Is Liberalism Obsolete? What does this question mean? What are we really trying to get at, when we ask this question? Let us take note that there are two rather expansive and indeterminate words in this question; indeterminate, because of the way the question has been asked. Namely, the words Liberalism, and obsolete. It is out of fashion these days to begin a philosophy talk with definitions, but I cannot help but do so in this case, because otherwise you will have no idea what I am asking you to agree to in this argument.
A good friend of mine recently presented me with an abandoned draft of an article. My friend claimed the essay lacked a solid thesis. Though I was unable to convince my friend to revisit it, I still think that a thesis presents itself fairly clearly in the article’s depiction of the famous conflict between C. S. Lewis and F. R. Leavis. The gradual domination of academia by a regime of forgettable Leavis-like characters has a cause that we are only now beginning to examine seriously, as a culture.
Buckley defined Conservatism through the metaphor of a man standing on the train tracks of history, yelling ‘stop!’. Scruton defined Conservatism as the stewardship of the beautiful, in a particular way of life. The intuition expressed in both definitions is sound. For Conservatism to mean anything, then it must include the preservation or conservation of something important. Scruton is closer to that mark than Buckley is, because he’s closer to a fundamental principle than Buckley is.
Responding to John Rawls egalitarianism, Robert Nozick responds that “….in a socialist society… no end-state principle or distributional patterned principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference with peoples' lives. Any favoured pattern would be transformed into one unflavored by the principle, by people choosing to act in various ways…” (Nozick 1974, 163) This essay will argue that Nozick’s objection is successful against Rawls, only to the extent that it is understood in the context of Rawls' understanding of his own theory.
This post is a placeholder in which to post my first video commentary on Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless”. One errata: I said he was critiquing the Russian government. This isn’t entirely correct. He’s critiquing the Russian soviet, the Czechoslovakian government, and all other governments he labels as “post-totalitarian”. We’ll get into that, as the commentaries continue. UPDATE: You can find a playlist with all my commentary on this book, here.
I doubt there’s anyone in the anglo-sphere this week, who isn’t aware of the case of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Probably, a good chunk of Europe was paying attention to that trial, as well. Why? Because of the fundamental question that the trial symbolized, at its core. The principle at the center of that case was the right of self-defense. As a matter of law, that meant demonstrating in the trial that the material facts of the event conformed to Wisconsin’s own statutory definition of an action that constitutes self-defense.
I never used to think much of manifestos. Marx made them notorious, and subsequent generations of university students have rendered them more and more purile and self-serving, in my mind. But I’m beginning to change my mind on the topic. I think there is utility in commiting to a cause or a set of values that give shape an direction to one’s life. I just think that one ought to refrain from doing so, until one is fully prepared to explain oneself.
This is a fantastic video. Highly recommend, especially today. Just a few caveats: He over-emphasizes Milton, and under-emphasizes the influence of Locke and Rousseau. Milton actually precedes Locke by about 25 years, and Rousseau by about 100 years. Milton was a proto-Enlightenment figure, who’s literary work seeded the ground for Enlightenment political philosophy (much the same way that Dostoevsky seeded the ground for Nietzsche and Marx after him).
Here are some 20th century books that guided me away from contemporary American Liberalism (and its Germanic progressive bias), and contributed to my understanding of Conservatism as an evolving worldview. I will offer four philosophical, and four political suggestions: Philosophical: After Virtue (1984), Alasdair MacIntyre - This book began my divorce with both Enlightenment modernism, and the English analytical tradition. MacIntyre makes a powerful case for Aristotelian ethics, and against the Germans, especially.
The ‘marxist professor’ (Glenn Bracey, Villanova) highlighted by the video linked in this article is not wrong in the most broad outline, about Marx’s theory of alienation, as a critique of commodity markets. He just so mangled and misapplied the concept that it’s almost unrecognisable. The theory of alienation is about the separation of human activity from fundamental human nature. It’s a metaphysical theory about where value derives from in the products of human labor.
Well, this is a curiously positive coincidence. Just about a month ago, I posted a short missive here, complaining about the “bring your whole self to work” fad. I tend to be somewhat pessimistic about the direction society is going, but today, it’s taken a decidedly positive turn that relates directly to that post. It’s almost as if my post was actually read by the founders of Bascamp themselves. What am I talking about?
America has always had a high and a low culture, similar to that of the English or the French. But the relationship between the two is expressed very differently than the English or the French, particularly in the political sphere. Throughout it’s history, American high and low culture have both more-or-less agreed with each other on the core principles governing the society, derived mainly from western Protestantism, English common law tradition, and Catholic intellectualism filtered through the late Enlightenment.
