Who Gets To Be The Czar of Human Evolution?

by Jerry Salyer on January 5, 2012 · 60 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low

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A while back First Things editor Joe Carter took a potshot at Distributists, describing them as “utopianists who have read so much fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien […] that it has infected their views about the polis.” Mr. Carter went on to approvingly cite John Couretas of the Acton Institute, who describes Distributism as a mere “aesthetic, a sensibility, a nostalgia for a bygone era that conveniently ignores pervasive wretchedness.” Distributism, we are told, contains a “hidden coercive impulse” which would “prohibit ordinary folk from behaving and consuming […] in ‘frivolous’ ways.”

Carter’s attack makes clear why I find it increasingly difficult to sympathize with conservative defenders of liberalism, who praise mass culture yet fret over socialism, who worry about relativism for a living yet dismiss concerns about uglification as reflecting the mere opinions of elitist aesthetes.  A conservative liberal is somebody who encourages the prevailing progressive view that the past was benighted and is best forgotten, but then demands respect for the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and to boot casually drops ten-dollar words like “polis” with unintended irony.

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? (Of course whenever there’s even the faintest threat that “ordinary folk” might recover a sense of who they are and where they come from, sage passengers on the conservative establishment gravy-train are quick to jettison all traces of populism and denounce the latent nativism, protectionism, and isolationism of ignorant small-town rabble.)

Just in case it’s not clear, I am not so interested in defending Distributism – an interesting and provocative theory of which I know little – as I am in addressing Mr. Carter’s premises. The question is not whether Distributism lives up to the creed of Western liberalism but whether that creed should be our measure.

For instance – who cares if Distributism contains “a hidden coercive impulse” or not? While I can’t speak for the Distributists 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. Like those imperious bumper stickers commanding us to question authority, democratic capitalists’ condemnations of coercion are both hypocritical and disingenuous. Oh, of course, rest assured that when left to their own devices, rich big-shots would never ever dream of coercing anybody – just ask the Appalachian coal miner. And of course the corporate system owes nothing whatsoever to  heavy-handed government meddling — like, for instance, the creation of corporations as legal entities with rights and privileges.  Concerned that society is saturated by a manipulative, hi-tech commercialism which grows ever more sophisticated at bypassing parents, circumventing restraint, and eroding discipline? Why, you are perfectly free to keep your children locked in the basement. Or move to the Antarctic. (Denham’s Dentifrice does it; they toil not, nor do they spin.)

As for utopia and immanentizing the eschaton, evidently leftist Democrats are not the only ones tempted to mistake for knowledge the memorization of sophisticated mantras.  Yes, Christian thought recognizes that Heaven-on-Earth is infeasible; Christian thought also recognizes that life has a sacramental dimension. Thus there is a fine line between avoiding fanaticism on one hand and being a principle-deficient Laodicean on the other. Is it utopian to desire that one’s homeland be recognizable as such? Setting aside the matter of Leo XIII’s views on usury and just wages, was it really an infatuation with hobbits that caused Thomas Jefferson to declare that “the small landholders are the most precious part of a state”?

Moreover, it’s preposterous for anybody living in modern America to get on a high horse about utopianism unless he first acknowledges a few things about the collectively-narcissistic mindset currently prevailing here in our Shining City On A Hill in The New World at The End of History. Even now, unapologetic chickenhawks prattle about their open-ended war on an abstract noun, and proclaim as their Borg-esque gospel the liberalization of the entire planet. If you’re not with us you’re against us, quoth one Manichean-In-Chief. Who is nuttier, the dreamer who works toward an ideal, or the American exceptionalist who cheerily burbles that we’re already pretty much living in it? Come to think of it, was the Oxford philologist who endured the trenches of the First World War really that much more out of touch with reality than the detestable half-wits now vying for the GOP nomination?

Claude Polin gets to the heart of the problem with Carter’s beloved status quo:

Modernity’s basic assumption is that man’s freedom supersedes his nature, that his nature is to make his own nature.  This amounts practically to giving free rein to individual whims, passions, imagination, impulses, or vagaries, and radically precludes the idea that there may be natural bounds to his freedom — and therefore any idea that there might be any such thing as a natural society, other than that unnatural entity called the general society of mankind.

All the main dogmas of our time appear geared to the subjective satisfaction of individuals, taken as essentially rootless and cosmopolitan beings:  modern science, whose goal is not the contemplation but the domination of nature for the benefit of the unnatural, as well as natural, needs of any possible man; political economy, whether liberal or socialist, which caters to a nondescript individual’s unlimited consumption (and to the maximum enrichment of the strongest individuals or classes of individuals); democracy, whose ideal remains the improbable sovereignty of an absolutely free and therefore unspecified individual; religion, which becomes more and more sectarian, appealing to any individual’s tastes and supposedly spiritual fancies; culture, whose more and more appalling relativism or mere nihilism exonerates the individual from all possible norms, and particularly any natural one; the prevailing importance of commercial activities, whose basic law is to sell anything one may wish to anyone.

The modern mentality seems to have sided with the unavailing glorification of a conception of man’s nature that used to be considered the corruption of his true nature, which is to belong.

This brings us to the most illuminating part of Mr. Carter’s anti-utopian commentary.  As if seeking to highlight his similarity to C.S. Lewis’ Gaius and Titius — who try debunking certain traditional sentiments without realizing the implications for their own values — Carter throws in a swipe at transhumanism. The transhumanists, says Carter, are “confusing, weird, and would be scary if their ideas weren’t so silly.”

Anyone concerned with the future should be disturbed that an editor for such a prominent publication cannot make an intelligent response to the existential issues transhumanism raises — nor acknowledge that transhumanist notions are in fact pervasive in institutions which inform Americans’ moral imaginations, from Marvel Comics to the National Science Foundation.  Those who look to spirit and consciousness rather than to the material will perceive that the transhumanist dream of seceding from humanity has largely come true already; given continual advances in robotics and bioengineering one would have to be mighty dim to simply laugh off the possibility of man merging with — or becoming enslaved to — his technology. Yet again we have the spectacle of the complacent conservative liberal, who perennially rolls his eyes at the “silly” fantasies of an H.G. Wells or a Robert Goddard or a William Gibson, yet finds inconceivable and intolerable a world without luxuries and comforts which were themselves only sci-fi fantasies a generation before.

Of course we can and must continue to leave man’s metamorphosis up to the free market.  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.  Who is the bioconservative to judge an appetite for an extra stomach “frivolous”?  Indeed, were I a transhumanist I’d argue that the attachment to old-fashioned homo sapiens is merely … an aesthetic, a sensibility, a nostalgia for a bygone era that conveniently ignores pervasive wretchedness.

But there’s no need to worry about the world of tomorrow, for it will be in good hands, thanks to the Invisible Hand.  With each passing day “ordinary folk” are liberated even further from what little remains of obsolete organic folk wisdom; their psyches are now shaped and enlightened by mass-culture, by marketing jingles, limitless mobility, Hollywood blockbusters, video games, credit card living, Yahoo! News, teen vampire erotica, instant messaging and instant gratification. Hence we may all rest easy knowing that the Faustian consumer will make prudent choices with the powers offered him.

{ 57 comments }

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 5, 2012 at 7:24 am

But there’s no need to worry about the world of tomorrow, for it will be in good hands, thanks to the Invisible Hand.

Awesomely (and wisely, and sharply) said, Jerry. It probably won’t change any minds over at First Things, but hope springs eternal.

avatar RJ January 5, 2012 at 10:29 am

“For instance – who cares if Distributism contains “a hidden coercive impulse” or not? While I can’t speak for the Distributists I myself endorse coercion quite openly…”

Yeah, you can’t let those peasants choose their own way through life. They might make un-aesthetic choices.

avatar Joe Carter January 5, 2012 at 10:33 am

Good grief. This is the most disturbing (not to mention incoherent) essay I’ve ever read on FPR. I can’t imagine that many Porchers agree with these fascistic sentiments.

For instance – who cares if Distributism contains “a hidden coercive impulse” or not? While I can’t speak for the Distributists 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.
What type of coercion is it that you endorse? Any kind at all, or just those types in which your views are being forced on others? Do you believe in the coercion of religious beliefs or just political agendas?

Anyone concerned with the future should be disturbed that an editor for such a prominent publication cannot make an intelligent response to the existential issues transhumanism raises — nor acknowledge that transhumanist notions are in fact pervasive in institutions which inform Americans’ moral imaginations, from Marvel Comics to the National Science Foundation.

So people should be concerned because I recognize that the X-Men is a comic book and not a philosophical treatise?

