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Political theory

Politics as a conflict of two parties

A view of politics that’s become quite old-fashioned but still pops up now and then is that it’s based on conflict between haves and have-nots. The view never made a lot of sense, because those in a position to make their influence felt in politics are always by definition “haves.” Hence the search for authentic radicals and the constant complaints about revolutionary betrayal. Post-60s the view has become absurd, since the political tendency that claims to speak for the “have nots” is visibly owned and operated by technocratic elites who find egalitarian slogans helpful in destroying all principles of authority other than their own, and incidentally liberating themselves personally from obligations to others.


Justice and the ABA

The ABA already has rules that keep judges from belonging to organizations that think there are differences between men and women that matter in personal and social interactions and that adjust their practices accordingly (that “discriminate based on gender”).


Will humanity be checkmated?

Modernity attempts to achieve control through formalization. The great triumphs of modern natural science have come from exact measurement and mathematical modelling. Similarly, modern political and social systems substitute the simple and abstract concept of preference—the tendency of actors to choose some things over other things—for the more complex and subtle concept of the good. They then attempt to maximize the satisfaction of preference by replacing opaque concrete things like family, faith and ethnic culture with transparent formal systems like world markets and transnational bureaucracies. Since modern formal systems can supposedly be made ever more efficient, rational and reliable, while traditional arrangements can’t be managed and therefore supposedly can’t be relied on for anything, attachment to the latter has come to be viewed as ignorant, irrational and hateful.


Liberal leftism and left leftism

A friend sent me a copy of a note he had written arguing against the neoconservative claim that the liberalism dominant today in the academy, the Democratic Party, and the New York Times is the illegitimate result of smuggling (bad) Leftism into (good) pre-60s liberalism. My response:

I agree with your overall argument. The distinction between the moderate left (liberalism) and the leftist left doesn’t last. Moderation is a style and not an independent self-sustaining principle. It can’t support itself indefinitely when the authoritative principles (freedom and equality) make logically unbounded demands and there’s nothing transcending them to keep them in their place. In the 30s there was the tag that communists are democrats in a hurry. I think there was something to that.


The rise of the state and tolerance

Here’s a review by Joseph Stromberg of A. J. Conyers’ The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit. The book’s been out for a while now, and I haven’t read it yet but should.


Paleo-politics and Catholicism

The uniform view of the cultural Left—which includes everything that counts as mainstream from the standpoint of our bureaucracies of truth—is that nods by Republican leaders toward traditionalist cultural concerns prove that the GOP has been hijacked by fundamentalist wackos. That’s not rhetoric and spin, things really look to them that way. It’s clear from scholarly discussions and judicial opinions, for example, that the elite bar, a thoroughly mainstream part of our ruling class, is literally unable to conceive of a legitimate ground for publicly distinguishing homosexual couplings from any other sexual connection, including marriage.


If a tree falls and an expert doesn't hear it, is there a sound?

One of my main points here at Turnabout has been that if government sells itself as neutral administration and adjudication, then ultimate power belongs to whoever gets to say what knowledge is. Another has been that officially-recognized knowledge today is a matter of “expertise”: the views of self-contained bureaucracies of knowledge arrived at in accordance with procedures inaccessible to other people. Those views can be counted on to reflect the outlook and interests of experts as a class. In addition, by their nature as “expert” they can’t draw on things that aren’t neutral and can’t be formalized, like common sense, the lessons of tradition, and the day-to-day experience of ordinary people. Such things therefore become by definition “ignorant” and if persisted in “bigoted.”


General theory


Are international human rights the summum bonum?

Someone suggested in connection with my dialogue on liberalism, citing Norberto Bobbio, that the summum bonum liberalism proposes is validated by universal consent in the form of international human rights conventions. My response:

I can’t see international human rights law as a universal consensus on the highest good. The people who determine the policies of the modern state can’t speak persuasively on that issue, they’re as little like prophets as anyone can be, so how can they do so if all of them get together from everywhere and agree on something? When state functionaries get together thousands of miles from their people and agree on something extremely general what you’re likely to get is something that sounds good but to the extent it has practical effect can be relied on mainly to advance the interests of state functionaries.


Liberalism and freedom

Freedom—the liberation of desire from restraint by other people’s understanding of the good—is central to liberalism. It follows that liberalism is incoherent. The problem is that freedom has to be freedom to do something in particular, and goals conflict. As a result some particular goals, and thus some freedoms, have to be chosen over others. So freedom cannot be an ultimate standard. A substantive understanding of the good always comes first. The writings in this section discuss the contradictions, and the tyrannies and obfuscations, that arise when the attempt is mad


Restoration of Christendom

Can Christendom be restored?