When I first entered the working world in the late nineteen-eighties, there were a few essential social ground rules that you had to learn, in order to be successful. The first was that my employer does not exist for my benefit. My role in the business is to provide some tangible value toward the end goal of the company: product and profit. To the extent that I benefited the firm, I would receive benefits in kind, after a bit of negotiation.
The following metaphor is an adaptation from South Carolina Senator Stephen Decatur Miller. Modern liberal democracy is made up of four boxes. Each box represents a fundamental individual liberty, but it also represents a level of escalation in the quest for individual sovereignty in a liberal state. The first is the “soap box”. This metaphor still has its old meaning to this day. You want to change the system? Well, the freedom of speech gives you the power to persuade your fellow citizens or your leaders.
I want to suggest an idea from an observation that’s been made many times before. Namely, that what the modern center-left now likes to call “classical” and/or “social” Liberalism, is a muddle of two strains of thought in the Enlightenment, that both stand in opposition to Rousseau; but that the latter strain smuggles him back in through the kitchen door. The division in the Enlightenment between Rousseau and Hobbes is so famous it’s practically a cliché at this point.
From the book “ The Tempting Of America (1991) , By Robert Bork …It is somewhat unclear whether the modern Court is more politicized than Courts of previous eras. Certainly it makes more political decisions each year than was true in any year in the nineteenth century, but that is largely due to the number of occasions for such decisions presented to it. Before the post-Civil War amendments, particularly the fourteenth amendment, the Court had little opportunity to impose rules on the states.
When I was in my late twenties, American Libertarianism was very attractive to me, because of the intellectual tradition. F. A. Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, David Boaz, and the English heritage of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, all appealed to me greatly because it seemed to offer both a logical explanation for the state, as well as a moral foundation for its legitimacy. Some of that intellectual tradition remains with me to this day.
Critics of Rawls claim that his “original position” argument entails a special metaphysical conception of the self. The critics say that this metaphysical conception of the self in the original position thus renders it metaphysically loaded, contra Rawls. In Political Liberalism, Rawls argues against his critics, insisting that the original position was merely a thought experiment meant to aid in the intuitive realization of the principles of justice according to a uniform standard of fairness.
This video is absolutely stunning in its brazenness. If this fellow is what the academy is producing, then it would seem that the whole job of the bioethicist is to invent new excuses that politicians and bureaucrats can use to expand the harm they do, without pricking their own consciences. Note the magician’s sleight-of-hand trick he’s playing, here. His opening gambit is “making risks tolerable”. So, of course, everyone goes chasing off after “tolerable”.
Most people don’t spend much effort considering fundamental questions like “where does value come from” or “what is real” or “why is there anything at all”. They take the world of sense experience and intuition as a given, and assume objective reality from that. This given-ness extends itself all the way up to social and political life. Contrary to the fantasy we have of ourselves in the west, as rational actors who think for ourselves, the vast majority of opinions are not conclusions drawn from careful reasoning, but accumulations of received opinion modified by cognitive shocks.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last black leader to point Americans to the divine inspiration in the Declaration of Independence, and to make us face our own hypocrisy honestly. We shot him dead for it. In his place, we substituted Lyndon Johnson, who sold us a false absolution from white guilt through condescending paternalism that maintained the status quo by making it look like charity and radical liberation. In this sense, the complaints about ongoing systemic racism are true.
Shelby Steele, Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country [The modern left] and I come from two very different Americas. The shorthand for these two Americas might be “liberal” and “conservative,” but this would indeed be a shorthand. These labels once signified something much less incendiary than they do today; they were opposing political orientations, but they shared a common national identity. One was conservative or liberal but within a fairly non-contentious cultural understanding of what it meant to be American.
Are you a Dickinson or an Adams? Today, we all think we’d be on Adams' side of the debate. However, given the relationship between the colonies and the British crown, and the people who populated the Continental Congress, I don’t think the choice is really all that clear-cut. Imagine it this way: you live in a small territory recently purchased and controlled by the United States. You moved there from your home state where you’d lived most of your life, in order to set up a US outpost, and make a new life for yourself.
The Declaration of Independence, one paragraph at a time. Conclusion: Our Sacred Honour We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that, as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience has shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
The human animal is thought by some to have a “divine spark” in him. What is this? I don’t mean in a metaphysical or definitional sense. I mean, what do humans do, what capacity do they have, what power are they endowed with, that sets them apart from the other animals so much so that they are thought to have this spark? Why on earth would anyone say humans are “touched by the divine”?
Traditionally, there are two great debates at the core of political philosophy. The first is what justifies political authority, and the second is what should be the form of the institution that assumes that authority. The first debate includes questions of fundamental justice. Issues like what the state owes to its subjects, and what the subjects owe to each other, are central to the debate. The second debate depends somewhat on the answer to the first, in that it seeks to answer how the duties, obligations, rights, and responsibilities of the first debate are to be enacted and enforced.