Those who look to spirit and consciousness rather than to the material will perceive that the transhumanist dream of seceding from humanity has largely come true already; given continual advances in robotics and bioengineering one would have to be mighty dim to simply laugh off the possibility of man merging with — or becoming enslaved to — his technology.
You should start a strawman factory. There is quite a difference between believing that technology can be “enslaving” (a topic I’ve written about before) and thinking that we’ll someday be able to download our souls into some hard drive.
Yet again we have the spectacle of the complacent conservative liberal, who perennially rolls his eyes at the “silly” fantasies of an H.G. Wells or a Robert Goddard or a William Gibson, yet finds inconceivable and intolerable a world without luxuries and comforts which were themselves only sci-fi fantasies a generation before.

Well, yes, I do think it would be “inconceivable and intolerable” to live in a world with the “luxuries and comforts” of such things as penicillin.
Of course we can and must continue to leave man’s metamorphosis up to thefree market. 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.

The “free market” is not synonymous with corporatism. If you want to convince people who are sympathetic to Porcherism to join your cause you might start by presenting some coherent ideas.

I have to say that your fascist vision where our Porcher overlords coerce the citizenry into doing what is best for their own good is pretty damned frightening. I hope this weird rant isn’t the future of FPR.

avatar Paul Grenier January 5, 2012 at 11:34 am

Before Mr. Carter’s comments succeed in silencing any nervous readers who would otherwise admit to enjoying this marvelous essay, let’s consider the nature of the free market world itself–the one which Mr. Carter, evidently, thinks is quite free of coercion. Let’s consider the nature of the liberal state, which apes the the market in its aimless, endless quest for power–especially in the quintessentially Hobbesian world of the United States.

Hannah Arendt’s description of this world is even more true today than when she first wrote it. Of the liberal, Hobbesian state, she wrote: “Only by acquiring more power can it guarantee the status quo; only by constantly extending its authority and only through the process of power accumulation can it remain stable. Hobbes’s Commonwealth is a vacillating structure and must always provide itself with new props from the outside [can anyone here pronounce the word: terrorism? --PRG]; otherwise it would collapse overnight into the aimless, senseless chaos of the private interests from which it sprang.”

And let us not forget that this unlimited state learned to be unlimited from the businessmen. “The so-called accumulation of capital which gave birth to the bourgeoisie changed the very conception of property and wealth: they were no longer considered to be the results of accumulation and acquisition but their beginnings; wealth became a never-ending process of getting wealthier.”

And what is the concept of law that proceeds from this marriage of the business ethic and the new state that apes it? Isn’t it indeed no longer a “question of right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society”? Market “forces” must be obeyed every bit as much as the executive power, which now gives itself the right to hold indefinitely anyone one of us without trial (as the NDAA just authorized).

For goodness sake, Mr. Carter: we live in a world that in its very conception is defined by a de-humanizing coercion. What could be more obvious than that Mr. Salyer is being ironic when he appears to embrace a coercion which is already our society’s most salient trait? I hope this weird rant IS the future of FPR, for the same reason I hope that you and everyone else, for that matter, re-reads Manent’s The City of Man, which charts in exquisite detail how the liberal world first learned to interpret as ‘intolerable coercion’ the notion that man has a nature.

NB: All the above quotes are from H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1968). See especially pp. 135 – 147.

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 5, 2012 at 11:35 am

Joe,

You call Jerry’s essay “fascistic” and “fascist.” I’d say, with my tongue firmly in cheek, but still attempting to make a legitimate point, that your reaction to it is doing the same thing Jonah Goldberg did at book length: you’re giving fascism a bad name.

Is distributism fascist? Is any or all communitarian or republican or agrarian or in-any-way-non-liberal political philosophies or economies fascist? The logic seems to be that if you allow a legitimate place for any form of politically expressed and/or collectively developed coercion into your worldview (I have to say “politically expressed” and “collectively developed” since you seem to acknowledge, or at least don’t deny, that there is plenty of “non-political” coercion which attends the corporatism which the Invisible Hand, as articulated by our major political parties, seems mostly happy to promote), then you’re a believer in something that invariably points toward faces being stamped by boots. Well, I take issue with that. Defending the appropriateness of seeking to instantiate through democratic means an “aesthetic sensibility,” or even something “nostalgic,” isn’t the same as wishing for broadly coercive state. It is, on the contrary, wishing that more elements of our lives–the noisy world of consumerism and designed-for-obsolescence-technology around us, for one–would be actually something we could have some authority over. Because, in the liberal capitalist world, we mostly don’t. In a distributist world, or at least a world where political authority was constituted in light of parties and agendas which prioritized a few salient distributist truths, we, the citizens, would have a little bit more authority over our own communities and families, and wouldn’t be subject to nearly the corporate coercion we already are.

You perhaps rightly rebuke Jerry for building “strawman” arguments, and maybe he is cherry-picking by talking about Toys’R’Us, iPads, and photosynthetic skin. But you cherry-pick yourself by reducing Jerry’s concern about our market-induced, often numbing addiction to “luxuries and comforts” to a dismissal of such obviously life-saving and world-improving technologies penicillin. Could we all just agree that such extremes are not the point? I think I could fairly get away with supposing that Mitt Romney, just to pick the most mainstream and establishment of conservative liberal defenders of the capitalist marketplace and the American way of life, nonetheless does not like online porn. Similarly, I strongly suspect that Jerry’s is delighted that we now have complex, specialized, resource-expensive technologies which enable people to survive cancer. Is expressing an appreciation for what hobbits can teach us, fighting to preserve a political and economic space for those who would advocate and practice agrarianism and sustainable food production, wondering about the appropriate limits (again, democratically determined, communally grounded) regarding what the market should be allowed to sell and to who and for how much, challenging the moral and cultural rightness of uninhibited exchanges of capital and labor and goods and words, and speaking out against the consequences of an essentially unrestricted growth in inequality–is all of that really reducible to thinking that we want to shut down the internet and go back to the Pony Express? I don’t think so.

Jerry’s essay only appears to be a weird rant, because you suspect that his ideas, his highly non-liberal and non-individualistic ideas, are weird. So you call them fascistic, I suppose because you think on some level that anything which prefers, in its appropriate place, the collective and ordered over the unstructured and open-ended opens the door to Mussolini. Well, yes, I suppose it does. But there are forms of tyranny, and to continue to dismiss localist complaints about Walmart as partaking of a utopian fantasy is to ignore the potential coercion involved when that yellow smiley-faced price-reduction sticker metaphorically stamps you in the face just the same.

avatar Francis J. Beckwith January 5, 2012 at 11:47 am

First Amish blog post, ever.

avatar JS123 January 5, 2012 at 11:48 am

We ever have the conflict between the modern view of man as a rational monad living in a valueless universe, and the Aristotelian/Thomistic view of man as biological living thing designed to be and live a certain way. I think we’re working our way back to Aristotle via Darwin, but that is an issue for another time.

avatar Chris Floyd January 5, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Goodness, Mr. Carter. The essay is anything but incoherent. I think the key distinction between Mr. Salyer’s “coercion” and whatever fascism you want to compare it to hinges on where the vision for proper life comes from. Does it come from a political tyrant’s vision of the future (real fascism)? Does it come from a marketing executive (liberal capitalism)? Or does it come from some source outside of people–natural law, or scripture, or reasoning about human nature? And if such sources exist and can generate a coherent picture of a human life lived properly (you yourself must recognize that this very notion is rejected by modernity) then why shouldn’t there be some coercion at some level to enforce that picture rather than the multitude of alternatives that tempt us? That is no fascism if it is the maker’s revelation, in word or in creation, that guides us and not human will.

avatar Seth January 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Another vote for Mr. Salyer. Perhaps more rant than treatise. . . but a fine rant nonetheless.

avatar Robert January 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm

The best remedy I can recommend to Mr. Carter and his irrational and un-Christian devotion to an illusory “freedom” is an essay by William Cavanaugh published in the ISI volume Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny:
http://alturl.com/2w9vx

avatar Mark A. Signorelli January 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Mr. Carter, you are doing yourself and your position no favors with this sort of glib response. Government, by definition, entails some form of coercion; to say so candidly should not be a controversial matter among conservatives. James Fitzjames Stephen rests his whole attack on liberalism in “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” on just this point, and Edmund Burke wrote in the “Reflections” that “Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will, controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done be a power out of themselves…In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” Were Stephen and Burke fascists too? As Mr. Salyer, and some of the commenters here, have ably demonstrated, modern liberal society has its own forms of coercion. Does your apparent defense of that order qualify you as a fascist also? And if any attempt to argue for limitations upon the unrestrained freedom of individuals is to be met by purported conservatives with accusations of “fascist,” please tell us why we should subscribe to First Things, instead of say, the Nation or Mother Jones, where we can find the same hysterical rhetoric being bandied about?

