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Political theory

Liberalism: Ideal and Reality

A slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of Telos.

Why does liberalism—the tradition that makes equal freedom the political touchstone—combine such strength with such incoherence? The attempt to make freedom dominant leads to contradiction. Liberalism is triumphant almost everywhere, but its victory reverses the meaning of its principles. It calls for live-and-let-live, and enforces it by supervising everything. For the sake of freedom it empowers bureaucrats to reconstruct human nature. It appeals to “the people,” while reserving the right to make them into whatever it thinks fit.*


Ibn Khaldun and Our Age

A slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in issue 20 of The Scorpion.
Political thinkers engage our attention by their presentation of the particular features of their own time and place as well as the permanent qualities of man in society. We can read Aristotle and Hobbes for general lessons, or for the politics of the Greek city-state and of European society after the wars of religion.


The Icelandic Sagas and Social Order

The relation among individual, society and state is a confused one in our time. Is the individual everything and society nothing, or the other way around? Why should one care about the other? Can the state treat the whole social world as the theater for its meddling? If not, what are the limits? Such questions are inescapable and unanswerable in a society like our own, that has no coherent understanding of human life and is dominated by impersonal institutions and abstract relationships that have no hold on our sense of what we are.

The history of the libertarian farmers’ republic that was medieval Iceland, and the vivid picture of that society presented in the Icelandic sagas, gives a fresh view of these issues. The similarities and contrasts to our own society are noteworthy. Like America, the Icelandic Commonwealth was a new country, founded in the light of history by European settlers and governed by common consent rather than king and priest. Icelandic political life, like ours, emphasized both law and personal independence. However, the Icelanders had no state to enforce rights and obligations. Men pursued their ends without direct protection or hindrance from any public agency, and were obliged to act themselves to secure their safety and legal rights.


The Dilemma of Managerial Liberalism

The following review of Paul Gottfried’s After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton 1999) appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Telos.

The title of this book refers to the practice and ideology of contemporary Western government, which, in Gottfried’s view, bears little resemblance to historical liberalism and in many ways is its opposite. Where, after all, is the division and limitation of power, the protection of private property, and recognition of an inviolate private sphere where the state has no business? How can an order be ‘liberal,’ in which social planners reconstruct the human soul, or ‘democratic,’ in which government feels itself entitled to reconstitute a people it finds lacking? Nevertheless, what Gottfried describes is managerial liberalism, which has become the engine of the managerial state.


Fulminations and Contempts

James Kalb
Yale Law School
Independent Study—Charles Gray, supervisor
May 1, 1978

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and indeed until the break with Rome under Henry VIII, king and church agreed that each had a sphere of exclusive jurisdiction that the other could not infringe upon without usurpation. Naturally, problems arose in defining the precise extent of each sphere. Some of these problems were substantive: which disputes were cognizable by which jurisdiction. Others were procedural: how the substantive problems were to be decided, who was to decide them, and how the decisions were to be enforced.


The Vanishing Idealism of Criminal Law in Colonial America

James Kalb
Yale Law School
Supervised Analytic Writing—Barbara Black, supervisor

This paper deals with developments in the substantive criminal law of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York during what I shall call the “eighteenth century”: the period beginning in Pennsylvania in 1682 with the founding of the proprietary government, in Massachusetts in 1692 with the granting of the Provincial Charter, and in New York in 1691 with the reformation of the court system and the permanent establishment of a legislature. These three colonies, although neighbors, differed radically from each other and from England in their origins, in their political and social arrangements, and in the ethnic and religious makeup of their people. They were thus representative of the diversity of the British colonies in North America, and accordingly one would expect to find great differences in their law, including their criminal law. In the beginning such differences existed. However, during the course of the eighteenth century the criminal law of each of the colonies grew much more like that of England. By the time of the Revolution the original differences from English law had largely disappeared, and the criminal law of the three colonies, especially Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, had become remarkably uniform.


Traditionalism and the American Order

A Swedish translation of the following essay appeared in the Swedish mainstream conservative quarterly Contextus (no. 4, 1998). Bracketed language did not appear in the essay as published.

The American Founding was the first of the liberal revolutions; nonetheless, America is in many ways the most conservative of Western countries. It is the most anticommunist, the most resistant to the welfare state, the most visibly religious, the most vocally concerned with “traditional moral values.” It has also been unusually stable politically. How is such conservatism possible in a political order founded so explicitly on liberal principles, one in which it is not simply laughable when apologists for left-wing libertinism call themselves “People for the American Way?”


What is the EU?

The goals and ultimate destiny of the European Union have been variously explained. The uncertainty is not altogether accidental, since the plan of the EU Founding Fathers was to bring about European unity by indirection. The strategy is a good one; it is hard to criticize what has no accepted description. Those who favor the EU can cooperate without making their long-term goals explicit, while opponents are told that their objections are mistaken because the EU is really something else.

It is therefore important to say what the EU is and so make it something that can be discussed and understood. It is clear that it is not a collection of solutions to particular practical problems, but rather an all-embracing attempt to construct ever greater unity in spite of all obstacles. It may rhetorically assert the principle of subsidiarity — making decisions locally when possible — but its entire history denies that principle. It aims at centralization and uniformity for their own sake.


Is liberalism totalitarian?

My Liberal Lawyer correspondent has provoked me to the following reflections on the relationship between liberalism and totalitarianism:

How you use political words depends on the features of political life you think deserve to be played up. People view these things differently so maybe the best I can do is explain what I have in mind and see where we agree and where we differ.

We can probably agree that totalitarianism has two aspects, substantive and procedural:


Traditionalist Conservatism Page


Welcome to the Traditionalist Conservatism Page!

This page presents materials I accumulated that are related in one way or another to traditionalist conservatism, an outlook described in my Conservatism FAQ and developed in the materials on this site. If you want, there is a spoken introduction to the issues (requiring RealPlayer).


Conservatism FAQ

This is the February 1, 2005 revision of a summary of questions and objections regarding conservatism. Additional questions and comments are welcome. The conservatism discussed is traditionalist American conservatism. Other varieties are touched on in section 6, and their adherents are urged to draft additional FAQs.


Establishment and liberalism

A lawyer with mainstream liberal views on the Establishment Clause sent me a note taking issue with some of my comments on my page on the Establishment of Religion and I responded. Here’s an edited version of the exchange:


Is conservatism to the point?

I got another note from my Finnish correspondent, who continues to express some dissatisfaction with conservatism (he is specially concerned with Russell Kirk). As in the past (here and here) his questions seemed worth editing and passing on, together with my attempts to answer them:


More questions on conservatism

More questions from my Finnish correspondent, with responses:

Q: If the possession of property is necessary for development of responsibility and virtue, it seems reasonable to desire an extension of this possession to as many as possible. Why don’t American conservatives make more of that issue?


How will the counterrevolution come?

A Finnish correspondent sent me some questions about the current overall situation, where it’s likely to go, and what to do about it. I thought others might find them of interest, so here they are with my responses:


Why now?

A correspondent with a scientific turn of mind wanted to pursue a question raised here a a week or two ago, why the Derrida and similar viruses are such a plague now when earlier they weren’t a problem.

My comments (slightly edited):

It seems that most “why now” explanations emphasize features of modern life that are hard to fix, and that most people wouldn’t want to fix—complexity, abundant instant communication, extensive formalized training and education, a certain adventurousness, and so on. All these things make it easy to spread superficially appealing novelties that have the appeal of expert authority but little substantive content.


Expertise and family life

The institutional expert consensus on the raising of children by homosexual couples is that

there is no evidence that lesbians and gay men are unfit to be parents or that psychosocial development among children of gay men or lesbians is compromised in any respect… . Not a single study has found children of gay or lesbian parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.

Charlotte J. Patterson, “Lesbian and Gay Parenting,” American Psychological Association Public Interest Directorate (1995): 8.

The Family Research Council has put together an informative summary of materials on what lies behind that consensus — junk social science, ideology, and willful blindness in a matter involving the well-being of large numbers of children.


The confusion of attempted simplicity

Privacy, tolerance, and the “wall of separation” were supposed to keep the government out of our private affairs, and especially out of our churches and bedrooms. Things haven’t worked out quite so smoothly, or at least that’s most likely the view of the Christian mother who is appealing a judge’s decision that prohibits her from teaching her daughter that homosexuality is wrong.

A woman living in a lesbian relationship adopted an infant daughter. Several years later she converted to Christianity, decided the relationship was wrong, and left it. Her former lover — who had no legal relationship with the woman or her adopted daughter — sued for joint custody and got it, with the added requirement that the mother had to “make sure that there is nothing in the religious upbringing or teaching that the minor child is exposed to that can be considered homophobic.”


Is conservatism winning or losing badly?

Conservatives can be divided into (1) pessimists, who think the trend is down, down, down, and (1) optimists, who think things aren’t so bad. The pessimists point to things like Grutter, Lawrence, and the business-as-usual attitude of most mainstream conservatives to those decisions. The optimists point to things like practical limitations on the power of government, the increasing availability of conservative outlets, and what they see as decisive victories on some issues.

To discuss the question in a more focused way requires an idea what would constitute success. Here’s a proposal I made to a conservative discussion group:


All things as stories we choose

Today people say there is no history “as it really was.” A story is a human construction, and its truth is mostly a matter of acceptance by the relevant community. So if that’s so, why shouldn’t those who accept that the human world is a human construction, to be remade in accordance with desire, try to dominate the historical profession, and exert their control to create historical truth as they see fit? Isn’t that a natural part of the effort to reconstitute the world to fit human needs better?

It’s a line of thought that has serious consequences. The Left—those who hold such views—dominate intellectual life to the extent they have become the mainstream. Even after the collapse of communism historians, apparently with the belief that they’re doing what’s right, resist discussing communism as it was. After all, if remaking the world in accordance with desire is a good thing, how could communism have been basically wrong? And if we want to reconstruct the future, why not start by reconstructing the past? The dominant faction in the profession therefore suppresses interpretations that are too strongly adverse to communism and, when it becomes awkward to ignore or deny the evidence altogether, engages in damage control.



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