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Liberal Values and the Seduction of the American Right

The following is a talk delivered at the 2011 Conference of the H. L. Mencken Club.

Why has American conservatism been such a flop? It finds it impossible to define what it wants, stick with it, and defend it. The result is that it never wins and never even stands its ground.

To understand what’s happened you have to go to basics.

At bottom, conservatism is the desire to remain true to type. So American conservatism is the desire for America to remain American.

That preference is entirely normal. America is a particular human society. As such, it gives us a world to live in. We’re social animals, and it gives us a network of connections and gives life a certain form and focus. For that reason, it affects us at a very basic level: we’re Americans and it would be hard to change that.

The result is that it should be natural for us to want our country to keep going and remain the sort of place we’re used to. It’s part of us, and we want that part to be alive and healthy. So loyalty to America is natural, or at least it should be.

But what exactly is involved in that? It’s difficult to say without saying what America is and what we are as Americans. That’s a problem though. Questions like American identity and the meaning of American life don’t seem to have a good answer, and they’ve been asked so often they’ve become a bore. People hear them and roll their eyes.

Worse, when someone does give an answer it’s an obvious fraud. It’s the sort of question liberals and neoconservatives like, because the answer can be whatever they want. America is freedom, America is equality, America is a nation of immigrants, America is the land of opportunity, America is global democracy, whatever.

The problem is that a good answer to such questions would require a coherent tradition, but too many features of American life are anti-traditional. Our way of life tends toward mobility, informality, expansiveness, and enterprise. Our general philosophy alternates between pragmatism and New Age. And American ideals emphasize freedom, equality, and the universal applicability of the American model. All those features are anti-traditional. They don’t favor a stable and satisfying way of life, and they don’t leave anything alone.

At one time, the effect of those features was limited by other aspects of American life: religion, localism, family values, ethnic ties, limited government, and an emphasis on law. Those limitations have not stood up to developments like national expansion, industrialization, demographic diversification, the rise of the mass media, and industrialized mass education. The result is what we see around us.

American conservatism was a series of attempts to keep the current situation from coming about. As they once said at National Review, it was an attempt to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” That effort required a strong emphasis on traditional limitations, which required some sort of authority to back them up. At the popular level the authority was usually the will of the Founders as embodied in the Constitution, together with Biblical religion and a concept of America as (as Lincoln said) an “almost chosen” nation.

Conservative intellectuals tried to build on that impulse and develop a philosophical notion of America as a free, virtuous, and self-governing society. “Free” suggests antitraditional qualities, “virtuous” necessary limitations, and “self-governing” the proper balance between the two. So conservative intellectuals praised liberty, insisted on the virtue, moderation, and wisdom of the Constitution and American people, and denounced overly ideological applications of American ideals that threatened the balance of the system.

The point of the Conservative Canon was to nail all that down. It included:

  • The Federalist and other writings that explained the Constitution.
  • Russell Kirk, who told us that ideology is bad, ancestral custom is good, and the Left doesn’t monopolize high ideals.
  • People like Friedrich Hayek, Whittaker Chambers, Robert Nisbet, and James Burnham, who explained the evils of communism, socialism, and social management.
  • And also people like Richard Weaver and Eric Voegelin, who connected current disputes to grand historic and intellectual themes.

They were all interesting writers, but what they said never took hold. Our governing classes are made up of businessmen, bureaucrats, experts, and media people who have no special concern for Biblical religion, traditional virtues, or America as an almost chosen nation. Nor do they care about the views of conservative intellectuals on what makes America special. They may give lip service to the Founding Fathers, but what that means is defined by anti-traditional commentators and judges. So there was nothing to which conservatives could appeal that could give what they said special weight.

The canonical writers weren’t much help even among conservatives. Kirk’s romantic Burkeanism never had many adherents. Weaver and Voegelin, from most people’s perspective, were off in an ivory tower. And favoring the free market over socialism has gotten some traction, but it’s not enough for an overall conservative movement.

Lack of authoritative support is a big problem for conservatives, because simple conservatism is a consensus and authority-based position. It wants to be true to type, whatever the established type happens to be, so it ends by conforming to its society. That makes it hard for it to appeal to principles that arouse general opposition from well-placed men and institutions. If elites get too far ahead of the people conservatives can become populist and claim that elites have become unAmerican, but by going populist they lose the ability to articulate an intelligent and coherent position. In the long run, that makes them sure to lose.