What is most striking in your response, however, was the following comment: “What type of coercion is it that you endorse? Any kind at all, or just those types in which your views are being forced on others?” Don’t you understand that this statement assumes the arch-fallacy of liberalism, that no society can ever reach a sufficient degree of accord on fundamental principles, so as to embody those principles in manners, customs, and legal proscriptions – ie, forms of social coercion. Civil society exists for the sole purpose of creating that accord, through its religious, educational, and artistic institutions, and no rational political order can take shape in its absence. Now, one might fairly argue that contemporary American society and its institutions have shown no capacity to create the kind of basic consensus of belief I am referring to. But then the question arises as to what extent American society may still be defined as a “civil community,” or its politics as “reasonable.” So what are we “conserving” anymore in defending its prevalent order?

avatar Francis J. Beckwith January 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I agree that you shouldn’t try to immanentize the eschaton. But you shouldn’t try to immanentize the archeé either.

avatar C R Wiley January 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm

I have have the good will of a technophile, but the eyes of a luddite — these posts are too long for the likes of me. I do seem to dimly see that point of contention. Distributists think economics are an expression of an aesthetic while the hard-minded folks from the outpost of the Austrian school, First Things, think that aesthetics are so much window-dressing. Modern economists, whether left or right, have always heaped contempt on the sentimentalists. But they have their own sentiment for efficiency — they like the clean line, the straight road. No cul de sacs for them, no, “How are you today, Aunt Bea?” No sir. They have planes to catch and bills to pay. And what’s this nonsense about a quilt being more valuable when crafted with love by a dear grandmother? Hell, there are quilting machines in China standing idle!

avatar C R Wiley January 5, 2012 at 6:17 pm

Oh, and since I mentioned machines, let me note, modern economists like ‘em. They think they’re beautiful — big ones too, big and powerful. Modern economists have this thing for efficient, powerful, large machines. People, they don’t like so much. Too small, inefficient and weak.

avatar Joe Carter January 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm

I’ve been trying to decide whether there is something in Mr. Salyer’s article worth responding to in detail (as several people have encouraged me to do). Yet even after reading it three times I still think it is incoherent. I get the sense that he had already been preparing a rant and decided to use my previous post as a hook to hang it on.

I do think it is worth responding to some of the comments, though, so I’ll try to address some o

Paul Grenier let’s consider the nature of the free market world itself–the one which Mr. Carter, evidently, thinks is quite free of coercion.

Free markets are indeed “free of coercion” otherwise they aren’t “free” markets at all. A free market is a competitive market where prices are determined by supply and demand. If a buyer or seller is being “coerced” then she isn’t engaging in a free market.
For goodness sake, Mr. Carter: we live in a world that in its very conception is defined by a de-humanizing coercion.
No, actually, we aren’t. I don’t even think you believe that. I think—like many people on FPR—that you like to make bold rhetorical statements that are essentially devoid of meaning.

What could be more obvious than that Mr. Salyer is being ironic when he appears to embrace a coercion which is already our society’s most salient trait?

There is not a hint from the context that he is being ironic. None of the other commenters seem to believe he was being ironic either.

Russell Arben Fox Is distributism fascist?
Not inherently, no. At least I don’t think so.

Is any or all communitarian or republican or agrarian or in-any-way-non-liberal political philosophies or economies fascist?

Not necessarily. But you know what is fascist? Thinking that since people will make the “wrong” decisions if you give them too much freedom that you need to have an enlightened elite make decision for them. That is essentially what Salyer is saying we need.

The logic seems to be that if you allow a legitimate place for any form of politically expressed and/or collectively developed coercion into your worldview (I have to say “politically expressed” and “collectively developed” since you seem to acknowledge, or at least don’t deny, that there is plenty of “non-political” coercion which attends the corporatism which the Invisible Hand, as articulated by our major political parties, seems mostly happy to promote), then you’re a believer in something that invariably points toward faces being stamped by boots.

There’s a lot to unpack there. For starters, you seem to have a peculiar understanding of the “Invisible Hand.” Corporatism (backed up by the state) and the “Invisible Hand” (i.e., the self-regulating nature of free markets) are antithetical.
As for the rest, I’m not sure how you can have gleaned that from anything I’ve written. There is a significant difference between free men and women advocating the creation of laws by their elected representatives (politically expressed and collectively developed) and having some “aesthetic elite” determining what I should be able to buy, sell, believe, and worship. That last type (which Salyer seems to advocate) does indeed lead to boots on our faces.

Defending the appropriateness of seeking to instantiate through democratic means an “aesthetic sensibility,” or even something “nostalgic,” isn’t the same as wishing for broadly coercive state.

Notice the words that you inserted that completely change the nature of Salyer’s essay: democratic means. There is not a hint that he 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.

It is, on the contrary, wishing that more elements of our lives–the noisy world of consumerism and designed-for-obsolescence-technology around us, for one–would be actually something we could have some authority over.

You are more in agreement with me than with Salyer. While we may all three agree on the problem, Salyer is the one that is comfortable forcing people to live in accordance with the way we think they should.

In a distributist world, or at least a world where political authority was constituted in light of parties and agendas which prioritized a few salient distributist truths, we, the citizens, would have a little bit more authority over our own communities and families, and wouldn’t be subject to nearly the corporate coercion we already are.

Perhaps so. I’m sure with some free time and a little thought that everyone could dream up a system that is preferable to the present system. But we don’t get the choice of fantasy systems we want to use. We are stuck with the real world and should find solutions to our problems that have a basis in reality.

Similarly, I strongly suspect that Jerry’s is delighted that we now have complex, specialized, resource-expensive technologies which enable people to survive cancer.

But he can’t have it both ways. You can denounce the excesses of the capitalist system but you can’t denounce modernity and capitalism and keep the parts—like penicillin and MRI machines—that you happen to like.

Is expressing an appreciation for what hobbits can teach us, fighting to preserve a political and economic space for those who would advocate and practice agrarianism and sustainable food production, wondering about the appropriate limits (again, democratically determined, communally grounded) regarding what the market should be allowed to sell and to who and for how much, challenging the moral and cultural rightness of uninhibited exchanges of capital and labor and goods and words, and speaking out against the consequences of an essentially unrestricted growth in inequality–is all of that really reducible to thinking that we want to shut down the internet and go back to the Pony Express?

You seem to have missed Mr. Salyer’s advocacy of coercion. You completely changed the nature of his argument by implying that they should be democratically determined.

There is not a hint in the essay that Salyer believes that the way forward is democracy. Maybe I’m wrong but I suspect his a monarchist or socialist like some other FPR contributors.

Jerry’s essay only appears to be a weird rant, because you suspect that his ideas, his highly non-liberal and non-individualistic ideas, are weird.

Make up your mind. Either you are advocating for democratically determined (i.e., liberal) outcomes or your not. What I find weird is that you disagree with Salyer throughout you comment and yet switch at the end back to his non-liberal (i.e., non-democratic) advocacy of coercion.

Chris Floyd I think the key distinction between Mr. Salyer’s “coercion” and whatever fascism you want to compare it to hinges on where the vision for proper life comes from.

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?

Or does it come from some source outside of people–natural law, or scripture, or reasoning about human nature?

If it comes from any of those sources than it is not inherent “coercive.” For example, natural law does not “coerce” anyone into doing right.

[T]hen why shouldn’t there be some coercion at some level to enforce that picture rather than the multitude of alternatives that tempt us?

Again, let me make sure I’m understanding you: If someone has the proper understanding of, say, Scripture, then it’s okay to enforce that view on others? As a Calvinist would it be okay for me (if I were king) to force than on everyone else?

Robert The best remedy I can recommend to Mr. Carter and his irrational and un-Christian devotion to an illusory “freedom” . . .

What illusory “freedom” are you referring to? Freedom of conscience?

C R Wiley Distributists think economics are an expression of an aesthetic while the hard-minded folks from the outpost of the Austrian school, First Things, think that aesthetics are so much window-dressing.

Now it’s just getting silly. In attempting to sound smart people are resorting to making dumb statements like “the outpost of the Austrian school.” Who at First Things is an advocate of the “Austrian school”, Mr. Wiley? Why not just admit that you have no idea what you’re talking about and we can move on.

avatar Robert January 5, 2012 at 8:33 pm

“What illusory ‘freedom’ are you referring to? Freedom of conscience?”