It seems to me, there are two kinds of state authority. The first, is what I have already talked about yesterday. Philosophical legitimacy - a rational grounding for the moral claim to the privileged use of force. But there is a second kind of state authority, that emerges only in the actual exercise (or restraint of exercise) of power. Psychological legitimacy - the confidence that subjects and citizens have in the state’s exercise of its privilege.
Does Locke offer a convincing account of an individual’s right to property? In his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke constructs a theory of property rights from two explicit arguments for the divine source of the moral claim of ownership, and one implicit argument for the divine source of value in labor. This essay will summarize each of these arguments, offer offer an assessment of the three arguments in combination, and conclude that Locke’s case is unconvincing in isolation.
In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes posits the creation of a commonwealth by means of a social contract, and as part of that contract, Hobbes theorizes the creation of the office of a sovereign authority, the occupant of which is to act as the representative of the constituted wills of the individual parties of the contract. Hobbes insists that it is not possible for this sovereign authority to commit an injustice against those who have granted him his privileged position.
I want to make a bold claim: I don’t think there is any such thing as ‘equality’. Now, just to clarify: clearly, arithmetic and geometric equality is real. Otherwise the “ = “ wouldn’t exist. What I am referring to, is the sense of the term that gets applied to human social and political relations. This kind of equality is a phantasm; a will-o-wisp; a unicorn, in all its varieties. If we look at particular examples of what people tend to call “equality”, what we find are hidden changes in the meaning of “equal”.
In the first book of the Politics, Aristotle argues for the view that man is a ‘political animal’. To assess the claim properly, we must first understand what he means by the term, and we should understand the reasoning he uses to defend it. Thus examined, we will find his position interesting, but ultimately unsatisfactory. However, it may be possible to shore up his case. Aristotle’s ‘political animal’ (zoon politikon) is not the creature we might expect today – a conventional construct enfranchised by legal edict and duty-bound only to his own individual happiness as a free agent in a democratic nation-state.
What is exploitation? Marxists make a great deal of hay out of the term. What are they talking about? The dictionary offers a definition that perhaps accidentally includes a subtle but profound distinction. Exploitation is either (a) “to make full use of” or “derive benefit from”, or (b) “to use unjustly”, or “to derive unfair benefit from”. So, on the one hand, we have a neutral term that might even be seen as a positive, in some respects.
From: “Up From Liberalism” (1959), William F. Buckley, Jr. There is no conservative political manifesto which, as we make our faltering way, we can consult, confident that it will point a sure finger in the direction of the good society. Indeed, sometimes the conservative needle appears to be jumping about as on a disoriented compass… …Still, for all the confusion and contradiction, I venture to say it is possible to talk about “the conservative position” and mean something by it.
Michael Oakeshott, “On Being A Conservative” (Excerpts): “…[the general characteristics of the Conservative disposition] center upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past; but there is no mere idolizing of what is past and gone.
Socrates’ story is famous enough. Melisas accused him of corrupting the young, and worshipping gods contrary to the state. The charges were false, and thus, the subsequent conviction was unjust on its face. Yet, Socrates, committed to his principles (ostensibly), went to his grave defending the judgment on the grounds that it was a greater injustice to disobey the law, and that no good man would trade an evil for an evil.
It’s been just over a month since my employer sent me home with my laptop and a headset, and just about three weeks since Boris told us all (in the UK) that we had no choice but to stay home. In that time, thousands have flocked online to start video channels, podcasts, and other collaborative projects. Many existing independent media producers have shifted their content, and now talk almost entirely on topics related to the quarantine and the virus.
The following passage is a section from the introduction to Robert Bork’s famous 1996 book, “Slouching Toward Gomorrah”. Modern liberalism is very different in content from the liberalism of, say, the 1940s or 1950s, and certainly different from the liberalism of the last century. The sentiments and beliefs that drive it, however, are the same: the ideals of liberty and equality. These ideals produced the great political, social, and cultural achievements of Western civilization, but no ideal, however worthy, can be pressed forever without turning into something else, turning in fact into its opposite.
George Will, On The Character of American Conservatism (From his book “The Conservative Sensibility” ) …Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and-soil nostalgia, irrationality, and tribalism. American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.
The following is from Isaiah Berlin’s book, “Freedom and It’s Betrayal”, wherein he has some very mean things to say about Rousseau ;) In theory Rousseau speaks like any other eighteenth-century philosophe, and says: ‘We must employ our reason.’ He uses deductive reasoning, sometimes very cogent, very lucid and extremely well-expressed, for reaching his conclusions. But in reality what happens is that this deductive reasoning is like a strait-jacket of logic which he claps upon the inner, burning, almost lunatic vision within; it is this extraordinary combination of the insane inner vision with the cold rigorous strait-jacket of a kind of Calvinistic logic which really gives his prose its powerful enchantment and its hypnotic effect.
