Yet more on the position of social conservatism

An issue that isn’t raised because public figures don’t understand it won’t get far in a media-drenched age. So an obvious problem for social conservatives is that the articulate classes don’t understand—at all—the issues they raise. Some possible reasons that come to mind:

  • Modern intellectual life, education and methods of organization make the methods of the modern natural sciences the standard for rationality, and tend to treat social life as a matter of engineering outcomes in as direct and controllable a way as possible. Morality, to the extent it’s of public concern, becomes a matter of rights and obligations regarding formal organizations. “Personal” morality therefore becomes a strictly personal matter that no one else can comment on rather than a factor basic to our lives together.
  • Intellectual life and education have become highly centralized, detached from any particular concrete way of life, and subordinate to the needs of large rationalized institutions. On the whole, the function of what passes for the life of the mind today is to develop perspectives, ideas and information useful to markets and bureaucracies, and train young people in those things so they’ll be useful to the institutions and able to make their way in them.
  • The articulate classes are a meritocracy. The well-spoken and well-placed have undergone endless schooling, they believe what they were told, they got where they are by giving the right answers, and they base their sense of who they are academic background and position in large formal organizations that don’t rely (at least directly) on the things social conservatives care about.
  • The members of the articulate classes, like the members of any ruling class, think they can mostly get what they want in personal relations, and will lose more than they gain from any definite system of social obligations. Modern ideology says that if they want to feel free to do what they want they have to make the standards they prefer general principles that apply to everyone. So that’s what they do.
  • The logic of the next step. “Civil rights” and feminism demand the effective abolition of historical, cultural and even natural human distinctions. Those things can’t be allowed to have any social function, since otherwise we wouldn’t be absolute self-defining individuals. Further, contraception, divorce and “living together” have become settled social habits and all but beyond criticism. Since all that’s so, what reason can be given for not accepting abortion and “gay marriage”? Forbidding abortion would deny women the right freely to construct what they are at all times, while denying “gay marriage” would mean that there is a social institution that is not a construction to further individual desire.

So the problems social conservatives face making their case aren’t a matter of finding the right spin to put on things. They have to do with the basic organization of society and the ways of thinking that follow from it. Which isn’t surprising, since basic social organization is what’s at issue anyway. So what to do? Some suggestions:

  • Decide whether the business is worth pursuing, or whether it would be better to throw in the towel to maintain a place at the table or whatever. My answer is that the things that make human life tolerable—for example, social organization that connects to what we are, distributes action and responsibility to each level, and reflects the whole range of human needs and experience—can’t be conceded. The alternative to informal traditional and local organization—meaning social conservatism—is an increasingly aggressive technocracy that can’t work and will only make us all miserable.
  • If the fight is worth the effort, then hang in there, go at it on all fronts, and hope for better days. If technocracy is truly nonworkable then better days will come even if we can’t say when. The intellectual side of the battle is especially important, because that’s where social conservatives are weakest and because defense of social conservatism requires a comprehensive assault on accepted public ways of thinking that will require a great deal of effort.
  • Make alliances. Utopia is never complete, or as rational as it thinks, so there’s always a lot that doesn’t fit in:
    • Married people, especially those with children, find technocracy radically at odds with their sense of what’s necessary and right. The future belongs to married people with children.
    • Artists and intellectuals need a coherent system of things that reflects as much human experience as possible to give their work meaning.
    • One way or another, libertarians and liberationists of various kinds want to distribute power down.
    • Scientists and scholars are interested in how things work. If there are indeed problems with technocracy they’ll eventually want to investigate and assess them.
    • commercial and organizational life can’t get by without personal reliability and integrity.

    At least in the long run, social conservatism is the only way those concerns can be met. Eventually people will realize that. Our job is to smooth the way for that day to come.

12 thoughts on “Yet more on the position of social conservatism”

  1. Jim, there’s no necessary connection between these things
    I’m as interested in a critique of bureaucracy as anyone (and, again, please do liberal intellectuals the courtesy of thinking about them as specific individuals! For instance—I’m no “brainwashed” child of the academy”: I grew up in a woking class family, didn’t start my college career until I was 23, and arrived there with my basic worldview already formed by readings in Hawthorne, Dickens, Melville, Emerson, Coton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards + my deep engament with classic hollywood films by the likes of Frank Capra, Frank Borzage, and William Dieterle) If I now quote Derrida sometimes, it’s because I think Derrida is just Emerson in modern French dress…

    I don’t believe that people can be “molded” into happy units… I think there are a few people who are destined to be “happy” (call them the Elect) and a lot of people who are destined to suffer (call them the “damned”) I’m a proponent of using state power to correct social imbalances/injustice because I don’t want to hear anyone using “tough luck” as an excuse for their misery, nor do I wish to make anyone’s life harder than it already is… You say you don’t like technocracy, but you LOVE the idea of consolidated Church, which makes no sense to me, because the Catholic Church has always been and always will be (wherever it has any power) a bureaucratic organization that has failed time and again to meet the real needs of any person that refuses to follow its prescriptions for a good life to the letter.

    Furthermore, technocracy may fail utterly, but that STILL doesn’t excuse the kind of “thinking” I’ve seen here about race and gender. Social hierarchies don’t depend upon white, “heterosexual” (in quotation marks, because anyone who refuses to think of sexuality in an open way probably isn’t actually attracted to the people they claim to be attracted to—that’s just my opinion, of course, it’s the Romantic in me—I believe in LOVE), male dominance, and if conservatives were REALLY smart, they would start arguing in favour of something like Plato’s Republic, which is as closed a society as anyone here could want, but which doesn’t muddy its thinking with obsessive atttachment to midvictorian ideas about the nuclear family and “separate spheres” gender theory…

    Of course, while I might respect that kind of conservatism more than the usual Turnabout screed, I hope it doesn’t happen, because it would prove to be a lot more dangerous than the daily jokefest I find here…


    • Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, as they say
      Dave, with that screed you could probably walk right into Harvard “University” Monday morning and get an instant, no-questions-asked, tenured full professorship. Why not go for it! (Hey, wait a minute … maybe you already have … )

      On a more serious note: though your comment was addressed to Jim Kalb, I was going to essay a point-by-point refutation of it but, when I surfaced for air after dealing with the third or fourth point in my initial draft, it began to dawn on me that the refutation of your comment really consisted essentially of no less than the entire Turnabout opus from day one to the present.

      I decided just to let it go …

      Best of luck to you, Dave … and hey, best wishes for the success of this “left-liberal Calvininst” denomination of yours …

      “If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.

    • Maybe not much to talk about
      1. Mr. Fiore talks about himself a great deal. I don’t know him, and we don’t seem much in sympathy, so I won’t comment.

      2. I can’t see the Catholic Church, especially as traditionally conceived, as a centralized bureaucratic organization in anything like the modern sense. Even today there’s 2,700 people in the Roman Curia and a billion Catholics. With that layout there has to be very heavy reliance on tradition, settled common understandings, and perceptions, habits and initiatives found at all levels. Very little can be run from the center. Before Vatican II, in my view an unfortunate example of an attempt at comprehensive “renewal” from the top down, the degree of bureaucratization was of course much less. For a discussion of the need for something like the Pope to preserve the coherence of tradition and therefore any possible reliable grasp of reality in post-Alexandrian society, see Liberalism, Tradition and the Church.

      3. An issue with using state power to correct social imbalances/injustice is that it’s a very blunt instrument that can’t see what’s going on or respond to it appropriately, so it redefines imbalance and injustice to mean something the state finds it easy to administer. Another is that it’s open-ended and gives power that’s really quite hard to limit to whoever’s doing the correction. Still another is that it suppresses the development of the networks of institutions and practices people develop to deal with the same issues in the absence of state action.

      3. I can’t remember any large number of comments here about sex, gender and whatnot that are specifically mid-Victorian. Current doctrine regarding such matters is extraordinarily anomalous historically and I think the point generally made is that the current anomalous view doesn’t represent a sudden extraordinary illumination but just an anomaly. To find a narrow ideology objectionable is not necessarily to want to set up a Republic based on some other ideology.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. you talk about yourself a lot too Jim–although you disguise it
    I can’t believe that, in the same post, you express concern over the potentially limitless power of bureaucracies and wax nostalgic for an omnipotent Vicar of Christ!