The “freedom” of the free market. It’s the title of Cavanaugh’s article which you obviously didn’t bother to look at. It’s a non-snarky version of the argument Salyer is making against you and might make what he’s saying more clear.

avatar Francis J. Beckwith January 5, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Be careful with that Invisible Hand, it may lead to metaphornication.

avatar C R Wiley January 5, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Mr. Carter,

I subscribe to First Things and enjoy it very much. I’ve done so for about 15 years. I read much of every issue. I would say, based on my sampling, that when the subject of economics is addressed, the prevailing outlook is the Austrian School. And I stick by my point, the Austrian School has an aesthetic.

avatar Reader John January 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Magnificent! After years of ardently admiring Richard John Neuhaus, I rather suddenly lost my taste for First Things a few years ago. I was bothered by Mr. Carter’s pot-shot at Distributism, but didn’t notice the overarching theme of “conservative liberalism.”

avatar Anymouse January 5, 2012 at 11:20 pm

I don’t have as much of a stomach for First Things anymore. They are indeed a bunch of liberals, and they even say they are. Conservative liberals, maybe, but liberals none the less.

It really comes down to the question: What do you want? If you oppose abortion, and the fornication that leads to abortion, then one must take steps to oppose those things. That may legitimately involve changing laws on the economy.

And strictly speaking, the consent of the people can be found in other societies that democratic ones. The people of Liechtenstein are comfortable with a Prince, and I have no reason to begrudge a society it’s Monarchy if that is what the people want.

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 5, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Joe,

Thanks for taking the time to compose a lengthy response. I had a hard time figuring out how to engage it, however, because you repeatedly claim that my defense of Jerry isn’t a defense, because I spend my time talking about the legitimate limits and coercion which could (and, I think properly should) arise from democratic governments, and on your reading, Jerry isn’t. “There is not a hint in the essay that Salyer believes that the way forward is democracy,” you write. I will agree with you that Jerry’s was not a political treatise. Clearly, he doesn’t talk about democracy per se, so maybe he is a monarchist; I don’t know. (Incidentally, I’m one of the socialists you’re worried about–a democratic and decentralist socialist, I hasten to add, though that may not make much difference to you. Anyway, pleasure to make your acquaintance.) But then again, why does he talk about the “ordinary folk,” and speak respectfully of “who they are and where they come from”? Why does he appear to think highly of populism, at least enough to condemn conservative defenders of the status quo when they abandon any pretense of it? And when he talks about all the stuff he dislikes in our present age, why does he posit “society” being “concerned” about it? No, while he may not have taken the time to explain exactly what political procedures might be a work should a distributist community engage in coercion, I find it very hard to believe that there is nothing at all democratic about it. Hence, while I may have said things differently than him, I think the points I raise, and which you mostly appear to grant, apply to his argument as well: he wants the people to choose distributism, or at least not feel like tyrants if they want to so choose, and he’s right that they needn’t feel that way, because they wouldn’t be.

Perhaps the key misunderstanding is revealed in the final paragraph of your response to me:

Either you are advocating for democratically determined (i.e., liberal) outcomes or your not. What I find weird is that you disagree with Salyer throughout your comment and yet switch at the end back to his non-liberal (i.e., non-democratic) advocacy of coercion.

That really could explain the disconnect, quite simply and comprehensively. Here, you suggest that democratic decision-making IS, by definition, “liberal,” and that, by the same token, any “non-liberal” legitimation of coercion IS, by definition, “non-democratic.” Which may actually make replying to your thorough comment rather easy: you do not appear to believe that anything which isn’t philosophically liberal–that isn’t, say, grounded in the priority of individual rights, or the presumption of a pluralistic public square, or a government which originates wholly from a social contract, etc.–could possibly be democratic–that is, could involve a community of sovereign persons governing themselves. Which, if true, means…well, it means that Puritan town meetings weren’t at all democratic, and neither are Amish church councils today, and neither are dozens, hundreds, of other non-liberal social forms throughout history. It would mean that the Athenian polis wasn’t remotely democratic. Those are all legitimate and intellectually defensible positions to hold, to be sure, but wouldn’t you at least admit that, in saying that my defense of Jerry is incoherent because one has to be a liberal in order to be a democrat, that there’s a possible baby in all that bathwater you’re throwing out?

Thanks again for the thoughtful reply.

avatar Chris Floyd January 6, 2012 at 2:25 am

Mr. Carter — I appreciate the response.

Briefly, I think I would in turn respond with this: If a community has developed a vision–by reference to natural law, scripture, etc.–of the proper form of life, it is reasonable for it to coerce (within prudential limits) its members to accept that vision. In fact, it happens all the time, and I’m sure you are a proponent of such coercion in many circumstances.

avatar Katherine Dalton January 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm

What I find most tiresome about words like “fascist” is that the person using them intends to stifle discussion under the pretense of engaging in it. Such words are the rhetorical equivalent of a blow, for people who are unwilling and perhaps unable to engage in debate. They are attempts to coerce, because bullying is much easier than reasoning.

Hence the courtesy and attention that has been shown Mr. Carter here (again) is wasted on him (again). But not on other readers, perhaps.

Well expressed, Mr. Salyer.

avatar Rob G January 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm

“But he can’t have it both ways. You can denounce the excesses of the capitalist system but you can’t denounce modernity and capitalism and keep the parts—like penicillin and MRI machines—that you happen to like.”

Of course you can. All steps “forward” involve trade-offs. The key is to be able and willing to discern which trade-offs are beneficial and which ones aren’t, and then choose to participate or not participate accordingly. It’s a myth of modernity which says one has to accept the bad in order to have the good. One need not, for instance, reject the use of coal entirely just because one objects to unsafe mining practices, mountain-top removal, etc. Likewise, opposition to factory farming does not necessarily entail becoming a vegetarian.

Thing is, we’ve tended to ignore the people who’ve advised us at various times to be wary of certain “advances,” as they may come with a hefty price tag. Such folks slow down progress, don’t you know!

And there’s the rub — both right-liberals and left-liberals adhere to a myth of progress, one the progress of democratic capitalism, the other the progress of some sort of communitarian statism. Unfortunately, state power and corporate power tend to grow together; thus, Porchers, for the most part, would see both myths as hugely problematic, and would prefer, I think, to dump the notion of an abstract idealistic “progress” altogether. To the extent that you can’t do this you’re a liberal, whether of the right or left variety.

avatar Joe Carter January 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm

They are attempts to coerce, because bullying is much easier than reasoning.|

Rather ironic that you chastise me for my “attempts to coerce” in opposing Mr. Salyer’s defense of coercion.

I understand the desire to circle the wagons, but it is this sort of insularity that is making FPR hard to take seriously (and I say that as a great fan and defender of FPR).

avatar Rob G January 6, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Maybe, Joe, if you voiced your critique less stridently there wouldn’t be as much of a tendency for FPR folks to respond in kind. Tone can be everything — flies, honey, vinegar and all that.

avatar Joe Carter January 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Maybe, Joe, if you voiced your critique less stridently there wouldn’t be as much of a tendency for FPR folks to respond in kind.

I was just returning to say that when I saw your comment. You’re right, reading over my comments I noticed that I came across much harsher than I had intended. I apologize for that.

I’ve also made it sound like I don’t appreciate the broad range of FPR contributors. Generally speaking, I enjoy almost everything that is written here. But I don’t think it all fits together. I think we’d all be better with two FPRs—one that focused on actually trying to sell traditionalism, localism, etc., to a broader (generally conservative) audience and one that was more quirky and had no pretensions of actually changing anything (e.g., a place where defenses of monarchy could be better appreciated).

By mashing it all together, I think it blunts the usefulness of this project.

avatar Paul Grenier January 6, 2012 at 7:02 pm

“Free markets are indeed ‘free of coercion’ otherwise they aren’t ‘free’ markets at all. A free market is a competitive market where prices are determined by supply and demand. If a buyer or seller is being “coerced” then she isn’t engaging in a free market.” (Carter)

Clever, but wrong on the salient point. The free market is indeed free (hooray: a tautology!), but the humans in it are not. When push comes to shove, I’ll go for human freedom over freedom of an institution. Liberalism has been fudging this issue for a very long time now.

Interestingly, John Medaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market (in my opinion its title being the only unfortunate part of the book itself), goes into great detail on exactly this point (see esp. pp. 61 – 66) in its explanation of the differences between commutative and distributive justice. The worship of the free market is predicated on ignoring the distinctions between the two. Your explanation ignores that distinction as well.