The only authority conservatives could appeal to in opposition to the antitraditional features of American life that carried weight in national public discussions was reason. They could claim to be logical and realistic in opposition to la-di-da liberals. In the long run though that claim leads nowhere, because liberalism is entirely logical given the accepted basis for serious mainstream public discussion today.

That basis is a stripped-down and basically technocratic view that says that at bottom that there’s no God and no objective moral order that can be relied on, just atoms, the void, and free-floating human desires and sensations. As a result, nothing has an essence, natural goal, or reason for being, since there are no intrinsic natures or goods. The only meaning things can have for us is the meaning we give them. It follows that wanting to do something is what makes it worth doing, and the good is simply the satisfaction of preferences.

That view also tells us that all preferences, and all actors, are equally preferences and actors, with no higher standard to make one better than the other. It follows that each has an equal claim to satisfaction. Morality therefore becomes a system that has nothing to say about how to live but only tells us to stay out of each other’s way and support arrangements that help everyone reach whatever his goals happen to be. The uniquely rational approach to social order, it turns out, is to treat it as a sort of machine—a soulless technically-rational arrangement—for maximizing equal satisfaction of preferences.

But that’s liberalism. The basic liberal standard of equal freedom—that is, equal preference satisfaction—turns out to be simply rational given current understandings of what’s rational, real, and moral. So if someone notices that there are problems with the actual liberalism we see around us, the conclusion is always going to be that we need a freer freedom and more equal equality. A present-day movement that wants to engage public discussion on its own terms must support or reinvent liberalism if it wants to be coherent and rational.

Incoherence and irrationality aren’t very effective in the long run, so conservatism has repeatedly ended up reinventing or rebranding liberalism. There’s nothing else it can do if it goes along with the basic picture of reality that provides the setting for public discussion today. It can point out practical problems, in line with the claim it once made to be logical and realistic, but it has to accept liberal goals, and if it wants to be American it also has to adopt a can-do attitude. The result is that in the long run it has to treat the problems it points out as things it can solve. It has to give up the appeal to logic and realism in favor of an appeal to faith in America.

That is the seduction of the American right by liberal values that has led us to where we are now. Conservatism, at least to the extent it’s still a presence in mainstream discussion, has been forced to become an outlook that defines America by reference to what remains after traditional limitations are abandoned. There’s nothing else it can appeal to as authoritative. So it’s ended up defining America as freedom, equality, tolerance, and ever greater economic success. It just claims it can promote those things better than liberalism can, so that everybody—black, white, male, female, gay, straight, native, immigrant—can live the American Dream. And with respect to the rest of the world, conservatism has become the principle of promoting the extension of American values everywhere. The cause that defines America, and therefore conservatism, has become empire—America as an irresistible force that is transforming the world.

That’s the new mainstream conservatism. It distinguishes itself from liberalism mostly through its faith in America, and its emphasis on particular actions and actors rather than law and impersonal bureaucracy. That’s how it maintains the principle of loyalty and the aversion to schemes of abstract doctrine that still seem necessary for something to count as conservative. The goals are the same as liberalism, at least at the level of fundamental principle, but conservatives don’t like experts, administrators, and international lawyers, they like businessmen, entrepreneurs, soldiers, and team America on global crusade.

The problem is that the vision is not at all conservative. What usually makes people conservative is that they want a social setting that they’re used to, that connects them to other people and to their own past and future, and that makes for a way of life that seems to them worth living. Present-day conservatism offers them the chance to cheer on a campaign for a global military, commercial, and bureaucratic order that abolishes local distinctions in the interests of inclusiveness and an ever-expanding and more universal economy.

So where does that leave the people who used to be conservatives?

We’re in a political hole because we’re in an intellectual hole. If the problem is what people think makes sense, then we have to change or at least challenge accepted understandings in a very fundamental way. That’s too big a job for a 20 minute talk, but I can at least mention some things that are missing in accepted current standards for action, valuation, and belief—that is, in accepted understandings of the good, beautiful and true. We’re here to talk about the conservative canon, so it makes sense to talk about things at that basic level.

