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.