[... we live in a world that in its very conception is defined by a de-humanizing coercion.]
No, actually, we aren’t. I don’t even think you believe that. I think—like many people on FPR—that you like to make bold rhetorical statements that are essentially devoid of meaning. (Carter)

I am not surprised that you found this over-stated: it is hard to be nuanced in a comments section. But you are mistaken (at least as regards my beliefs: I am very good, btw, at divining my own beliefs, which is not to say they cannot be proven wrong). My point — which even so conservative a voice as Leo Strauss certainly agreed with — is that the liberal order in which we live was founded, in its basic concept, on the work of Hobbes. Is it your position that coercion is not the basic premise of the Hobbesian order? Obviously our lived practice has blended in other ideas and institutions, which explains why we also enjoy the space to live in a human way, so long as we are very lucky (because, as Arendt also pointed out, success and even mere survival in a world dominated by the market is entirely a matter of luck). The extent to which blatant, in-your-face coercion is part of one’s lived experience depends, of course, on who one is, and where you live, and also with whom one talks. The great achievement of Sheldon Wolin’s concept of inverted totalitarianism is that it manages to demonstrate that not all coercion need take the hyper familiar forms of Russia and Germany of mid-20th century in order to, nonetheless, be intolerably and inhumanly coercive.

In the end, these conversations fall down, I am afraid, because we all read different books, and talk to different people. We don’t share a common world.

avatar Sam M January 6, 2012 at 9:33 pm

“Just don’t try to tell your neighbors that they can’t have it.”

Just curious: Would you try to tell your neighbors they can’t have one? How might you back it up? Isthis different than telling them they shouldn’t have one?

avatar Another Joe January 7, 2012 at 2:47 am

I’m new to politics and even newer to religion, so obviously I’m out of my depth here, but would it be correct (or just blindingly obvious) to summarize this whole debate as a debate over the meaning of freedom? Part of my original comment had a line agreeing with Joe regarding freedom, then I went back and put freedom in quotes, then I just went ahead and deleted the whole thing.

I don’t want Jerry Salyer as Culture Czar, but…I dunno, the whole thing is a mess.

avatar Anymouse January 7, 2012 at 2:14 pm

“Of course you can. All steps “forward” involve trade-offs. The key is to be able and willing to discern which trade-offs are beneficial and which ones aren’t, and then choose to participate or not participate accordingly. It’s a myth of modernity which says one has to accept the bad in order to have the good.”
But it is also a modern myth that we can compartmentalize human behavior.

avatar Rob G January 7, 2012 at 4:45 pm

~~“Free markets are indeed ‘free of coercion’ otherwise they aren’t ‘free’ markets at all. A free market is a competitive market where prices are determined by supply and demand. If a buyer or seller is being “coerced” then she isn’t engaging in a free market.”~~

A) There are in reality no totally “free” markets, and B) therefore there will always be inequalities as a result. Such inequalities can result in what Albino Barrera calls “economic compulsion,” or the necessity of making negative decisions based on adverse factors created by the market.

“But it is also a modern myth that we can compartmentalize human behavior.”

Right, which is why living a “porcher” or “crunchy” lifestyle is always going to be somewhat hit-or-miss (like anything, really, which contains an ascetic quality.)

avatar Mark Perkins January 7, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Resorts to “fascism” are just slightly more sophisticated examples of the venerable reductio ad Hitlerum…

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 7, 2012 at 10:26 pm

There has been a tremendous amount batted back and forth, and I’m not on a first-name basis with most of the people who have opined to date, so I will briefly (if uncharacteristically), try to point out a few principles that, in my seldom humble opinion, would clarify the debate. In doing so, I must say that I find Salyer both coherent and magnficent, Carter, petty and narcissistic.

The hippie slogan “Question Authority,” which Carter implicitly relies upon, should be replaced with the good old Latin, “Quo Warranto,” roughly translated “By what authority?” Nobody who has opined appears to be an anarchist, therefore, everyone has some sense that some authority should be exercised by someone, for some ends.

The exercise of collective or institutional authority reaches its highest legitimacy in sorting out conflicts between two overlapping sets of rights, and/or the heedless “liberty” of one person or group to outright trample on another.

An example of the former: your right to smoke, my right not to have smoke blowing in my face. (As a non-smoker, I think employers SHOULD provide a sheltered INDOOR location for smoke breaks by employees who do smoke, albeit ventilated separately from the non-smoking employee break room).

The latter is, unfortunately for Mr. Carter, exemplified by the tendency of corporations to pass as large a part of the real costs of doing business as possible onto their employees and their neighbors, sometimes even onto their consumers. A corollary is that mass marketing can create a mass hysteria that, in a sense, forces everyone to buy, or induces them to want to buy, items they may have never thought about, or even found disgusting. Coercion, in these instances, is just as valid as coercion to prevent blackmail, fraud, or murder. Having curtailed the “free speech” of the corporation, we can safely leave up to the individual that if you REALLY want to give your sweet daughter a trash-talking whore doll with everything but the hip boots hanging out… the police will not arrest you for it.

“Ordinary folk…” Modern conservative liberals have nothing on Marxists for their shameless worship of “the vast posterior of the working class.” A true individualist recognizes that individuals are so different and individual that there is no such collective entity, except in the broadest and most general terms. But Carter wants to glorify the most prurient human instincts as the essence of “ordinary folk,” I give you these selections from some two dozen bumper stickers I saw on the back of a pick-up truck:

I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a drunk. Alcoholics go to meetings.
Your little princess is my little whore.
VOTE REPUBLICAN

avatar Anymouse January 7, 2012 at 10:47 pm

“Modern conservative liberals have nothing on Marxists for their shameless worship of “the vast posterior of the working class.” A true individualist recognizes that individuals are so different and individual that there is no such collective entity, except in the broadest and most general terms.”
Excellent point.

avatar JA January 8, 2012 at 12:13 am

[Cross Posted on FPR and FT]

The problem with Joe Carter’s reading of “freedom” is that he is completely unaware of his presuppositions. It is ahistorical. “The Market” does not occur naturally, as some liberalizing backdrop that merely has to remain uninhibited to bring freedom. Rather, the market is socially and historically constructed. For instance, a medieval farmer did not have access to an all embracing market autonomous of social and sacred concerns. He did not store his grain in hopes of more favorable prices at a later date, sell it to speculators while still in the field, or travel from village to village to fetch the best price. He didn’t even really own it. There were no property rights for individuals because people weren’t individuals; rather, the relevant entity was the community, and economic behavior was subordinate to the imperative to live communally as the church and care for one’s brother.

The conceptualization of the market as a place for all goods, or even a single good, that was autonomous from the social and the sacred aspects of human life, did not emerge until the triumph of the modern state. Prior to centralization of power under the monarchies of Europe, most human life was relegated to the communal level and freedom was understood as comportment with one’s nature taking place under a number of overlapping authorities and obligaitions all hierarchically arranged. Call this conceptualization of political, social, and economic space “complex.” It was under these arrangements that the common good — a common telos — could be sought, one based on shared affections and a shared vision of the good under subsidiarity and solidarity. It was here — in civil society, in churches, in local control over social and economic relations — that freedom manifested. People were rooted in community and place, which is the natural expression of human life.

With the monarchies of Europe, centralization by law and by force was prosecuted by the mobilization of war, which culminated with the absolutism of the sovereign monarch. The “complex space” of community, common good, and freedom was gradually displaced by a “simple space” that leveled community and subjected it to the centralization of governmental authorities. Liberalism eventually displaced this arrangement; however, it not only retained the absolute power of the state, it simultaneously magnified and limited it. The limiting is familiar to you all: the creation of political rights guaranteed by law. These rights, however, followed the construal of the individual and the government as the political and legal agents of any real legitimacy. This move — the creation of individuals unencumbered by community, family, and the social sphere — who look to the state to guarantee their equality, much like Christians look to Christ as an intermediary (this modern social construction REALLY is a secularization and distortion of very Christian ideas), further entrenched the state. What we now call civil society is simply an intermediary between the individual and the state and has no autonomy or authority of its own. People are individuated and cast into the mass of society, alienated and powerless. Further, political life has gone from seeking the common good together to the mediation of self-interested individuals through the organ of political and economic institutions. Liberals–left or right–and socialists adhere to this vision. The former merely prefers that the mediation between individuals occurs through state-created markets, while the latter prefers state-managed bureaucracies. Carter is under the mistaken presumption that these things are opposed, but if they are, it is a dispute in the family. “Porcherism,” localism, communitarianism, decentralized socialism, agrarianism, Anarcho-Monarchism (David Bentley Hart’s felicitous moniker) or whatever you want to call it, is a vision of society in opposition to the absolutism of the state and individualism.