What’s most obviously missing from public understandings today are ideas of essential form and transcendent reality. Both have to do with the question of what the world and the things in it really are, how we make sense of them, and how to avoid the purely technological outlook that now dominates public life. That kind of metaphysical issue seems far-fetched to some people, but it determines what is thought reasonable, and what is thought reasonable determines what can be talked about and done. So any serious movement of opposition has to consider such questions.

I talked a little about loyalty and conservatism at the beginning of this talk. What that discussion showed, I think, is that with respect to what makes goals reasonable to pursue—that is, with respect to the good and how we understand it—we need what might be called moral essentialism. The basic issue is that rational action isn’t just a matter of means and ends. We don’t understand ourselves that way, as pure creatures of appetite looking for satisfactions. Instead, we understand what we’re doing by reference to who we are and what other things and people are in an ideal sense. To act rationally as a human being is to act in accordance with that understanding, at least if it’s a reasonable one.

Loyalty, to use my example, is rational because it’s acting in accordance with who we and others are. We’re loyal to friends, family, and country not simply because we feel like it, or because it gets us something we happen to want, but because we are social by nature, and the particular connections we have help make us the particular people we are. Turning against those connections is turning against ourselves. Unless there’s something specifically wrong with them, and we have something better in mind, that makes no sense, since we have to accept who we are, and what our setting is, to have a point of view from which rational action is possible.

So much for the good. With respect to the true, it’s evident that we need the concept of transcendence, of something that exceeds what we can say or know. The point of talking about truth is that what we say about almost anything is certainly incomplete and might be altogether wrong. That shows we need “truth” as a higher point of reference. It’s an ideal standard that we can’t altogether attain, but can’t do without.

Modern people don’t like that situation. So they try to reconstruct knowledge to put it completely in our possession, or replace truth with some lesser conception, like warranted assertability, or deflate it so it doesn’t seem to amount to much. The attempts eventually peter out, since they don’t let us talk about things we have to talk about to deal with the world as it is. They do have an effect, though. They drive us toward the technocratic view that rationality is simply a matter of figuring out how to get whatever we want, since there aren’t any truths or essences transcending that to tell us otherwise.

As to the beautiful, I don’t have time to discuss it. That’s too bad and maybe it shows something. Liberals and the left own style and the arts today. That wasn’t always so, and it’s odd because the liberal view can’t account for beauty. It ought to be a strong point for right-wingers but isn’t.

So where does all this leave us? People want solutions, and if you talk about essences and the transcendent and the good, beautiful, and true it doesn’t sound like a solution so people get impatient. The point though is that basic issues are basic. We aren’t going to do better than we’re doing now without a more adequate way of thinking.

Changing basic aspects of how people think about things is going to involve a lot of work that isn’t immediately practical. It’s also going to involve changing how we think ourselves. So when we talk about a conservative canon, we need to talk about more than immediate practicalities. We also need to talk about the writers and principles who give us what we need to turn things around at the most basic level. Without that, whatever we do will either be ineffective or turn out to be just another version of liberalism.



Conserving what is old is not important, conserving what is true is. In fact, Conservatism has nothing to do with conserving at all. It’s all about living in accordance with the truth. Ontological relativism is the acid of modernity.

I think we’ve been through some of this before, but:

  1. As stated, it’s not simply keeping what’s old but remaining true to type that’s the key to conservatism.
  2. Conservatism is therefore concerned with particular tradition. Tradition, however, is not about itself but about the necessities and goods that give rise to it and to which it is oriented. So the good, beautiful, and true are fundamental.
  3. Nonetheless, the role of loyalty, tradition, and remaining true to type cannot superseded. They are an essential part of the way in which we get a grip on reality so that the good, beautiful, and true can become available to us. That is part of what is involved in the social nature of man.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

1) Can you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by “true to type”?
2) Do you think that some of the traditionalist understandings of man and his relationship to reality and society may have been wrong?

You see, one of the areas which I feel tradition is in error is with regard to the role of women in society. Don’t get me wrong, I do not think that the Feminist solution is the correct one. My clinical work has impressed upon me the unsuitability of many women to domesticity, not out of any character fault, but because they simply aren’t suited to it by nature. Now, how do you incorporate this insight into Traditionalism without fundamentally violating its nature?

