesthetic” choices of many Florentines. But they don’t see it as a restriction, and that’s the key. Somebody in the community, acting on their authority, decreed that the roofs would all be red, but in so decreeing, he was giving expression to the best sentiments of the community. No boots were applied to any faces to keep the roofs red. Instead, there was a commonality of opinion – or better yet, what the commenter JA has very aptly called “shared affections” – between ruler and ruled which made this act of government coercion not only palatable, but desirable. What conservatism should be about is recovering the cultural conditions which make such law-making possible. I think you are mistaken if you don’t see that the authors at FPR generally argue for the restoration of those cultural conditions, rather than seeking their ends through massive state imposition (as JA noted, the authors here routinely argue for the decrease in state power, not its increase). But if the idea of passing laws which reflect the best tastes and opinions in a community – something which Western peoples did uncontroversially for centuries – now conjures in our minds the sound of the “Horst Wessel Song,” we ought to think seriously about where our political thinking has gone astray.

“And what happens when we disagree about what choices are necessary for human flourishing?” This is a large and important question. The simple answer is, we debate our disagreements and abide by the best arguments produced. This means that forums for fruitful argumentation are essential to the welfare of a society. No failure of our modern democracy is more evident, or more deleterious, than its failure to provide such forums, and because we lack them, we are inclined to think that the settlement of such disagreements must always be as arbitrary as with us they actually are (another example of the failure to exercise our political imagination). Liberalism has always promised an escape from such debates, a kind of vacation from history, which will relieve men henceforth of the obligation to argue over any issue relevant to the well-being of society. This is a delusion; there is simply no way to avoid significant political controversies arising in a society. All we can hope for is that such controversies will be arbitrated by the truest principles we have at our disposal. Towards that end, our energies right now are best directed towards the eradication of all liberal prejudice – in our culture, yes, but primarily in ourselves – since liberalism can never provide our truest principles. I think if you take Mr. Salyer’s article and mine as advocacy of this task, you might find less to dissent from than you think.

avatar Joe Carter January 17, 2012 at 10:36 am

There is a trend developing. One of the writers here puts forth a lengthy critique of Mr. Carter based on largely non-liberal assumptions about what constitutes human freedom and a just political order.

There is indeed a trend developing, JA, but you’ve only captured part of it. Here is how I think the full cycle of the trend goes:

FPR Writer: Puts forth a lengthy critique of me based on largely non-liberal assumptions about what constitutes human freedom and a just political order.

Me: I admit that their critique may be valid but that implementing a solution could lead to a type of coercion that they themselves would disdain.

FPR Writer: They either agree or ignore my point.

In this case, you seem to have ignored my point.

Mr. Signorelli launches a critique of the liberal state as neutral an of the liberal view of freedom, both of which Mr. Carter ignored in his restatement of his position.

I ignored it because I don’t disagree. There is no political system of view of freedom that is “neutral.”

Mr. Carter has not been able to conceive of political action apart from the absolute state, i.e., the modern state

Oh, I can certainly conceive of one. But what I can’t conceive of is how we get from the current system to the new and improved, old and traditional Porcher World without using an evil form of coercion. This is a general problem here at FPR: everyone has critiques of liberalism, often very solid critiques, but no one has any idea how we get to their preferred vision. Once anyone (e.g., me) starts asking whether getting there might require some nasty, freedom-destroying evil to get there, I’m told that I am thinking like a liberal. Perhaps I am, but I am still unclear how we get back to the Golden Age when every single one of us lives in a “liberal” world and has known nothing else. If even the Porchers refuse to voluntarily submit to such a vision, then how are you going to get the rest of liberal America to do so?

His argument assumes that the the authors here want to seize control of the state in order to enforce an ideological agenda when, instead, they are generally interested in reducing the power of the state — whether it manifests as the market or through bureaucracy — and reinvigorating local communities so that they may govern themselves.

Advocating for monarchism and/or socialism is certainly an odd way to “reduce the power of the state.” I know I’ve been told that such views are “outliers” but I was not given the decoder ring that shows me which of the views on FPR are to be taken seriously and which are just eccentric perspectives that have to be allowed because of the “big tent” and thus can be safely ignored.

I think that there was once a time when FPR seemed to be advocating for reducing the power of the state. But now it seems like many folks simply want to give the power to a more localized representative of the state. There is a sense that FPR is trending toward collectivism and away from the freedom of the individual.

As Signorelli and Hart make clear, our current order is one of bondage, not freedom.

Again, I’ll concede for the sake of argument that the current liberal system allows people to put themselves in bondage. But the presumed alternative to this is that people will be put in a different, more benign, form of bondage by the Aesthetic Czars who know what is best for them.

avatar AC Trausch January 17, 2012 at 11:55 am

One of the best things ever put on FPR. Thank you.

avatar Sam M January 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm

“Nonetheless, I think the real issues, and the real disagreements, in this debate do not lie at this level of specificity, but at the level of political principle.”

I don’t know. It seems like you can’t really address the questions at hand, at least the one Mr. Carter is posing, unless you get into the specifics. For instance:

“Take the issue of abortion, which I know must be important to an editor at First Things – isn’t it the case that the common defenses of abortion rely on just this rhetoric?”

Excellent point. But an opponent of abortion who says as much is willing to get into the weeds and defend the use of coercion in that specific case. They think it is justified for the same reason state sanctions against murder are justified. Etc. Agree or disagree, but that’s where the conversation happens.

So. Coercion. We are all agreeing that it’s neseccaasry in certain cases. But there have been other specific instances where we are not sure what the general FPR response would be. Birth control, for instance; what process do you propose in order to get people to stop eating them like they are M&Ms? What measures do you propose to convince people to reject an iPad in the caboose?

For me, this gets at the heart of Mr. Carter’s concerns. There really are some aesthetic questions being bandied about. He worries that the FPR vision would require an unacceptable level of coercion to convince people to make the right choices. So the natural question is, how much coercion are you willing to advocate to affect these changes?

Should birth control pills be ILLEGAL? Should iPads? If not, how do you propose curtailing their use?

avatar Mark A. Signorelli January 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Sam,

You say that it is only when we get into specifics about which forms of coercion to allow that the conversation begins. But if we start from liberal premises, then in fact the conversation never does begin. “Should birth control pills be ILLEGAL? Should iPads?” If one is a liberal, the only question is – do lots of people want these things? And if the answer is yes, then there is no conversation to be had – they ought not to be banned. I would think a conversation over the permissibility of such things would center on the question of whether they serve or inhibit the good of the person and the community – but that is precisely the conversation we cannot have if we start from the liberal assumption that questions of “the good” are out of bounds in political debate. That is why I put my emphasis on principles (one might even say, “first things”), because if they are wrong, our deliberation of specific cases will be wrong.

Speaking of iPads (or iPad like devices), there was an attempt not long ago in some state (I forget which) to ban text messaging while driving. This would appear to me to be the most uncontroversial exercise of government coercion. Yet I read, on a fairly well-known right-wing website, a supposedly conservative author arguing that this law was another example of the “nanny-state,” that it impinged on the free choices of individuals. So conservatives now are willing to argue that your life and the life of your family can be fairly endangered in order to preserve the “right” of drooling morons to text “wuz up dog” to their simultaneously drooling friends. But why not, if we are going to start thinking about laws in terms of liberal choice and liberal individualism?

As a matter of fact, I don’t generally envision a role for government in banning these things (except while driving). Want to keep iPads out of the hands of children? Put the pressure on the parents. Make it a matter of public shame to give these things to your child. Make it as disgraceful to be found out to have given your three-year old a Playstation as it is now disgraceful to be found out to have spanked your three-year old. It is a cultural coercion I would advocate in these cases. But in the few momentous cases where I do think government coercion ought to come into play (like abortion), it is necessary to argue from the right principles. Saying that government coercion is inherently fascistic, but in this case we’ll allow it, doesn’t seem like a convincing argument to me, and it certainly hasn’t carried the day, has it?

avatar Sam M January 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm

“If one is a liberal, the only question is – do lots of people want these things? And if the answer is yes, then there is no conversation to be had – they ought not to be banned. I would think a conversation over the permissibility of such things would center on the question of whether they serve or inhibit the good of the person and the community…”

But this is where I fundamentally disagree. I think there are plenty of things that people want and should not want and should not have. People should eat local apples. I will chide the neighbors for making the wrong decision in this regard. Teenage girls should cover their bodies. I will do my best to make my daughters comply when the time comes. People should go to church on Sunday. I am a scold in this regard, and probably a pain in the arse. People should prefer the Steelers to the Ravens. People in America should honor tradition and drink very cold yelllow beer that they can see through. Etc.

The fact that a great many people disagree with me about these things matters not. I do not consider all opinions equal. There is truth. There is beauty. We ought to strive for them as individuals and communities. But the question is HOW you do this, and what mechanisms you apply to the cause.

There is plenty of conversation to be had. And I am glad to see that you put some of that into motion with your responses about Playstations and public shaming. I happen to agree with you about some of this.

But honetly, I think Mr. Carter made it clear that he is not foresquare against any government coercion. He is all for government coercion, perhaps even in the case of abortion.

I can’t speak for Mr. Carter, but what makes me most uncomfortable about the “porcher” cause is the question of “should.” What do we mean by it? And how do we respond when someone does something they should not? What happens when people stop using “shouldn’t” and start using “can’t”? That’s a big problem. Going back to Salyer’s original:

“For certainly we wouldn’t want anybody to accuse us of having a hidden coercive impulse; it’s not like corporations would ever push anything perverse and unnatural. If you don’t want a designer baby, or photosynthetic skin, or an AI iPad jammed up your caboose, fine — nobody will force you. Just don’t try to tell your neighbors that they can’t have it.”

I can’t read minds. But I read this as a little more aggressive than a suggestion of public shaming. I read it as… telling the neighbors they can’t have things. Which would seem to imply some kind of “or else.”

avatar Rob G January 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm

“It is a cultural coercion I would advocate in these cases. ”

In my opinion a great help in understanding all this is to view the thing in ascetic terms rather than legalistic ones. You don’t coerce people into living more simply, turning off their TV’s, chucking their I-Pads, etc., you try to educate and persuade. It is a long-haul project and a bottom-up one at that. The state can be of assistance in various ways, but the real project is to change people’s minds and to help them see the value of making these sorts of changes.

I really do think that there is a religious divide here in a certain sense. Historically speaking Protestants have always had difficulty with asceticism — in their minds it is often seen as “works righteousness” and thus in their way of thinking it defaults to legalism. Culturally speaking America is very Protestant as a nation, and when you add to that culture the secular elevation of choice as one of our highest ideals, you get a people who do not find it easy to exhibit self-limitation when it comes to the types of behaviors in question. Frankly, we just don’t get asceticism.

On the other hand, many of the Porchers, Crunchy Cons, etc., are Catholics and Orthodox who do “get” asceticism, in some cases almost intuitively. That is why to a lot of us the whole “coercion” thing misses the point. It’s not about being forced to do without, it’s about learning the good of doing without then exercising one’s free choice to act accordingly.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 17, 2012 at 8:33 pm

The rank weed of Coercion grows most lushly when fatuous partisan shibboleth becomes conventional wisdom. We should not fear liberal philosophy. It would be more prudent to fear the Fear of liberal philosophy. Fear of course, inhabits the doorstep of capitulation.

If anyone might doubt this, turn on the telly and stare in disbelief at the idea that this populace , despite its comforts, remains plagued by a list of fears that might choke a less anesthetized populace. The factotum chafes at coercion but demands the frisson it imparts to his voracious appetite for “choice”.

avatar Sam M January 17, 2012 at 8:58 pm

I have no voracious appetite for choice. But I do have a voracious desire not to live in a world in which someone else dictates whether my caboose should ever meet an iPad.

I also have no desire whatsoever to dictate the iPad/caboose intersections of others.

Yes. This means I live in a world in which too many people drink the wrong beer. I use whatever meager tools I have at my disposal to convince them to make better choices. But tanks and code books seem like a little much.

avatar John Gorentz January 17, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Speaking of government coercion, I hope Front Porch Republic is joining the protest against SOPA and that it will be going dark tomorrow. There are several WordPress plugins in the repository that you can choose from to help you do it.

avatar Rob G January 17, 2012 at 9:39 pm

“I live in a world in which too many people drink the wrong beer. I use whatever meager tools I have at my disposal to convince them to make better choices”

Equating some of the issues that are discussed here with drinking the wrong beer is more than a little precious. It does, however, make a correct point about modern Americans and choice; namely, that they believe choice is choice, and at root choices with a moral component are not all that different from the choices one makes when he lunches at the Eastern Empire Chinese Buffet.

As Anthony Esolen puts it, choice is the dragon of our day:
http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=17-08-042-f

avatar Dwight Lindley January 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Wonderful piece, Mr. Signorelli.

avatar Sam M January 18, 2012 at 6:54 am

Rob G,

But preciousness is the charge in question. Carter was talking about what he sees as an infatuation with aesthetics, and the willingness to use coercion to make people comply with one version of the good life. Maybe you want the conversation to focus on abortion and foreign policy and grand philosophical statements. Fine. That’s a great conversation. But it’s a different conversation than the one about iPads and other precious things. I didn’t take the conversation there. In fact, search this site for the word “beer.” It comes up a lot. People here seem to think it is an important marker of localism and taste. Did you object when it was discussed in the past?

avatar Rob G January 18, 2012 at 8:31 am

“People here seem to think it is an important marker of localism and taste. Did you object when it was discussed in the past?”

No, because although it may very well be a marker of localism and taste, beer’s influence culturally is minor compared to such things as social networking, texting, agribusiness issues, ubiquitous advertising, etc. Despite its symbolic relevance one’s choice of beer does not have quite the import on society or self that, say, choosing to participate in Facebook does.

avatar JA January 18, 2012 at 9:05 am

Sam M,

You are making the same mistake as Mr. Carter: you begin with liberal assumptions that lead you to assume that the only way to coerce is by law and the state. However, as has been repeated, coercion most often takes on an informal form through the organic growth of mores and standards. No one on this site is suggesting to instate a Commissar of Aesthetic standards. Again, we don’t want to seize the state apparatus; we want to break it. The modern nation state is an artificial political organism that denies human nature and natural law — but this also includes the modern market, an unnatural creation of the state where economic activity is conceptualized as functioning in one national market apart from social and sacred concerns. That is, modern economic activity no longer follows the proper end of such — the provision of the family with necessary and customary goods — but is constructed to master nature and provide a platform for people to come to, not as families and communities, but as atomistic self-interested “individuals” intent of mastery nature to quench an insatiable appetite for consumer goods and profits.

So to uphold my original claim above, the reason that no progress can take place in these “conversations” is because the liberals present are unable to question and debate their assumptions. Despite the majority of human history as non-liberal, neither you nor Mr. Carter are capable of imagining a society without the absolute state’s monopolization of public life. In other words, you lack historical perspective. You take too much as given and natural when, in fact, much of what you take for granted constitutes reified social convention. It would do you some good to learn of the historical origins of liberalism and the philosophical and theological presuppositions undergirding it, especially in contrast to traditional understandings. Until you do, you will be unable to properly compare them and make an informed judgment, which is otherwise mere prejudice.

Now, you ask an interesting question about means to the ends sought by many here — not the bit where you evince an apprehension over losing your sacralized “choice” and the ability to slovenly and slavishly fetishize iPads and other commodities without end — but where you question what the process of change would look like. The simple answer is that no one knows. That is part of the purpose of this site: to probe possibilities. But like Gregory of Nyssa, who denounced slavery as an institution during Lent in 379 (a period when sins in need of repentance was often highlighted), to affirm what is just and righteous against what is unjust and sinful — and our present order is at least that, if not worse — does not require a 15 step plan. Gregory’s denouncement is no less radical than anything said here. Slavery was an integral part of Roman society. No one of that time could imagine life without it.

The same goes for our society. Liberalism is but one of many cultural historical constructions. It is neither absolute, as it isn’t grounded in the Christian faith and/or human nature and natural law, nor is the end of history. Human life and culture is too organic, too variegated, and too untamed to fit into that hoary narrative. But to return to David Bentley Hart’s ideas, all true revolutions and lasting changes take place organically over many centuries. Just as the Christian vision transformed Rome into the Church, both East and West, over many centuries, so liberalism and modernity have refashioned society by the absolute state and the market economy. The writers here are not interested in unleashing a destabilizing and debilitating agrarian Reign of Terror. Mr. Salyer and Mr. Signorelli hardly compare to Robespierre. They understand that any lasting change would be gradual and would have to take root in the human heart first. (Unless our despoiling of the earth forces this change upon us.)

So does this mean you cannot buy an iPad? Yes, it means exactly that. iPads are made in China by exploited labor. In addition, their appeal lies in a gross fetishization of consumer products, a kind of liberal Eucharist. They are the product of an order that would fade away with the return of local control over economic production and ownership and a return to traditional visions of the sacred. So they will be rendered anachronistic and irrelevant, not regulated.

avatar Sam M January 18, 2012 at 9:40 am

“you begin with liberal assumptions that lead you to assume that the only way to coerce is by law and the state.”