In fact, both of these visions of socialism and modern capitalism, twinned as they from the same branch, are great evils. They assume a public-private division that denies the lordship and authority of Christ in political and social space, effectively separating grace and nature, the natural and supernatural, into totally different realms; they deny human nature by the marginalization of community and family;and they destroy any possibility of seeking the common good and instead treat society as an aggregation of naturally opposed and self-interested individuals, with avarice now the greatest of social virtues rather than charity. The anthropology of monadic individualism is anything but Christian, which approaches every aspect of human life in relational and communitarian terms. And with this basis, modern democratic capitalism and socialism has its own telos, liturgies, and sacred objects. For the truly self-autonomous individual who finds freedom in libertine choice rather than in Christ, the purchasing of commodities takes on a sacred mystique. To tame this individual, the state has its own anti-Eucharist in the institution of torture and other forms of coercion, which are essentially forms of intimidatory power that reinforce the legitimacy of the state, as William Cavanaugh, a prominent political theologian, has argued.

Mr. Carter would do well to read not only the likes of William Cavanaugh and Alasdair MacIntyre, but those who publish regularly in First Things who depart from the “theocon” consensus. David Bentley Hart has written about the “Optics of the Market” in one of his books, has repeatedly proclaimed his suspicion to both socialism and modern capitalism, and, as noted, adheres to what he playfully calls “Anarcho-Monarchism.” Likewise, Peter Leithart writes about the market and the state in the same manner, even going so far as to call such heresies on his blog.

avatar JA January 8, 2012 at 12:30 am

Mark Perkins,

I completely agree. It is rather unbecoming and, to be honest, embarrassing that the online editor of First Things, whose job it is to moderate comments, carries on as Mr. Carter does. He not only resorts to risible, vacuous, fear mongering, and defamatory accusations of “fascism,” he has the grating habit of walking back such statements with a proclamation that they were too “snarky.” What etiquette from a moderator of comments! Perhaps all the commentators as First Things should follow his lead. Of course, he doesn’t stop there. After pillorying many on First Things, he has the temerity to instruct, several times at this point, the very editors on FPR he has defamed, on how to run the blog and why the FPR “project” doesn’t make sense. If anything, he is a walking demonstration of the observation made by a preeminent political scientist of the last generation, Louis Hartz: American liberals are intensely intolerant to anything that departs from liberal dogma and common opinion.

avatar John Médaille January 8, 2012 at 12:31 am

JA, Excellent essay.

avatar B Lewis January 8, 2012 at 5:04 am

Vivemos mejor con Franco.

avatar Sempronius January 8, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Interesting discussion. Salyer does a decent job in this essay, but I must say he marred his response to Carter by quoting Thomas Jefferson.

It seems to me that Austrians (and similar species) treat the market the way Rousseau treated mankind. To the Austrian the market-place was “born” free but everywhere it is in chains. Further, following the dictates of market “forces” and “laws” (from which there can be no fascist-like appeal) is similar to Rousseau’s notion that in a perfect polity citizens should be “forced to be free.”

Does Mr. Carter know of a free-market way to make the market finally and totally (Free at last!) free?

And since the label fascism has been thrown around: How does Mr. Carter explain the behavior of the plutocrats in Paris, London and New York when fascism was engaged in a mortal struggle with Marxist-Leninist Stalinism?

avatar JA January 9, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Thank you, John Medaille. There has been a bit of a back and forth on First Things over my post. Below is one of my responses. I’m including it here because of the reading suggestions.

[This response to a criticism on First Things is cross posted there and on FPR]

Allow me to drive this point home. I have no problem with the owning of property, trade, and commerce. The problem is the modern market, an unnatural arrangement established by the state, which is autonomous of social and sacred concerns. (Verily, it has become a repository for the sacred itself, much like the state.) The modern market makes community impossible, reorienting such to an intermediary role between the self-interested self-ruling individual and the state. The effect is impiety toward nature and God, the destruction and fragmentation of family and community, the untethering of “emancipated individuals” from civic responsibility, and the reorientation of the sacred from the church to the state. Communities lack means of self-government — of ruling and being ruled in turn — when economic life is dependent upon neo-feudal corporate lords.

This is the great irony of the “conservative” liberal position: in reconciling to the Enlightenment and its legacy — its hostility to tradition, its individualism, its deification of the state and market, its domestication of Christians and neutering of the church — it has allied itself with the very forces of its undoing. You don’t like “gay” marriage? Then why support a social and economic system that turns marriage into a contract, increasingly disconnected from child rearing, between two autonomous individuals. The reason “gay” marriage is even possible is because marriage has been “liberalized” over the last few centuries. You don’t like avarice in the marketplace? Then why support a social model that fundamentally construes “individuals” as naturally in opposition to one another and the state and its created markets as the only means of arbitration?

The way a society defines and organizes itself certainly affects the way people think about themselves and the way they live. To protest rampant consumerism, the idolization of the individual, and the decline of tradition, while supporting the “free” market, is to ally with the very engine driving what you protest. The response that FPR proposes is a return to rootedness, church, community, and the like over artificial state-created markets AND state-managed technocratic bureaucracy. This is another irony: for all the bluster of “conservative” liberals over statism, they are themselves still statist — they love markets that require the modern state to “emancipate” people from traditional social obligations, turning them into “individuals,” and the monopolization of law and trade policy by a distant and centralized government. The further irony, as William Cavanaugh argues, is that this makes the state a repository of the sacred as it fulfills this “emancipatory” role, essentially turning it into an idol, a mediator that replaces Christ in political, social, and economic life. And this shouldn’t be a surprise. The modern state emerged in opposition to the Christian church, privatizing it and rebranding it as “religion,” which allowed for the monopolization of public life by the state. This is in contrast to the witness of the early church in Paul’s writing and the Book of Acts, where the church is construed as a new ekklesia, an essentially political body. For them, as for other premoderns, there was no strict difference between the political and the social or the political and the civic; rather, the church was to the new center of social AND political life with Christ at its head. While not challenging Rome directly, the Apostles INTENTIONALLY subverted it by eroding its legitimacy, which is why the Romans were so hostile to the church. To the extent that “conservative” liberals support the monopolization of public life by the state, they subvert Christ. The only way to counteract this is to reemphasize community, the obligations it imposes upon the “individual,” and its control over economic matters as well.

Here are some sources for further reading that I draw upon. This is very broad, encompassing issues such as secularization, the modern state, modern capitalism, democracy in America, biblical studies, political theology, and the nature of political power. It is hardly exhaustive, but a good list with which to begin:

The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict by William T Cavanaugh

Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William T Cavanaugh

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T Cavanaugh

Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ by William T Cavanaugh

Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time by William T Cavanaugh

The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology by Oliver O’Donovan

War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity by Stanley Hauerwas

World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age by C. Kavin Rowe

Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation by Richard A. Horsely

Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology by Dieter Georgi

Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty by Paul W Kahn

On Power by Bertrand de Jouvenel

Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam by Talal Asad

The Democratic Soul: A Wilson Carey McWilliams Reader by Wilson Carey McWilliams

Redeeming Democracy in America by Wilson Carey McWilliams

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 9, 2012 at 6:57 pm

While I generally agree with much of JA’s presentation of historical background (albeit he sentimentalizes a rather brutal system that was really more like glorified gang warfare), and might share a good part of his vision as to where we might go in building a more just distribution of the product of human labor, I must add that in my seldom humble opinion, the Lordship of Jesus Christ has no place in constitutional republican governance. Christian faith may well find expression through the participation of citizens who have accepted Jesus as Lord in the political process, but not by any constitutional precept. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address exemplified the highest form of individual Christian faith being expressed in a manner entirely consistent with the separation of church and state. I do not pine for restoration of feudalism.

avatar JA January 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Siarlys Jenkins,

Three points:

1) I’m not sentimentalizing anything. Brutality and violence — the powers and the principalities — emerge in any system. I am in no way supporting a return to feudalism, as my last post made perfectly clear. Nevertheless, I find your characterization of it as “brutal” interesting. Is it no less brutal than our way of life where the violence and exploitation are only exported and hidden? Was the 20th century not the bloodiest in human history? Does the Iraq War with its casualties — for oil and a myopic and utopian quest to convert the Middle East to democratic capitalism — not constitute something cruel and barbaric? Don’t be so quick to buy into the myth that our age is one of irenic and secularization and domestic tranquility. The state is not a leviathan to contain the sacred; it is a depository of the sacred itself.

2) No one has suggested a return to feudalism. That is a gross mischaracterization of my use of my position. See my last post.

3) First, you aver that Christ has no place in a constitutional republic. That is an assertion, not an argument. Second, my position is not that the machinery of the state should be employed to force Christianity upon the modern nation-state, but that the reach of the nation-state should be curtailed so that Christ through the church can function as the political and social centers of Christian communities.

avatar Anymouse January 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Excellent essay yet again.

avatar Zac January 10, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Siarlys Jenkins: Wonderful. Please comment on every FPR post. Also- it appears you are from Wisconsin, yes? Any interest in joining our porch? Or perhaps having coffee sometime?