    I know this doesn’t seem like a contradiction to you, but it does to me! I don’t see how the “nongovernmental” authority of the Church is any less dangerous than the powers delegated to the modern (still unrealized) welfare state—in fact, of course, I believe that it’s more dangerous, because “tradition” need not justify itself, it need only control the interpretation of history… whereas at least a liberal-democrat has to ask his/her constituents if they are pleased with the feeble attempts made to provide a satisfying (or, to use your word, tolerable) framework for their lives…

    as for the Catholic Church and bureaucracy! Well, I know you hate it when I talk about myself Jim, but one of the differences between us is that I actually was born a Catholic, and grew up in a Catholic society… I can tell you that Quebec is by far the most bureaucratically oppressed society in North America, and the link between the method of social control and the religion is NO accident… American Catholics don’t really know what the Catholic Church is—for you it’s a cozy place to curl up dream about past glories and a toolshed for a critique of Calvinist-derived tendencies in America… You might feel differently if you had experienced life in a place where the Church still IS pretty much analogous to the State!

    As for the Victorianism of those who post here—it’s obvious to me, if not to you, that the idea of the “family” that is being clung to is only about 100 years older than some of the newer ideas that are being promulgated by feminists and queeer theorists… there’s not a whole lot of “tradition” back of the stay-at-home-mom!

    And what about all of this talk about tradition evolving? I think you’re right about that. You just don’t seem to like the way it’s evolving… and, as usual, I wonder what you would have been saying about slavery about 150 years ago…

    Probably that it was a godly institution and that it had its place—just as Pie IX declared!


    • Bureaucracy, tradition, Church
      The concern about modern bureaucracy is not simply that its power is potentially limitless. The power of the authoritative institutions in any society is potentially unlimited in some sense, since there’s nothing external to restrain them and it’s always possible to extend existing practices, redefine the nature of situations and acts etc. in such a way as to justify anything, especially over time. The concern is that by their size, activity and pervasiveness modern state bureaucracies disrupt normal social functioning. If there’s not much bureaucracy then the way things happen has to reflect habits, attitudes, understandings, arrangements etc. people develop in everyday life that establish themselves and get passed down. At least that’s true if force and fraud are generally suppressed. If there’s lots of bureaucracy then the way things happen reflects more the needs of the bureaucracy itself and the formal determinations of professionals in accordance with the standards that appeal to them. If things are done the non-bureaucratic way they’re likely to reflect a lot more knowledge and experience and correspond much more to what people mostly want than if they’re done the bureaucratic way. Also, the former way of doing things gives a broader range of people more of a role in making social life what it is, which is a good thing.

      It seems, by the way, that if you’re worried about the potentially unlimited power of social institutions then it makes sense to place the authority to make final determinations of matters of ultimate principle in the hands of a person or small body that doesn’t control significant physical force, maintains mutual independence with regard to other centers of power, disciplines its functionaries and radically limits their involvement in the general affairs of the world (e.g., forbids them to marry), and bases its power on the claim — which can be rationally discussed — that all it’s doing is applying principles it didn’t invent but received from a higher authority and has no power to change. That kind of arrangement won’t prevent all abuses, since that wouldn’t be possible, but it does prevent totalitarianism since it means that no political authority can maintain itself as a self-contained moral world.

      On good and bad developments of tradition: obviously tradition can’t be a wholly self-contained standard. If it were then it couldn’t tell us anything, since the state of a tradition is simply the beliefs, attitudes, habits, practices etc. of a society, whatever those things happen to be. The point of talking about “traditionalism” is that tradition is essential to knowledge and the realization of all personal and social goods, so it’s essential that the beliefs, attitudes, habits, practices etc. of a society enable tradition to function properly. Among other things that requires stable functional small scale institutions and connections like family, neighborhood, etc. Hence, among other things, “family values.”

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Subsidiarity?
        Searched on the word and didn’t find the doctrine addreessed directly. Have you written on it, Jim? I find it a handy concept to use when debating those who favor limited government but are hostile to the Catholic church. Not a Catholic myself and am unf amiliar with the evolution and nuances of the doctrine. Any comments or links would be appreciated.

        Thanks in advance.n

        • I haven’t written on it but i
          I haven’t written on it but intend to. In the meantime here are some papal and conciliar pronouncements that seem relevant:

          The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CA, n. 48; cf. QA, nn. 184186). God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence. The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order. – Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, nn. 1883-1885.

