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Tradition and federalism

Free institutions, free men, free thought—something of the sort is needed for tradition. Tradition isn’t forced, administered, or intentionally created. It grows out of experience in ways that can’t be predicted, and it’s completely at odds with rationalized control based on explicit standards.

Nonetheless, tradition also requires subordination. It requires that we view ourselves as part of a world we didn’t make ordered by an understanding greater than our own. It subordinates the pursuit of self-defined happiness to the more objective goods it proposes.

Tradition therefore rejects current understandings of both authority and freedom. If that’s so, what relevance can it have to political life today? Whatever it does it will be accused of inconsistency, rhetorically opposing “big government” while trying to put government in our bedrooms and establish a theocracy.

So what tack is best? If Christian or other traditionalists propose establishing their own views they won’t get anywhere soon. If they promote “freedom” and “human rights” in the abstract, as the Pope does, they will find themselves hoist with their own petard as those principles, interpreted in the sense now accepted, are applied against them. And if they drop out of politics altogether the same will happen and no-one will even hear their complaints as they get rolled over.

The only workable strategy is to promote the notion of federal arrangements that permit the self-government of communities. That strategy has its difficulties. It is opposed both to social justice, which requires comprehensive application of uniform principles in all aspects of social life, and to individual freedom, which as now understood requires separation of the individual from his communal setting. Nonetheless, it is an approach that could gather support from groups that otherwise differ quite radically, and it could be defended on the basis of multicultural neutrality.

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