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 10, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Points worthy of consideration, JA, and I won’t accuse you of endorsing feudalism. I did some research on the origins of war a couple of years ago, finding Keith Otterbein’s writing on the subject quite persuasive. It struck me that the state, by origin, was a glorified gang federation, but, nothing like the Enlightenment concept of a republic or personal liberty could emerge without the evolution of gang-style enforcement to empire to monarchy to republic. It requires a framework of government based on individual liberty to make that liberty real. From a state of pure anarchy, the toughest man on the block will establish a new gang-directed order.

Did you ever hear the story about the Scottish duke who stopped his coach to ask a beggar why he didn’t rise to his feet and bow as the august personage rode past? The beggar asked “Who might you be?” Response, “I’m the Duke of Buchleuch. I own all this land.” Oh, and how did you come to own it? “My ancestors fought for it.” Oh they did, did they? “Well why don’t you get down from that coach and we’ll fight for it all over again.” Feudalism, by its very nature, was a protection racket. Give your fealty to me, I will protect you, unless of course a stronger gang leader overcomes me, in which case, hopefully you can give your fealty to them.

That is structurally and fundamentally different than a framework of government which sets forth individual liberties, and even contemplates promoting the general welfare. Most of the blood shed in the twentieth century has been the result of some Leader with a sense of divine right offering Utopia out of the barrel of a gun.

I have no objection to the church functioning as the social center of Christian communities, nor to Christians forming their own little communes, such as the Bruderhof (as long as individuals are free to leave). In fact, I think one answer to the moral dilemma of modern culture is that the state, through the blunt instrument of the law, should be sparing in policing morality, but, for that very reason, the church(es) should teach moral codes, for practical as well as divine reasons — that a good life requires as certain self-discipline and adherence to certain standards.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Zac – yes, I live, work and vote in Wisconsin. Waupun or Madison would be a stretch, and Green Bay more of one, but I’m up for sitting on a porch somewhere sipping unfermented grape juice and remaking the world.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 10, 2012 at 8:47 pm

As a ranter, and a reflexive doubter of Medaille’s monarchic-tinged Distributism, I find myself a tad conflicted. So What.

The so-called Right Wing has been too long engaged in witch-hunting its own. In particular, I’ve personally enjoyed a few episodes of editing at First Things as well as a few other sites. How timid, this urge to edit mere thought. It reflects a certain paranoid arrogance over one’s readership as though they might be entirely too tender for any thought not perfectly packaged for mass consumption. Then again, there are some who delight in bloody noses and so it is important that editorial discretion be altogether professional and freely discretionary.

Gandhi, I believe , when queried by some unctuous Brit about the rumors of Western Civilization replied: “They should try it some time.”…or words to that effect, he then knitted and pearled twice…or whatever it is that one does when sitting at a loom. The same thing can be said about “Free Trade”. There is nothing whatsoever “free” about what world trade is today. In fact , trade within the continental United States itself is hardly free. Trade, by nature, is an orchestrated dance following a choreography of cooperation and yes, active coercion. That we maintain this farcical notion of “free” trade at such a late date is one of the more hilarious components of this richly dark age of determined partisan idiocy.

Somehow, the epithet “neo-conservative” has been replaced by something newer and equally quixotic: “Liberal Conservative”. Inasmuch as I’ve always felt the Neo-conservatives to be a contradictory “un-dead”, the new nomenclature finds no argument in me. It self-cancels, and can be taken neat, hopefully with sharpened canines.

However, the obvious dilemma here between our Distributists and their so-called “Free-Trade” opponents is that both parties seem to think an economy is best when it is pre-planned for the little folks engaged in it. God help us if we should ever accidentally arrive at a state of free-holders within an equitable system of checks and balances. Let us now resolve to admit we are not up to the task and so can abandon all hope for ye who hath entered. Then we can stop this inane swipes at the pillory post and get on with our servitude.

What is most amusing to me is the fact that the standard bearers of Institutional Capitalism find themselves in such a snit over Distributism and attempt to discredit it with the phantasm cudgel of the rumored “free market”. Any Free Market worth a damned Buffalo Nickel could absorb a Distributist enclave with aplomb.

The GOP has evolved itself beyond parasitism, it is actively now engaged in killing the host, something any rudimentary celled organism can tell you is a recipe for extinction. If they had a brain, something altogether suspect when dealing with the usurpers called “conservative” today, they would be open to all-comers who were interested in fostering the betterment of the individual toward a greater polity.

But they are not. They are interested in policing ranks and maintaining the High-Tech Tribalism of the day, otherwise hilariously referred to as “moderate”. More importantly, the “liberal Conservatives” who hide behind so called “cultural conservatism” know exactly what they are doing. They are distracting a populace with wars abroad and dominating their imagined Free Market with Fear.

Burke, it would seem, held too much good faith for his compatriots in the colonies. The species seems to yearn for despotism and when it cries the loudest for liberty, it generally means it feels most comfortable with tyranny.

avatar JA January 11, 2012 at 12:42 am

Siarlys Jenkins,

I appreciate the cordiality of your response — and there is much to find that it agreeable within. You are quite right to suggest that the process of centralization that created the proto-state during the Middle Ages. Charles Tilly even titles one of his articles, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” Thomas Ertman comfortably claims “it is now generally accepted that the territorial state triumphed over other possible political forms (empire, city-state, lordship) because of the superior fighting ability which it derived from access to both urban capital and coercive authority over peasant taxpayers and army recruits,” and that “the work of Hintze, Tilly, Mann, Downing, and Anderson has already conclusively established that war and preparations for war tended to stimulate the creation of ever more sophisticated state institutions across the continent” and that war was the “principal force” behind the expansion and rationalization of state apparatuses. In his recent book, Michael Howard sums up the evidence bluntly: “the entire apparatus of the state primarily came into being to enable princes to wage war”.

Nonetheless, when you argue, “It struck me that the state, by origin, was a glorified gang federation, but, nothing like the Enlightenment concept of a republic or personal liberty could emerge without the evolution of gang-style enforcement to empire to monarchy to republic. It requires a framework of government based on individual liberty to make that liberty real. From a state of pure anarchy, the toughest man on the block will establish a new gang-directed order,” we will part ways. Your claims assume a Hobbesian logic, one, given my historicist leanings, I view as a social construction, a historically contingent arrangement arising out of the ideology, grammar, and material conditions of the early modern period. In this case, individual atomism, self-interested rationality, and the like, are Hobbes’ answer to the collapse of Christian thought with the emergence of nominalism and theological voluntarism (Hobbes’ ideas are intensely voluntarist) as well as the material realities of an emerging capitalism shepherded by centralizing monarchies or ruthless patrons of city-states.

I also hesitate to affirm with you that “feudalism, by its very nature, was a protection racket.” This, of course, is not to suggest that it wasn’t, but that I’m not sure how to evaluate this assertion. If you mean to suggest that coercion was employed to provide a measure of order, then that is certainly the case, but I hardly see how this qualifies it as a protection racket. Nonetheless, I really care little about the condition of feudalism. It was — and remains — an example I employed in contrast to present day society. I could have, rather, employed one of many others, but chose this one given the widespread familiarity with it.

Most importantly, I would have to strongly demur from your characterization of liberalism. Your claim that a liberal republic is essentially irenic does not seem to be either supported by history or possible given liberalism’s discourse of civilizational hierarchy, progressive view of history, and the threat of dissolution from the fragmentation of the private interests that legitimize it, which together act to generate an expansionary and imperialistic outcome — one that erodes civil society and liberty. The Neo-Conservatives certainly realize this and have reconciled themselves to it. They speak of the dangers of democratic weakness or the contradictions of capitalism and the need to engage in overseas adventurism in order to unify the country. That is the natural end of liberalism: tyranny and empire. And this is why I think that your focus on liberal republicanism is beset on contradictions — and why I continue to criticize your liberal presuppositions and the mythology this carries, particularly regarding premodern life in the Christian East and West as benighted and ruthless. Rather, despite progress in employing techne, for instance, I would argue that we have lost more than we have gained: virtue, piety, community, aesthetic appreciation, literacy, etc. Again, this is not to argue that the past was some idyllic setting free of violence and evils of its own — it wasn’t, it was very violent — but that we are no less brutal and violent. We are just better at hiding it.