Now it’s true that I might be wrong about my observation, but what if I’m right? Isn’t the traditionalist position then upholding a view that is not “true to type”?

I’m not trying to be difficult here, but part of the reason we’re in the fix that we are in is because there seems to be a problem between distinguishing legitimate and illegitimate modernity amongst Conservatives. It’s the ignoring of legitimate modernity that renders conservatism irrelevant and makes it on the nose with the “sheeple”. I think the problem comes about from framing Conservatism within a traditionalist intellectual structure which makes incorporating any new insight extremely difficult. Truth, not popular opinion (including the popular opinion of the dead) is the yardstick by which we measure conservatism.

Maybe I’ve read you wrongly Mr Kalb, but I do detect a shift in your position to one that’s more truth focused; it’s a welcome development. You’re quite right, conservatism is in an intellectual hole, and any revival of it has to come about through a rethinking of “first principles”.

I don’t want you think that I want conservatism to be something that bends to the “will of the people” or “something that must adapt”, rather, it’s just that tradition got some things wrong, just like modernity has, and a Conservatism that is focused on the truth will acknowledge these errors and combat them.

“True to type” means maintaining essential qualities through changes. The idea is that a society or anything else that’s distinctive enough to engage our loyalty functions in characteristic ways and is oriented by distinctive understandings and ends. If there’s no type to be true to, or if impossible conflicts develop among the characteristic qualities, or if the whole arrangement becomes nonfunctional, then the enterprise falls apart and the type is transformed, or maybe people give it up altogether and attach themselves to something else. The talk goes into some of these issues in the American case. Is there something there that needs additional comment?

As to the sexes and sex roles, I’m not sure what you’re looking for. Every society has ideals of what people are normally like and what should be expected of them. The official view at present is that those should be the same for men and women. That strikes me as altogether unrealistic. The traditional view is that men and women are characteristically different in ways that allow them to form enduring functional unions with a certain division of responsibility, and that our expectations and ideals of behavior should be informed by that situation. That seems sensible to me. There can be problems. Some of the problems can be adjusted somehow or other, some can’t. That’s always so though.

I don’t see a shift in my position from things I wrote in the late 90s or around 2003. Maybe it’s worth noting that in this piece I was talking specifically about American tradition, which has less authority than say the traditions of the West in general or of the Catholic Church.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Thanks for your reply.

So by “true to type” do you mean, “true to human nature?” In other words, there are certain fixed “essences” of human nature that we have to take into account?

The traditional view is that men and women are characteristically different in ways that allow them to form enduring functional unions with a certain division of responsibility

Is it possible that tradition could have got some of these divisions of responsibility wrong? For example, in JPII’s letter to women, he would seem to give a much greater role to women in society than traditionalist conceptions did. I’d like to stress again, that I don’t believe that men and women are fully interchangeable but it would appear that traditional conception of the role of women seemed far more restrictive than the Catholic church’s current view. Tradition did not appear to be true to type, especially with regard to women.

Man by nature is social and cultural, and the latter are not trivial. Chinese culture and English culture are different in type so roles and expectations will vary between the two.

I think we’ve been through this a number of times before, but “tradition,” “conservatism,” “true to type” etc. DO NOT mean “doing everything exactly the same as was done before in all respects no matter how circumstances have changed because nobody’s allowed to think about anything.” If you believe it means that you will understand NOTHING of what traditionalist conservatives say.

JPII tried to go more than half-way to reach everybody imaginable, kissing the Koran, praying to John the Baptist to protect Islam, and so on. So he tried to sound as modern and feminist and whatever as possible, and it can be puzzling figuring out his actual views and how they relate to current social orthodoxies. Here though is what he said in Familiaris Consortio:

The Church can and should help modern society by tirelessly insisting that the work of women in the home be recognized and respected by all in its irreplaceable value … Possible discrimination between the different types of work and professions is eliminated at its very root once it is clear that all people, in every area, are working with equal rights and equal responsibilities … Society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family … Furthermore, the mentality which honors women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome.