Every society is based on some understanding of man and the world that is comprehensive enough to define good and evil, moral obligation, the nature of the good life and so on. But that is just to say that every society is based on a religious understanding.

The issue then is not whether “politics” and “religion” should be kept separate — in the long run they can’t be, the two are joined at the head — but the nature of the established religion and the relation between explicitly religious considerations and more secular issues.



Communism, in its concrete sense as a political movement based on the writings of Karl Marx, has been one of the three main variants of political modernity. The others have been liberalism and fascism. As such it combined liberal goals (emancipation of the individual from restraint) with fascist means (struggle in solidarity against an enemy to be destroyed).



Europe refers to a geographical area and a civilization. In the former sense it stretches in the West from Gibraltar to the British Isles, in the East to the Urals, and on the South to the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caucasus and Caspian Sea. In the latter sense it has usually been more restricted. Napoleon said that Europe ends at the Pyrenees, and Goethe said somewhere (I believe) that he left Europe when he stepped into a peasant’s cottage. There has always been a question whether Russia or the Balkans are truly European.

The relation between Europe and its offspring has further complicated the question. Is America European?



The question regarding man today is whether man is simply a natural object like any other, the qualities of which can be explained in the same way as those of a maple tree or computer program, and if not, whether he has a particular substantive essence &mdash a necessary character that makes him what he is &mdash or whether he is the being that freely defines what he is with no constraint except acceptance of his own power of choice.

The Catholic view, of course, is that man is different from other objects in nature, and that he has a specific essence that defines the goals for him t



Christendom is the part of the world inhabited by Christians, understood as a polity ordered toward Christ though recognition of the authority of the Church. The ordering of course has never been perfect, but Christ was nonetheless once understood as the principle of unity and the highest possible authority. As such, Christendom endured until the Enlightenment.


The West

The West is a sort of abstract version of “Europe”, which in turn is a secularized version of [Christendom]. As such it is not completely clear what it is or was, except that it wasn’t the “East” (thecommunist world) or the “South” (the Third World). It included New Zealand but not Argentina, for example, and didn’t exclude Japan. See David Gress’s From Plato to Nato for an account of the development of the idea and of the thing itself.

During the Cold War period many conservative and neoconservative publicists pushed “The West” or “Western Civilization” as the main object of conservative loyalty. The impulse has died down somewhat with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the extension of NATO and the EU, continuing mass third-world immigration, the general triumph of multiculturalism, and increasing friction between Europe and the United States.



Tradition is a collective term for the beliefs, habits, attitudes, institutions, stories and so on that grow up among a people living together and give them a common mind and spirit that enables them to make a life together. Tradition is also the knowledge of things that can’t easily be put into words, diffused and made concrete in the life of the people.

Catholics sometimes distinguish

  • Sacred Tradition, which is a vehicle of revelation equal to scripture,

A modern moral taxonomy

What kind of moral life is possible depends on what the world is like. The view educated men in the modern West take seriously is that what exists is (1) the world described by modern physics, and (2) sensation and desire. Those things are somehow just there, and no one understands or agrees on their relationship. Given such a view, there’s no basis for an organized understanding of what’s good that’s authoritative and applies regardless of what someone’s particular thoughts and desires happen to be. There are just things various people want from time to time.

In such a setting no coherent reason can be given for doing anything other than wanting to do it. On the other hand, wanting to do something is accepted as a reason for doing it. So there’s a sort of relativistic definition of the good &mdash if it rings your bell go for it &mdash but that definition is thought objectively correct. Moral intolerance is therefore extremely offensive to the modern mind. Nonetheless, modern ontology leaves several distinct moral possibilities open. Which of them is realized depends on:


Liberalism, Tradition and the Church

This four-part essay was published in slightly edited form in the Summer 2004 issue of Telos (number 128). There is also a *.pdf version of the essay as published. Comments are, of course, welcome.


More AI follies

I’ve noted the Amnesty International view that violence against women is the greatest human rights scandal of our times. Their campaign against that scandal continues, with their submission of a report to the UN that complains, on human rights grounds, about the failure of the Spanish Government to do away with violence against women. The only hard figure that appears in the news report is that during the first half of this year 32 women died as result of violence by their “partners.” Since the population of Spain is around 40,000,000, that doesn’t sound like an unusually high murder rate. Nonetheless, it’s the thing picked out for concern.



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