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Interview at 2Blowhards, part III

The following is the third part of a three-part interview run at 2Blowhards.com on January 20-22, 2004. The 2Blowhards version includes extensive comments from readers with responses by me.

2Blowhards: I think that, while many people are sympathetic to the critique conservatives make of liberalism, many of them are also suspicious of what conservatives would like to replace liberalism with. They fear stuffiness, intrusiveness, bossiness. Conservatives are often accused of wanting to legislate morality, for example. Is that wrong?

Kalb: These concerns are based on the modernist idea that society is basically something rationally administered from above. On that view social order is forced on people from outside, so the natural response is to want as little of it as possible. Conservatism though stands or falls on the idea of tradition, on the ordering of social life by things that grow up somewhat autonomously and with their own standards and then become part of how people understand themselves and their world. Legislation can support those things but it can’t be the main factor. So it’s not basically a matter of forcing things on people but how man can live naturally as a social animal and how to get there. If such ideas make no sense then conservatism makes no sense. I’d be a libertarian if I thought that.

2B: Among my own beefs with leftists is their enthusiasm about government. They seem to see the political dimension not just as one aspect of society but as its determining factor—the skipper of the ship, steering it in very specific directions. And of course they like dictating outcomes, sigh. How does the conservative see the role of government?

Kalb: Tradition is only relevant if you expect things more or less to run themselves without constant central direction. So you can’t really be conservative unless you favor limited government. In general, I’d say conservative governments have less of a tendency toward tyranny than liberal or leftist governments. A government that accepts things that have grown up and become authoritative among its people won’t look at itself as a power above society. That makes it less likely to be abusive in some gross way. It’s harder to give a positive conservative doctrine of government, since it develops so differently in different times and places. In America conservatism emphasizes particular traditional expressions of limited government, federalism and law. What’s good in America or Switzerland may have to be modified in China or Finland. The background and conditions are quite different.

2B: Conservatives speak up for tradition. But what do they do when, say, progressive taxation or affirmative action—policies they disapprove of—have become traditions? How to distinguish between real and false traditions? Can there be any trustworthy way to do this?

Kalb: Particular traditions have to be consistent with the well-being of tradition in general. So something as rationalizing and homogenizing as affirmative action can’t be conservative no matter how established it becomes, because it undermines so radically the possibility of the informal autonomous communities the health of tradition requires. There’s a section in my Conservatism FAQ (here) that touches on the point.

2B: I was surprised to learn that many conservatives view the market almost as warily as Marxists do: it’s dangerous and it can be hard to control, yet it can bring many benefits. Are conservatives in fact free-marketers?

Kalb: Conservatives on the whole prefer free markets to bureaucratic control. They don’t object though to particular restrictions on markets—tariffs to encourage greater local cohesion, or suppression of businesses like narcotics and pornography that disrupt public morality. There’s the broader problem that technological advances dissolve personal and local arrangements and make it easy to replace them with bureaucratic and market institutions. People watch TV and eat at McDonald’s instead of getting together and providing their own food and entertainment. Children are raised by daycare workers, schools, and MTV. I don’t think there’s a way to regulate business to keep those things from happening. Something else has to provide the necessary resistance.

2B: You often speak and write about a ground of experience that a political system needs to be based in or on. I have no trouble with the concept of a ground of existence myself, though I tend to gab on about how we live on several levels at once, which is probably just mystical art-babble. But many people are uneasy acknowledging such a thing. And God knows the liberals will attack anyone who asserts that a ground level of existence exists. How to get people to acknowledge this aspect of life?

Kalb: The basic point is that not everything can be defined and nailed down. The articulate always depends on the inarticulate, judgment on intuition, and so on. More concretely, rational political arrangements always rest on pre-rational and pre-political connections. That’s why the modernist idea that it’s possible to construct a society doesn’t work. Political authority depends on general acceptance of some broader system of authority that can’t be altogether stated or demonstrated. There has to be a sense that the political system is part of a larger moral reality that precedes it.

2B: What are some of the elements that do go into it? History, culture, family, habit …

Kalb: All those things help define and support people’s sense of moral reality. That’s the problem with multiculturalism, by the way. It’s an attempt to get rid of the particularities that define moral reality for people, or at least to confuse the particularities and eliminate their social importance. What’s left is rational bureaucracy and markets, which are somehow supposed to be enough to support public life. They aren’t, and what you get is unprincipled rule by some small elite.

2B: What do you see the role of the arts and of culture more broadly to be in a conservative society?

Kalb: In a conservative or non-modernist society the arts and culture would be evolved rather than constructed. As such, they would help integrate our surroundings with our needs and understandings. They would make the world we build for ourselves more habitable and pleasant. On a different plane, they would accept that we live in an order of things that goes beyond us. They would make what’s good, beautiful and true concrete in everyday life and connect the everyday with things that transcend it.

I should add that “the good, beautiful and true” sounds very solemn, and integrating us with things sounds a bit alarming, but those expressions include most things that get us out of our rut, open up the world to us, make us happy for no special reason and so on. The good, beautiful and true are living, open-ended and surprising. In a non-modernist society the arts would break up the closed circle of desire, power and immediate practical function in which modernity imprisons us.