No, I do not begin there and I make no such assumption. As mentioned time and time again, I am an enthusiastic participant in the acts of moral scolding, harrumphing and other forms of curmudgeonly-ness. What I am seeking is clarification. Someone mentioned a modern marker of consumer desire and appended the words “can’t have” to it.

As for Rob G:

“beer’s influence culturally is minor compared to such things as social networking, texting, agribusiness issues, ubiquitous advertising, etc.”

Perhaps beer is an interesting marker because it deals, intimately, with agribusiness and ubiquitous advertising?

When one topic of discussion is coercion and the way it applies to consumer choice, it seems natural to step back and say, “Wait… what do you mean by ‘can’t have,’ and how would you manage to bring this about?”

This is not a side question. It gets at the heart of Mr. Carter’s critique about willingness to use coercion.

avatar John Médaille January 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm

All rules depend on coercion, and without coercion there are no rules. But attempting to abolish government coercion doesn’t abolish coercion, it merely abolishes legitimate rule-making for the pure rule of force. A case in point will make this clear. In the age of the Robber Barons, Jay Gould controlled the Erie railroad, the only link from Pennsylvania into New York City. He decided to leverage this monopoly into control of the building supplies business. He refused to carry the products of companies that wouldn’t sell out to him, and was able to drive the Pennsylvania Bluestone Company into bankruptcy and buy it up cheaply. This practice was ended when Congress imposed the “Common Carrier Rule” on the railroads, “coercing” them into carrying all freight on an equal basis. One might descry government coercion in this case, but one cannot claim to be abolishing coercion. Common carrier rules substitute the rule of government for the rule of private entities, but there is coercion in either case. Arguments about rules cannot be reduced to “non-coercion” vs. “coercion, but who will have the power of coercion. But coercion will exist in either case. It is arguments like these which mark “First Things” as this country’s leading Liberal journal. To be sure, it is the right-wing of Liberalism, but it is Liberalism nonetheless.

avatar JA January 18, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Sam M,

That was hardly an adequate response. I’ll repeat myself: to the degree that you assume that said coercion will take place through law and the state, your imagine is limited to liberal (or at least modern) assumptions. This is quite evident given the fact that you have been told by multiple persons that the type of coercion in question is cultural, not legal, but still persist in your assumptions.

avatar Zac January 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm

The question for me isn’t ‘how coercive do you get?’ nor am I concerned with the ways in which a population is coerced. Details schmetails. What’s more important is the REACH of those doing the coercing. Can we all agree that coercion on a small scale is preferred to coercion on a large scale? Or is that the hidden crux of this discussion? When is coercion on a federal scale warranted?

But then we must also ask the question ‘how small is too small?’ Assuredly the cultural hegemony that would result from having a federal culture czar would be more than I could bear. But then I find myself asking: why does the idea of multiple culture czars who have power over the decisions of 10 million people seem less terrible to me than the idea of millions of culture czars who have power over the decisions of 10 people, yet also less terrible than having a single culture czar?

This question is close to America’s heart.

avatar Sam M January 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm

“I’ll repeat myself: to the degree that you assume that said coercion will take place through law and the state, your imagine is limited to liberal (or at least modern) assumptions.”

Where did I ever assume that said coercion will take place through the law and the state? That was the point of my question, to get clarity on that point.

avatar JA January 18, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Sam M,

When you ask whether or not whether the ability to purchase an iPad will be “dictated,” it implies legal and state coercion rather than informal cultural coercion.

There will be no Commissar of Culture; rather, the end sought is community where each person plays a part in ruling and being ruled in turn, to use the classic Aristotelian formulation. One will find that such coercion is informal, relying upon social pressure and an ethos of obligation, rather than the formality of fiat.

Now, if you do not assume that we are talking about state coercion, why ask pose the question, repeatedly, and even after an answer has been furnished to avail your apprehensions, both by Mr. Signorelli an myself?

avatar Joe Carter January 18, 2012 at 5:26 pm

It is arguments like these which mark “First Things” as this country’s leading Liberal journal. To be sure, it is the right-wing of Liberalism, but it is Liberalism nonetheless.

I’m starting to wonder if anyone at FPR even knows what they mean by the use of “liberal.” The term seems to be devolving into a reference to “any person who thinks we should have freedom to make our own decisions.”

avatar John Médaille January 18, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Make their own decisions? Like the Pennsylvania Bluestone Company? did they get to make their own decisions?

avatar Joe Carter January 18, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Mr. Médaille,

I think you are confusing which side of the argument each of us is on. I’m on the side (broadly speaking) of letting people make their own choices on normal matters unless we have a compelling and morally justifiable reason for doing so. You’re side (e.g., the side that is against “liberals”) believe that coercion—whether by the state, by the community, of by individuals—is fine if it leads to the preferred outcome.

My side (e.g, the “First Things” argument) would argue that the “Common Carrier Rule” was a proper use of coercive power that was necessary to ensure greater freedom. From what I understand, many people here at FPR would say that if Jay Gould could use his personal coercive power to achieve the proper “aesthetic” outcome that he should have been allowed to do so—especially if the local community was on his side.

(I realize that some folks will think I am knocking down a strawman. I encourage those people to reread the exchanges—including the comments—and see if this isn’t the logical outcome of their thinking.)

avatar John Médaille January 18, 2012 at 7:15 pm

So in other words, the argument about “coercion” is a red herring. Thank you.

avatar Joe Carter January 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm

As I’ve said repeatedly, the argument about coercion is about who gets to do the coercing, on what issues they should be allowed to coerce, and what are the proper limits. The reason the discussion has stalled is because I can’t get my debate opponents to provide clarity on those questions.

avatar John Médaille January 18, 2012 at 8:07 pm

So you have clarified your position on that issue? I must have missed that. My reading of history is that a clerk in a democratic country exercises more coercion in a day that an ancient tyrant did in a whole reign. The clerk can remove your children or your business with the stroke of a pen; so long as the paperwork is properly filled in, he is limited only by the “people’s will,” which in practice always means the will of the right people, and almost never the popular will, assuming anybody knows what that is.

The king’s writ might have run as law, but there was very little he could actually right in his writ, hemmed in as he was by so many competing centers of authority. The divine right was the right to enforce the divine will, and not the ruler’s arbitrary will. This is why both the Stewart’s and Bourbon kings had the Jesuit tracts on divine right burned by the public hangman: there was a recognized limit to the royal will; none whatsoever to that which presents itself as “the people’s will.”

Monarchy become absolutism only in the brief period before it was replaced by democracy, and indeed absolutism was the historical preparation for democracy, which is itself a claim that there is no higher authority than the people’s will. But if you really are interested, I would recommend Bertrand de Jouvenel’s “On Power” as the best book on the subject.

avatar Anymouse January 18, 2012 at 11:34 pm

“As I’ve said repeatedly, the argument about coercion is about who gets to do the coercing, on what issues they should be allowed to coerce, and what are the proper limits.”
The nature of the coercion is one area which you are ignoring. There is, as Médaille notes a great difference between the power of a Prince who wants to criminalize contraception and the power of a Federal Bureaucrat who is trying to devise a way to take children away from their parents and fulfill the desires of Mao and Alinsky. And if we are to be considered conservatives we ought to side with the former over the latter and acknowledge it’s superiority.

avatar Rob G January 19, 2012 at 8:49 am

~~I’m starting to wonder if anyone at FPR even knows what they mean by the use of “liberal.” The term seems to be devolving into a reference to “any person who thinks we should have freedom to make our own decisions.”~~

I think we can agree that First Things can be considered a “neo-conservative” journal, by and large. I once heard ISI’s Mark Henrie get asked the question, “What’s the difference between neo-conservative and other conservatives — paleos, tradcons, etc.?” Henrie’s answer was that neo-conservatives have made peace with modernity.

It is in this sense that neocons are liberal — they’ve made peace with certain aspects of Enlightenment modernity, rights talk and autonomous individualistic freedom among them, that other conservatives find problematic.

avatar Rob G January 19, 2012 at 9:06 am

~~in other words, the argument about “coercion” is a red herring~~

John, I don’t think it’s a red herring so much as it is a sort of blind spot. If you accept certain liberal categories you cannot help but see in such things a curtailment of freedom, which translates into coercion. The true idea, however, is to promote self-curtailment rather than to enforce curtailment from outside.

The difficulty is in getting modern folks to accept the idea of self-curtailment.

avatar Mathematician January 19, 2012 at 9:06 am

A quip by David Stove seems on point: “The only non-coercive human being is an autistic one.”

avatar Joe Carter January 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Rob G. If you accept certain liberal categories you cannot help but see in such things a curtailment of freedom, which translates into coercion. The true idea, however, is to promote self-curtailment rather than to enforce curtailment from outside.

You seem to be completely missing the point of this debate. The point is not, as you say, to promote “self-curtailment.” The FPR writers have made it clear that what thy are advocating is “to enforce curtailment from outside.” Salyer has even endorsed “hidden coercion.”

All this talk about “liberals” is growing rather tiresome. If as you say, “neo-conservatives have made peace with modernity” then everyone at FPR is a neo-con. Go read Mark Mitchell’s essay again, where he all but admits that. The idea that we can escape modernity is ludicrous. And for people to write on the internet about how they do not like modernity is the height of irony.

However, you could help advance the discussion, Rob, by answering my questions about:

(1) who gets to do the coercing
(2) on what issues they should be allowed to coerce
(3) what are the proper limits

I can almost guarantee that if you answer them honestly you’ll be exposed as much of a “neo-con” as I am.

avatar John Médaille January 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Did I miss it? Did you address those questions? Or did you just condemn others as ‘coercive’ and only come to this when pushed by others to show a “non-coercive” society? Maybe I missed something, and if I did, I apologize and ask to point me to where these questions were dealt with. I agree completely that these are the correct questions, and not any nonsense about “coercive” vs “non-coercive.” I am more than willing to have an exchange based on these questions.

avatar Robert January 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Indeed. You essentially “pled guilty” to the charge against you when you called Mr. Salyer’s contention that coercion is unavoidable–part of the human condition like gravity–proof of his being a Fascist. You seem to be coming to the understanding that you lost the debate at that initial point and are trying to ignore the fact and will us all to forget it.

avatar Joe Carter January 19, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Or did you just condemn others as ‘coercive’ and only come to this when pushed by others to show a “non-coercive” society?

Let’s first look at what I was reacting against. Sayler’s initial article responded to John Couretas’s claim that: “at the heart of distributism is the hidden coercive impulse that would prohibit ordinary folk from behaving and consuming, as pauldanon says, in “frivolous” ways.”

Salyer response begins with: “And just what is meant by “ordinary folk?” Does it include the large majority who evidently thought Barack Obama would be a swell president? Does it include those whose children master the remote before learning to speak? Those who treat birth-control pills as if they were M&M’s, stand assembled outside Toys’R’Us like ravenous zombies in the wee hours of Black Friday, and think dolls dressed like cheap hookers make nice Christmas gifts for little girls?”

When you look at this in the context of Couretas’s comment it raises the question of whether Salyer would use the “hidden coercion” he champions to:

—Prohibit people from voting for the “wrong” candidate.
—Restrict parental involvement over their children’s TV viewing
—Prohibit people from using contraceptives
—Prohibit people from deciding when they shop and what toys they buy their children

Now I may agree with Salyer that the world would be better if people did not choose these things. I would even agree that we should use moral suasion to change people’s opinions about these issues. But I disagree about the use of “hidden coercion” if it implies that people’s choices are curtailed without them even being aware of it.

I also would not be in favor of using overt (e.g., state) forms of coercion since such power could just as easily be used against us (e.g., mandating the use of contraceptives).

The main problem I have with Salyer’s position (and his defenders) is that they do not have a problem with coercion (or seem to care if it has limits) as long as it can be used for purposes of their own choosing. Personally, I’m not in favor of creating weapons that can be just as easily used against me.

To be honest, I suspect nearly everyone in this discussion agrees with me in practice, if not in principle. That is why I’ve appreciated Mark Mitchell’s essay in which he essentially admits that we can’t escape modernity. His response is that we should use our “liberal” freedom to make such choices as “staying put.” That is essentially my position too.

What bothers me is that so few people in this discussion will admit that is what they want for themselves too. I haven’t seen anyone say that they are eager to be forced to make choices about where they live, what occupation they pursue, or what type of beer they can drink. They don’t want “hidden coercion” to be used to force them to make those decisions (and where it exists, they tend not to favor it when it applies to them). But it’s much easier to rail against “liberalism” than it is to stop living like a 21st century liberal.

avatar Joe Carter January 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Robert You essentially “pled guilty” to the charge against you when you called Mr. Salyer’s contention that coercion is unavoidable–part of the human condition like gravity–proof of his being a Fascist. You seem to be coming to the understanding that you lost the debate at that initial point and are trying to ignore the fact and will us all to forget it.

I think you need to go back and read the exchanges again. There has been a lot of creative exegesis of what Salyer actually said and even more creative eisegesis of what I have said.

Your comment shows that many people here simply do not wish to engage the real debate (What type of coercion is allowable and when should it be applied?) and instead prefer point-scoring on some silliness about whether coercion is unavoidable. That was never the issue as anyone who has read all of the exchange can clearly see. If you just jumped in on Salyer’s FPR post and missed the one’s he was responding to by Couretas and me then you are missing key context.

avatar Rob G January 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm

“The idea that we can escape modernity is ludicrous.”

Escaping it is one thing. Refusing to make peace with its presuppositions is entirely different.

avatar Robert January 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm

The issue is, indeed, what type of coercion is allowable, possible, and desirable. I’m glad that you have now abandoned your initial objection to such a “fascistic” discussion and joined us in it.

avatar Anymouse January 19, 2012 at 5:25 pm

To me “Hidden Coercion” is the norm throughout history, and is simply to be accepted. As an example, it is what discourages racism amongst many. It simply involves having an economy and society that is arranged a certain way and therefore encourages certain behaviors. A society without consumerism and little incentive for sexual equality would have much less legal abortion, broken homes or homosexual marriage.

I do agree that some aspects of modernity are hard to do without, but even this computer here is something I could do away with if there was a return to print media. This one I am using right now is actually not my own computer, and is instead owned by my University but that does not change the point.

“His response is that we should use our “liberal” freedom to make such choices as “staying put.” That is essentially my position too.”
But how are we to have have a discussion about society when we cannot discuss behavior on a community wide scale? That implies the abandonment of the very concept of social conservatism.

avatar Stephen January 19, 2012 at 6:29 pm

I think people need to be clear about what “coercion” means: it has to do with the actual or threatened exertion of superior power. Practical limits on one’s freedom of choice due to the functioning of the economy do not constitute coercion. For example, if I desire ostrich eggs, but no one nearby sells ostrich eggs, that does not mean that I am being coerced. On the other hand, if farmers want to sell me raw milk, but the FDA will fine them, that does constitute coercion.

In addition, efforts by advertisers to influence my desires do not constitute coercion. No one has forced me to buy my MacBook or iPod.

avatar John Médaille January 20, 2012 at 1:42 am

I don’t think there is a reasonable, non-tendentious reading of Salyer’s comments which would allow anyone to conclude that he would employ gov’t force to forbid the things he finds objectionable. Surely he can speak for himself, but from what he’s said, it strikes me that you’ve made a rather large leap. And you still won’t state your own position on the matter. You allow (after some prodding) that there must be coercion, but still attack others on the issue, without telling us your own limits. You will merely say you want the use of force to be reasonable, but won’t tell us what you mean. You will, I hope, forgive me if I feel uneasy around people who proclaim that they are reasonable, but won’t tell you their reasons.

avatar JA January 20, 2012 at 7:38 am

Mr. Carter:

Three matters:

1) Your comment shows that many people here simply do not wish to engage the real debate (What type of coercion is allowable and when should it be applied?) and instead prefer point-scoring on some silliness about whether coercion is unavoidable.

This comes immediately after writing the following:

“When you look at this in the context of Couretas’s comment it raises the question of whether Salyer would use the “hidden coercion” he champions to:

—Prohibit people from voting for the “wrong” candidate.
—Restrict parental involvement over their children’s TV viewing
—Prohibit people from using contraceptives
—Prohibit people from deciding when they shop and what toys they buy their children

Now I may agree with Salyer that the world would be better if people did not choose these things. I would even agree that we should use moral suasion to change people’s opinions about these issues. But I disagree about the use of “hidden coercion” if it implies that people’s choices are curtailed without them even being aware of it.

[. . .]

The main problem I have with Salyer’s position (and his defenders) is that they do not have a problem with coercion (or seem to care if it has limits) as long as it can be used for purposes of their own choosing. Personally, I’m not in favor of creating weapons that can be just as easily used against me.”

You go from “raising the question” of whether he would support such to assuming that he “do[es] not have a problem with coercion (or seem to care if it has limits) as long as it can be used for purposes of [his] own choosing,” suggesting that coercion that he advocates is a “weapon.”

You further claim that you “disagree about the use of ‘hidden coercion’ if it implies that people’s choices are curtailed without them even being aware of it.” Yet, “hidden coercion” is your term and Mr. Salyer’s use of it was in ridicule.

Mr. Carter, with all due respect, you are the one mischaracterizing positions for “point-scoring,” from your first post tarring Mr. Salyer as a “fascist” to this. Frankly, it’s hard to take someone who employs such loose rhetoric seriously.

Further, it is quite abusive to suggest “many people here simply do not wish to engage the real debate.” Instead, we just don’t want to engage it on your terms, which are liberal terms. You draw attention to the matter of coercion and demand that the “debate” be centered on this matter with every other issue of only peripheral importance. But while we can certainly value “liberty,” it is but one of many public goods that must be balanced against others, such as justice, order, piety, mercy, etc. But you don’t see these often competing goods because you are unaware of your liberal assumptions (despite your protests to the contrary—more on that later). And on your obsession with coercion, which flows from this unwavering fixation on “liberty,” you demand to know how coercion – which you seem to think is really bad, despite your acknowledgment that it is necessary – will be employed. The response given to you repeatedly is that it would be in the same manner as in traditional society: through informal norms, obligations, etc. You want to know what this looks like? Read a history book. It looks like the majority of human history. You want details of how it will look here if employed? You ask the impossible. Part of the wonder of traditions is that they grow organically. They are not subject to this fantastic and UTOPIAN modern dream to subdue nature and create a paradise on earth shepherded by the universal state through rational control. Further, it is impossible to answer because it isn’t up to Mr Salyer or Mr. Signorelli or Mr. Medaille. You fear that these persons will force their “vision” on others is also a liberal preoccupation, one that exists because we live in an era of the absolute state where every person and every institution is subject to the whims of one authority. However, in a communitarian setting, this is not the case. To use the Aristotelian phrase, it is where people rule and are ruled in turn: i.e. rather than a distant tyrant enforcing an order upon people, a community comes to have shared affections and articulate the common good together. It’s the “hidden coercion” of social scorn visited upon youth who are socially scorned for rudeness toward old ladies, not the overt coercion of the bureaucrat or the corporate taskmaster. As it arrives through actual community it cannot be articulated in advance by anyone on this site as if they were rational technocrats engineering society.

Which brings me to my next point: you don’t see what coercion already exists in our society that is much worse than anything than any of these men could ever support – and I have to add that in your support of liberalism, you support much of this coercion. A condemnation by one’s neighbors for the abuse of birth control used to facilitate promiscuity can be salutary, but the coercion of, say, advertisers who create desires for goods (like iPads!) not needed, imbued with a sacred mystique, and that serve to enthrall the masses by distracting them from political and social life so that they remain passive and domesticated has no such salutary effect. But you don’t see this as coercion because of your assumptions. You believe the liberal myth that people should be self-sovereign individuals who control their own lives, despite centuries of experience and decades of social scientific evidence that suggests that this picture of human nature is simplistic. People don’t act or live this way. There was no state of nature with everyone against all. This Hobbesian and Lockean prehistory is a myth with no evidence in the historical record. And people cannot act autonomously apart from their cultures. You seem to suggest that modern “freedom” could be used to “stay put” and live morally, but you fail to see the interconnectedness of social, political, and economic life. Individual persons cannot act as free agents in a vacuum. While they certainly can affect any given regime, they are also affected and nurtured themselves by it. When a system is built that construes people as self-sovereign individuals who are emancipated from tradition and social obligation, they begin to act like it over time. You also imply that the liberal state is neutral and that it has no agenda, allowing people to function as autonomous and self-interested individuals, a myth already addressed.

But what if these assumptions are all wrong? What if the modern state and the individual are social constructions that deny human nature? What if freedom is not sheer expression of the will, but comportment with human nature? What if to be free isn’t choice per se, but choosing correctly? And what if choosing correctly requires rootedness in time, place, and community where people can seek the common good together? And what of the common good? If it’s based on shared affections and a shared vision within community, is it even possible within a liberal regime that orients the individual person toward the state as the key political relationship of society? Doesn’t this render community superfluous and at best an intermediary between the individual and the state? If society is thus construed as an aggregation of self-interested individuals in conflict with one another and the state as the mediator, how can the common good ever be even arrived at when there can be no fundamental common affections? And seeking the common good together through community is required for humans to comport with their nature and be “free” then aren’t we living in a greater state of bondage than ever experienced in the history of the West? And what about this picture theologically? Doesn’t it divinize the individual person by forcing him or her to choose his or her own “truth” apart from traditions? Does not the state then become a god in its own right by “emancipating” these individual little gods from tradition and nature? Doesn’t it turn them into emotivists, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues, which is an implicit acceptance of a quasi-Nietzschean morality? Doesn’t this make a choice of “lifestyle” nihilistic?

These are the questions that many communitarians ask – and they have radically different answers to these than liberals. The response to your question about coercion – indeed, whether this question is the even the right one to ask and how important it is – hinges on these answers. You have shown no willingness to discuss these presuppositions with the writers here. Instead, you trot around with liberal prejudices that reflect a lack of concern with these questions.

And they are prejudices that evince a complete lack of historical awareness. Are you aware that the liberal conception of freedom as uninhibited exercise of the will has its roots in late medieval scholasticism? Are you aware how this deviated from traditional Christianity and the whole of human thought on freedom? Do you understand how the Enlightenment embraces many of the ideas that arose from these scholastic debates – ideas that are heterodox? Have you considered whether this view of freedom is biblical? (A cursory reading of Paul suggests that it is not.) What about aspects of liberalism that represent secularized deviations from Christianity, such as the progressive view of history or the universalism of the state? Have you measured them up to the witness of Christ? What about the state’s origins as a criminal enterprise that usurped local control, often violently? Doesn’t liberalism still accept the state’s thuggery when it agrees to the complete monopolization of public life and law by the state in exchange for a paltry set of “rights?”

Your responses suggest that you are completely unaware of these issues and their importance in political philosophy and political theology. This is quite startling given the frequency with which these matters are covered on your website. Greg Forster, for instance, published quite a few posts on Locke and the way his thought had been corrupted by philosophical and theological voluntarism and nominalism. Have you read Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the most important living Christian philosophers on ethics and politics? His “After Virtue” is standard in most contemporary courses in political philosophy. Do you know what William Cavanaugh has written about the state, both historically and theologically? What about David Bentley Hart, who publishes often on your site? It doesn’t seem so because your posts seem to suggest that you are unaware of these competing views on freedom or liberalism, as you do not seem willing to offer any space for them.

So let me then summarize this by submitting, yet again, that they aren’t aware how your own beliefs about freedom, government, and coercion are historically contingent and problematical philosophically and theologically. You claim that you can step outside them, but you have not yet done so. This is why there is no progress in these discussions. You hold to a liberal vision of society and the writers here question this tradition. Until you talk about first principles, these “debates” will remain like two ships passing in the night.

2) Now, it is clear that you don’t like how the term “liberal” is bandied about and you have suggested that we don’t know what this term means given our use of it. But I would suggest the opposite. When you imply that technological advancement is unique to liberalism by questioning whether we approve of penicillin, for instance, you seem to belie any claim to understanding liberalism at all. But this is ridiculous. Science and technology do not have their roots with John Locke. The ancient world and the middle ages were NOT a time of darkness, but rather one of great technological innovation. What the writers take issue with here is the nihilistic employment of modern technology, not its existence.

But even if this were not, why is the accumulation and employment of technology the metric to evaluate different visions? This privileges liberal presuppositions that prioritize the mastery of nature — presuppositions that you claim you are aware of and can stand outside of. But what you are affectively doing is evaluating both liberalism and non-liberalism on liberal terms. This is viciously question-begging and it suggests that you aren’t even aware of all of your liberal beliefs or what constitutes liberal beliefs.

Further, you assert that liberalism isn’t really as bad as we make it out to be here at FPR. This suggests that you are quite unaware of the devastation wreaked by modernity to non-liberal peoples through imperialism, to the planet by exploitation, to the unity of community via the individuation of persons and the degradation of civil life, especially as this has domesticated and neutered the Church, which is little more than an aggregation of like-minded individuals than the social and political community at the center of Christian life.

So allow me to proffer a definition. It isn’t perfect, as liberalism is hard to nail down, but it will do. In short, liberalism is a political ideology that begins with the absolute state as a means to escape from the “state of nature,” defines society as an aggregation of self-interested and self-sovereign atomistic individuals, usually advocates some variation of rights as entitlements, defines freedom as voluntaristic liberty, marginalizes tradition in favor of what it calls “reason,” advances a discourse of a hierarchy of civilizations (from which racism and modern colonialism has its origin), legitimizes itself either through a social contract [early liberalism] or a progressive narration of history [late liberalism], and – above all – entails a process of secularization and turning toward material reality that leaves time and space flattened and without distinction.

3) It seems quite fatuous to argue that because we live in a liberal world we must accept it along with liberal assumptions. One can only imagine a 4th century Philemon protesting Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon against the institution of slavery on Lent in 379: “Don’t you eat bread grown by slave labor. You may be arguing this, but you really don’t want to give up all the advantages of an economy where slave labor plays a central role? Don’t you realize that abandoning slavery will constrain your current livelihood?” Just because a transition would be difficult, does not mean it isn’t worthwhile or ethical, and just because we live in a liberal world doesn’t mean we have to accept it. We could, for once, follow the witness of the early church on political matters and act subversively toward an unjust order with advancing the Lordship of Christ in mind.

avatar Rob G January 20, 2012 at 8:53 am

“What the writers take issue with here is the nihilistic employment of modern technology, not its existence.”

Exactly. I sometimes get the impression that our critics believe that in order to remain consistent in our appreciation of indoor plumbing and modern dentistry, we must own ourselves full-blown Lockeans.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 20, 2012 at 11:28 am

Along these lines, I would ask you to consider how often the rhetoric you employ, focused on the rights of individuals to choose freely, has been used to advance liberal causes. Take the issue of abortion, which I know must be important to an editor at First Things – isn’t it the case that the common defenses of abortion rely on just this rhetoric?

This is not a liberal position, it is a libertarian one. The United States Constitution is primarily a jurisdictional document, not a policy document. It defines the powers granted to the federal government, denied explicitly to the federal and/or to the state governments, and reserved to the states, or to the people (which are two very different things). Quite properly, the Supreme Court ruled that during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, the jurisdiction to decide about a pregnancy belongs to the woman in whose body the pregnancy occurs, not to the police powers of the state.

Many examples have been given here of legitimate and illegitimate exercise of the powers of coercion, comparing such exercise by a divine right monarchy to that of 51% of the sovereign people. Whether coercion is exercised by an absolute monarch, a feudal lord, a military despot, or republican institutions, there are decisions that should not be made by the government, and decisions that should be made by the government.

There are innumerable Supreme Court rulings and concurring or dissenting opinions which highlight that the founders of the USA were no more willing to entrust certain decisions to electoral majorities than to monarchs: matter of religion, prayer, etc. etc. etc.

avatar Rob G January 20, 2012 at 11:47 am

“This is not a liberal position, it is a libertarian one.”

Historically understood, libertarianism is a subspecies of liberalism. In fact, some libertarians consider themselves “classical liberals.”

avatar John Médaille January 20, 2012 at 1:16 pm

“Libertarian” is an alternate spelling of “Liberal.”

avatar Anymouse January 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Very true.

“Quite properly, the Supreme Court ruled that during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, the jurisdiction to decide about a pregnancy belongs to the woman in whose body the pregnancy occurs, not to the police powers of the state.”
Apparently not to the fetus either. I wonder how he feels about that. Maybe a lot of pain and death.

“you demand to know how coercion – which you seem to think is really bad, despite your acknowledgment that it is necessary – will be employed”
“The response given to you repeatedly is that it would be in the same manner as in traditional society: through informal norms, obligations, etc”
I agree completely.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Ahh yes, the Prince curtailing contraception is better than the Bolshys conscripting children into re-education camps. After all, the Prince reserves the right of Droit du seigneur.

The discussion is flummoxed and overturned. It is not about “self-denial” and “curtailment”, it is about the liberty and the immense satisfactions of abnegation, the larger frontiers of an ordered life, a life of love and beauty freed from the rabid and accumulating rot of unceasing want on the one hand or fleeing escape from this want on the other.

When one of our smiling politicians waves the Stars and Stripes and speaks of an idea of liberty he or she is clueless about, I am put in mind of a debate between two political parties processing a dead host. The partisans of the Party of Autolysis claim their efforts are holier than those of the Party of Putrefaction. Meanwhile, in the end, the body shall be dead and gone. Both parties of course, are always on the lookout for another opportunity of decay.

The totalitarian mind, this collective mind of us all has habituated itself to a Skinner Box of recrimination. Being against something is somehow exalted while we disdain any discussion of what we might be “for”.

“Libertarian” is an alternate spelling for “liberal” . Yes John and as ole Ed once quipped, some folks cannot spell the word “shit” even though their mouths are full of it. Not that I am hinting yours to be said full but that the raising of competing banners of shibboleth, against a backdrop of a near total absence of discernment in the larger culture is but one of the accumulating exhibits of Modernisms cult of self-defeat.

This condition is exactly why the Authoritarians follow every period of social confusion. Coercion is the red meat of fallen humanity.

But as to them Ipads. The damned spell check is one of the more egregious elements of commercial coercion I know.

avatar Anymouse January 20, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Linux for the win. It doesn’t come from a left wing place like the West Coast.

avatar Anymouse January 20, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Tongue fully in cheek.

avatar Bob S January 21, 2012 at 5:43 am

I don’t consider myself a conservative at all. No form of government is truly good. It’s just about the lesser of all the evils. A lot of people probably shouldn’t be voting. But pure democracy is greatly superior to every other form of government. And we don’t have pure democracy now because the left regularly circumvents the will of the people.

Just look at the disastrous things medieval monarchs did to their countries and their peoples. When confronted with their people’s suffering they told them to eat cake. And imagine if we only allowed wealthy male landowners to vote like the Founders? All would suffer while they enriched themselves.

avatar Anymouse January 21, 2012 at 1:09 pm

The cake story was made up, actually.

avatar JA January 21, 2012 at 9:03 pm

And that was not a “medieval monarch,” but an “early modern absolute monarch.” Treating the whole of premodernity as an undifferentiated benighted age of darkness and bondage is exactly the mythology under scrutiny.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 21, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Nowhere else have I heard libertarian equated with liberal, and I have seen little reason to believe many at FPR would buy into such sloppy convenience. Liberals certainly don’t make common cause with libertarians.

Whether you take a modern nanny-state view of liberalism, or classical Gladstonian free enterprise, or hark back to the Liberal Republicans who sold out Reconstruction, there is rampant interference in the free choices of individuals.

It is of course worth noting that America currently boasts several libertarian currents, of which the most odious is the Kerr-McGee school of libertarian politics: in The Name of the Individual, free the Corporation to ride rough shod over the bodies and property of the common people. It is closely related to the Ayn Rand school.

I’m politically libertarian in those areas that do not cause actual harm to others. Economic organization and production has great potential to cause harm to others if not carefully regulated. The government should not bar me from buying an iPad, but might well allocate scarce resources in a manner that makes it impossible to produce an iPad to sell me. The government should not bar an entrepreneur with a clever idea from trying it out — but the government should make sure that the new factory does not dump its true costs of doing business upon me, in the form of air and water pollution, mercury getting into infant food forumula, etc.

Salyer and others have pointed out that our current economy and consumption are based on a complex and fragile set of systems that are unlikely to continue much longer. Therefore, it would be useful to start looking at what we can develop and sustain to replace them. Taking iPads out of production because some people morally disapprove is not a valid basis for coercion. There won’t be enough power to run all these iPads, and the rare earths are needed to develop sustainable solar home heating systems before the oil runs out, would be a different question.

It’s a little silly to make such a big deal of abortion, but telling a woman she must keep a pregnancy growing inside her own body is a very different order of coercion than arresting her for dumping a baby in a toilet after it comes out. She can’t deliver it no questions asked to a safe haven after five months gestation. I also consider that something more than a unique genetic chemistry is needed to declare that a new person exists — some degree of mentation, the basics of a central nervous system. Cells flake off me every day that have my unique genetic signature.

avatar Anymouse January 21, 2012 at 10:02 pm

“Nowhere else have I heard libertarian equated with liberal”
View from the right commonly does so. At the end of the day liberalism is a broad category of beliefs that all argue for individualism of some sort. That can take many forms, both the defense of abortion or opposition to it.

avatar Peter January 22, 2012 at 11:54 am

John Medaille has repeatedly asked for Mr. Carter to describe the limits of acceptable coercion. Has he done so? He repeatedly criticises Mr. Salyer on this point and keeps raising the bogey of some elite manager somewhere. An honest accounting might bring us back to the original point of contention, distributism, since the problem of idiots standing outside chain stores ties directly into the obscene corporations that free range over our political, economic and geographic landscapes. What sort of check on them will Carter accept?

The point in Signorelli’s article that seems most disturbing to me is the conclusion that we lack any resources to deploy against the madness of advanced modernity. When C.S. Lewis has Screwtape make a toast, he praises modern ‘democracy’ and decribes its fruit very much like the drooling idiots outside the chainstores we know well some 50 years later. Screwtape urges Hell’s minions to encourage the behaviour and mindset ‘democracy’ produces “because these are the very things which, if unchecked will destroy democracy.” It seems that work has been done completely.