So we are at an impasse. And I don’t expect to convince you of anything here. I would suggest that you consider reading Alasdair MacIntyre and William Cavanaugh, as well as David Bentley Hart’s “Atheist Delusions” (which is less about atheism than about the cultural contingency of ideas and of Christian ideas, in particular). Those other books I listed earlier should would also be instructive. But of course this is only if you are interested.

avatar Gabe Ruth January 11, 2012 at 10:36 am

An excellent back and forth most of the way around. For those that cannot let go of the modern, Hobbesian view of our ancestors and feudalism, spend some time poking around here:

http://www.gornahoor.net/?p=3339

There is some far out stuff there, but it’s interesting. A recurring theme of the primary writer is 1 Thessalonians 5:21, and you should keep in mind while there.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 12, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Well, we’ve come a long way round from the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our 20th century American notion of “rights” is deeply enmeshed in the availability of enforcement mechanisms. At the beginning of the republic, we had rights to be free from state interference, but his leaves open that our neighbors, employers, passing strangers, etc. can oppress us, trample upon our rights, etc. The Fourteenth Amendment, the notion of “civil rights laws” is based on the notion that state action will prevent even private oppression upon citizens exercising legally guaranteed rights.

Now perhaps there is a way we can enjoy these universal liberties in a complete state of anarchy, but history suggests that mob rule is more likely, or, as the bully in charge of the leper colony on Molokai said in Michener’s Hawaii, “Here there is no law. There is only my will.” (The counter-point, of course, is to prepare fire-hardened pointed sticks to poke out his eyes with when he enters a new arrival’s hut with rape on his mind).

Alternatively, perhaps being “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” is sheer delusion, and we should settle for some system of contractually defined rights and duties that we are all born into and accept all our lives because that is the way the world is.

We agree on one point at any rate: free market capitalism is no more nature or inevitable than feudalism or any other form of social organization. It is a form of social organization created by human action and choices, supported by laws designed to do just that.

avatar Gabe Ruth January 13, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Ah, the old bully-in-the-leper-colony justification of the modern state. That’s a game winner.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm

I’m open to any way of doing without the state, that does not empower the bully, in or out of the leper colony, to establish, in the absence of law, that “there is only my will.” If you don’t have one, we return to what the Founders meant by “ordered liberty.”

I don’t like it. I’d rather reject all authority. But I’m beginning to wonder whether doing so would truly set me free… for long.

avatar JA January 14, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Siarlys Jenkins,

At this point I’m repeating myself, but your view of politics presupposes that we live in a Hobbesian world and that this is the natural state of social life. Your account assumes individual atomism, voluntarism, the necessity of a social contract, etc. You cannot take these as a given, especially given what social scientists have unearthed in the last century. Not everyone lives like this; not everyone thinks along Hobbesian lines. If we live in a Hobbesian world, it is only because we built it, but that leaves it a social construction that is changeable.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm

JA, my view of politics assumes no tome of philosophical speculation, and no descriptive label parading as ideology. I merely reflect some reasonably well established observations about historical events. Indeed, not everyone lives like , but if you think along the lines of a social construction you deem good and right, while another enters your domain and clubs you over the head, a change is imposed upon your social construction.

That’s how protection rackets began. First, you are attacked. Then, someone offers to protect you from the bad guys who attacked you. Then, the price of protection goes up. And if there are no bad guys, your own protectors, in order to sustain themselves, will impose upon you as well.

One answer to that is a self-organized community militia. But more often than not, a professional army can defeat such a militia, absent advantages such as long supply lines, distance from home, familiarity with terrain. Further, citizen farmers cannot take the field past harvest time. Etc.

avatar R. Salyer January 21, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Intriguing debate. The emotionalism probably masks some of its more interesting points.

If Mr. Salyer is advocating a crusade one consumer at a time, he is indeed being Quixotic.

Localism is a luxury that the current surge of foody-ism amplifies. But let there be no mistake: Localism and sustainability gain their vitality in today’s America from the realization by a vast swath of food yuppies that a lot of what was being sold to them by mass, homogenizing corporations was rubbish. It was untasty and unhealthy. Make no mistake however, if corporate America can rectify quality problems and mass produce natural and tasty nutrition, consumers won’t give a damn about the ADM label. Finger-wag all you want.

On the other hand, to label Distributivism as simply utopian (and therefore to be ignored) is a facile labeling, masquerading as an argument. Distributivism does not propose a utopia; it proposes an archetype for decision-making. It proposes that claimable property should be generally held in the hands of private individuals who can be held responsible for it. And as many as possible, preferably. It acknowledges that property can be held in the hands of associations accorded legally separate standing by the power of the state for the good of the community, known as a corporation. But over use of this vehicle is actually counter-productive for the good of the community.

If Mr. Salyer is defending coercive distributivism, i.e., re-distribution, in the form of simply confiscating property and distributing it around, then there is very much against which to object. Indeed, this used to be simply called “stealing.” However, one doubts (given Salyer’s religious/moral predilections) whether this is actually what he, or G.K. Chesterton (or Leo XIII) for that matter, was advocating.

The more intriguing aspect to Messrs. Salyer and Carter’s debate is the confluence and divergence of substance and process in social/political/moral ordering, and one wonders if they are fully cognizant that this may be the nub of their disagreement. That is, they seem to be divided on the importance of weighing the value of a given social order (the substance), against the value of the means used to reach it and dynamics to maintain it (the process).

Mr. Salyer poses a good question when he asks in essence, why should I unconditionally value freedom (or conversely, hate coercion)? That is, if the desired polis result does not spring from “free” society, then why should this freedom serve as any consolation? Or conversely, why, if the desired polis requires “coercive” means, should this matter to him?

Also, to be fair to Mr. Salyer, sarcastically questioning whether he would ‘allow the ignorant peasants to vote, or make choices for themselves,’ appears to be a canard. He very evidently does not wish to coerce them if they happen to make right choices, nor does he suggest anyone else is genetically-endowed as the proper choice-maker as their alternative. He is not advocating coercion for its own sake. Ends say he, not means, he says. He does have his ends.

This may make him susceptible to the charge that his ends justify his means. But this is ultimately true of every system, even “free” ones.

To value choice, one must value to some degree the “what” being chosen. There is no sane alternative.

Mr. Carter’s challenge to Mr. Salyer is more properly to question anyone’s assurance on the transcendental rightness of a desired order, and this is a powerful challenge. Carter poses the question, and he is right to do so. However, it does not follow that one must be satisfied with the current order, just because another order’s righteous value is not proven or provable.

Mr. Carter’s problem is that the answer to his challenge is not freedom, as he would have it, but chaos. Any other conclusion would involve intellectual obfuscation.

One fears that the path Carter does not quite speak, but implicitly suggests, is that of John Rawls and ultimately, of materialism. One fears that one may have a legitimate care against someone poisoning the material well of the community (e.g., murder), but not any other kind of well (e.g., marketing profanity).

This is an assertion of value to be sure. In a democracy with a free market, certain things are allowed (receiving the approbation of being called a freedom or a right), and certain things are not (Illegitimate imposition.). To decide which is which, requires an assertion of value, and of a valued moral order.

Means and ends cannot be absolutely separated, any more than can religion and state. To posit decisive value in the individual is nonetheless TO POSIT.

Certain paths result in materialism because the only legitimate end in their non-coercive world of Liberalism appears to concern only personal gratification. Everything else risks imposition. Caring about how one’s neighbour lives, or how one’s community lives (resulting from an aggregation of all of one’s neighbours), means imposition. One’s only legitimately actionable complaints are material. This is not my desired polis, and I have to agree with Mr. Salyer that I will not support it of my own free will.

This last bit may appear ironic to Mr. Carter. However, the final observation is not really a complaint. That I complain of the Liberal polis, is due to its inhuman and degenerate evil, not because it is forced upon me.

So if Mr. Salyer’s thinking appears fascistic, this is really puerile name-calling. I doubt if the charge is accurate. But even if it is, certainly this does not bother me in se. I personally have more sympathies with Fascism than with Liberalism, at least in limited terms of ends if not means. But then again, as I have expressed admiration in the past for George Wallace and the O.A.S., my opinion may be suspect to some.

Although the two of them may be tempted to clash on questions of what is freedom, or what is coercion, and by extension what a free market is, I wonder if the more efficacious debate here would not be in asking what constitutes “property,” and what endows one person with title over a property.

avatar Owen Jones February 17, 2012 at 1:18 pm

This is the best counter to the deterministic, progressivist bias that masquerades as modern American conservatism that I have read. It is obviously intended (and works quite well!) as a polemic, so we still have our work cut out for us in helping self-described conservatives to understand that they fundamentally agree with all of the foundational revolutionary principles of the so-called modern era, and that there are alternatives.

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