2B: What’s the place of religion in conservative thought? And how do liberals see religion? What’s wrong with the way they see it? My own hunch is that they make their own religion out of “tolerance” …

Kalb: Every society is based on some understanding of things that’s too overarching and fundamental to be altogether articulate. That understanding lies behind all social institutions, including government. In a complex society that understanding has to take a definite and institutional form. If it doesn’t then it won’t be able to assert itself, and particular activities and institutions will lose their relationship to the underlying common understandings needed to maintain coherence and public acceptability. They’ll go off in specialized directions and become generally incomprehensible, or they’ll become a battleground for warring ideologues and get captured by someone with an ax to grind. Therefore the need for organized public religion.

Liberals of course reject all that. They think that everything can be made perfectly rational so we don’t have to worry about unstated common understandings except as prejudices to be done away with. The result is that liberal dogma, which can’t be proved either and has problems of its own, becomes the religion. You can’t say “Merry Christmas,” but every college has to have all sorts of observances around Martin Luther King day.

2B: Tradition can be great, God knows, but it can also become suffocating. Can’t tradition also hem people in? What allowances does conservatism make for adaptation and evolution?

Kalb: Conservatism and tradition aren’t about themselves, they’re about the world. So from that point of view, they open up and don’t close in. They’re ways to truth that make it possible to have a view of things with breadth, depth and solidity that doesn’t claim to be all-inclusive and isn’t limited to things that are immediately practical and demonstrable.

Still, your question is how tradition can adjust to new knowledge and changed conditions. There’s no single answer, since tradition applies mostly where it’s impossible to formulate and demonstrate unique answers. In general, though, tradition is a collection of practices, attitudes and symbols more than general propositions. Some are much more fundamental than others and all need some degree of interpretation. So normally there’s flexibility when needed. That’s especially true in the case of traditions that have managed to last a long time among civilized people.

2B: How to reconcile tradition, habit and settled ways with the need to take productive part in the modern world? I sometimes dream that there must be some way of accepting modernism in some realms (economics) while shutting it out of others (private life). But modernism is a hard force to control. Once set loose, it seems to run riot.

Kalb: Where there’s a will there’s a way. Some sort of resolution is clearly possible. For example, everyone could imitate the strictly orthodox Jews or the Amish. Then we would all retain our traditions while operating in a cosmopolitan free-market environment with no government controls on science, technology, industry or commerce. I would hope some less extreme solution is possible, maybe some combination of national boundaries, local control, social conventions, publicly accepted religion and whatnot, so that coherence can be maintained without things becoming too divided and inward turning. What works will prevail. Right now though each of us has to find his own way. It’s an odd period we’re living through.

2B: Are there economists whose thinking you find especially simpatico? I’m thinking of Wilhelm Roepke, for instance.

Kalb: I’ve learned from a variety of people, from Adam Smith and Hayek to Marx. You learn from people you don’t agree with, of course. Roepke’s ideas seem interesting, but I haven’t read much of him as yet.

2B: It seems to me that the conservative view of things should be simpatico with evo-bio ways of seeing things—the value of evolved forms, etc. Yet I notice in your writing that you don’t approve. Why is that?

Kalb: I don’t think I’ve said a lot about evo-bio. I do have a problem with the radical Darwinist view that everything can be understood as the bottom-up self-organization of simple forms. That doesn’t account for obvious features of the world as we know it, consciousness and objective good and evil for example. People talk about emergent qualities but it’s not clear to me that explains anything. So to the extent the concept of evolution claims to offer a comprehensive theory of everything based on very simple mechanistic principles I don’t see why I should accept it. It doesn’t give a way to account for everything that exists or everything important about human beings. I don’t question though that it’s useful in a more limited role.

2B: Can liberalism/modernism be beaten back by newer and better scientific discoveries and arguments?

Kalb: I think they can show it’s not self-sufficient. But for that demonstration to be of use to us it must be possible to define and discuss the things beyond rationalism and treat them as authoritative to at least some extent. I don’t think natural science can do that for us.

2B: I know you’ve embraced Catholicism. For whatever reason, Christianity doesn’t do much for me. But Vedanta (here)? Now that I can see the point of.

Kalb: To my mind the problem with Eastern religions is that unless there’s a God who is personal and does particular things that we can know about then this world and the transcendent aren’t effectively integrated with each other and both become rather illusory. They become foreign to our life as a whole, which is necessarily tangled up in both.

2B: I think what pleases me about Vedanta is probably what you object to in it—that vaporous quality.

Kalb: Yes, I think so. I’m much more political and scientific. You like complete freedom to pick and choose. In a critic that can be useful. It brings out issues and promotes conversation.

2B: What possessed you to devote so much time to your thinking, your writing, and your website?

Kalb: I’ve always been something of a skeptic, but you can’t help but act one way or another and you can’t act rationally without a view on how things are. So the attempt to think things through has always been very important to me. Also, it seems to me that the way intellectual life is set up today—the importance of academic certification and expert consensus for example—distorts it, so someone who approaches general questions from an independent non-expert perspective can add something. I’ve hoped to do that. Then there are the rewards of the activity itself—figuring out what the issues are, trying to formulate answers that work, finding unexpected connections, and so on. It’s a fascinating business. There are other draws, of course: the connections with other people I’ve established, and the thought that in some way I might be advancing good things and helping block bad things.

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