Fascism is a form of tribalist totalitarianism. A traditional particularist tyranny, which privileges a core ethnic identity, and views the individual as an ‘organ’ in the ‘body politic’, which must conform in order for the organism to succeed. Where the individual rejects “the body”, he will, after the fashion of Rousseau, “be forced to be free”. History tends toward the ascendance of the most righteous organism, in this view. Communism is a form of universalist totalitarianism.
Regarding an issue raised in the Dave Rubin Yasmine Mohammed interview: One particular point raised by Dave sticks out for me. He asks a few times, whether “liberalism is too soft” on radical ideologies nestled within the boundaries of its political realms. The question is never really engaged directly. But indirectly, there are many points in this interview in which toleration of illiberalism is called into question, as a general policy (either social or legal).
Did you know that Friedrich Hayek wrote extensively on the topic of Social Justice and Progressivism? One of the best places to look for his wisdom on the topic is “Law, Legislation, and Liberty”. He devotes an entire chapter to the subject, there. Here is an extended snippet from that chapter: It is perhaps not surprising that men should have applied to the joint effects of the actions of many people, even where these were never foreseen or intended, the conception of justice which they had developed with respect to the conduct of individuals towards each other.
In his book, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”, Robert Nozick offers the Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment in order to demonstrate how a conception of justice based on “end-state patterned distributions” (as he put it) would require constant coercive interventions on the part of the state, in order to maintain the desired pattern. This, in turn, would undermine theories of justice that incorporated liberty into their framework. John Rawls’ theory of justice is one such example.
In Aeschylus' play Oresteia, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter as an offering to the primitive (pre-classical) gods of nature and war, meant to insure sea passage and victory in an upcoming battle. In doing so, he sets in motion a cascade of blood vengeance that echoes the historical practice of pre-classical Greek retaliatory clan justice. On Agamemnon’s return home, Clytemnestra cuts his throat in his bath. On the discovery of this horror, Orestes then, on prompting from his sister Elektra, murders his mother Clytemnestra.
A core problem in political philosophy is the relation between the individual and the society in which he is a member. How does the political order, in the form of the state, legitimize itself and how are its impositions upon the individual, in apparent opposition to his freedom, justified? Jean-Jacques Rousseau attempted to solve this problem in his famous essay The Social Contract. To quote Rousseau from The Social Contract, his project is “…to find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full and common force, and by means of which each uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as he was [in the state of nature]…”.
In his famous Paris Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argues that a society organized around the principle of private property and the commercial production of commodities forces man to stand in opposition to his own nature in order to subsist, and that this self-oppositional stance is best described as ‘alienated’ (or ‘estranged’) labor. To fully understand what Marx means by ‘alienated labor’, and under what circumstances labor becomes alienated, we must therefore first understand what Marx means by ‘human nature’.
Several years ago, shortly after I first started this blog, I made a decision not to engage in de jour commentary on current events and politics. One reason for that, was that I wanted the blog to be a record of my intellectual growth, and repository of whatever actual insights or knowledge I was able to produce during my formal study of philosophy. I wanted it to be a record of actual knowledge production, on my part, however meager and unimpressive that might be, as an amateur and a student.
I decided to spend three of my vacation days on the London School of Philosophy’s “Summer School” conference, this week. The theme of the conference was “Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, and the talks focused heavily on the broad questions like the nature of philosophy, it’s role and purpose in society, it’s place in history, its relationship to art and literature, and the implications drawn from consideration of these questions, for the future.
Socrates, in The Republic, argues that a society must be ordered, and that the just and ordered polity requires a just and well ordered soul. But, not all souls will achieve the rational ideal, says the anarchist. He has a point. However, this leaves both the advocate of a state and the political anarchist with a problem. An anarchy of disordered souls is pure chaos. A state of disordered souls is a tyranny.
Free Money For Everyone Over the last year or so, I’ve seen a number of fresh videos popping up in places like TED, enthusiastically championing a resuscitated old leftist public policy idea called the “Universal / Unconditional Basic Income”, or “UBI”. This summer, Switzerland is scheduled to hold a referendum on one such proposal. And, earlier this month, I attended a lecture here in London, in which Barb Jacobson made a vigorous pitch for the idea.
”When a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has, the greater will be his confusion” Herbert Spencer Today, I attended a lecture by Derek Bates hosted by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, in London. I call it a lecture perhaps too generously. You’ll see why in a moment. The event was billed as one man’s attempt to provide a reasoned defense for the efficacy of a more direct democracy, and to propose a technological solution to the logistical problems inherent within it: