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Political theory

The fraud of pluralism

It should be obvious that in the modern world there’s no such thing as a pluralistic society. After all, life today is marked by pervasiveness, complexity and comprehensiveness of social cooperation, and those things require common habits, understandings and beliefs. Further, modern modes of production, exchange and regulation depend on standardization. The present day is therefore distinguished by universal all-pervasive centralized institutions that inculcate the qualities of mind and spirit that rationalized organizations need. Children are raised by educational and childcare bureaucracies and by mass-market pop entertainment. Politics and culture have been absorbed by television—whatever happens happens in the mass media, and it happens just as it happens there. And the uniformity of outlook in modern professionalized educational, cultural and media bureaucracies is notorious.


Blair on social cohesion

The managerial welfare state rolls on, extending its responsibilities into more and more of social life. Tony Blair wants to add attitudes and informal personal connections to what’s administered, and to treat criminal law as simply an aspect of social management: TB’s vision for Britain.

Blair’s program follows coherently from the widely accepted basic principles that he states:

“Families have a right to be housed.”


The Idea of a Traditionalist Society

Conservatives complain very forcefully, but aren’t as good at saying what they want. Unless we can say what we want, however, it will be hard to make clear to others or even ourselves what we’re doing or why anyone should go along with it. So here, for comment, is an initial sketch of an answer to the question, what does a traditionalist want?


Why is the Left groovy?

I ran into a discussion of “why leftism” over at that was interesting because it dealt with the problem of the attractiveness of the Left. The discussion ended by proposing that the Right

“Claim art, claim food, claim pleasure, claim generosity.”

My response:

Good idea, but one that’s hard to carry out.

A darwinian leftist

There are some interesting things in Unity is Health: An Evolutionary Left, an article by a neo-lefty British journalist who takes the notion of innate human nature seriously. What’s interesting in it is that there is apparently good reason to think that social inequality as such leads to bad health for those at the bottom, and that some left-wingers are trying to reconstruct leftist thought to take into account innate human differences.


Quid sit America?

What is America and what is it to us? It’s an odd and difficult question, even more so perhaps than what it is to be British. It’s nonetheless a pressing one in time of cultural transformation and war.


Autonomy and the failure of classical liberalism

Autonomy means “self-rule,” and liberalism makes it the supreme political goal. The coherence of classical liberalism depends on its ability to find a meaning of autonomy that promotes discipline and small government. On the face of it, that should be easy. After all, ruling yourself is a discipline, and external government is its negation. The problem is that there is no such thing as self-rule in general. Men rule themselves in different ways depending on what they are trying to do. Napoleon and St. Francis both ruled themselves, but to very different effect.


Guns and liberal autonomy

Paul Craig Roberts has a useful column summarizing recent studies on the relationship between guns and violence. Not surprisingly, the studies show that widespread gun ownership reduces violent crime by enabling law-abiding citizens to respond appropriately—that is, immediately and forcibly—to violence and the threat of violence.


Scruton’s Godless conservatism

In the past day I’ve run twice into Roger Scruton’s 1996 Wall Street Jounal piece on “Godless Conservatism”, from which it appears that many people who are uncomfortable with liberalism find it speaks to them.


What is conservatism?

An online publication asked me to write a column on “what is a conservative,” so I put together a draft. It’s a conservative news site in South Carolina, rather well edited, and they’ve just been through an election in which there was a lot of discussion what a “true conservative” is.

Any comments?

What is a Conservative?

We’re all convinced there’s something called conservatism that opposes something called liberalism. Nonetheless, people who call themselves conservatives can disagree with each other in basic ways. What’s it all about?


Conservatism as orthodoxy

What kind of conservatism is possible today? Conservatism has always emphasized tradition. Since the goods tradition promotes can be difficult to articulate—if things were otherwise the goods wouldn’t have to be embodied in tradition but could be taken straight—and since the opponents of tradition refuse to admit the reality and value of traditional goods, the impression has grown up that conservatism is defense of existing habit simply as such. That impression is a distortion. The conservative preference for stability has always been subordinate to more ultimate concerns that could not be clearly stated because they were transcendent. “Conservative Stalinist” is thus an oxymoron.


What is the place of freedom?

What is the proper place for freedom? Certainly the liberal view that freedom is a self-contained final standard for politics is wrong, since freedom is always freedom to do or be something. As such it must be understood by reference to some further good. Freedom is primarily freedom to acquire or achieve something good.