Lewis indicts education mainly, and what he calls penal taxes to soak the middle class. I guess OWS is concerned with the latter but I would like to see more discussion about education on FPR. Most of you seem to work in it if at the higher level. Where I live in Michigan the system is opening up somewhat. Homeschooling is rampant if unruly with absolutely no state oversight at all. Charter schools are now unlimited in number though still constrained by federal and state requirements and tests. If we want to start rebuilding the resources needed for a sane democratic society we might look to what we do with our young.

avatar Anymouse January 22, 2012 at 12:59 pm

The system must open up further. Modern education is the problem, not the solution and the destruction of it will be a good thing.

avatar Rob G January 22, 2012 at 4:07 pm

“Nowhere else have I heard libertarian equated with liberal”

Modern liberalism (which used to be called progressivism) and libertarianism both have their root in Enlightenment individualism. They can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin. Therefore if any type of non-individualistic conservatism has to coexist with libertarianism there will always be a fair amount of tension exhibited.

avatar JA January 22, 2012 at 7:23 pm

To contrast libertarianism with liberalism by comparison with classical liberalism and progressive liberalism is rather problematic. This is proffering a typology that is rather ahistorical, one that ignores the contingency and development of these ideologies. Look at neo-conservatism, for instance. A tension exists between the “free market” elements and the militaristic and imperialistic drive, as the latter tends toward fostering centralization at the federal administrative level. To explain this self-contradictory pastiche, one must resort to historical developments: in this case, the abandonment of militarism by the new left in the 60′s and 70′s forced most imperialists into the camp of the Republican party, which was only solidified by Reagan. Of course, this isn’t the only example — far from it. One can look at Marxism, for example: with the collapse of progressive historicism as a legitimization for society and ideology in the early 20th century, the historicist elements of Marxist thought began to give way to positivistic currents. Historical material became dialectical materialism and the latter became an objective principle in Marxist thought to undergird the natural sciences.

Libertarianism, if we were to look at its historical development, is a modern, largely American, political ideology that attempts to revive the emphasis on liberty of early and 19th century liberalism and hostility toward the state. This can take many forms: in economics there are Austrian and Monetarist schools and in politics there are left libertarians that tend to be more communally oriented and those on the right who are more individualistic. There are even academic offshoots, like Robert Nozick’s approach in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” which takes an awkwardly Kantian turn.

Regardless of the type of libertarianism under discussion, they all hark back to fundamental liberal beliefs: atomistic individualism, voluntaristic accounts of freedom, and the importance of this type of liberty to human endeavors.

So while it is certainly very different than other forms of liberalism mentioned — classical, 19th century, progressive, New Left, Ne0-conservative, etc. — that does not preclude it from being a form of liberalism itself. Please recall that liberalism is difficult to define and extremeley variegated. One cannot easily typologize it, but must look for its fingerprints when examining an ideology.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 22, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Ineed, JA, liberalism IS difficult to define and extremely variegated. For that matter, so is conservatism. So how can either be “the same as” libertarian thinking? You have made a VERY convincing case that each of these labels has at least five different incarnations, each of them overlapping with some incarnations of the other, some of them mutually exclusive within either category, so that by the time you are finished, you could compare libertarianism to at least half the varieties of either one.

In fact, those who claim to be libertarian, like those who claim to be populist, cover a wide range of liberal and illiberal, conservative and anti-conservative ground. For example, these days, liberals tend to favor gun control (but see Sen. Frank Church’s introduction to a 1970s book making the “liberal” case AGAINST gun control) — while these days, those who support citizen ownership of guns tend to call themselves “conservative.” Traditionally, conservatives want only a certain elite to have possession of guns…

Looking at other scattered remarks, opposite sides of the same coin are often considered to be OPPOSITES. But almost ALL modern politics has roots in the Enlightenment, liberal, communitarian, socialist, free market capitalist (as distinct from the prevailing mercantilism of the 18th century)…

So, pick your poison, but don’t offer it as definitive for the rest of us. For myself, I have tried to escape the prevailing labelism by presenting my values as politically libertarian, economically socialist, and culturally conservative. Of course, those who think of themselves as wholly and exclusively one of the above, tell me that is impossible. They are entitled to their opinion.

I favor maximum individual freedom to make individual choices, which renders me hostile to a large portion of what “social work” has become, but economic life requires a good deal of organization, and I don’t find laissez-faire free market capitalism conducive to individual liberty. It is as great a hazard as government bureaucracy. Socialism offers some useful clues for organization to promote the common good, as does distributism, which is not far afield of “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” It is a creative tension.

We got into this from the subject of abortion. This is not a question of economic organization. It is a fit subject for personal liberty and for the state to butt out, EXCEPT if you consider that a zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus, is a Person entitled to full rights at least equal to that of the mother. It is not a matter of liberalism or conservatism, it is a simple conflict of premises. If it is a person, then destroying it is homicide. If it is not, the government has no business telling an individual woman how to handle her pregnancy.

I consider the notion of a zygote, blastocyst, or embryo being a “person” absolutely ludicrous. A fetus we can quibble over, but as long as it cannot survive (short of massive artificial life support) outside the mother’s womb, I would leave the decision up to the mother. Mentation is also a relevant consideration in my seldom humble opinion: until there is a central nervous system of sufficient complexity to sustain some recognizable self-awareness, it doesn’t rate consideration that would justify intervention by the blunt instrument of the law. That might well set the boundary back to week 20, rather than the second-third trimester line that seemed appropriate in 1973.

avatar JA January 22, 2012 at 8:28 pm

While liberalism is rather variegated and broad, this does not exclude libertarianism from being a form of liberalism. Certainly, aspects of libertarianism and contemporary progressive liberalism have wildly different policy ideas, but they inevitably redound upon the same philosophical AND historical broad tradition. Regarding the former, they share similar presuppositions regarding freedom, individual atomism, and the state, despite wildly different policy ideas. Regarding the latter, they are all part of the same phylogenetic tree as children of the Enlightenment.

You seem to want to highlight the policy differences and claim that these are sufficient to demonstrate difference, but this ignores and obscures the philosophical and historical kinship. This renders the typology you prefer to be arbitrary and ahistorical.

avatar Eric B. January 22, 2012 at 9:13 pm

If libertarianism is to be belittled as the cousin of liberalism, what then is its relation to “place, limits, liberty”? It seems to me that only a papist could fail to find historical roots of classical liberalism beyond the Enlightenment. What of Romans chapter 14? What about Israel’s status as the people that were aliens in Egypt (Exodus 22:21)?

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 23, 2012 at 2:03 pm

JA, if you make your universe broad enough, it can include anything and everything. ALL political philosophies “inevitably redound upon the same philosophical AND historical broad tradition.” It is called human history. To insinuate that a liberal is different from a conservative, or a monarchist from a republican, a theocrat from an advocate of religious freedom, “ignores and obscures the philosophical and historical kinship” they all share with each other. That is essentially what your entire argument boils down to.

avatar Francis J. Beckwith January 23, 2012 at 2:23 pm

J.A. nailed it. Nicely said.

avatar Robert January 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Libertarianism is certainly a subset of Liberalism: its the distilled spirit of individualism, a Liberal fundamentalism.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 23, 2012 at 11:28 pm

So, Robert joins the latest list of Ayatollahs of political economy. He even mimics the closing of the Nicene Creed: “This is most certainly true.”

For the record, one reason I came to define myself as a political libertarian is that classic liberalism, and modern pseudo-social-democratic liberalism, both infringe grossly on individual liberty. I wouldn’t describe either one as “individualism.” Liberals, for example, collectivized workers in their factories, then claimed the resulting product as an “individual” product, that is until it became even less individual with the rise of the limited liability corporation.

You can distill whatever you wish for your own consumption, but it is not “certainly” true for anyone but yourself, and perhaps Mr. Beckwith.

avatar Dave Dutcher January 24, 2012 at 9:55 am

I think Joe is mistaken, because Distributivism is not an aesthetic system but an economic one. The focus of it is not to satisfy ideals of the good life in an artistic way-not to recreate the Shire and kick back on our front porches smoking pipeweed from a pouch with the nasty hobbitsses, but to make a better economic system centered around local businesses and self-ownership.

When a conservative says we need less programmers and more plumbers, that’s a distributive idea. People who perform services in a local community, who either own their own business or own their tools, and are in many ways insulated from the shock of global free markets. And as an economic ideal it seems to work pretty well-I’d match a skilled tradesman against any knowledge worker in terms of quality of life, skills portability, (good luck being a quant outside of NYC) and job satisfaction/burnout rate. Distributivism in its policies is strengthening that for economic and social reasons-it’s just better benefit than the current global free-market system even acknowledging it’s limits and vulnerabilities.