I view that as a traditionalist statement. He believes it is crucial to maintain the family as a functional type with men and women playing different roles in that type.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I agree that there are such things as cultural types, and it’s lamentable that multiculturalism seems to produce a homogenisation of cultures. My problem isn’t with the existence of “types”, rather, the proposition that the nature of the “types” is settled. If a traditionalist assumed that the “types” were settled, then a Chinese Traditionalist could be quite justified in rejecting Christianity because it is not true to the “Chinese type”. On the other hand, I would argue that the innovation of Christianity into Chinese culture would produce a more Chinese, “Chinese type”.

I’m not going to try to guess JPII’s motivations, but I think this is what he was getting at during his pontificate. I don’t think he was trying to liberalise the Chruch, rather his reflections on the nature of femininity led him to the conclusion that there was a greater role for women in society, as this was a truer reflection of her type. From Falmiliaris Consortio:

Without intending to deal with all the various aspects of the vast and complex theme of the relationships between women and society and limiting these remarks to a few essential points, one cannot but observe that in the specific area of family life a widespread social and cultural tradition has considered women’s role to be exclusively that of wife and mother, without adequate access to public functions, which have generally been reserved for men.

There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women’s access to public functions. On the other hand the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.

There is no way in this passage that he was embracing Feminism in an attempt to “reach out”, but he is clearly not supporting the widespread Traditionalist view that a woman’s place is in the home with her family. This was a “fine tuning” of the traditional conception of woman by ditching it’s erroneous components. He seems to have adopted a position that dissatisfied both camps since he was not of either of them. His prime motivation seemed to be to get a true understanding of the nature of the “type”.

You may disagree with my characterisation of Traditionalist Conservatism, but it does practically, if not theoretically, produce a person who finds innovation very, very difficult. Sure, most innovation is probably rubbish but some of it might be vital and necessary (and sometimes it needs to happen very quickly). The reality is that those who can’t embrace necessary innovations will be overcome by those who do; and it will also give the innovators a certain legitimacy that is then passed onto other more radical ideologies. It’s this latter psychosocial mechanism that has allowed the widespread embrace of Leftism. In an era of massive technological and societal change, traditionalism could not adapt and was rendered irrelevant.

I really do worry for the immediate future. I think we are about to enter a period of profound and extremely disruptive social change. It’s an era we’re about to enter because of a failure of Conservatism. I want to see Conservatism re-invigorated and perhaps the way to do it is by a re-examination of first principles. We need to get out of the intellectual hole.

Are actual traditionalist thinkers—Confucius, Burke, T.S. Eliot, the tradoblogosphere or whoever—examples of your idea of traditionalism?

I don’t doubt that trads can have the same vice as leftists, liberals, pragmatists, libertarians, fascists, and other people, the vice of applying a simpleminded version of their principles in a simpleminded way. It seems unlikely that vice is as widespread and destructive among them as others. Circumstances require them to extricate themselves from the liberal morass around them, and don’t make self-satisfied thoughtlessness an option.

As to “settled”: cultural types are enduring, and they are (normally) functional and therefore must be reliable, but they are not eternally exactly the same in all their expressions regardless of everything going on all around them.

You yourself claim that Chinese cultural types would become more fully themselves if China became Christian. So you agree that there are cultural types that remain recognizably the same while changing in response to changed conditions and the passage of time, sometimes in ways that help them and sometimes in ways that do not. So it’s not clear what the issue is. You believe you would have an answer for the Chinese traditionalist that should work for him.

JPII will have to be another discussion. He said lots of things on lots of subjects that sound quite opposed. My explanation is that he was trying to be all things to all men and ending up being confusing.

As to the role of women, you seem to believe that the traditionalist position is that women should never under any circumstances have any role whatever outside the home, and that the triumph of feminism came because the tyranny of that position throughout society, and the absolute unwillingness of its proponents to yield any ground whatever, drove people who would have been moderate reformers to revolutionary extremes. I find such beliefs, as a description of events and beliefs, odd to the point of incomprehensibility. For starters it doesn’t explain when and where 60s feminism started.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

For starters it doesn’t explain when and where 60s feminism started.

The ideological gestation of feminism is easy to discern, the real question is, why did the ideas gain traction?
Harebrained ideologies are a dime a dozen, it’s only very few that “resonate” with the people. Marxism’s fertile ground was the working class, a class of people who, subjectively or objectively, had real grievances. Likewise, Betty Friedan’s popularity may have had something to do with the fact that she was expressing the frustrations of many women. Any objective assessment of the role of women prior to sixties would show that there was considerable discrimination against them. My mother, for instance, worked in a tannery for sixty percent of the equivalent wages of my father. Perhaps I lack some moral quality that renders the natural justice of such affairs elusive to me, but it would appear to me to be grossly unjust at a fundamental “type” level. The interesting question here is, where did the ideology that justified that state of affairs originate? And what perpetuated that state of affairs?

As to “settled”: cultural types are enduring, and they are (normally) functional and therefore must be reliable, but they are not eternally exactly the same in all their expressions regardless of everything going on all around them.

If I understand you correctly; because types work, types are true? Is that correct?

So you agree that there are cultural types that remain recognizably the same while changing in response to changed conditions and the passage of time, sometimes in ways that help them and sometimes in ways that do not.

No, that’s not what I’m saying. The Chinese type is privated by being non-Christian; there is a deficiency in the Chinese type. The incorporation of Christianity into the Chinese makes the type more perfect. The motive force for change being recognition of the that the “functional type” is at variance with the true type. I would posit that just because the type is functional does not mean it is true. Slavery, instance worked, yet I don’t think you would argue that it was an applicable true type to some individuals.

So when I argue for the right for women to participate in the workforce, I’m not arguing it from a Marxist or Libertarian position. Rather, I recognise that the feminine type has dimension which, for some women, is realised in paid work.

1. The wage differential between men and women seems mostly to have been a system for accommodating industrial employment and family life by paying a family wage to male breadwinners. Allan Carlson is the go-to guy for the history. As to why it disappeared and everybody decided it was a big injustice, I’d imagine it was mostly a matter of the creeping industrialization of life–mechanization of housework, mass industrial higher education, the growth of suburbia and consequent thinning out of local social networks, the rise of TV and consequent universal immersion in the outlook of careerist liberal elites.

2. Types arise at different levels. Some constitute human nature as such: man is a rational animal, all men by nature desire to know, etc. Others arise historically: Greek religion, English grammar, the Chinese family system. Man is a social and cultural animal, and good usually works better than bad, so most types that arise historically realize universal human nature in some way by making it concrete and determinate. The process isn’t perfect, that’s part of the imperfection of human life, and sometimes as you suggest there are also pathological types that achieve a certain stability because in their way they do work, e.g., liberalism.

3. As often in our exchanges, I’m not sure what exactly you’re arguing against. Is the point of your “no, that’s not what I’m saying” that “changed conditions and the passage of time” don’t include growing awareness of deficiency? Also, is there something specific I’ve said that your last paragraph is aimed at? I understand sex roles and the like to be mostly a matter of primary responsibilities and expectations. The details of how they work out depend on all sorts of things, some social, some historical, some idiosyncratic.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I’m not sure what exactly you’re arguing against.

I’m arguing against the logic of “true to type” traditionalism.

What I’m arguing is, if being “true to type” is the basis of traditionalism, and let’s say a type is percieved as true and yet is pathological (and we know that just because a type “works” doesn’t mean it is good) ,then how does traditionalism fix the perceptual error? How do we recognise wrong types?
It would appear that Traditionalism has no corrective mechanism. To use the slavery example again, how do traditionalists recognise that slavery is wrong?

Also, is there something specific I’ve said that your last paragraph is aimed at?

Yes. This statement seems contradictory:

So you agree that there are cultural types that remain recognizably the same while changing in response to changed conditions and the passage of time,

A type can’t change and still be the same: It’s a logical impossibility. Any change in a thing results in a thing that’s different from the original. It’s not true to its original type. Any awareness of a deficiency in type means that the type was not true(in the ontological sense) in the first place. Therefore, if the passage of time generates a realisation that A is deficient, change from A->B is thwarted by the principle of being true to A. If, on the other hand, the change to B is justified, it can’t be justified by being true to A, it can only be justified by being true to B and ditching A; thus invalidating the logic of traditionalism. There is an internal flaw in the logic of “true to type” traditionalism.

I’m sorry to nit pick, but as you’ve noted, we’re in an intellectual hole.

If you were to justify a type on its functionality, then Traditionalism could justify the the change from A->B on the principle that we must be true to type unless the type stops working for us, at which point we stop being true to it. Traditionalism then becomes being true to function. Any society that can make a vice stable in it (say a harem in Muslim society) is therefore justified in keeping the institution on “true to function” traditionalist grounds. I think you can see the problems with this approach.