          In contrast, from the Christian vision of the human person there necessarily follows a correct picture of society. According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. This is what I have called the “subjectivity” of society which, together with the subjectivity of the individual, was cancelled out by “Real Socialism” (SRS, nn. 15, 28). – John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, May 1, 1991, n. 13.

          It is in full accord with human nature that juridicalpolitical structures should, with ever better success and without any discrimination, afford all their citizens the chance to participate freely and actively in establishing the constitutional bases of a political community, governing the state, determining the scope and purpose of various institutions, and choosing leaders…. Authorities must beware of hindering family, social, or cultural groups, as well as intermediate bodies and institutions. They must not deprive them of their own lawful and effective activity, but should rather strive to promote them willingly and in an orderly fashion. For their part, citizens both as individuals and in association should be on guard against granting government too much authority and inappropriately seeking from it excessive conveniences and advantages, with a consequent weakening of the sense of responsibility on the part of individuals, families, and social groups. – Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), December 7, 1965, n. 75.

          [I]n exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way, and are not equal to the task at hand. Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom. In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of state, the so-called Welfare State. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the Social Assistance State. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care. – John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, May 1, 1991, n. 48.

          Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno #79)

          If the organization and structure of economic life be such that the human dignity of workers is compromised, or their sense of responsibility is weakened, or their freedom of action is removed, then we judge such an economic order to be unjust, even though it produces a vast amount of goods, whose distribution conforms to the norms of justice and equity. (John XXIII, Mater et Magistra #83)

          And yet many today go so far as to condemn the Church as the ancient pagans once did, for such outstanding charity, and would substitute in lieu thereof a system of benevolence established by the laws of the State. But no human devices can ever be found to supplant Christian charity, which gives itself entirely for the benefit of others. This virtue belongs to the Church alone, for, unless it is derived from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, it is in no wise a virtue; and whosoever departs from the Church wanders far from Christ. – Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum (On the Conditions of the Workers), May 15, 1891, n. 30.

          If Pope Leo XIII calls upon the State to remedy the condition of the poor in accordance with justice, he does so because of his timely awareness that the state has the duty of watching over thecommon good and of ensuring that every sector of social life, not excluding the economic one, contributes to achieving that good, while respecting the rightful autonomy of each sector. This should not, however, lead us to think that Pope Leo expected the state to solve every soci al problem. On the contrary, he frequently insists on necessary limits to the States intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them. – John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, May 1, 1991, n. 11.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • subsidiarity is opposed to collectivism
            The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism.—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, nn. 1883-1885.

            Perfect. Thanks, Jim.o

  3. Yet More About Social Conservatism
    I am extremely encouraged by Mr. Kalb’s primary proposition, which everyone seems to have missed: “the articulate classes don’t understand — at all — the issues they raise.” If this is true, we can learn here and attack, attack, attack. Considering Mr. Kalb’s credibility, his proposition is no less valid than ANYONE else’s proposition. Maybe this is similar to Wittgenstein’s proposition that philosophers need to be healed from the illness of philosophy: the grand questions are gibberish.

  4. Articulate classes
    Mr. Kalb,

    By virtue of your extensive education are you not also a member of the “articulate class?” Didn’t you give all the right answers to get to where you are today?

    • Every group of people is of c
      Every group of people is of course composed of human beings who can believe and understand anything whatever. Nonetheless, we still speak about the beliefs and understandings of groups of people and how those things come about. What we mean are the beliefs and understandings generally viewed in the group as beyond serious question. Since it’s obvious that not every member of a group necessarily agrees with the accepted group view there’s no reason to mention the point unless it becomes specifically relevant for some reason.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  5. egalitarianism
    In this vein did you see the current row in the UK over the (quite sensible) comments of H.M. Prince Charles?

    “What is wrong with everyone nowadays? What is it that makes everyone seem to think that they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?

    “This is all to do with the learning culture in schools. It is a consequence of a child-centred system which admits no failure and tells people they can all be pop stars, high court judges, brilliant TV personalities or even infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary effort or having natural abilities. It’s social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically and socially reengineered to contradict the lessons of history.”

    Proving there is a little remaining sense in the House of Windsor.

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