Neo-, paleo-, theo-, crunchy, compassionate, fiscal, social. . . in modern America there are almost as many brands of conservatism as there are conservatives. To truly understand what a conservative believes, though, it is often more instructive to simply ask what it is they want to conserve.
In his new book, The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the birth of America’s Left and Right by contrasting the views of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. I’ve written previously on his chapter on choice vs. obligation, and in a recent appearance on EconTalk, Levin joins economist Russell Roberts to discuss these tensions further, addressing the implications for libertarians and conservatives a bit more directly.
It should first be noted that Roberts and Levin offer a dream pairing when it comes to such discussions. Roberts, a self-professed libertarian and classical liberal, offers each guest a unique level of intellectual empathy, meeting even the most vigorous intellectual opponents at their best and brightest arguments (see his discussions with Jeffrey Sachs). Likewise, Levin, while a true-and-through conservative, is not prone to the variety of anti-libertarian caricatures that predominate the Right. If we hope to uncover the actual distinctions between the two, these men are up to the task, and the historical context makes it all the more meaty. Listen to the whole thing here.
About halfway through (36:39), Roberts asks Levin directly how a libertarian might discern between Burke and Paine, admitting sympathies for both sides. Levin answers with a lengthy response, noting, first, how libertarians typically take a more Burkean approach to centralized knowledge and power:
There is a strong and important strand of libertarianism that is very Burkean, because it emphasizes especially the limits of our knowledge and the kind of skepticism about the uses of power. And so ultimately believes that power needs to be restrained because there are permanent limits on what we can do…And it inclines many libertarians to market economics and to restraints on the role of government and the power of government. And in that sense aligns them with a lot of Conservatives who think more like Burke. (more…)
America could have saved more jobs if, prior to the Industrial Revolution, politicians had banned the use of tractors. But that would have made everyone (especially those of us living in 2014) much worse off. Many Americans understand this point and yet still believe that when workers lose their jobs, we automatically become worse off.
Economist Bryan Caplan explains the problem with this ‘make-work’ bias, and why we are better off because of 19th century workers who lost their farm jobs.
In his latest column for National Review, Jonah Goldberg notes the difference between being pro-business and pro-market and says the GOP can’t have it both ways anymore:
Just to clarify, the difference between being pro-business and pro-market is categorical. A politician who is a “friend of business” is exactly that, a guy who does favors for his friends. A politician who is pro-market is a referee who will refuse to help protect his friends (or anyone else) from competition unless the competitors have broken the rules. The friend of business supports industry-specific or even business-specific loans, grants, tariffs, or tax breaks. The pro-market referee opposes special treatment for anyone.
Politically, the reason the lines get blurry in good times and bad is that in a boom, the economic pie is growing fast enough that the friend and his competitor alike can prosper. In bad times, when politicians are desperate to get the economy going, no one in Washington wants to seem like an enemy of the “job creators.”
Goldberg is absolutely right about the difference being categorical. As economist Arnold Kling has helpfully outlined, support/opposition to markets and business gives us four categories:
“It’s important to talk about liberty, but not in isolation,” says Samuel Gregg, Research Director for the Acton Institute. “Our language should reflect the truth that reason, justice, equality, and virtue make freedom possible.”
At some point, for instance, those in the business of promoting freedom need to engage more precisely what they mean by liberty. After all, modern liberals never stop talking about the subject. Moreover, if the default understanding of freedom in America is reduced to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s mystery clause (“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”), then liberty’s meaning will be very difficult to integrate with any substantive commitment to reason. That should worry freedom-lovers, because in the absence of reason we can have no principled objection—as opposed to mere emotional unease—to unjust suppressions of freedom by the sophistical, powerful, or ruthless.
“Roman Catholicism is primarily concerned with man’s transcendent end and purpose,” says Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., “with how it is achieved in actual lives, in actual places, and in real time.” Rev. Schall considers how Catholicism and political philosophy are connected:
A course in “Roman Catholic Political Philosophy” is rarely found in any academic institution, including those sponsored by the Church. We do find courses titled “Religion and Politics,” “Social Doctrine of the Church,” or “Church and State” — but “Roman Catholic Political Philosophy” is something different. Going back to Plato, it is common to find that most people consider philosophers and academics, not to mention clerics, to be rather foolish and naïve when it comes to dealing with the practical affairs of this world. Philosophers are notorious for studying everything else but politics; and when they do, they insist on studying them as if their object were like that of the physical sciences and not free human agents. Aristotle already warned us not to use a method that was inappropriate to the nature of the object studied.