The question that traditionalism needs to answer is how it gets from an A which is deficient to B which is not. What is its justifying principle?

As for Mr Carlson’s article, it’s true that economic policy affects family structure but the solutions proffered previously bought their own problems. Second wave feminism gained traction by exploiting an undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst a proportion of women in western society. Still the principle of supporting a male breadwinner wage by taking the money away from women would seem to be inherently unjust from a Christian perspective. For instance, family formation could be encouraged by income splitting (with a stay at home spouse) and tax deductions for dependent children.

You have your own definition of “traditionalism,” which seems to be based on an attitude toward language and meaning more fitted to discussing geometry than human life. Be that as it may, I don’t know of anyone who holds the position.

Anyway, I didn’t say “true to type” is the essence of traditionalism, I said it’s the essence of conservatism. And I don’t say (and have never said) that simple conservatism is the ultimate standard. It’s part of how to approach political and social life but not the whole.

As I suggested, types arise on different levels and form hierarchies. Pathology at lower levels can be discerned through its effect on higher level functioning. For example, Middle American cooking is a type, and an assemblage of types (apple pie, the hamburger, etc.). You discern whether and to what degree it’s pathological by reference to the higher and more natural types to which it’s subordinate (health, nutrition, conviviality, etc.)

The point, or at least one of the points, of talking about types is that they can change while remaining recognizably the same. Basketball is still basketball when the rules change, at least up to a point. The family remained the family and indeed became more so when it became Christian. And I was under the impression that you thought that the addition of Christianity would make the Chinese more perfectly Chinese.

Are sex roles–different expectations for men and women–unjust and unChristian simply as such? If not, it’s unclear why different treatment for people expected to fulfill different duties should be considered unjust.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

“Are sex roles–different expectations for men and women–unjust and unChristian simply as such? If not, it’s unclear why different treatment for people expected to fulfill different duties should be considered unjust.”

I don’t think different roles and expectations for men and women are unjust as such. But it is also possible for such roles to be too rigidly defined. It is entirely possible to take for eternal verities things which are merely local and temporal.

Social and technological change happens so fast that traditional ways of doing things don’t function like they used to. Because of how fast this kind of change comes upon us, there is no time for the kind of slow adaptation that is the way tradition normally modifies itself to meet new needs. Technical knowledge rushes in to try and fill the gap, leading to all sorts of biases and distortions. But even ostensibly conservative intellectuals have to explicitly lay out their arguments for which parts of tradition to keep and which parts to modify or even discard, making them more like their rationalist opponents than they would often care to admit.

The Carlson article is interesting. I have a few criticisms though:

1. Capitalism just absolutely clobbered the home economy at producing the things that the home economy used to produce: food, clothing etc. They did it better and cheaper. Add to that the impact of household labour saving devices and women were left without much of necessity to do at home except look after children, which is something not all women are suited for, at least full time.

2. One woman taking care of 20 old people or twenty small children would be an increase in efficiency over staying home to take care of one old person or to take care of two or three children. It is true that they doubtless won’t provide the same quality of care, but there is mounting evidence that, at least when it comes to children, that higher level of care is not necessary.

3. To make something like the family wage work, there would have to be some fairly strict segregation of men and women by profession. Given number 1 and the fact that it will put women out into the workforce, I’m seriously skeptical that intelligent and high status women would be interested in the kind of low status, less intellectually demanding, lower paying work that they would have to take. If they’re going to work outside the home, they’re going to want to make money at it, at least up to a point.

4. Part of the reason Amish society can function the way it does is that they are willing to accept being much poorer than their modern neighbours.

A recent blog entry by Mark Richardson seems relevant. I think there are similar situations elsewhere, although I don’t have references at hand. If you’re interested in exploring what the possibilities are under current conditions I suppose various trad women’s blogs (e.g., The Thinking Housewife) would be of interest. And then there’s Darwin. The home economy beats capitalism at producing human beings, so it seems to have some long-term advantages.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I tried to follow the link. I presume you mean this one:…
I think that’s pretty sensible. Most women don’t want a full time career.

As for Darwin, well, the home economy may be better at producing children, but the problem is getting from here to there.