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Political theory

The tyranny of neutral expertise

Scientism and the cult of the expert are fundamental features of contemporary liberalism.

Liberalism intends to abolish oppression. Since oppression includes all subjection to the arbitrary will of another, liberalism attempts to base government action not on will, or on particular personal understandings of the good, but on what the situation objectively requires as determined by a rational and impersonal public process—in other words, by trained and credentialed expertise. Further, the liberal understanding of oppression expands, in accordance with its tendency toward abstraction and universality, to include all personal and social inequalities, however informal or even natural. Abolition of oppression therefore comes to require comprehensive control of all social relations, which again must be passed off as the impersonal rational requirement of technical considerations and of human rights, both as determined by experts insulated from political pressure.


A dialogue on liberalism

The following dialogue is intended to clarify the basic arguments for philosophical liberalism and problems regarding those arguments. Since I’m not a liberal, it seems fair to me that liberalism should lose, but since it’s a dialogue it should present the liberal point of view as forcefully as possible. The liberalism I’m concerned with is mostly the kind now usual that calls for comprehensive state adminstration of social life to guarantee particular outcomes for individuals, but most of the arguments should apply to other forms such as libertarianism. All comments, criticisms and additional arguments are welcome.


James Hitchcock on the debacle of liberalism

He’s written a useful discussion of the collapse of liberalism into radical-left extremism: Supremely Modern Liberals.

Hitchcock seems to waffle somewhat on the nature of liberalism itself and whether things might have turned out otherwise. That might be because he’s a historian and as such tends to view something like liberalism as a complex historical formation rather than a thing with a definite nature that can be described and reasoned about. Or maybe it’s because all Americans except a few cranks are basically liberals, and he’s writing as usual for an audience and publication (in this case Touchstone) that wants to avoid crankishness and aims at a supposedly solid middle ground of orthodox reasonableness.


Historical considerations


Were the Wars of Religion really that?

The claim that the history of Europe from 1517 to 1648 shows that mixing politics and religion leads to endless violence, so that peace requires the secular state, always seemed odd to me. After all, states kill by nature, and they can be defended only if someone is willing to put his life on the line. It follows that any state whatever is based on some principle thought worth killing and dying for. Political principles have to do with the use of force to achieve practical objectives, while religious principles relate more essentially to other things.


Flogging a dead multiculture

A review of Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police in The New Pantagruel brings out the nature of “celebrating diversity” in school textbooks: since almost anything one might assert, suggest or mention would be more favorable to one group or culture than another, the only things that can be asserted, suggested or mentioned are things like elderly marathoners and the personal problems of immigrants. “Diversity” always turns out to mean “sameness and irrelevance.” Since the same problems appear in college textbooks, choice of which normally lies with individual instructors, the issue isn’t formal political pressure so much as the voluntary decision of our whole intellectual class to prefer multiculti to anything intellectual.


The soul of man under capitalism

This discussion by Ludwig von Mises of capitalism, happiness, and beauty has something of the “one simple principle correctly resolves everything” quality that tends to disfigures libertarian thought, so it’s no credit to the Mises Institute that they’ve chosen to give it special prominence.

The issue is artistic life under “capitalism,” by which I suppose Mises means a regime of private property, free markets and post-industrial revolution technology in which economic concerns are foremost. It seems that what’s happened under that regime, which has been dominant in the West since the French Revolution, is that the arts at their highest levels detached somewhat from the social order, became eccentric, went to extremes, and eventually died.


Degrees of scientific separation

There are a couple of interesting entries here and here at the Touchstone weblog about the importance of scientific “descent”—who is descended from whom by apprenticeship or similarly intimate professional connection. It turns out to be very important indeed. It appears, for example, that all significant chemists are professionally descended from a small number of 18th and 19th century Germans. The mathematicians have even formalized the point as the Erdös number, which is the number of degrees of separation (by co-authorship of papers) between a scholar and the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös. That number is so important that a man with an Erdös number of 4 tried to auction off on Ebay the chance to co-author a paper with him, which would give the successful bidder an Erdös number of 5.


French hypocrisy and puritanism strike again

Brigitte Bardot and her publisher have been fined 5,000 Euros each for being on the wrong side of current social issues. The immediate basis of the fines was publication of a book some people found objectionable on acccount of its comments on immigrants, in-your-face homosexuals, and whatnot.


Conservative Thinkers

The great figures of conservatism include Confucius, Pascal, Burke, Maistre, and Newman. Pascal and Newman are not usually thought of as conservative thinkers, Newman in particular is often considered a liberal, but both are major theorists of antimodernist epistemology and therefore fundamental to the struggle against liberalism.

Other major figures relevant to conservatism include Hayek, Mises, Oakeshott, and classical political thinkers generally. Hayek and Mises of course considered themselves liberals, with good reason, but their emphasis on knowledge that goes beyond what is individual and explicit begins to open doors out of liberalism and modernity, as indeed do the classical thinkers in various ways. Oakeshott of course is considered the great conservative, and he’s useful, but I consider him at heart modernist because of his tendency toward scepticism and relativism.