The normality of liberalism

Why is something as radical as inclusiveness ideology normal, so that if you disagree with it you’re an irrational extremist? Here are some possibilities:

  • Everything is bureaucratic or world market-oriented today, and bureaucracies and world markets find it easier to operate on explicit quantitative impersonal principles that ignore complex human relationships like sex and ethnicity. It therefore seems irrational and even antisocial—opposed to the principles that make orderly common action possible—to take such relationships seriously.
  • Since everything is to be dealt with in a rational, explicit, quantitative, and impersonal way, everything important should be handled by experts. The duty of the public in a modern society is therefore to listen to what the experts tell them, believe it, and reject everything else as prejudiced and ignorant. Expertise is not as neutral as advertised, however. For example, experts can be relied on to favor handling bureaucratically everything world markets can’t take care of—otherwise their expertise can’t be brought to bear in a systematic way. It follows they will always end up opposing autonomous traditional institutions like family, religion and ethnic ties.

Who is the extremist?

In America today traditionalist conservatism seems quite radical. It rejects technocracy and egalitarian hedonism—the central tenets of current political and moral discussion—together with ideals like inclusiveness and institutions like the modern managerial state that flow from them. It calls, in fact, for absolutely fundamental changes in the public order and the beliefs that motivate it.


More on liberal tyranny

A couple of years ago I wrote an essay on The Tyranny of Liberalism. Now I have a sequel that I’m revising because it didn’t get published where I wanted. I thought I’d post it here to see if anyone finds it interesting enough to comment:


by James Kalb


Procedural and substantive conservatism

Like other political views, conservatism can be substantive or procedural:

  • A substantive conservative is conservative because he believes there are truths we need that can’t be demonstrated to be true or even articulated fully. He is attached to his own tradition primarily because he sees those truths embodied in it. Substantive conservatives are usually religious conservatives, since truths that are necessary but can’t be fully stated or grasped are a specialty of religion.
  • A procedural conservative is conservative simply because he likes change to be slow and deliberate. If change is slow it is likely to be more intelligent and less disruptive, and relative stability makes it easier for people to organize their lives productively. On ultimate standards, however, a procedural conservative is a relativist. Procedural conservatism fits modern ways of thinking better—in fact, it is entirely consistent with liberalism—so respectable well-connected institutional conservatism tends in that direction. Neocons are normally procedural conservatives, for example.

Why the human rights treaties?

Why is it that “human rights” treaties get signed with such alacrity? On its face, The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes depriving a child of the right to watch the TV programs he likes (Article 13) or choose who he hangs out with (Article 15) human rights violations. Nonetheless, it has been signed by every country in the world except the US and Somalia. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (169 states parties, again not including the United States) has been used officially to support demands that prostitution, abortion and lesbianism be legalized, the Koran reinterpreted and Mother’s Day abolished. Noble causes, perhaps, but why would any country sign on to someone else’s judgment of the matter instead of making up its own mind?

It’s not that there’s a secret about the meaning of these treaties. The UN website pushing CEDAW, for example, says:


Will liberalism continue to be successful?

Why does liberal society function as well as it does? Ordinary people and theoreticians complain about it, its proponents have trouble defending it coherently, and its imminent demise has been announced since long before any of us were born. Nonetheless, it is more widespread and firmly rooted than ever and its development goes from victory to victory. Most people aren’t willing to say so explicitly, but it is generally viewed as the final form of human society, a permanent achievement that has definitively triumphed and can never be superseded.

What is going on?


America: proposition nation?

There isn’t much more inhuman in our national life than the notion that the United States is a “creedal” or “propositional” nation. We need something to hold us together, so it is said, and we don’t have blood and soil, which sounds Nazi anyway, so we have to rely on our national creed—the proposition that all men are created equal. It is acceptance of that creed that makes us American, and since anyone can accept it, anyone from anywhere can become an American immediately simply by saying the magic words, while otherwise staying just as he is.

So what’s wrong with the idea? Lots:


Liberals, conservatives and the good life

You can’t beat something with nothing, so what do traditionalist conservatives put up to oppose the liberals? The answer is clear enough. Politics is the art of living together, so the basic political question is what kind of life is best. Liberalism is based on the liberal notion of the good life—in theory doing your own thing, in practice careerism and recreational hedonism with a coloring of political correctness. Traditionalist conservatism can therefore respond to liberalism only by putting forward an alternative.

The traditionalist conservative view of the good life is based more on settled attachments and ultimate goods than on technology and present desire. Most concretely, it is based on God, family and country. The dispute between liberalism and traditionalist conservatism is which understanding of life is better. Until that question becomes central to political discussion traditionalist conservatism will never make headway because it will never be possible for it to make its case.



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