But there are two questions combined in that title: First, what is political philosophy? And second, what is Roman Catholicism? The two are not to be confused. They are, if possible, to be related in a coherent, non-contradictory whole such that each retains its essential nature while relating to the other. Whether we like it or not, both are present in the actual human world in which we live. Philosophy, to be itself, cannot, by its own methods, exclude any consideration of what is, of what claims to be true. Roman Catholics, during their time on earth, live in the polities to which they belong or dwell in. Like everyone else, they too are “political animals,” as Aristotle said.
Drawing on some themes I explore about the role of the church in providing material assistance in Get Your Hands Dirty, today at Political Theology Today I look at the first parliamentary speech of the new Dutch King Willem-Alexander.
In “The Dutch King’s Speech,” I argue that the largely ceremonial and even constitutionally-limited monarchy has something to offer modern democratic polities, in that it provides a forum for public leadership that is not directly dependent on popular electoral support. In the Dutch case, the king broached the largely unpopular subject of fundamentally reforming the social democratic welfare state.
This is in rather sharp contrast to the social witness of the mainline of Dutch church leaders, at least over the last few decades. But the churches, too, have a role in acting as makeweights against democratic majoritarian tyranny.
At Public Discourse, Nathan Shlueter takes an unusual approach in his review of Acton’s Director of Research Sam Gregg’s Tea Party Catholic — it’s a memo to the faculty of Georgetown University as written by Sen. Paul Ryan:
As Gregg’s book makes clear, defending market economies does not make one a libertarian. And, in fact, no libertarian or Randian egoist would approve of my budget plan, which—whether you agree with it or not—is a sincere attempt to preserve and improve a financially endangered social safety net, not destroy it. Nor should defense of the market be confused with crony capitalism, which is profoundly unjust, and which I have spoken out against strongly and repeatedly. Finally, the market is not a panacea for all our ills, and is even a source of a few of them. There are common goods that can only be secured by good government. And, like government, the market will only be as good as the human beings who act within it.
The fact that we disagree on some matters of policy does not necessarily mean that either of us is outside Catholic social teaching. As Gregg points out, in most cases, Catholic social teaching only provides the correct principles for resolving complex social and economic questions, rather than specific policy requirements. This means that in most cases there is room for legitimate disagreement on the correct application of those principles.
Over at Think Christian, Aron Reppmann asks whether there is a distinctly Christian way to vacation: “We have learned to approach our work as vocation, a calling from God, but what about our leisure?”
Reppmann notes that one major temptation in modern society is to view vacation as a form of escape. Put in your 40, week after week, and hopefully, in Week X of Month Y, you’ll be able to leave your day-to-day activities behind. Close your eyes, sip your fruity drink, and let it all just slip away.
But escape from what? What does such a view indicate about how we’re approaching our daily work?
The word “vacation” itself doesn’t offer much help for this kind of reflection; with its echoes of “vacant” and “vacate,” it mostly conjures up a sense of absence. Vacationers commonly express a desire to “get away from it all,” but it’s hard to derive a positive sense of vacational vocation from that atmosphere of emptiness. While there’s nothing wrong with taking a break, stepping away – in a word, sabbath – there is also a trap in holding a merely negative definition of vacation…. Vacation understood simply as “getting away from it all” is a sign of a negative concept of freedom.
Reppmann goes on to argue that modern society over-elevates negative freedom — freedom from something — which has led many Christians to forget or ignore the positive freedom — freedom for something — that Christianity is all about.
This, he concludes, leads to an unfortunate imbalance in our thinking on work and leisure: (more…)
Over at Think Christian, I reflect on an “authentically Christian” view of work, which takes into account its limitations, failings, and travails, as well as its promises, prospects, and providential foundations.
The TC piece is in response to a post by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, in which they juxtapose the pscyhologizing of work as subjectively authentic self-expression with their own preferred view of work as something done simply “for the sake of sustenance.”
Critchley and Webster are right to point to the dangers of unchecked subjectivism, but are wrong in devaluing work as merely instrumental. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary penned a monumental indictment of the inroads radical subjectivism has made in Christian, and particularly evangelical, circles in his 1994 book, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. As Wells puts it, the difference between the objective and subjective points of departure for our knowledge amount to two different ways of seeing the world; one is biblical, the other is worldly. “The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the sense can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent,” writes Wells.
More recently, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia analyzed the shift from objective measures of oppression to subjective psychologizing in the context of political ideology. “Supplementing the economic categories of Marx with the psychoanalytic categories of Freud, Marcuse and his followers effectively broadened the whole notion of oppression to include the psychological realm. Such a move is dramatic in the implications it has for the way one views politics. Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations,” writes Trueman. (more…)