Modernist epistemology strikes again! has republished a denunciation of fusionism, and (a fortiori) conservatism, by the intelligent but extremely contentious Murray Rothbard.


Sex and Gender

Sex is a basic principle of personal identity and social organization, continuity and cohesion. Those who say sexual love is “bigger than both of us” are more right than they know. Since sex helps constitute our world and make us what we are, we cannot reduce it to something we define for ourselves as we choose. The modern liberal insistence that we can do so is one basic reason liberal modernity can’t last.



Modernity is not adequate to reality. In the manner of Descartes, it insists on building larger truths from smaller propositions already known to be true. It extends that insistence from questions of truth to questions of existence, and insists that there can be “cranes” but no “skyhooks”—atoms but no God—and so in effect that convenience of analysis, the demand that everything be analyzable without remainder into simple parts, determines what can exist. A problem with such an approach is that no series of propositions can capture the truth of things. Each particular thing depends on larger and more comprehensive realities that go beyond anything that can be inferred from the thing itself. But if that’s so, we can’t bootstrap a world into existence from experience and logic, or from elementary physical constants and relationships, but must rely on principles that go beyond our knowledge as well as those built up from smaller truths.



Liberalism is the victorious form of political modernity. As a modern tendency, it treats human will as the source of value and tries to rationalize all things by reference to it as the standard. What distinguishes it from other modern tendencies is that it treats every will as equal. Its ultimate goal, therefore, is to turn human society into an integrated machine for the rational equal satisfaction of desire.



Modernity is based on a system of knowledge that starts with logic and clear and unquestionable truths and out of those things claims to construct all we can know. Such an approach to knowledge severely limits what we can recognize as real, and thus profoundly affects our view of what there is and what we should do.


Traditionalist Conservatism

What is conservatism? Is it simply keeping things the same, so that Brezhnev was “conservative?” Or is there a more principled basis for it, one that can support enduring positions that deepen rather than collapse when attacked, and on occasion even call for radical change?


Liberalism, Tradition and the Church IV

Historical and Practical Considerations

I have argued that rationalism does not work, that life in accordance with reason must rely on particular tradition and revelation, and that Catholicism has a good claim to be the most reasonable of revelations. Many people, of course, deny all those things.

The most forceful objection to my claims is the argument from success: if radical problems are implicit in liberalism, why has it been as successful as it has for so long? Is it realistic to think liberal modernity will go away and be replaced by something more like what preceded it? Advanced liberalism, after all, is the culmination of modernity, the centuries-old attempt to replace custom and religion by man the measure and this-worldly reason as the basis for life and thought. That effort has been strikingly successful in many ways. And liberalism in particular has overthrown every tradition that has stood against it and outlasted every competing wave of the future. No competitor has general appeal as a way of organizing social life. Its triumph has led to belief in the end of history, which is now understood as the story of struggle against the oppression that preceded the coming of advanced liberalism, the form of human association whose universal unconditional validity — symbolized, for example, by international human rights conventions — makes memory and culture irrelevant.


Also sprach David Gress …

He rather exaggerates the opposition between American and other conservatism:

“There can be no doubt that the promise of America is a promise of personal liberty, of freedom of contract, movement, and belief … If there is anything on which all European conservatives have always agreed, however, it is the value and importance of a strong state …”


Is America constructed?

David Gress, a Danish classicist and historian, wrote a discussion some years back of the differences between American and European conservatism. The discussion isn’t altogether coherent (I think some lines were dropped when The World and I put it on the web) but includes some interesting material. I’m likely to take up some points it covers over the next few days. Gress speaks of “the United States as a political society deliberately created by human action in the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution.” Those events obviously did not create American political society, which existed before them and continued to exist after them. They simply broke the political ties with Great Britain, which had often been rather


Hayek's anti-conservatism

F. A. Hayek’s 1960 discussion of “Why I Am Not a Conservative” is a useful statement of the arguments in favor of classical liberalism over conservatism. Naturally, I think there are serious problems with them, mostly having to do with Hayek’s agnosticism, which I don’t think works to ground a free social order:

  • Hayek describes [classical] liberalism as “the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution.” A problem is that life, growth and evolution can’t be final standards. All they say by themselves is that it’s good when things change, and that the new situation shouldn’t be judged by prior standards but by its own. As such it’s a philosophy of power, like fascism or the philosophy of John Dewey. There are distinctions, of course: Hayek’s vitalism is individual and contractual, the fascists’ hierarchical and collective, and Dewey’s perhaps a mixture of the two. All forms of vitalism are unsatisfactory, however. Men like to know what they’re about, and they need some conception of standards to attain integrity. The coming-into-being of I-know-not-what doesn’t do the job.


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