Distributivism isn’t about a purely aesthetic version of life, but an economic and social one, and the coercion argument is null because in any economic and social system we have experts deciding it for us already.

Joe has a point if people push the various Front Porch philosophies because they have a vision that agrarian localism is the best way to live life, and trying to have a group of academics (and it’s always academics) legislate people to go back to the farm. That has echoes of a benign “Down to the Countryside Movement” that Mao pushed in the Cultural Revolution, and that is true coercion, because it’s telling people what is best in their lives.

When people here talk about Liberalism as an impedient, ultimately they are talking about the latter, not the former. Distributivism I think can work with various forms of political philosophies, but the urge to the best life, the forced agrarianism (I don’t know what to call rule to force an aesthetic judgment as a system) wants kings because liberalism enables people who don’t like those kinds of aesthetic changes to speak and work against the aesthetes. The point of Distributivism is that it is an economic and social good that people will embrace, not something that needs to be imposed any more than any current economic system does. When you talk about getting rid of liberalism and that mindset, I think you are in danger of wanting top-down rule by kings to enforce the rustic ideal.

avatar RJ January 24, 2012 at 4:29 pm

“But pure democracy is greatly superior to every other form of government.”

Except for that ‘tyranny of the majority’ problem.

avatar Anymouse January 25, 2012 at 1:59 am

“When you talk about getting rid of liberalism and that mindset, I think you are in danger of wanting top-down rule by kings to enforce the rustic ideal.”
I would agree that it is a danger, but it is equally true that liberalism can lead to a bureaucrat or president making a top down enforcement of the liberal ideal. We can see that tendency to have developed rather strongly in our society as of late.

avatar Gabe Ruth January 25, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Mr. Signorelli, you’re getting warmer. Keep trying.

JA, your first comment was masterful. The decimation of every entity between the federal government (and its twin big business) and the individual is really our only problem. That the USG is run by people who hate their heritage, history, and humanity in anything but the most generic sense is a secondary problem.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 25, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Anonymouse is absolutely correct. Liberalism, not to be confused with liberty, definitely tends toward bureaucratic dictation to citizens “for their own good.” RJ’s critique is also quite relevant, but the answer to it is some form of “ordered liberty.”

At its best (and we’ve experienced a good deal that falls way short of the best) constitutional government authorizes jurisdiction, withholds jurisdiction, provides a framework within which liberty and coercion are exercised, which among other things limits the tyranny of the majority.

But much more than words on paper are necessary. The constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics guaranteed far more liberty than the constitution of the United States of America. The reason we have had more liberty, on the whole, in the USA, has to do with the institutions that actually governed under each constitution, the culture of the citizenry, the centralization and decentralization of power… in fact, there are many instances in the USA where either mob role or authoritarian diktat over-rode constitutional principles, at least for a time. The culture of those participating in the mob, the actual levers of power available to persons in authority, the strengths and weaknesses of the institutions that might have checked either one, were decisive.

So for instance, using abortion as an example (because we need an example people feel passionately about in opposite directions to provide a real test), if the culture does not sustain an overwhelming consensus against abortion, then criminal penalties will be ineffective. If there were such a consensus, criminal penalties would only impose upon the rather small minority of people who disagreed, and would therefore be tolerable. In theory, IF the constitution does restrain government from intruding on sphere of private life, and if the decision to terminate a pregnancy is part of that private sphere, then it should not matter what the consensus is, even one individual who disagrees is entitled to make their own choice.

But in fact, if there WERE an overwhelming consensus that an independent person, entitled to full protection of the laws, exists from the moment of conception, jurisprudence would reflect that, and abortion would be treated as homicide, which would trump privacy.

Liberty? Democracy? Coercion? Tyranny? It is about much more than mere words on paper.

avatar Rob G January 26, 2012 at 7:21 am

“one reason I came to define myself as a political libertarian is that classic liberalism, and modern pseudo-social-democratic liberalism, both infringe grossly on individual liberty.”

Yet the overemphasis on liberty of the autonomous individualistic sort is exactly what helped bring us to this state of things in the first place. An unbalanced individualism undermines the “mediating structures” in a society, and then all you end up with are the autonomous individual and the state, which then may be viewed as being in an adversarial relationship.

avatar Gabe Ruth January 26, 2012 at 9:04 am

Not so very long ago, I was a fairly orthodox neo-con. While sympathetic to it, I looked at the FPR position as longing for a fairy tale, to the extent that I knew about it or understood it. If there is one thing that compelled me to come around to their way of looking at the world, it was the question of Walmart. Now, it takes a pretty obtuse individual to question whether the arrival of a Walmart in a neighborhood is a boon to that neighborhood’s poor. Walmart apparently obeys the laws of the land, such as they are, so the neo-con really has nothing to say on the matter besides cheering another victory for the free market. He says “what do you Porcher idiots want, USG subsidies for mom and pop stores that probably use child labor and violate health codes?”

And the Porcher is a little stuck. He sees that there are needy people who look at Walmart as a savior, and he feels compassion for the wretched of this much blessed land. He hates the USG almost as much a AJ Nock. He knows the state government’s incentives have completely aligned with Washington’s, and local governments are a joke. Communal institutions… are those still a thing? So maybe he’ll say something about it in a church meeting, or among friends. But it won’t do much. It’s almost like these people have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life.

What I came to see is that Walmart is not only made possible by modern assumptions, it is made inevitable. And the only way back is to rebuild communities. Make no mistake, I think the Porchers can get a little silly when sketching out their idyllic scene. Not every community will be filled with pleasant, funny, or erudite people. Most will not even have a fair share of such individuals. It will not be easy, and it will probably not be fun. But this is where the stubborn cussedness of love for your home must bring you to do the hard work of moving it in the direction you think best (true patriotism). I come from Pittsburgh. I now live in Long Island (my wife’s home). Every time I go home I feel the most bizarre combination of repulsion and nostalgia. Long Island is a wonderfully comfortable place. And yet what community could any person ever feel on Long Island? It is truly the worst of all possible worlds. The congestion and crowds of the city, the necessity of a car and highway driving to get anywhere, the anti-social attitude. My mother-in-law (who is truly saint-like in many ways) doesn’t know the names of some of the neighbors she’s lived next to for decades. My family is not much better, but that is because they are weird, bookish people and haven’t lived there that long. As depressing as the place can be, I hope to get back there some day with my wife and her whole family (whose love for NY is demonstrated by the fact that their front door locks automatically at all times, which moves me between feelings of rage and derision regularly when I’m at their house, depending on the weather).

The Porcher attitude towards modernity can be derided as aesthetic preference, and disregarded to the extent that it is not shared. But you should know two things: 1) eventually, the liberal attitude will bring you to a place even you would be willing to coerce your fellow citizens out of; 2) the current order was built on a system that many people think is (sorry) unsustainable. Maybe they’re wrong about the time frame we’re looking at. But eventually they will be right, and I’d prefer Porcher coercion to both a Hobbesian and a anarchic dystopia.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 27, 2012 at 10:20 pm

You are part right, Rob G. (Most of us are — how much and in what way, aye, there’s the rub). I’ve come to the conclusion that individual liberty is only secure if there is a social and political framework in place that protects it. Among completely autonomous individuals, my liberty is nothing you are bound to respect, nor is yours anything I am bound to respect.

Once we recognize that the “social compact” is a post-Enlightenment concept, not an ancient event, we can start sorting out what sort of community will actually give us liberty, without liberty becoming the gift of a benevolent sovereign.

The best form of regulation is not so much imposed by one group of people upon another. It is the sort of regulation that emerges when we recognize that, acting as autonomous individuals, we will naturally make decisions that in sum we decry, such as, shopping at Wal-Mart. After all, most of us have limited incomes and budgets. It only makes sense to get the best price. But if we all agree that nobody will be allowed to shop at Wal-Mart, and if this is done in a manner that sustains higher-paying jobs in the local community, then we all end up better off because we have adopted certain regulations for ourselves.

avatar Gabe Ruth January 28, 2012 at 5:43 pm

“We all agree that no one will be allowed to…”

This is the sort of unreflective, principle free bullshit thinking we have now, at the federal level. Keep thinking big, Mr. Jenkins.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 29, 2012 at 2:23 pm

OK, Gabe, tell me one form of coercion you support. We’ll take it from there.

Or, you may believe that the best deterrent to murder is that the friends and relatives of the murdered man will kill the guilty party, no state action needed. If so, say so.

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